The more habits you try to create, the harder it is to keep them all going.
I’ve known this for a while. Last year, I set up a spreadsheet to help me track a bunch of life metrics (sleep, nutrition, etc.) as well as the activities and habits that I wanted to prioritise. It was one of those deals where if I did the habit, I turned the cell green; if I didn’t, I turned the cell red.
I quickly learned that there is no such thing as a fully green day. In other words, there’s no day in which I’m going to exercise and read a book and chat with a friend and practice the piano and go to bed on time and so on.
This is one of the reasons why I’m not a huge fan of “don’t break the chain” habit trackers. For me, hitting five days out of seven is good enough.
What’s been interesting is learning which habits I cut when life gets stressful. Even though I love my piano, practising is often one of the first habits to go; it feels like adding more work on top of all my other work.
Exercise, on the other hand, is typically the last habit to disappear. I can let everything else slide as long as I keep up my morning yoga practice and my weekly Les Mills classes—and on the days when I’m too busy to make it to the YMCA, I’ll settle for “as long as I can go for a 20-minute walk.”
It turns out that there are a lot of benefits to keeping up your core habits, even when times get tough. As Jackie and John Coleman explain, in the Harvard Business Review:
The past year has been a time of radical prioritisation for us. We’re constantly optimising — identifying our most essential priorities and activities while reluctantly and painfully cutting things that are important but not urgent.
Daily or weekly habits aligned with your long-term goals can keep you on track even when it’s hard to think ahead, and they can add stability in an otherwise unsteady time. Each of us have regular practices we try to maintain to give our lives structure, to remain mentally and physically healthy, and to assure we’re approaching life consciously. These habits, important at any time, are essential in our busiest and most chaotic periods.
Even when times aren’t tough, identifying your core habits (vs. your more aspirational habits) is crucial. I recently started using the app Exist, which uses data to draw correlations between your various activities—my resting heart rate goes up when I consume less protein, for example.
Exist also lets you track habits and other custom tags, and I ended up catching “fresh start syndrome” and creating a whole pile of new habits and tags I wanted to track.
Turns out that adding all these new and exciting habits made it harder for me to stick to my core habits, simply because there are only so many habits you can tick off before it’s time to complete the “go to bed at the same time every day” habit.
So I stopped, culled, and reprioritised.
This isn’t to say that you can’t add new habits, or that you have to eliminate one old habit before you can pick up another one. Habits experts like James Clear suggest building your habits one at a time, and stacking them together to increase both completion rate and efficiency:
Your morning routine habit stack might look like this:
After I pour my morning cup of coffee, I will meditate for sixty seconds.
After I meditate for sixty seconds, I will write my to-do list for the day.
After I write my to-do list for the day, I will immediately begin my first task.
But before you do any of that, it’s worth asking yourself which core habits are most important to keep, no matter what happens.
That way, you can build the rest of your life around them—and when the rest of your life gets in the way, they’ll still be there.