habits and routines

Day 3 of 30. It's slowly becoming a habit: after work, take 30 min to write a blog post.

Actually, the first two posts took 66 min and 36 min. I know this because I use Toggl to track time on both work and personal projects, this blog included. Tracking time is itself a habit I built a while ago, back when I ran my own consulting practice - but I'd put that habit on hold for the last few years, and only just resurrected it to answer a question: am I spending enough time on things I care about?

In this blog posting setup, you can see the four elements of a good habit:

  • trigger: I finish work.
  • action: I spend 30+ min writing my blog post, and then publish it.
  • reward: I get to see my work out there in the world.
  • investment: I look at my time tracker, and see if I'm getting better at writing quickly / concisely / etc.

There are a couple of issues here, of course. What if it's not a workday? I'll face that issue for the first time tomorrow, so I'll have to adjust that trigger a bit. Maybe I do it first thing in the morning, or after coming back from sports practice.

Also: what if I don't have 30 min after work? Maybe there's an appointment, or social event, or an unexpected phone call, or whatever. That just happens sometimes, and it helps to have some flexibility and backup plans. If I can't do it immediately after work, I'll make time later in the evening, or early the next morning. It's OK to miss a day here and there, as long as I catch up and write two posts the next day. (I used a similar tactic when doing NaNoWriMo.)

Another habit I've successfully built: regular exercise. Right now, that means gym Tue, run Wed, gym Thu, sports practice Sat. For Valkyrie and I, run Wed started during the pandemic, when we were under lockdown in Toronto. We started a "runners' bubble" with a couple of friends: every Wed, first thing in the morning, rain or shine (or snow!), we would go for a run with them. The reward was take-out breakfast from a local café - which was effective as a reward, since we got to support local businesses and feel connected to our neighbourhood in strange times.

Since we moved to Denmark, we had to adjust that a bit: we still run every Wed, but now we go to a local bakery - and there are a lot of good bakeries in Copenhagen! Gym Tue / Thu started as an extension to that habit, a habit stack if you will: every Tue / Thu, first thing in the morning, we go to the gym. The reward is coffee at a local café. The investment is measuring and tracking progress: in strength, in reducing pain through physio. Same general structure, just expanding it to additional days of the week.

(Sports practice Sat is the easy part: the reward is spending time with the club, getting to coach the players, getting better at the sport and at coaching it over time. That's a pretty strong reward loop.)

So: if there's something you want to start (or stop) doing, consider how you can build a habit loop around it. What's the trigger? What's your reward? How will you invest in your action over time? When inevitable changes or setbacks occur, how will you adjust - what's your backup plan, how will you remain flexible?

But also: be kind to yourself. The loop might not stick the first, or second, or tenth time! It might stick for a while, then fade out. You might get into it, and then discover that it's a thing you want to want to do. Life circumstances sometimes change quicker than you can adjust. Even if the goal is important to you, you'll often get there faster and happier if you approach it with patience, curiosity, and flexibility - and it's much easier to build habits around things you enjoy than things you force yourself to do.