If a task MUST be done, it belongs in a to-do list If a task is ASPIRATIONAL and REGULAR, it belongs in a habit tracker
I’ve spent the past 6 weeks looking for a new job.
It has been as all-consuming a process as ever. Interviews and technical tests consumed a significant chunk of my free time and left me tired for the remainder. I let my goals and routines slip.
My running training stopped completely (and unfortunately I’ve had to downgrade my upcoming Valencia marathon to a 10k). My Duolingo progress tailed off. My One-Punch Man-inspired exercise regime ceased.
I view these goals and routines - aspirational and maintenance tasks like exercise, hobbies, and self-care - as the engine that keeps you productive. They make you feel good, happy, and keep your mind active, better enabling you to take on other tasks. They’re building towards an ideal future you.
But it’s hard to work towards the future when it’s shifting around you.
Two weeks ago I stabilized. After a few days in Stockholm, Sweden, I returned to London with a clear head and renewed motivation. I picked up where I left off and was back on target immediately.
When I’ve gone through similar disruptions before, I’ve struggled to bounce back quickly, and I believe the key this time around was my habit tracker.
What is a habit tracker?
I’ve used to-do lists for a long time, but habit trackers are meaningfully distinct from to-do lists.
A to-do list should only be a place of “I-must-do things”, and if a habit is there, it means it MUST be done every day. That stressed me out. If I missed a single day, the to-do list would become cluttered, but I didn’t want to delete the habit and I didn’t want to leave them undone, either.
From Habitify’s interview with me
However, if you miss your exercise target for a day, you can’t make up for it the next day. You need to be able to move past that small failure and tackle the next day’s exercise goal. This is not what to-do lists were built for.
If a task MUST be done, it belongs in a to-do list
If a task is ASPIRATIONAL and REGULAR, it belongs in a habit tracker
I use a tool called Habitify, which I thoroughly recommend despite the price (but there are many free alternatives, don’t worry!). I use it so much they even got in touch with me to interview me about how I use the app and why it’s so important to me.
The kinds of things I use it to track include:
My daily exercise routine
Reviewing my goals and progress
“Once a week” hobbies - crosswords, playing instruments, drawing
What did bouncing back look like before?
It began with looking at a to-do list with 300 tasks - parsing those, depressingly having to delete tens of unachieved aspirational missed habits that I don’t have time to fit into my week, and maybe keeping some that I realistically also won’t achieve (only creating future disappointment). All that, before I could even tackle the overdue mission-critical to-dos.
I love to kick-off my day with my habits, helping me build up momentum before tackling my actual to-do list and my workday. It sets you up for success. This time, I could just look at today’s habits, and work through them as if I hadn’t even missed a day. With a less cluttered to-do list than previously and dopamine on my side, it was then easy to work through more mission-critical tasks.
Not only will a habit tracker help you recover from un-productive periods, but it is just a better way to manage your reoccurring tasks. You can see your progress over time, maintain a productive mindset, and eventually many of these tasks actually become second nature - true habits!
Download a habit tracker and use it for those re-occurring, aspirational tasks like exercising and hobbies.
Note: I do not count my habits as part of my 10 things a day. I block out a little time at the beginning and end of the day to tackle these much smaller tasks, and if tackling the 10 things does occasionally overrun, I can de-prioritize my habits where necessary. It’s ok to miss a day, so long as you don’t miss a second (see the 2 day rule).