Getting Things Done: Integrating Habits

Habits are an essential cornerstone of self-growth. They form activity patterns that help you to structure the day, they help to develop personal traits that bring you closer to your goals.

Being so important, I wanted to include them into my GTD system. I wanted to define, do and track my basic habits. This posts explains the current experience in an ongoing learning process.

Step 1: Habits are projects, right?

My first step to capture a habit reflects the basic method in GTD: A project and next actions. So I just added a project like “strength training” with four tasks as the weekly goal to my to-do app. This approach is simple and it worked for some time. Completing actions this way was satisfying; I could see the progress at the end of the week.

However, as I moved to more sophisticated habits, I felt that projects and next actions are not enough.

  • : A project is just a list of definite actions. A habit is at least a set of recurring actions, with changing content, and it encompasses a larger time span (month) or different types of goals like ”read 100 pages”. Expressing these goals merely as a text is not enough.
  • : The next action for the habit was just one item of my larger to-do list. Every time I browsed my next action list, it forced me to think of the training I was going to do at the end of the day (exercises, sets, amount of weight etc.).
  • : A completed project in your to-do app, like one week of strength training, does not offer long term tracking.
  • : Expressing Habit goals as texts, and seeing habit “governance” as completed actions, is a weak visualization. How about a progress bar, a pie chart, a calendar showing the number of days you did a certain habit?

I needed something else. Lets start with the beginning.

Step 2: Defining Habits

With the GTD approach to “capture it all” in mind, I created the habit set: Acomplete set of all my habits. Personal areas like health, exercise, nutrition, reading, social areas like a “stammtisch” with friends, hosting meetings and parties, talking to strangers and professional habits like information gathering, validating assumptions, journaling work results or forming meeting agendas. Be thorough, and you may come up with miscellaneous stuff like “cook once a week” or “call a friend each afternoon” too. Write them all down to define your habit set.

Inside your habit set, you will identify two groups of habits. The first group are positive habits deeply rooted into your daily behavior. Just identifying these habits is enough. The other group consists of new habits you actively want to form, habits that you need to be reminded off, and potentially bad habits that you want to break. These are your active habits.

Next, thoroughly specify each active habit in a habit list:

  • Give it an actionable title, including the goal statement: “Strength training 4x weekly” is more precise then “Hit the Gym”
  • Define the success criteria of the habit: Is it a daily habit? Do you want to repeat it X-times per week? On definite days? Or is it a goal like “Talk to 30 strangers”?
  • Define guidelines: Give the habit definition some more time to describe in which contexts you want to do this habit, what kind of equipment do you need, or additional goals (for example “strength training” could also include the definition of maximum weight per exercise).

Once you are clear with your habits, you can setup the habit tracking.

Step 3: Choosing a habit tracking app

You need to choose a suitable habit tracking or goal tracking app. What is the difference? Habit trackers help you to perform a habit for a longer period of time. They remind you of doing a habit and motivate you with visualizing your achievements. However, they are often build around the idea to “not break the chain” and to perform the habit daily. Goal trackers help you to define numeric goals that you want to achieve, without the need to do this particular habit each day.

Browse the list of habit tracking apps to find one that suits you. My recommendation: For habit tracking use Habit List or, and for goal tracking use Persistence. By far the best app is Strides, it can be used for both habit and goal tracking, but it comes with a monthly fee if you want to track more than 10 habits.

Step 4: Integrating Next Action List and Habit List

The final step is to include the habit list in your GTD workflow. The habit list is like a next action list, if defines things you need to think and decide about. It is up to you: Do you plan ahead and put next actions in your calendar? Do you decide on a day to day basis and put a next action into your list? Or is it just “do it”? Try an approach that motivates you the most. In all cases, at the end of the day, go back to your app and track the habits you completed.

Recap

To include habits in your GTD system, you take the following four steps:

  1. Identify your habit set and active habits
  2. Clarify and define your active habits
  3. Setup habit tracking
  4. Do and record habit actions

Be thorough and identify bad habits as well. And if you come up with new habit ideas, put them in a someday list.

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Sebastian

IT Project Manager & Developer

IT Project Manager & Developer