Trick Yourself Into New Habits By Treating Them Like Tasks

Fifteen days ago, I thought about how I need to workout more often. I do workout now, but only twice a week. It’s not enough. I really should go more often.

It should be easy. I have a gym membership, and the gym is located a 10-minute walk from my apartment. Or I could jog outside if I wanted. Or I could workout at home, where we have an exercise bike, a set of weights, a yoga ball, and a mat.

Have I worked out even once more than normal since then? Nope.

Why?

The answer may come down to the difference between tasks and habits or recurring behaviors. If that’s true, we may be able to trick ourselves into starting new habits by treating them like a task, at least at first.

I Was Busy Living My Life!

The list of reasons I didn’t start working out more is numerous. It’s rained more often than usual. When it rains, taking my two dogs out becomes more time-consuming because I have to clean the house after they track water and sand all over the floors. What else? This weekend I had plans with friends and a date with my partner. The rest of my time I cleaned, bought groceries, cooked healthy meals, and took care of the dogs (one of my them is a puppy, so a lot of my time goes to pet care). I had to finish up a few chores related to filing my tax return.

The long and short of it is, I was busy living my life. I was taking care of every priority that I couldn’t let slip, or rather didn’t want to let slip. Generally speaking, I’m a highly organized person who manages my time well and can get a whole heck of a lot done.

Some of the things I’ve had to do lately, such as wrapping up my tax return, were new tasks rather than old habits. How did I manage to make time for those new and expected tasks but not to work out more?

The weird thing is if I already had a routine of going to the gym every day, I would have simply gone. The time would be there, and I would have gotten everything else done, too. Why is that? Why are we able to find the time to do some things when they are routine, but we aren’t able to find the time to make a new routine? And why is it that a single new task is easy to fit into an already busy day but starting a new habit is much harder?

If You Want Something Done, Give It to a Busy Person

I’ve always loved the saying if you want something done, give it to a busy person.

Busy people tend to be extremely good at managing their time. That’s how they stay genuinely busy. They fit a lot into their lives. They juggle tasks and activities well.

If you want one thing done, give it to a busy person. They will find the time to do it.

One place where researchers have measured this effect is at universities, where students who work part-time have higher grade point averages than their peers who don’t work at all.

One would intuitively conclude that, because time and energy are finite resources, jobs would detract from studying and be harmful to a student’s GPA. Most studies conclude that this is only the case when the student’s number of hours worked per week exceeds 20. In fact, students who work fewer than 15-20 hours often report higher GPAs than those who do not work at all (Dundes). The National Center for Education Statistics, which is run by the U.S. Department of Education, found that students working 1-15 hours weekly have a significantly higher GPA than both students working 16 or more hours and students who don’t work at all.

All things in moderation, right?

Moderated Pressure

The quote above shows us how being “busy” takes some balancing or moderation to be effective. Too much time spent working lowers grades. Too little time spent working lowers grades. Hit the sweet spot, however, and you are now a “busy” person who starts to get really good at managing your time.

The same is true for stress and pressure. Let’s say you have a task at work and there is no pressure to get it done, no deadline, no dependent tasks, no real reason to do it other than it probably should be done at some point. If you have no reason to prioritize that task and complete it, it can lead to never-ending procrastination.

Conversely, if the task should have been done ages ago, and your boss is angry that no one ever did it, and five other departments need it to be done in order for their work to move forward, that’s a lot of pressure on you to do it as quickly as possible and not make any mistakes. How unnerving is that? You are suddenly under an extraordinary amount of pressure. When stakes are very high, it can cause people to blow it. Too much pressure backfires.

You need the right balance of pressure and slack to get the job done in an efficient manner.

One Task is Different From a Recurring Habit

Getting one task done is completely different from forming a new habit, like going to the gym regularly or not spending money recklessly. Developing a habit isn’t a one-time event. A habit is a change in behavior.

When you break it down, though, a habit is one thing done repeatedly. Eventually it sticks and becomes routine so that you don’t have to think very much about doing it.

So here’s an idea: Instead of treating a new habit like a new habit, treat it like a one-time task, at least at first. How will my time-management change if I schedule into my calendar “workout at the gym” tomorrow, rather than tell myself I have to start going to the gym five days per week?

That’s partially how I started going to the two fitness classes I take now. One of the classes is Friday at 6:30 p.m. I put it on my calendar, and if it’s on my calendar, I prioritize it. Everything else I need to do or want to do gets scheduled around it.

Classes have another benefit, which is accountability. To attend that Friday night class, I have to sign up in advance. If I don’t show up, I get a penalty, and once I have seven penalties, the gym revokes my right to sign up for classes online. So I lock myself into going. There’s some pressure, something at stake, but the stakes aren’t too high. Another way to create some pressure is to have a friend commit to joining you as well. Now, they’re expecting you to show up. There’s some light pressure urging you to do what you said you would do.

By treating a new habit like a task, at least at first, we may be able to trick ourselves into actually starting them.

Resources

Dundes, L. and Marx, J. (2006). Balancing Work and Academics in College: Why do Students Working 10-19 Hours Per Week Excel? Journal of College Student Retention, 8(1) 107-120.

Bringham Young University, Employment Services (2016). Effects of Employment on Student Academic Success. Compiled December 2006, updated December 2016. Retrieved April 15, 2019 from https://hrs.byu.edu/job-seekers/student-jobs/faq-working-on-campus/effects-of-student-employment.

Image by Runar Eilertsen, CC.

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