Serial Habit Rebooting and The Power of Less

Serial Habit Rebooting and The Power of Less

A few months ago I received a review copy of Leo Babauta’s book The Power of Less, and promptly lost it under a pile of magazines that had colonized the northeast quadrant of my dining room table. The pile grew majestically in size over the next 3 months, absorbing small electronic gadgets, mail, balls of cat fur, and exotic Asian cookie boxes, until one day I had need of something I thought might have been in there. So, I started disassembling the pile, and that’s when I came across the book package from Leo’s publisher. It was fortuitous timing, as I’d been feeling under-productive in my creative and business endeavors since finishing the Holocaust Museum project a few weeks prior. Leo’s site, Zen Habits, had been on my mind because I’d noticed a trend from my periodic visits: the number of readers seemed to double ever time I looked. And it seemed to me, after doing a brief dive through his site that it was due to his focus on delivery quality thoughts consistently with an honest humility. It was quietly inspiring. After reading through The Power of Less, I was impressed anew by the straightforwardness of the writing. It’s not a flashy book. And it is not even a radically original book–an acquaintance of mine, with all the authority his 20-odd years of experience on Earth could muster, declared on Facebook that it was a book that merely contained stuff we already knew, which I found deeply insightful and amusing. What I like about the book is that it concisely details a number of habits that have led to ongoing, purposeful achievement, the story of Leo told from his personal perspective.

This past week I’ve been following one of the habits that had jumped out at me: work on one habit at a time. I knew that the productivity-inducing habits that I’d adapted over the past two years had disappeared as I had gotten caught up in the last weeks of museum project, and my attempts to restart them all at the same time were going nowhere. This week, I decided to just focus on a chain of habits that I wanted to redevelop, one after the other, to bootstrap my way back to the place I once was.

a matter of faith and determination

Working on one thing at a time is a powerful concept that’s been detailed many times by other writers, so I believe in it. My greatest hurdle in adapting this idea is two-fold: having faith that it works, and being able to maintain focus to completion.

  • Having faith, for me, is probably more about stemming the negative thoughts: You know what I’m talking about, that slippery feeling that time is slipping away, which leads to thoughts of oh no I’m falling behind to I need to be faster and better to omg I’m not good enough to do this followed by this thing I’m making is sucking crap crap crap. It’s not a good place to be, and its self-defeating. It’s understandable, though; our society puts a huge premium on speed and instant gratification, and as uninformed consumers we tend to expect that the creative process should be just as fast. I should know better, being skilled with a number of arcane digital media production methodologies, but I still fall prey to this kind of thinking because, well, I want to be awesome :-) To implement One Thing At A Time, I remember that I value craft and design, and that such endeavors take time. It’s ultimately worth the wait, I believe, if it’s done right. There are some situations where speed is more of the essence, but I am making an executive decision to not seek those situations. Still, it’s important to carve out just enough time to not be rushed, yet not dawdle. “Do not hurry. Do not wait”: this is a lesson I’m learning anew. I am also taking inspiration from John Carmack’s game development philosophy when asked when his next gaming work will be available: “When it’s done”. My corollary to this philosophy is that taking time to learn is going to be part of it.

  • Maintaining focus to completion is probably the harder task. Certain tasks lend themselves to focus; writing and graphic design are like that for me. Other tasks that involve a variety of media and mental hats (e.g. developing interactive multimedia, establishing a design business) tend to become diffuse because they call on different parts of my brain to pay attention to different parts of the world, scattering my focus by necessity. Additionally, I’ve trained myself to see every interaction with the world as a jumping off point for investigation, so keeping unintended flights of inquiry under control is a challenge. The various Printable CEO forms are, in some sense, attempts to create systems that naturally attract my attention so it’s harnessed to the desired task at hand. They’ve also helped solidify certain principles of productivity over time, which is perhaps the greater payoff. What I need is to maintain discipline. One means to maintaining discipline is to require less of it. The statement goal is to “maintain focus to completion”, so defining meaningful intermediate deliverables is helpful. It’s also good development practice. Most importantly, being happy with smaller steps to begin with is a key mental outlook, otherwise I’ll always be dissatisfied. The perspective I’m cultivate in myself these days that when anything happens at all, that’s pretty damn incredible. You can interpret that statement as being extremely cynical or really positive, so it is compatible with a wide range of moods :-) I choose to celebrate the small achievements, most of the time.

the weeks ahead


p>This week I’ve been focusing just on waking up every day at the same time. From my prior experiments in waking up early, I know this habit has led to feelings of well-being and productivity. I’ve been doing it for about a week, and the habit is still pretty wobbly, but I’m noticing how each violation of the sleep cycle has discernible effects on the following day. This encourages me to maintain the habit. I’ll do another week of this, and with luck the habit will be set firmly enough that I can move to the next habit on my list: returning to a regular gym schedule.

This is the chain of habits I’m trying to recreate, roughly in the order I’m thinking will work:

  1. Regular Sleep Schedule: Up at 6AM, Eat by 6PM, Showed by 9PM, Bed by 10PM.
  2. Regular Gym: 30min Cardio 3x week, expand to 60min Cardio, expand to Resistance Training alternate days.
  3. Drinking Water at Regular Intervals: When I’ve been drinking more water, I’ve felt great. I keep forgetting to do it.
  4. Eating Regular Healthy Meals: I’ve never done this, so I have no methodology for this yet.
  5. Regular Home Chores: I suck at doing chores. Yes, I know about The Fly Lady, so I will pay them a visit.

Each of these habits, I am thinking, will take two weeks minimum to establish themselves. I’ll only move to the next one when I am convinced it’s sticking. I may break up the gym habit into the three stages and interleave them with the other habits so it’s not so massive.

I also need to figure out are the recovery protocols for when the habits are disrupted. The gym habit, for example, tends to fly out the window when I’m away from home or have a lot of work to do. Creating an at-home workout that I like, that doesn’t require additional gear, will be helpful. Adding fun physical challenges that can be met only with conditioning will help too. I’m pretty clueless when it comes to sports and stuff like that, so it will be a whole new adventure.

Implicit in this list is the idea that these are prime directives for supporting a high quality life. I am hopeful that working the “discipline muscle” will trickle into other aspects of my life, as my friend Senia [describes].

There’s a different list for establishing a good design practice and social life, but I’ll address that some other day.


  1. Danny 15 years ago

    Dave, i’ve read your blog on and off for years but I reckong this is the first time I’ve made a comment.

    I thought I’d chime in because your five habits (excepting the chores) are *exactly* the same five habits I continually find myself losing over time.

    My last attemp to reset these habits, much like yours, allowed 15 days for each – I was hoping to get them all reinstated in two months that way. Sadly, it didn’t really work. For me it seems that while I can aquare a habit in 15 days and it feels like it’s stuck, the pressure of a new habit added to the mix along with the stresses of life causes it to fall apart.

    I suppose it’s a bit like building up in concrete, although one level might seem to be set and solid, it probably isn’t a good idea to build on it until you’re absolutley sure it’s 100% set. For me that probably means waiting 30-60 days before introducing a new habit.

    As an aside, I’ve found that keeping a 1.5 ltr bottle of squash or water with me wherever I go – I often carry it rather than keep it in a bag – has improved my water intake. I make sure I drink it all during the day and usually fill it up when I get in and drink it over the evening too. This is the only way I’ve been able to keep my dinking up, glasses of water just get forgotten!

    Thanks for this, Dave.

  2. Dave Gallagher 15 years ago

    “Eating Regular Healthy Meals”

    Personally I aim for a habit of eating one large salad per day.  Ideally with zero-calorie dressing, or no dressing at all (I use black and green olives for flavor – dried cranberries taste good too if you like sweet instead of salty).

    I prepare 5 salads at the beginning of the week and put them into equally-sized plastic containers.  Washing, and then drying the veggies, makes them keep fresh.  As the week progresses, you make sure you grab one of them each day out of the fridge and eat it.

    Usually for salads I use:  Cucumbers, cherry tomatoes (these stay fresh longer than regular, sliced tomatoes), red or orange peppers, celery, baby carrots, broccoli, baby broccoli, black and green olives, snap peas, and snow peas.


    “Drinking Water at Regular Intervals”

    Here’s what I recommend.  Buy 3 or 4 750ml Camelbak water bottles ( -> Dick’s Sporting Goods, Sports Authority, and most workout places have them – about $10 each in many colors – get the one’s with the bite valve).

    Fill them all up the night before you go to bed and plop them in the fridge.  The next day always keep one of them by your side.  Head for the fridge for another once it’s empty.  Repeat.

    Some of the North Face backpacks have dual bottle-holders which these fit into nicely.  Very handy if you’re mobile.


    “The gym habit, for example, tends to fly out the window when I’m away from home or have a lot of work to do.”

    To be successful with the gym habit in the long-run, you need to get into the mindset of treating it as a second job, one which you can’t pay your rent if you were to quit it.  You can have vacation days, sick days, weekends (rest), and “mental-health” days just like with a normal job.  But you can’t slack too much, otherwise you’ll get fired (e.g., reduce your overall fitness).

    Keep in mind that working out is a long-term play.  By spending time working out today (and eating healthy), you’re saving time from having to spend in the hospital, being sick, or money spent on pills, when your older.


    Hope that helps!  :)

  3. Craig Harper 15 years ago

    The ‘secret’ is to make small changes that you can maintain for life.

    Keeping in mind the axiom that “if we want to create different, we need to do different”, let’s take a quick peek at why some of us might be trapped in our own personal Groundhog Day.

    1. Procrastination – Some of us are professional “waiters”. Unfortunately, for many of us, the right time never seems to arrive. Some people are always about to change but never actually doing it. And of course, it’s not really a time thing; it’s an attitude thing. An overcoming fear thing. A getting off our arse thing.

    2. Blame – If it’s someone else’s fault then (1) that’s very convenient (2) it’s beyond our control and (3) we don’t have to change. Perfect. Phew.

    3. Lying – Everyone Lies. Everyone. It’s the people who lie to themselves and then start to believe their own crap that have the problem. Self-awareness, humility and honesty; always valuable tools in the personal transformation process.

    4. Laziness – Living in a culture that embraces the quick-fix, instant gratification and the avoid-discomfort-at-all-costs-mindset… helps nobody. Laziness equals misery, frustration and under-achieving.

    5. Being Reactive – When do many people make significant decisions about their health? When they’re in the back of the ambulance with tubes protruding from every orifice, that’s when. When do some people decide to work on their relationship? When their partner is walking out the front door. What about getting those finances in order? When you’re wondering how much the pawn broker will give you for your twenty five year-old bike and you’ve been living on two-minute noodles for three months!

    6. Indifference – Plenty of people subscribe to the “hopefully things will work themselves out” plan for life. What a load of crap; things don’t “work themselves out” – we do. Or not. While the wishful thinkers are sitting around with their fingers crossed, the smart people are consciously and methodically creating their best life and exploring their potential.

    “Success or failure is not pre-determined; it’s me determined”

    Is it time for you to stop making the same mistakes?

    Don’t get offended.
    Don’t get precious.
    Don’t get defensive.
    Don’t get angry.

    Get realistic, practical, busy and productive.


  4. John Collins 15 years ago

    Hey Dave, I found your blog today and enjoyed your perspective. I’ve often found myself in the same boat as you—so many things that I want to accomplish that it is difficult to know where to start. I like your thought on working on one thing at a time. I’m going to try this to see if I can start making my way through my personal, lengthy “to do” list that’s been building up over several years. First on my list – I’m going to research if a life settlement is a good option for my wife and I. I’ve started this quest a few times, but always seem to get off track. However, I’m getting up there in the years and my premiums are becoming unaffordable. I’m at the point where I need to do something—this time I vow to maintain my focus to completion until it’s done and I’m on to #2 on the list! Thanks for giving me the kick start I needed.

  5. Ashe 15 years ago

    Interesting you mention the FlyLady.  I think her system works, generally, but has rather poor information design.  In the end I get altogether too many e-mails, and they’re stuck on my computer instead of in plain view around the house.

    What I’d rather have is a Printable-CEO type system reminding me what to do and when.  Have you ever thought about bringing your design talents to home organization and maintenance?

  6. Bethany 15 years ago

    Seriously if you could make a cool style of FlyLady, I’d adore you. I love FlyLady very much like I love my mother, but it doesn’t mean we have the same sense of style.

    As for the gym goal, I’m a big fan of Lots of easy to use videos and at-home fitness routines. And it will track things for you. I go in monthly spurts, but I think the resources there are excellent.

  7. Ashe 15 years ago

    And I use DailyBurn for fitness – similar to SparkPeople, but slicker interface.

  8. awake 15 years ago

    what… 8 hrs of sleep!  FaT aSs (just kiddin :-), i hear you on this one)

  9. MiGrant 15 years ago

    Hi Dave! I’ve been enjoying your blog. I hope you’ll write about your habit recovery protocols as they develop.

    I’ve been giving some thought to related issues myself, with one of the things I’ve been working on being a get-back-on-track checklist — an ordered list of questions to ask myself when my habits and goal progress have been falling apart. Here’s my first stab at it:

    – Do I need a nap?
    – Have I done a Daily Review today?
    – Do I have any pending deadlines at risk?
    – Do I have any promises to fulfill in the near future?
    – Are any major unpaid bills about to come due?
    – Do I have any can’t-miss events coming up?
    – Have I gotten sufficient exercise in the past week? (Establish minimum home workout)
    – Have I provided for healthy meals for the next few days? (Establish fallback meal plan (no cooking), make sure ingredients are always in stock)
    – Are my sales and production on target for the month?
    – Have I completed my tasks for the week?