Are you checking it off a list, or are you building a habit?

5 02 2023

After finishing my PhD last May, I slammed against the brutal realities of breaking into academic publishing. The constant rejections and revisions made it difficult to sustain momentum and motivation. I started to struggle with procrastination. One of the core tenets of my self-talk has long been “I am not a procrastinator”. Suddenly, this was no longer true, and it weighed me down.

Habit tracking in GoodNotes

I knew it was essential to dig myself out of this place, so I dove into life hacks research to untangle the roadblocks. The book Now Habit, by Neil Fiore, urged me to work for 30 minutes on a priority project, and to stop at a good starting place. That worked, but I wasn’t regular enough with it to make an impact. Then, the book Elastic Habits, by Stephen Guise, encouraged me to set a low bar task – to build a chain of daily successes. That helped. I downloaded a habit tracker app and worked daily to check off my progress. The first half of the book Better than Before, by Gretchen Rubin, provided some illuminating background psychology (the second half of the book is diet advice, biased and unhelpful). The book Happier Hour, by Cassie Holmes, made me realize I don’t need to read any more habits books. I’ve reached content saturation.

Then, earlier this week, I happened across a Vox article about productivity influencers ( The article was critical of marking things off a list just to mark them off. And it hit me – although I initially started the habits checklist to motivate myself by marking things off a list – that wasn’t why I ended up sticking with it. Although the marking off is fun, my original purpose was to build habits. And, for that purpose, it has worked. Now, five months into my habit building journey, I wake up earlier. I get to my computer earlier. I focus longer. I’ve built up hundreds of pages of writing – journaling, brainstorming, academic drafts. I’ve read, annotated, and sourced at least one academic article a day. I’ve storyboarded revision plans for my courses. I wake up with my mind full of work ideas. I put on my shoes right away, to be ready for my lunch break walk or stationary bike ride. I read. I write. I play at least one song a day on the piano (or do notes identification practice when I’m traveling). And on days when I’m on the road or visiting family, I do my elastic habit minimums – I write a paragraph, I read a short article, I stretch my muscles. Now, it’s not so much to check the box as it is because I’ve realized the benefits of building a habit. These things are no longer a drudge. I no longer put them off. I no longer even have to decide to do them. They have become the things I do, part of my day to day. And those things have not only made me feel more productive, they have gotten me three journal articles to the revise and resubmit stage. Habits work!


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