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How to Reduce Stress and Get More Done by Turning a Project into a Habit

Strategies and goals

One of my first posts when I started the Willpower Engine site was about the two uses of self-motivation: acquiring habits and getting projects done. What has become clear recently is that projects can and sometimes should be treated as habits to acquire. There are two main reasons to do this: first, the habit approach can relieve a lot of stress, and second, the habit approach can be very productive.

How to make a project into a habit
First, how can a project be turned into a habit? A habit is something you do regularly, usually with the idea of continuing forever, while a project is a set series of things to do with a clear end point. How does one translate into the other?

It’s true that not all projects can be made into habits: the ones that can are those that require a lot of the same kind of work over a long period of time–especially if that work is something that will need to be done again in the future. These kinds of projects include many kinds of organization, creative or constructive habits, lifestyle changes, etc.

For example, the project of writing a novel can be made into a habit of writing every day for a set period of time or a set number of words. The project of decluttering a house can be made into a habit of organizing the house a little bit at a time on a regular basis. The project of documenting all of the in-house software at a particular company can be made into a habit of noting details of any in-house software product that comes in sight plus a habit of fleshing those notes out into full-fledged documentation.

When changing a project into a habit like this, there’s less emphasis on the overall structure of the thing and more on the day-to-day work. If there’s too little emphasis on the overall structure, than part of the habit should be reviewing the overall progress of the work.

The kinds of projects that don’t make good habits are ones that involve very different kinds of work over time, like starting a business, and/or that have a clear stopping point after which you don’t intend to do much of that work again, as for instance if you were doing a one-time renovation of your house.

Relieving stress
Making a project into a habit can relieve stress in two ways: first, it narrows the scope of what needs to be done at any given time to something very small and manageable. Instead of filing all of the papers lying around your office, you just need to spend 15 minutes at a time filing papers. Instead of losing 50 pounds, you just need to track what you eat, exercise regularly, and make good food choices (still a tall order, but much more feasible than losing 50 pounds in a single go).

The second way making a project into a habit relieves stress is that when this transformation is made, the project no longer needs to ever get done. Instead, the intention is to keep working on it, writing another symphony after this one, maintaining weight after losing it, keeping the office organized once it gets organized in the first place.

The advantage of maintenance
Another advantage of changing a project into a habit is that many projects need maintenance even once they’re complete, like keeping a decluttered house from getting re-cluttered or keeping on top of new sales prospects once you’ve caught up with a backlog.

Handling multiple habits at once
I’ve mentioned a number of times that it’s generally a bad idea to try to take on more than one major goal at a time, because even one significant effort or life change generally requires enough attention and focus that introducing another goal tends to serve as a destraction that causes the first effort to fail. In other words, second and third and fourth goals will suck away focus from the first goal until it dies from neglect or crashes spectacularly because attention was elesewhere.

One way around this limitation, though, is to bind habits together. For instance, if you’re trying to simultaneously organize your home, your office, and your finances, your discipline can be devoting fifteen minutes (for instance) to each of those tasks every day, at set times. (“Every day” isn’t a strict requirement, but it is much easier to acquire a new habit if you practice the behavior pretty much every day.) When you’re thinking about your goals, then, you would be thinking about whether or not you’ll be able to accomplish those three things in their regular times, whether there’s extra time that can go to one of them, and what specific issues may be arising with any of them.

There is a drawback to this approach, which is that with it, there is less attention to give to specifics and problem-solving for any one goal, so it may still be best to stick with one intention at a time if this causes problems. However, if the main task is to stay on track and remind yourself to do something, this “binding” approach can work just fine. And even without binding, the approach of turning a project into a habit can be of great use.

Painting courtesy of the Smithsonian American Art Museum



  1. Anne Briggs  •  Jan 29, 2010 @12:54 pm

    Luc, this is very insightful and the points with regard to organization are very interesting. I wrote recently about how recent brain research shows that willpower alone is often not enough to see a person through a difficult challenge like organization which you might be interested in reading.

  2. Luc  •  Jan 29, 2010 @1:17 pm

    Anne, thanks for coming by, and for the comment. I think you make some good points in your post, and that the question of whether or not willpower is enough seems to depend mainly on what we mean when we say “willpower.” If we’re thinking of a struggle against ourselves to force ourselves to do “the right thing,” then it’s absolutely not enough. If we mean a set of skills we develop to act more in accordance with our aspirations, then I think willpower covers it. But while this latter is how I’ve meant “willpower” since I started the site, I’m not certain that’s a definition that will necessarily occur to everyone … so I’m contemplating some terminology changes …

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