How to avoid overwhelm by focusing on habit development

Sometimes I think my brain is trying to kill me. All day, while I’m working, it’s running off in the background, thinking up things to work me to death. It’s especially good at finding little annoyances in life and convincing me that I should “lifehack” them, or find a way to automate or optimize them away.

My brain is always coming up with new goals for me, then mapping out dozens of tasks and projects that I can tackle to achieve those goals.

Take the simple goal of increasing my income. I have lists upon lists of things that I think I should be doing, little projects that would help me bring in more money. Like writing killer blog posts to drive more signups for my mailing list. Or improving the sales copy on my book page to increase conversions. Or adding new content to the book, then blogging about it to drive new signups to my mailing list …

Then there's my goal of writing more. This is really important — good things happen when I write and publish things. Again, a million projects spring to mind. Which should I tackle first? Writing posts for my blog? Adding more content to my book? Starting another book? Or writing blog posts that I can someday format into a book? What a sweet lifehack!

There’s literally an infinite number of projects I could take on that would further my goal of writing more.

It’s overwhelming. I don’t know where to start.

So which project do I start with?

None of them.

When I get these, ahem, brilliant ideas, I catalog them somewhere — and then do my best to forget about them.

Instead of breaking my goals down into projects and tasks, I’m focusing my efforts on building habits.

Instead of worrying about how to increase my income or what writing project to tackle next, I'm pouring my energy into a single habit: Write daily.

Every day, first thing after sitting down to my computer in the morning, I’m writing. Some days it's 1,000 words on a book project. Others it's drafting a blog post, or, on days like today, it's polishing something I drafted earlier.

Projects are short term, but habits are forever.

It's often easy to complete a small project. If you're excited about the project, your motivation will be sky-high at the outset, and once the finish line is in sight, you'll get an extra rush that'll help you persevere to the end.

But then what?

Now you have to transition to the next project, and it's hard to conjure up the same level of excitement you had for the first project. You can see how much work it turned out to be, and the prospect of doing it again isn't inviting.

When you build habits, though, you learn to take a long-term view. When cultivating a habit, individual tasks and projects aren't as important as consistency over months and years.

I look at habits like a wood chipper. Once you get the habit going, you can feed it anything — from little tasks to huge projects — and it'll chew through it like it's nothing, then wait patiently for the next piece of debris.

The other week I finished the first draft of my next book, but I hadn't met my writing quota for the day. So I opened a new document and started a blog post.

Gotta feed the machine.

Tasks and projects are infinite, but habits have built-in limits.

Another problem with a project-first approach is that it fools you into thinking you can take on more than you really can. It's easy to keep a list of several dozen “active” projects, each with an associated list of tasks. You can spend weeks working on these without completing anything, all while feeling massively productive.

But a habit-development approach provides a natural set of constraints. Building habits requires intense focus, and you can at most actively cultivate two or three at a time.

I aim to work on one personal habit and one work-related habit at a time, but even that can be a stretch.

But isn't project planning useful?

Absolutely. I'm not advocating that you abandon your project plans and task lists altogether.

But projects and tasks are most useful when you can feed them into your habit woodchipper.

So when you have a long term goal that's really important to you, try shifting your focus away from projects and action steps, and start looking to develop a core set of habits that will propel you toward that goal.