Self-care as a habit

As readers of this blog may know, I use Habitica to keep track of habits, such as writing, exercise, eating healthy – the possibilities are endless. Habitica allows you to track what you do in three ways: habits you could do multiple times a day, dailies which you do every day (or every Monday, etc) and todos. For the writing example, a habit could be writing 500 words, a daily could be writing for 30 minutes first thing in the morning, and a todo could be writing a specific section of your paper. Completing any of these gives you experience, gold, items – all ways in which you could associate the habit with a reward.

Habitica also has a fourth category you can use for motivate yourself – rewards. Some rewards are defined by Habitica, such as items you can buy with gold collected from your habits. But you can also define real-life rewards, like going to your favorite restaurant, which you can buy with gold (you do still have to pay the restaurant, though!). I have not talked about this category much before, and in this blog post I explain why.

Habitica has examples of rewards you could define for yourself here. Here are a few examples that I am uncomfortable with:

  • Leisure reading
  • Call friend/relative
  • Long hot bath
  • Time alone with favorite music
  • Take a walk

For me, these are habits, not rewards. I am perfectly capable of just doing the productive things that need to be done, and not taking time for a bath or leisure reading. Not very healthy!

So instead, I intentionally add habits that are enjoyable for me to do, do not have negative effects (other than “wasting” time and perhaps a little money), but do not necessarily HAVE to be done. Next to reading and baths, here are a few other options:

  • Listening to a podcast episode. I learn a lot from various podcasts I listen, including how to be more productive, so perhaps this isn’t even such a “time waster”
  • Trying out a new recipe
  • Going out to dinner or movies. I tend to stay in a lot so it’s a nice change of pace.
  • Organizing things around the house. I realize this is a chore for many but I find it relaxing.
  • Dressing up or doing something special with my nails or make-up
  • Having friends over
  • Playing with the cats
  • Looking at photographs or notes from your “be kind portfolio

To be honest, I had a bit of trouble coming up with a few of the things above and they were not on my list. Most things I thought of straight away, were “too productive”, which just goes to show how necessary it is to pay attention to these things. Then I remembered a thread I saw on Twitter about mental health and doing things that make you happy, which had many other ideas I could borrow them.

There is one suggestion from this thread struck me the most and I will definitely be adding it to my list: “Having a day with nothing to do”

Keeping up with habits while travelling

I just returned from MICCAI, where I had a great time, met some wonderful people and got lots of new ideas! But, other side effects include sleep deprivation and generally not feeling very healthy because I haven’t been keeping up with my habits on Habitica. In this what I’m aiming to be short post, I share some experiences of keeping up with habits while travelling.

In Habitica you can “rest in the tavern”, which pauses your daily habits. This means not doing your habits for the day will not hurt you and your party. However, you can still complete the habits if you want and get rewarded for it, but the reward only benefits you, not your party (i.e. you don’t do damage to a boss, if your party is on a quest).

I think this is the first trip since I started using Habitica, which was several days AND in a different enough timezone. On other trips, I would usually not use the tavern feature, but instead disable the 1-2 dailies that I would not complete. But with the time difference, and having to prepare things on top of the conference, I thought the tavern was the best choice.

What I noticed when filling in the habits when I would open the app, is that most habits fell into three categories:

  1. Completed, but without thinking about it, such as walking 10K steps (my average for the conference is 15K!)
  2. Did not complete, but could have done so, such as stretching
  3. Could not possibly complete, such as exercise with weights which I didn’t bring with me

Since I knew no habits were going to hurt me and others, I didn’t even really try to “check in” with myself and see if there were habits I still needed/wanted to do. That’s too bad, because several of them are really good for me, and can be done in under 10 minutes.

I think a better strategy would have been to disable habits in category 3 for a while, and still try to complete habits in category 2. It would be great if Habitica had an option to “customize” you Tavern experience, but in the absence of that, here is how I think I will implement this next:

  • Create a tag “Off during travel”
  • Add the tag to all dailies which might fall into the “could not possibly complete” category
  • Before going on a trip, filter dailies to only see “Off during travel” list
  • Go through each displayed daily, and unselect all days Monday-Sunday, so the daily is never “on”
  • Select the days again after the trip

If you use Habitica, would you use this type of method? Or do you prefer the Tavern as it’s available now, without any pressure?

How to use Todoist and Habitica together

Recently I have written a few posts about how I use Todoist and Habitica, a habit tracker (check out my posts on decision fatigue, food, and exercise).

It can easily seem that there is overlap between the two. For example, if you want to run 10K, you could schedule a recurring task “go for a run” in Todoist, or you could add “go for a run” as a habit in Habitica. Or you could try to do both, and sync the two apps by hand – the horror! In this post I describe a few alternatives I have tried to use Todoist and Habitica together, and the system that I currently use.

1. Daily Most Important Tasks

My first attempt at using the apps together was a Habitica daily, “Add 3 MITs (most important tasks) to Habitica”. These are three tasks that advance your important projects, and, if these tasks are the only things you get done, you would be satisfied with the day. So every morning, I would go through Todoist, decide my MITs, add them to Habitica, and (hopefully) complete them by the end of that day.

I think I abandoned this system because I tried to add “actions”, like “Start working on task A”, to Habitica, since I knew that “Task A” was not feasible within a day. Breaking down tasks is something I need to improve in general, so while it didn’t work for me at the time, I think it is a good way to use Todoist and Habitica together.

My Habitica avatar from June 2017 – who wouldn’t want to complete tasks to be able to buy pirate gear?

2. Use Zapier

Zapier is a service that connects different apps together. It waits for a trigger in one app – for example, a new task in Todoist, and then performs an action in another app – for example, creating a new task in Habitica. This process is called a “zap”, and with a free account, you can have five free different zaps. Another zap could be, that if you complete a task in Habitica, Zapier checks off the corresponding task in Todoist. You can read more about setting this up on the Habitica Wiki.

There are a few options available, for example only syncing a single project. This is what I did, since I have 100+ tasks in Todoist, and I didn’t want to see all of them in Habitica. I chose an important, but not urgent personal project, and for a while, it was working great. But then I made a mistake – I added sub-tasks to one of the tasks in Todoist, which all showed up as individual tasks in Habitica. I disabled the zap shortly afterwards – way too overwhelming.

Another option is not to have a one-to-one correspondence between Todoist and Habitica. For example, when you complete a task in Todoist, you could increment a “Completed Todoist task” habit in Habitica. This is something I might try net.

3. Use Todoist for “will do”, Habitica for “should (not) do”

Todoist is great for keeping track of what I need to do when. I use it for both one-time (writing a paragraph for a paper) and recurrent (cleaning the kitchen) tasks. I will probably procrastinate on these tasks, but I will do them eventually. Another way to see these tasks is that they are more outcome-oriented, i.e. in the end they add up to a written paper or a clean house.

Habitica helps me finish the “will do” tasks more effectively, for example, by rewarding me when I write for 1 pomodoro (What is this?), or by cleaning the dishes right after dinner. These things are also a bit less outcome oriented – there are obvious benefits to them, but the reward (a paper or a clean house) is further away.

Habitica also helps me to NOT do things, such as checking email the first thing in the morning. Again, not checking email in the morning has benefits – see this post for some examples – but it’s not a really a task, and simply not checking email will not add up to a finished project.

This system means that I end up never using the todos.  But, the todo feature is very motivating, so I came up with a way to use it anyway!

I use the todo feature to keep track of difficult habits that I want to do at least X times within a period of time. Let’s take reading as an example. “Read 10 pages” is a habit for me, but I don’t do it often enough. If I start reading, I never read just 10 pages by the way – but these bursts of reading should happen more often, if I want to develop the habit of “reading more”.

Habitica does have counters for habits, but these do not REALLY remind me I should do the “read 10 pages” habit more often. Instead, I create a multi-part todo “Read next book”, which I split up into five parts, based on the number of pages. Then each time I’m reading, I get a small reward for the “read 10 pages” habit, but I also have an overview of my how much I should still read. Over time, the “read next book” todo becomes red, motivating me to hurry up with the habit and get the much larger reward for the entire thing. I’m actually starting on a fresh book today:

4. Use Todoist for work, Habitica for personal

Perhaps another way to divide tasks between Todoist and Habitica is to split up work and personal projects. It is not the system I use, since there is overlap. For example, I’m reading a book that is helpful for my job, and interesting to me personally.

However, as you might have noticed from my posts, my Habitica is biased towards self-care. Not that that’s strictly “personal” – I need to be healthy & sane to be able to do my job well. But the types of habits I’m trying to build up, such as exercise, tend to be put on the back-burner a lot, especially when things are stressful at work. Adding these “should do” habits to Habitica helps me to prioritize them in a way that I wouldn’t be able to achieve with a task manager alone.

More examples?

Do you use a task manager and/or habit tracker? I would love to hear about your reasons to use only one or the other, and your approach if you are using both!

How I use Habitica to improve my diet

In this post I discuss how I use Habitica for health – specifically, to improve my diet. See also an earlier post how I use Habitica to improve my exercise.

I don’t follow a special diet, but I already eat relatively healthy – an inheritance from some earlier dieting years. But a side effect is that food is often my mind, because I’m always busy with optimizing between satisfying a craving, eating on time (so I don’t get too hungry), eating healthy, not wasting food etc.

Here is a typical example. I decide what I feel like for dinner while coming home from work. Already a bit hungry, I stop by the store, and look through their recipe suggestions or what’s on sale. In my mind I match what I feel like having and what’s available to a recipe that I know. I start collecting the groceries. Then I see something interesting in the store, and consider changing my plan. Or I remember I still have this ingredient at home. During this process, I get hungrier and hungrier… In the end, I might give up and get a pizza instead – and probably feel bad afterwards.

This is all way too much unproductive thinking – therefore perfect for building habits and eliminating decision fatigue! I achieve this by just two habits: meal planning and bringing lunch to work.

Meal plan

I have a daily that repeats only on Saturday, that involves selecting 4 dinner recipes and doing groceries. This seemed like a big change to implement for me, but the benefits were so obvious that I didn’t have to wait long for this to become a habit. The catalyst was probably Evernote – as I was clipping recipes, I realized I finally had ONE place with all my recipe ideas. It was easy to see a recipe and say “oh, I haven’t had this in a while – I should get the ingredients next time I’m at the store!”. Multiply that times 4, and you have a meal plan! Here are some of my favorites:
I move the selected recipes to a different notebook, so it’s easy for me to find them once I’m cooking. I then add all the ingredients I don’t have yet to Todoist. In the store, I actually check off the ingredients I put in my basket as I collect them. Perhaps there are specialized apps that streamline this process (i.e. add the ingredients once you select a recipe), but for me this works because I already use Evernote and Todoist often.

Home-made lunch

This is a daily that repeats on all work days. Since I leave the house pretty early, to achieve this I need to prepare my lunch the day before. To simplify things, I just double the amount I prepare for dinner, and bring it with me the next day. Hooray for microwaves!
Notice that I have 4 dinners, but 5 lunches. This is because from time to time dinners with friends, lunches at work, etc come up.  Some leftovers therefore get postponed to other days.

Result

By batching my decision-making into one day, I have 5 days worth of (relatively) healthy meals, that use ingredients I already have at home, and that save me money. During the week, I still have to cook, but since I often prepare the same dishes, this becomes less demanding. All of this frees up my brain to do more interesting things 🙂

Are you considering trying out a meal plan, or maybe you are already an expert at this and have some advice for others? Leave a comment below!

 

How I use Habitica to improve my exercise

In this post I discuss how I use Habitica for health – and specifically, to improve my exercise habits!

Procrastination

I am one of many people who find food and exercise important and have goals related to them (often weight loss), but procrastinate too much to achieve those goals. But since I’ve been using this new habit-building approach, I feel that things are starting to change a little bit and it’s not just the goal that motivates me, but the process.

The scenario I sketched with procrastinating on exercise is as follows:

  • Have a vague goal of “exercising more”
  • Be convinced you still need to do something (e.g. buy exercise equipment find the time) to start
  • Delay it until tomorrow, the day after, next week…

Or maybe like this:

  • Have a clear goal of what you want to do (e.g. go running three times a week)
  • Start enthusiastically and push yourself in the beginning to meet the target
  • Quit when you slip up too many times

I’ve had more variations on these in the past but I won’t go through all of them 🙂

First exercise habit

With Habitica and the idea of building habits, I decided to do things differently. I would start with something very simple and concrete, that I could do already, and that I wouldn’t have an excuse not to do: stretching in the morning.

I gave my yoga mat a permanent place in the living room, where I would see it in the morning. Before I have breakfast, I roll it out and do a few yoga-type stretches. The whole process takes about 5 minutes. Then I get a reward: checking off the daily in Habitica and having breakfast. Sometimes I have a lazy morning, but then I usually still stretch later in the day to complete the daily. All in all, I think I have missed less than 5 days since November.

Adding more exercise

Once the stretching became a habit, the yoga mat was joined by a kettlebell. I started with doing 10 kettlebell swings in addition to the stretching, and have now built it up to three different exercises. This was a bit more difficult to adopt, so I created a habit, which I can do as often as I want, and thus get extra rewards.

The last thing on my exercise list is walking. I set my goal to 10K steps a day. I don’t always complete this one, but to motivate me to do as much as possible, I set it up as a checklist where each 2K counts. And on days when I’m doing a lot of walking, I get extra rewards for each additional 2K steps I walk.

This is how all of this looks in Habitica (left are the habits, right are the dailies):

Now walking definitely became a habit. Before, I would sometimes have days where I barely get 1K steps in. But now I feel like I need to get moving, and I’m motivated to go for a walk to make sure I check off at least some steps off the list.

The verdict

None of this is particularly impressive compared to e.g. going running three times a week. But it’s something that I can do consistently, so for me it’s better than a too enthusiastic goal I can’t keep up with. I also really like the process of building up the habits and updating them in Habitica, so perhaps one of these days I will introduce a running habit as well.

I would be happy to hear how all of you are keeping up with exercise – is it something you do routinely, or something that you don’t usually get to? Do you keep track of what you’ve done and your progress over time? Any other tips others should hear about?

 

 

5 apps that improved my productivity in 2016

Less than a year ago, my “How I work” setup only included Gmail, Google Calendar and Wunderlist. After reading Getting Things Done, I started listening to podcasts that focus on productivity, like The 5 AM Miracle and Beyond the To Do List. In the process, I started discovering apps and trying them out. In this post I present the 5 apps that improved my productivity and that are staying in my “How I work” process.

1. Podcast Addict

Of course I used Podcast Addict to listen to the podcasts above. This helped me not only by teaching me things about productivity, but by motivating me to walk more (so that I could listen to the podcasts). Although I was spending more time on getting to places, the exercise + fresh air helped me to focus afterwards.

2. Evernote

OK, I had Evernote before listening to the podcasts, but I didn’t know how to organize it and therefore didn’t use it. One example of how I use it now is for writing these blog posts! I have a stack of five notebooks for this:

My Evernote notebooks for writing blog posts

In “Online: pin or tweet” and “Online: write about” I keep all the articles, threads on Twitter etc that I saved with the Evernote web clipper, and I think might be interesting to share with others. Once I pin, tweet or write, I move the note to “Online: done”. In “Writing: drafts” I keep blog posts ideas, which eventually grow into blog posts. Then I move these to the “Writing: done” notebook.

Given my difficult relationship with blogging and weekly posts for the last two months – a personal record – I’d say it’s working!

3. Streak

Streak is an app that integrates seamlessly with Gmail and has lots of awesome functionality. I use it to (1) achieve inbox zero (2) keep track of your contacts.

For (1), I use Streak to “snooze” emails. This means that I archive the email, but it’s moved to the inbox again at a later date. For example, I snooze emails to register for events. If it’s December, but the event is March, and the deadline to register is in February, I will snooze the email to late January.

For (2), I use Streak to keep track of people I have contacted, or might want to contact at some point. Currently I do this for people who have emailed me with questions about my papers. If I have an important update on the project (for example an error in my code), I can simply send an email to the whole group.

4. Focus @ Will

Focus @ will is a radio you can listen to, but with music (or sounds) that are supposed to help you focus. There are a few channels with different types of music/sound, and you can just press play and pause, or set a timer so that it stops playing after X minutes. I usually use it with the timer, Pomodoro-style. I can’t say if it’s really doing something to my brain or if it’s the placebo effect, but it’s been pretty effective so far!

5. Habitica

Habitica is a habit-tracking app, a bit like a todo list for things you’d like to do regularly, like exercising every day. I tried to create daily tasks for these activities in Wunderlist, but I didn’t like this approach. The main reason was that I didn’t know how to deal with doing the activity more, or less than I am supposed to.

For example, if I missed a day or two of exercising, I had two choices. The first is leaving the tasks unchecked, i.e. doing doubling/tripling the amount of exercise on another day, which is not very realistic. The second is checking the skipped tasks off, which is incorrect. The same goes for doing extra exercise: did that mean I could skip exercise the day after? Not great if you are trying to develop an “exercise every day” habit.

In Habitica, instead of done/not done, you have a character with overall statistics like health. Here’s mine:

And here are some of the habits I’m tracking:

They are all green, because I did them today! By doing habits, the character gains experience and coins. If you don’t do a habit for too long, the character’s health goes down. To be honest I don’t know the details of how this works yet, but I like the layout and the habit-tracking part!

Any other apps?

I like trying out apps, so if you have some that have helped you out, please let me know!

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