I am working on habits right now, and one vital distinction I’ve come to discover, is that there are essentially two kinds of habits: those that require willpower and those that don’t.

This may sounds obvious, but I think it makes a big difference. One of my big gtd1 innovations was to start carrying a set of cut-in-half 3x5” index card and a cheapo pen in my pocket at all times. I’ve tried many capture methods, but the difference with these cards is I made a new habit too.

Every time I empty my pockets before going to bed or sitting down at my desk2, I take out my cards and read the active one. Sometimes it tells me to go put something in my bag, sometimes it’s something that I need to do, sometimes it’s a note. In all cases, the habit is just read the cards. No willpower is required (it’s easy) and neither is memory (look at the top card whenever I see the cards).

This is a trusted system, so when I write something on a card, I know it is safe, and the item therefore leaves my brain. It is a trusted system, because tripwires are in place. When a task is done or transferred to my work notebook3, it is crossed off. When the card fills up, I transfer incomplete tasks to a new card. Each card can only hold nine tasks, so the card reviews don’t cause anxiety by overloading my working memory.4 Once the cards go back in my pocket, I wipe my working memory clean.

Why cards? Why not use a fancy app? One word: novelty. Have you ever walked in another room to grab something, only to forget what you were looking for the second you enter the new space? Evolutionary psychologists say this is a survival instinct—that new threats might be in new places, so your brain looks out for new inputs—but I don’t care to debate it. I just know novelty gets me every time. Since my phone is a novelty machine, I can’t trust it.

Back to my thesis, some habits don’t require willpower, and therefore don’t need a scaffolding of creative lifehacks. My next project is getting back to having a good morning ritual. This does require willpower, and I’m working on it.

  1. Copyright David Allen Co blah blah blah. ↩︎

  2. Long story, but I have commute clothes and work clothes. Kinda like Mr. Rogers. ↩︎

  3. The cards are merely waystations. ↩︎

  4. On average, a person’s working memory is 7 +/- 2. I try to chunk everything into groups of 5-7 pieces. I have tricks for bigger lists, which I’ll discuss in a later post. For more on memory, see Moonwalking with Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything by Joshua Foer. ↩︎