How to find time for new habits and goals

For lots of us, the new year is about new resolutions. Adopting new habits. Setting fresh goals. Eating healthier, exercising more, being more organised, finally mastering inbox zero…

Most new year’s resolutions tend to be about doing more. More shopping for fresh veg and cooking healthy food, more time for running with friends or going to the gym, more time for a proper David Allen style weekly review or creating a marketing plan.

But where’s that extra time going to come from? I'm guessing your life is pretty full as it is. You don't have spare hours lying about, waiting to be filled with new habits.

You could get up earlier, or go to bed later. But chances are, your sleeping habits are what work for you. If you aren’t the early bird type, getting up an hour earlier is probably just going to make you grouchy.

A better way to fit in the new stuff is to take out some old stuff.

Working hard at doing less

I recently took a course on managing anxiety and low mood. In one of the sessions, we looked at developing healthier routines and habits. The course leader suggested we would have a better chance of sticking to these habits if we booked time in our calendars to do them.

When I looked at my schedule, I realised I had a different problem. My calendar and to-do list were full of reminders to work out, meditate, go to the shops for healthy food. My schedule was packed from morning to night with useful and productive tasks. I never completed my daily list, however much I rushed about. My unrealistic schedule was making me stressed.

So I turned the challenge on its head.

The unscheduling challenge

While my classmates were making plans to go to spin classes or buy groceries instead of takeouts, I planned not to do things.

I set a goal to take at least one thing off my list every single day. I could put it off. Give it someone else to do. Decide it didn’t need doing. Anything to get it out of today's to-do list.

It worked. I realised there were loads of things I really didn’t need to do. And in the process, I thought about what was causing my list to become so cluttered in the first place. So, here are some ideas for freeing up time for yourself, whether that's to fit in new habits, or just do nothing at all.

Say no to other people’s rituals

To be truly productive these days, it's not enough to just get things done. New-wave productivity gurus dish out diet and exercise tips as well as task management strategies. They’re as likely to recommend Headspace as Evernote. They don’t do checklists, they do rituals.

The trouble is, other people’s rituals tend to be pretty time consuming. For instance, take a look at Benjamin Hardy’s 8 Things Every Person Should Do Before 8 A.M. This approach may be the perfect start to his day (though it sounds more like clickbait to me). But even if it works for him doesn't mean it works for everyone.

I'm not saying you shouldn't find time for yoga, or meditation, or whatever. It might even make you more productive throughout the day. But I've found that the time gained was nowhere near enough to offset the time spent.

So I'd say beware of these daily rituals that some guru says you ‘should’ be doing. If something is working for you, keep it. If not, drop it.

Admit defeat on old goals and move on

I feel much better at giving up on things, after reading this article from Oliver Burkeman:

if you repeatedly fail to summon the willpower for a certain behaviour, it may be time to accept the fact: perhaps getting better at cooking, or learning to enjoy yoga, just isn’t on the cards for you, and you’d be better advised to focus on changes that truly inspire you

Time to admit that I don’t need to learn Swedish, and I’m not really that bothered about being fit enough to cycle up Mont Ventoux.

Pursuing a goal, even one you're failing to achieve, can take up quite a lot of time and mental effort. If your to-do list is still full of reminders about last year's goals, stop shuffling them around and worrying about them. Get rid of them so you can free up time and energy for some new ones.

Ditch the habit trackers

If you’re into self-improvement (and I guess you might be, given you’re reading an article about personal productivity), then you may also be into habit trackers like Streaks, or Good Habits, or Way of Life.

They can be very helpful, but the problem is that they’re just another to-do list in disguise. If you've read Getting Things Done, you'll know that having more that one to do list is a bad idea. It's hard to manage and prioritise your tasks when they are spread out over several apps. You just think you've got your day sorted and then along comes your habit app with a load more things you need to do.

Put reminders for your new habits on your main to do list or calendar instead. That way, you’re more likely to be realistic about how much you can fit in.

Clean out your checklists

I love a good checklist. But over time, they can get stale. Maybe your work has changed, and some things don’t need doing anymore. You might be able to do certain things less often or in a different way.

This article has some great ideas about doing a GTD reset. I also like to dip into my favourite productivity books to help me give my checklists a spring clean.

Prune your action lists

When you’re processing your inbox GTD-style, you’re supposed to decide whether you should do an item, defer it, or delegate it. If something needs to be done, and by you, it ends up on your action list.

By processing each item in this thoughtful way we save time, because we don't need to make that decision again.

Which is all very well in theory, but doesn’t work so well in practice.

First of all, it’s hard to maintain absolute concentration and discipline every time you process your inbox. Some days, things slip through to your list that could have been delegated, or maybe don’t need doing at all.

Secondly, things change around you. Projects slip and slide. Other people change their minds. So that task that was so urgent yesterday might now be easy to defer for a week - or not be done at all.

If you’ve worked as (or with) a product manager, you’ll be familiar with ‘grooming the backlog’: deciding if the remaining work is still necessary or useful. It’s a trick worth stealing.

Every day when you review your list, try and find at least one thing to delegate, defer or delete. Just because something ended up on your to-do list, doesn't mean you always have to do it.

Change your habits

It’s easy to get stuck with ideas about the right way to do things so that they take up more time than necessary.

For instance, I got into the habit of walking to a supermarket much further from my house because I was worried that I wasn’t getting enough exercise. I carried on going to that supermarket even after I started doing Fitstar workouts three times a week, meaning I was trying to fit in a long walk and a 30-minute cardio session.

You might be still writing lengthy progress reports because that’s the way your previous client liked them. Or hand cranking your cashflow forecast when you could get some software to do it.

By changing existing habits, you can make space for new ones.

How are you making time for your new year’s resolutions? Why not share your tips in the comments?

Note: In this post, I mention a course about managing anxiety and low mood. This was a free course run by my local health service, Camden and Islington NHS Trust - find out more on the iCope website. If you live in the UK, your NHS trust may offer similar services. You can also search for local mental health services on the NHS Choices website.

Books I've found useful for decluttering my life

Some of the links in the post above are “affiliate links.” This means if you click on the link and buy the item, I will receive an affiliate commission. Regardless, I only recommend products or services I use myself and believe will add value to my readers.