Habits, pandemic edition

In 2018 I began experimenting with a new spreadsheet for tracking habits. It’s worked extremely well for me, and I’ve been using some variation of it ever since. Recently, though, two problems have put me in search of another solution.

First, I’d done such a good job of making my hobbies into obligations that I found myself trying to skirt the rules whenever my motivation flagged. I increasingly found myself replacing “studying Japanese” with “watching videos about Japanese,” or “meditating” with “sitting there for a bit.” I felt like I was always bargaining with myself, trying to justify some token effort as spreadsheet-worthy.

The second problem, of course, is the pandemic. To be blunt, I rarely want to do anything these days. I can usually force myself out of a rut with willpower in normal circumstances, but at a certain point it becomes counterproductive. I was expending a lot of effort trying to stay on top of “work” that I had created for myself.

At the same time, I didn’t want to abandon the idea of habit tracking altogether and just lie in bed for a year (or at least I didn’t think that would be smart), so I needed another solution. I was inspired by this video by the YouTuber HeartBeast, who makes game development tutorials. He describes his own attempt to pull himself out of a motivation rut:

I knew that I would need to form a habit of working on the game every day or else I wouldn’t finish it. Making an indie game as a small team—it’s a marathon, not a sprint. So the habit that I chose was running the game while having some programming music running in the background. So I’d open up the account, turn on some programming music to listen to, put on my headphones, and then run the game. And that was my habit. I didn’t have to do more than that.


A really important thing to note here is that I didn’t want to hate it, so if there was ever a day where I was feeling a bit discouraged, or just my mood wasn’t as good, I would do the habit and not necessarily work on the game—just to prove to myself that it was just about doing the habit, and I only had to work on the game if I felt like it after doing the habit.

I really like this approach, and I think it’s better than the spreadsheet for where I am mentally right now. I extended it to cover my own set of habits that I wanted to cultivate: I have to pick up my guitar every day, even if I don’t practice; I have to step outside every day, even if I don’t go anywhere; and so on. Focus on showing up, not on time spent or on results.

So far, it’s been going well. It turns out that just making myself show up is sometimes enough to find motivation I didn’t know I had. (Writing this post is a result of that!) My hope is that it’ll help me find a better balance between productivity and self-care when the old balance was no longer working.