A New Approach to Habits
Episode #1 of the course Multihabit: A radical new approach to habit-tracking by John Robin
Welcome to the course!
Over the next 10 days, you’re going to learn a system to track multiple habits. This first lesson will teach you how to define your first habit, then each subsequent lesson will teach you how to add one more habit, defined in a similar manner.
Meet the teacher:
My name is John Robin. You likely know me well by now, since I have written nineteen Highbrow courses on topics ranging from science, math, health, fitness, wellness, meditation, longevity, conversations—the list goes on! If you took every one of my courses, your inbox would be full of daily email nuggets of wisdom for half a year.
I could keep writing these courses on many interesting topics, but my true passion is habits, productivity, and lifestyle tips. I am so passionate about this topic that not only do I manage a spreadsheet devoted to helping others use my system, I am also in the process of turning this into an app for iOS, Android, and web. If you enjoy this course and want to stay up to date, be sure to subscribe to my weekly habit tips newsletter at multihabit.com.
Let’s dive into our first lesson with a question:
What is a habit, anyway?
A Radical New Approach to Habit-Tracking
Your days are filled with habits. Some are small, like brushing your teeth. Some are big, like perhaps the hour you might spend reading a book each morning.
Some habits are difficult, like exercise. Others are easy, like playing video games.
Most people, when they think of habits, think of a list of to-dos, like brushing your teeth, getting in a workout—in other words, checking off a box that says you did it, rather than tracking the time spent on that habit.
Our radical new approach to habits involves tracking the time we spend on specially-defined habits, rather than just ticking off a box.
With this time-tracking mindset and the system taught in this course, we will learn how to develop a habit-only orientation.
In the lessons to come, we are going to learn how to atomize our days by using count-up timers to track the time we spend on a specific class of habits: type-based habits with a focus mode.
Let me unpack that:
• A type-based habit can be thought of as an umbrella habit containing related habits. For instance, a “hygiene” habit can contain smaller related habits like “brush teeth” and “shower”.
• A focus mode defines a core intention that can be prolonged for a significant period of focus. For instance, when putting time in on “hygiene” you are invoking a focus mode around the core intention: doing things to maintain a healthy body, home, and mind.
Because of how we are redefining habits, absolutely anything can be covered in the umbrella of one of our habits. It might not seem like it now, but you will see by the end of this course how to carefully map out all your habits in this way and track as much of the day as you want.
Single-Pointed Attention: A Foundation Principle
It’s tempting to just leave the day open and hope that somehow, with a big to-do list, and lots of ambition, you’ll get everything done.
What happens more often, though, is you’ll have Slack or Twitter or email or games or other distractions open in several tabs and you’ll find that, for all the hours in a day, you make little progress and feel like you just shuffle around meaninglessly.
The key to breaking free of this is to break your day into distinct habits, as defined above, then treat the time you spend on each one like a meditation session.
In case you aren’t familiar with meditation, the drill goes like this: Focus on your breath. Any time your attention wanders, notice that, then return it to your breath.
The breath is called an object of directed awareness. But that object can be other things. For example, your single most important habit.
I am writing this course right now and treating “writing” like an object of directed awareness. There are no other windows or tabs open on my computer, and there are no other distractions around.
You can think of this as a much more practical application of meditation!
Introducing Joe, Mary, and Rod
Time to meet Joe, Mary, and Rod. And there’s me, of course,—John. We all have shared the same spreadsheet and learned from each other as we discovered our core habits. Throughout this course, you can follow our progress.
Joe is a pianist. When I told him to pick his one most important habit, he called it “practice”.
Mary, a retired school teacher, picked “exercise” as her habit because she wanted to stay on top of her fitness and monitor how much she does in a day.
Rod, a full-time manager who runs a startup publishing company on off-hours, picked “production” to cover all the time he wants to put in on his company.
As I just mentioned, since I’m a writer and editor, I picked “writing” as my most important habit, to cover the time I spend working on a manuscript, be it my own or someone else’s.
All of us have different starting points, but we are all the same in one regard: Not only did we pick a type-based habit with a focus mode, we picked the habit that seemed most important to us at the start.
For your first habit, do the same.
Some examples of single-pointed attention from our group:
Mary hated exercise because it was so difficult to start. She struggled for a while with the dreaded step of hitting “start” on the timer, but every time she persevered and did it, she found, as soon as she saw the seconds counting up, her attention shifted and she was motivated to go to her home gym in the basement and get her exercise done.
Rod used to simply multitask and deal with to-do items as they came up. But he soon found that having his “production” timer created a sense of deeper focus. When that timer was on, he focused on only the things that moved his business forward, and, with the exception of critical messaging relating to a project, he banished all distractions.
This is the power of single-pointed attention. When you are working on a given habit, you pin down on it and learn to cut out anything that is not that habit.
How Long Should You Spend on Your Habit?
It could be 7 minutes. It could be 2. It could be 23.
It doesn’t matter. What matters most is you have a count-up timer, ideally formatted MM:SS, and you train yourself to hit that timer and then immerse in your habit like a meditation. Go as long as you want.
Take a break when you need to. When you do, hit “pause”. Resume the timer after your break.
Once a day, you’ll enter your total minutes into a spreadsheet. This spreadsheet, alongside your timers, is going to be the true engine of this Multihabit system.
Stay tuned for tomorrow, when we will explore the next step—tracking 2 habits.
Your first spreadsheet
Tracking 1 Habit • 4 Weeks • Group of 4 (See first tab for instructions)
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