Habits vs. Tasks

Whether you realize it or not, you’re full of habits that you hew to every single day. Your morning routine, bedtime ritual, and news consumption while commuting may all play out exactly the same each day. When something is so natural and comfortable it doesn’t need to be recorded and managed in your trusted system because you are the trusted system. Understanding how your mind and body separates habits with things you may categorize as tasks is important for your productivity and organization.



1. an acquired behavior pattern regularly followed until it has become almost involuntary.

A great example of a habit is your morning ritual. You’ll wake up and involuntarily hop out of bed, make the bed, brush your teeth, and do the rest of the things that you do every morning. The habit is so recurring that it has taken your body over and handles all the thinking and execution for you.


task, tahsk

1. a definite piece of work assigned to, falling to, or expected of a person; duty.

As we’ve discussed, a task is a single action that has to get done. Your morning ritual habit is technically comprised of multiple tasks. Breaking it down we can find a handful of specific items that have clear outcomes — but we don’t understand our habits as multiple tasks; they’re merely one big conglomerate known as, "the morning ritual".

Evolution: Task ⇨ Habit

There will come a point when you get so involved with your trusted task manager that you record everything that has to get done. You may find yourself scheduling and setting deadlines for things like sleeping, eating dinner, and commuting. It’s okay to keep track of all the things you’re doing and going to do but when there’s a more efficient and effective method it’s your duty to optimize the system.

When you notice things are going into the task manager grouped together and always at the same time and/or place, it may be a sign to form a habit. It’s redundant and time-consuming to check off, "shred documents before leaving the office" or, "brush teeth before bed" ever single day. Managing the actual task of shredding and brushing your teeth is going to accumulate to a significant chunk of time that could’ve been avoided if you formed habits that took care of these things on auto-pilot.

This is different from a recurring task like, "add hours and email invoice" that has to be done every 14 days. No one is expected to habitually take care of something that infrequent and so easily forgettable. However, some habits for me may be definite daily or weekly reminders for you. Many people need a bound weekly task that forces them to review their task manager when I take care of that completely on my own.

Single-Step & Multi-Faceted Habits

Not all tasks are created equal — as we’ve discussed, many times a task will turn into a project. This is not a problem and in fact easier to understand, if slightly more difficult to maintain, than if we weren’t looking at a project. Although projects look more complex, they’re easier to execute because of the well-defined steps. This translates well to habits because there are almost always multiple steps that have to be executed.

Habitual projects are summed up as routines:

  1. Arrive at the office
  2. Greet Debbie, the secretary
  3. Start brewing your fancy imported coffee
  4. Check the office bulletin for any new updates
  5. Fire up your computer and email
  6. Begin the day

Easily a 5 – 20-minute process was all understood and executed without a single reference to the task manager.

Notice that checking email isn’t included in the systematized project. Checking your email and inevitably responding to and creating action items for emails is a genuine task by itself and may require a scheduled block of time. Although maintaining email seems like a habit and may very well be, the time it takes is too variable to rely on. Even habits that are so significant should be managed unless you want to find yourself at lunchtime asking where the day went, how you missed that 11 am-deadline, and why you’re still responding to email.

Habits that last longer than 20-40 minutes aren’t habits; they’re unmanaged blocks of tasks that rely on your mind going into auto-pilot. It may sound luxurious to be free of thought for half the day while you’re taking care of some of these tasks, but this is exactly how things fall through the cracks

Commuting, for example, requires you to be in commute mode. If you’re driving to the office you’re in driving to work mode, more specifically. You don’t understand your commute as a set of different turn-by-turn instructions — each as its own unique task on your task manager. You understand it as one habitual drive.

There may be situations where there are so many things that have to be done a habit is just impossible. If your morning routine lasts two hours and involves communicating with people, obtaining certain items, and more, a checklist may be in order. It’s going to be an interesting divide between habits, checklists, projects, and actions, but there’s no one-size-fits-all solution and every person will require unique methodologies.

2 thoughts on “Habits vs. Tasks”

  1. Pingback: Which Mode are You In | And How To Be Productive In It - Nick Calabro

  2. Pingback: The Tickler File | Snooze Tasks and be Reminded - Nick Calabro

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