Out of Habit(s)

On Saturday, April 30, 2005, I packed the material contents of my life into the back of a U-Haul van and pointed it south towards Manhattan, driving it from my former upstate existence and down the length of 2nd Avenue until Midtown, where I set up camp for the next phase of my life.

Last month I finally completed the journey, packing a still larger U-Haul, again pointing it south, and piloting it along the remainder of 2nd Avenue and out across the Manhattan Bridge. After five years of living and working as a Manhattanite, I’d finally ceded to the siren call of Brooklyn. This latest move, as was the case the last time around, was as much about comfortable living as it was seizing an opportunity to completely reevaluate my daily routines and creative process.

Habits can be very useful things. They allow you to turn down the noise of daily life and focus on important tasks at hand. Imagine if every day your job competed with the mental clamor of deciding what brand of toothpaste to stick in your mouth, how to sit most comfortably in your chair, or what kind of pen you find draws a line most satisfyingly. (For some people this is indeed the case, which is a distinct brand of disorder unto itself.) That’s why we tend to obsess over systems, routines, and structures—all habits by another name. Reliable pieces of routine that speed the day, and hopefully success, on its way.

But left untended, habits grow into a tyranny all their own, byzantine and neurotic. The tale wags the dog when you can’t honestly answer the question of why you’re doing something a certain way over and over again without due consideration. Even if the answer is simply, “I don’t know.” Without consciously taking time to honestly reevaluate your routine on a regular basis and disposing of bits that have outlived their usefulness, you risk submitting to it slavishly and unwittingly. And there exists few faster routes to creative bankruptcy and, ultimately, exhaustion.

It strikes me as particularly acute in the Web Design and User Experience communities that the trendy codified system of the moment is a frequent stand-in for this sort of honest introspection. The “life hacking” equivalent of fad diets, they show us how to shuffle the papers, but they don’t address why, leaving most folks unsatisfied and moving on to the next trend in short order.

The most important thing isn’t the minutiae of process itself, but that you’re creating at all and doing so with a purpose. That purpose—that why—is the foundation, and often the most difficult part to discern. All the rest needs to be constructed in service to it, not the other way around. And regardless of what GTD tells you, there aren’t any shortcuts to getting to that most personal of knowledge. Take time out for yourself to discover the why, and you free yourself to be adventurous in habit and unbound from routine. Know what really gets you out of bed in the morning, and the rest comes easy.