The 24-Hour Trap: Rethinking Daily Habits

Time management, when parceled into daily routines, quickly starts to feel like Groundhog Day—if you even stick to it. Life's more spontaneous than that; here's how to meet goals without the word "daily."

Rituals and habits are hot topics in productivity circles these days, for good reason.

What you do as you manage your daily life matters a great deal. A simple choice to grab a piece of fruit with your coffee in the morning turns you into a person who eats a healthy breakfast. If you get up and write five pages every weekday morning, you will have a manuscript in a few months.

But that last description of frequency—"every weekday morning"—contains an insight that suggests there’s a problem with how we sometimes think about time. Even people with so-called "daily" rituals don’t always do the same things on weekends. They do these rituals Monday through Friday, and as I study people’s schedules, I find many veer from the usual routines on Fridays, too. These so-called "daily" habits actually happen only four to five times a week.

Why does that matter? This insight is good news for those of us whose days can’t always look the same, but who still want to build sources of joy or meaning into our lives. We live in weeks, not days. Rather than succumbing to the "24-hour trap"—the belief that something has to happen daily on weekdays in order to be part of our lives—we can look at all seven days, and find space for things more often than not.

Take exercise for example: Many people would like to exercise more. But then they tell themselves "I’m not the kind of person who can just leave for an hour at lunch each day to go work out." Or "I just can’t stomach getting up at 5:30 a.m. every morning to exercise."

This is the 24-hour trap. But if you can’t leave at lunch every day, here’s a different idea. Just one day a week, pack a lunch and comfortable shoes and go for a walk during the time you’d normally hit the deli. Then, one morning per week—just one!—wake up early and use the treadmill gathering dust in your basement. Add in a run around the fields where your kid plays soccer on Saturday, and maybe another run sometime Sunday evening while the rest of the family is watching TV and suddenly you’re exercising four times per week.

It’s not the same time Monday through Thursday, but it doesn’t have to be. Accumulated minutes still matter.

I’ve been trying to adopt the same philosophy when it comes to writing fiction. I’m never going to be Anthony Trollope, working on my novel for three hours each morning. But I block off 5:30-8:30 p.m. one night per week, and another hour some afternoon, and in those four hours I can crank out the 2,000 words per week I need to write to stay on track.

Daily rituals are great, but they are not the only way to make things happen. By being creative and looking at all 168 hours in a week, we can often find space for more things than we think. The 24-hour trap limits possibilities. Looking at 168 hours opens things up.

[Image: Flickr user Jon Candy]

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5 Comments

  • Joshua Nash

    Steer clear of the "deathmill" unless you live somewhere there is snow on the ground most of the time. Get outside to run. That's how it was designed to be done. I don't agree with the getting up at 5:30 AM to get things done. Not everyone is a morning person.

    Your idea that we should focus on the 168 hrs a week is good, but how about avoid hours altogether and simply focus on the tasks at hand, one at a time, setting deadlines for each. Putting yourself under pressure of completing 3 hours a day of writing will get exhausting very soon. That said, if your sights are set on working on or completing something that you love and are passionate about, set the goal and deadline, and go for it!

  • Ethan Glessich

    I agree in that when look at our goals through the lens of a week rather than a day, we see different solutions--but in essence I think it all comes back to the same core--some habits are productive, others are not. They can be daily habits, weekly habits, monthly, quarterly, yearly or beyond. For some people a daily exercise routine makes sense, for others a weekly approach fits. I believe the "most" important thing is to identify the desired habit and then find a way (and timing) that works best for you.

  • I've been loving your topics recently - this is certainly a new perspective on this topic - but still containing a 'let go' attitude that is likely very critical to success. A rare accomplishment right now, since many I know are interested in productivity.

  • Great article Laura, and so true; so many people see the '24 hours' as a trap, when you really should see the entire week as the bigger picture. I try to do this with my week, and I find that I fit in a lot more because of it!