How to build enduring habits

Think about the last time you felt seriously unproductive.

Not the casual “I feel like going to the beach and taking a day off”, but the “I don’t want to get out of bed and reply to dreaded e-mails” kind of unproductive.

Now, let me ask: Did you brush your teeth?

If you said “yes”, then you’ve experienced the remarkable resilience of ingrained habits. However stressful or depressed we may feel, they stubbornly keep us going. Like building relational redundancy, enduring habits are an effective way to stay productive in times of distress.

So how do you build a habit that lasts?

In this post, I want to use the prayer app Ceaseless as a case study for habit formation. For deeper insight, check out books like The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do In Life and Business (affiliate link) and Transform Your Habits: The Science of How to Stick to Good Habits and Break Bad Ones.

Case Study: Ceaseless Prayer

In one of his letters, the Apostle Paul writes, “Rejoice always, pray continually, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.” (1 Thess 5:16 NIV). While there are several ways to interpret this verse in context, all of those ways include the notion of habitual prayer.

And therein lies a unique problem.

Despite the best of intentions, I know many Christians who struggle with prayer. Jesus characterized the problem as intrinsic to human nature with the famous words: “The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak.” (Mark 14:38b NIV)

Can we apply science and technology to these spiritual problems?

I believe the answer is yes. Humans are both physical and spiritual beings. This overlap is precisely where technology can make a difference.

One common insight from the science of habit formation is the habit loop, a virtuous cycle characterized by Reminder, Routine and Reward.

Ceaseless helps people “pray continually” by nudging each part of this cycle forward.

Step 1: Reminder – Daily Notifications

Ceaseless prayer reminderThe first step to build a new habit is to connect it to an existing one.

Ceaseless does so by showing a daily reminder in your smartphone’s notifications. Since you’re already in the habit of checking and acting on your notifications, you’ll also remember to pray for others. Tapping on the notification opens the app.

Step 2: Routine – Praying for Others

Ceaseless pray for a friendKeep the habit simple.

When you open the app you see a person’s face, name and story (notes you’ve written to help you remember how to pray for them). Note: the very first screen is an inspiring picture and Scripture to help you focus.

You see everything you need and nothing distracting. The app has chosen three people from your contacts and all you do is take a moment to pray for each of them.

Step 3: Reward – See your Progress

Ceaseless prayer progress

Feel rewarded for completing the habit.

After you swipe through the people to pray for, you get a short-term reward: a progress bar shows how many people you’ve prayed for so far. You also see the number of days you’ve prayed for others.

The long-term reward is of course the joy of loving others and watching God graciously respond to your prayers for their lives.

The Result: A Habit is Born

After using Ceaseless for over a year, my prayer life has never been more consistent. I’ve been through some very difficult ongoing trials and to my surprise God has used the app to keep me from drowning in the seas of self-pity and despair. The daily nudge God-ward and out-ward to others has helped me press on in my calling.

For Christians: God has not left us powerless. While our flesh may be weak, we have been given the Spirit. Effective habit formation does not undermine grace, but is a good use of the grace God has already given us in order to obey Him.


Here are some ideas you can apply to your habit-formation endeavors:

  1. What existing habits can you use to start new ones?
  2. How can you simplify the habitual action so that it becomes sustainable?
  3. What short-term reward can keep you motivated until you start enjoying the long-term benefits?

There remains of course one important set of questions lurking in the background:

  • What habits are worth adopting?
  • What am I being productive for?
  • What’s the point?

These are the questions I plan on exploring in my next post.


How to stay productive in times of distress.

While getting my inbox to zero, I noticed a pattern in the messages I failed to reply to. Most were dated around seasons of emotional distress. The pressures of life had drained my capacity to respond to even the simplest messages.

So I had to ask: How do you stick to your productivity process in seasons of distress? How do you keep your momentum and commitments when you feel down?

Most techniques I’ve tried fail this test because I inevitably encounter a difficult trial that throws me in the gutter, which ironically seems to be what productivity is supposed to be about (bringing meaningful order to the chaos of life).

I’ve written before about 3 steps for getting things done and my next post is going to be about building enduring habits. This post is about one way to sustain productivity in seasons of distress.


There is a term in IT called uptime or availability. It refers to the amount of time a service is available in a year, typically expressed as the number of “nines” in the percentage.

For example, Amazon’s storage service S3 promises four “nines” (99.99%) of availability, meaning that for a full 365 days it will only be down for ~53 minutes. Since physical hardware fails all the time, S3 achieves high availability through redundancy–putting your files in multiple places around the world so that if anything goes wrong in one place you can seamlessly get it from elsewhere.

The idea of achieving high availability despite unreliable components is actually an ancient practice, observed by the author of Ecclesiastes:

Two are better than one,
    because they have a good return for their labor:
10 If either of them falls down,
    one can help the other up.
But pity anyone who falls
    and has no one to help them up.
11 Also, if two lie down together, they will keep warm.
    But how can one keep warm alone?
12 Though one may be overpowered,
    two can defend themselves.
A cord of three strands is not quickly broken.
(Ecclesiastes 4:9-12 NIV)

We see this wisdom applied in many spheres of life: pilots fly with co-pilots, climbers go with spotters, soldiers train with buddies, businesses are started by co-founders, etc.  What if we apply it to personal productivity?

Individual ≠ Personal productivity.

When a relationship fails, a deal goes bad, you get sick, your car breaks down or someone lets you down, your individual productivity will inevitably suffer, but this doesn’t mean your personal mission has to go offline. You can ask for help! (cliche, but insightful right?! 🙂 )

Going it alone is dangerous NOT because you aren’t capable, but because you can lose your capability at any time.

Elaborating on the IT/web services metaphor:

When you visit a website you’re likely connecting to a load-balancer designed to handle tens of thousands of concurrent connections for the entire site. What happens if the load balancer goes down? Many companies use hot failover (redundancy!) where another machine is on stand-by, ready to take over if the main one dies.

These two load balancers share a “heart beat”, saying to each other every few seconds, “I’m alive!” The moment one fails to respond, the other takes over (this is admittedly an oversimplification).

People aren’t machines, but preparing backup relationships for specific tasks is one powerful way to sustain productivity in times of distress.

Who can be your “hot failover,” bearing the load of your most important tasks when you’re down? Who can help you up and carry things forward when you cannot?

Different parts of life will require different people.

If you’re married, your spouse will be a natural “hot failover” in fulfilling your family’s responsibilities. If it’s a business goal, you may turn to your partners or a mastermind group. If it’s an athletic goal, you have your teammates. Just be intentional.

You don’t have to share your entire life with each person forever. Whoever you choose needs to simply agree to cover for you in that specific part of your life. Just make sure that you’re ready to be there for others too.

Application Ideas

  1. Failover: Go through your list of tasks. For each critical task ask someone you trust to help you in case you falter.
  2. Heartbeat: Add a recurring event on your calendar to message each other confirming your ability/inability to complete the task(s) until it is finished.
  3. Queue (optional): If you’re actually working together (not just being a backup), create a shared to-do list where both of you can add new sub-tasks and remove completed ones.

Building redundancy into your life requires time, attention and relational investment, but IT’s WORTH IT if your purpose is bigger than yourself.

My next post will be about a second way to sustain productivity in down times: Building Enduring Habits.

As always I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments below.


Achievement Unlocked: Zero Inbox…and You Can Too!

I recently reached my long desired goal of an empty inbox. That’s right, I went from over 2,000 messages to this:

Reaching 0 inbox in GMail Mobile

Why thank you Gmail Sunshine Face, I think I will enjoy my day! 🙂

It wasn’t easy, but it was worth it.

Aside from cleaning up the visual & mental clutter of a crowded inbox, this exercise helped me:

  1. Feel organized and on top of things for the first time in 3 years.
  2. Feel grateful for the relationships and events that happened in those years.
  3. Reconnect with old friends and acquaintances.
  4. Discover my deeper problem with sticking to any productivity system.

I think I’ve found my productive alternative to Pokemon Go: “Gotta clear ’em all”

Here’s how I did it and how you can too (just take 5 minutes to try out each step once as you’re reading this).

Note: While writing this post, I found out that the original Inbox Zero concept was created by Merlin Mann and presented at Google in 2007 in this talk.

The Goal

I use GMail, which has a helpful email counter that served as my scoreboard. The goal is to make it disappear (get it to zero).inbox-scoreboard

Note: I use keyboard shortcuts for GMail which you can enable by clicking on the Gear icon => Settings. Select the “Keyboard shortcuts on” option under the “General” tab. You can also just use your mouse 🙂


Triaging Messages

Step 1: Bulk purge.

Delete all those old mailing list updates, promotional e-mails and other irrelevant messages that have been building up.

If you enable keyboard shortcuts, you can use ‘k’ and ‘j’ to go up/down your messages and ‘x’ to select the ones you want to delete. Then press ‘#’ to delete. This will save your hand & wrist some mouse pain.

Step 2: Label and archive.

After skimming through your messages, you may notice some patterns emerging. Create a label to group content that you don’t need to take action on (e.g. messages you want to save for history or nostalgia), label those messages and archive them.

Shortcut: Select a message(s), press ‘l’ to open the label menu, start typing the name of the label and press ‘enter’ (or “Create new” if it doesn’t exist yet). Then press ‘e’ to archive.

Step 3: Reply and archive.

Reply to any conversation you can push forward or resolve with a quick message. Then archive it (in case you didn’t know, the conversation comes back to your inbox when someone replies to you).

If you go to settings, there is a “Send and Archive” button you can enable that makes this one-click.

BIG WIN ====> Step 4: Create Tasks, link to the conversation(s) and archive.

Your inbox is probably crowded with messages that remind you of things you need to do. Why not use a tool designed for the job like a to-do list instead?

Go to your to-do list. Create a task for the message, then copy and paste a link to the email in the description (since Gmail doesn’t have a “share” button for the message, just copy the url in the address bar to get the link).

Here is an example task I created for Ceaseless with links to the relevant messages in the description:

This message-to-task conversion lets you:

  1. Write a better title than the e-mail subject line so you know what really needs to be accomplished.
  2. Remember the details for the task.
  3. Have a quick link to take the next step on the task (e.g. reply to the message after you’ve made a decision).
  4. Combine multiple related conversations under a single task.

Don’t forget to archive the message (shortcut: ‘e’) when you’re done.

Kudos to my friend Elijah Elkins for this tip (copying a link to the e-mail in the task description) and his recommendation of the Plan app, which I’m starting to use to actually block out time on my calendar to complete tasks in my list.

Step 5: Take notes and archive/delete.

If you subscribe to any e-mail newsletters, e-mail courses or mailing lists there are probably a lot of messages you wanted to carefully read, but never got around to. For example, I had about 20 unread messages from the community building site Feverbee waiting for me.


Open your note-taking app (I use Evernote) and work through those messages, writing down interesting insights along the way. If the e-mail is so substantial that it is worth saving, copy its link into the note and archive the e-mail. Otherwise, delete the message after you’ve gained the insight you wanted.

Step 6: Pick off the stragglers and enjoy!

After a few passes through your inbox doing steps 1-6 you’ll probably still have a couple of stragglers. Pick them off one by one and gleefully watch your inbox counter go down to zero.

The nice thing about these steps is that you can do them in any order and in multiple passes.

Maybe one weekend you do a purge while going for a walk in the park. Next you read and take notes on your backlog of learning e-mails and the following day you finish converting all outstanding e-mails into tasks.

All in all, it took me about 3 days of scattered time to knock my inbox down from ~2,000 to zero.

Now I’m greeted with this beautiful page (until tomorrow’s round of whack-an-e-mail begins…):

Reaching 0 inbox in GMail


Did these steps work for you? Share your experiences, struggles and tips with managing your inbox in the comments below!

Next I plan to write about “Why productivity systems (even the one I just described) don’t seem to work for long”.



3 Steps for Getting Things Done

Todo list in notebookI recently found these steps to be very practical however obvious they may seem at a glance. They are especially helpful when I feel stuck.

#1 Trust God Completely

Distractions are the enemy of productivity. But why do we accept distractions? Why do we seek them out? It’s because we’re anxious about other things. We worry about a relationship, about finances, about a promotion, about being good enough, about thirteen other responsibilities, etc.

Worry leads us to distractions because they seem more pleasant than doing the actual work or dealing with the anxiety.

Every care, desire, or worry must be given to God. He can take care of them. When those anxieties are out of the way, the distractions we use to medicate the pain go with them. Suddenly, we gain focus.

#2 Do the Work

You can’t escape doing the work. You may feel overwhelmed. You may not have everything figured out. That’s normal. Start with what you do know. What is one thing you can do to move things forward?

Do it and enjoy it!

Don’t wait until you have it all figured out. Just start doing and you will make progress. It doesn’t have to be perfect. Eventually you will have one less thing to do and things will feel better. So once you’ve found focus from #1, make the most of it by doing the work you know to do now.

#3 Pray and Give Thanks

Everything is grace. So take breaks and give thanks to God for helping you every step of the way. Give thanks for being able to enjoy your work.

All your future efforts and outcomes are also in God’s hands. Ask God to bless your plans and efforts. Ask God to reward the work of your hands.

And that’s it! This post is short because it’s simply meant to help you and me get a bias for action. Leave a comment if you’d like to share more thoughts on getting things done!


Therefore I tell you, do not be anxious about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, nor about your body, what you will put on…But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you. Therefore do not be anxious about tomorrow, for tomorrow will be anxious for itself. Sufficient for the day is its own trouble.

(Matthew 6:25a, 33-34 ESV)