Forming and maintaining habits using Orgmode.

In this post, I explain how to get up and running with Emacs Orgmode habits.

Even if you're not planning to use Emacs for this, it might be interesting context for the development of other ideas for habit tracking tricks and tools.

The importance of habits.

If you have some experience being, you know, alive, and perhaps even trying to get just that little bit better at it every day, you will have realised by now that being able to form and maintain good habits is almost a super power.

(Other real-life super powers: Kindness. Peace. Focus. I digress… haha.)

All of those promises we make to ourselves to read more, to eat better, to exercise more, to meditate regularly, and so on: The key to making all of these happen is forming and then maintaining habits.

First the habit has to be created out of nothing, and once it's up and running, the idea is to keep going at it for as long as possible.

Streaking, that is trying to continue for as long as possible without any interruption, is a fun and effective trick to keep at it.

However, it is just as important being able to restart a new streak once the previous one has been broken for whatever reason.

What the Orgmode habit tracker does.

Up to now, I mostly used daily checklists to keep track of healthy habits, but for some habits, especially ones with a non-daily frequency, this does not work so well.

A significant step up from daily checklists, the Emacs Orgmode habits function enables you:

  • to specify any number of habits, each with different, sometimes less regular frequencies;
  • to track when you perform a habit and when you should next perform it and finally
  • to visualize if you are performing according to the specifications you have set.

For example: I would like to run at least three times a week. There should be at least one rest day after a running day (I'm not a spring chicken anymore). There should be a maximum of three rest days allowed (this usually happens after a longer weekend run).

Although I enjoy running enough to keep this habit up by myself, I chose it as a first test of the Orgmode habits function.

So far I have setup two other simpler examples:

  • A core exercise which I call “The Wheel” (of pain). This has to happen every second day, usually in between running days.
  • “Deep reading”, which is meant to describe a session of focused reading of long-form, i.e. mostly books. This has to happen every day.

Before starting tracking of these latter two habits slightly more than a week ago, I somehow kept on letting them slip.

This morning, my org-agenda looked like this:

In the figure you can see that today, represented by the exclamation mark !, I will have to schedule in a session of deep reading (indicated by the yellow colouring), and a session of “the wheel”.

The running habit graph is showing that I still have three days, including today, on which I do not have to run.

By default it would not have displayed today, because I ran yesterday, as shown by the asterisk *, and I specified that minimum of one rest day. However, I temporarily configured it to show today for the sake of this exposition.

To summarise: These habit graphs show up as part of your org-agenda view and show you at a glance when you should perform which habits, and, quite importantly, how long you have been streaking a particular habit.

How to setup Orgmode habits.

Global configuration.

Firstly, ensure that the org-habit Orgmode extension is activated by adding the following to your init.el:

(add-to-list 'org-modules 'org-habit t)

Whilst your in your init.el, add something like the following to activate state logging for the task DONE state:

;; each state with ! is recorded as state change
;; in this case I'm logging TODO and DONE states
(setq org-todo-keywords
      '((sequence "TODO(t!)" "NEXT(n)" "SOMD(s)" "WAFO(w)" "|" "DONE(d!)" "CANC(c!)")))
;; I prefer to log TODO creation also
(setq org-treat-insert-todo-heading-as-state-change t)
;; log into LOGBOOK drawer
(setq org-log-into-drawer t)

Per-habit configuration.

Then, start creating the special habit nodes as explained in the following:

Below is what the “running” habit currently looks like in my current monthly journal file:

** TODO Running
SCHEDULED: <2019-11-03 Sun .+2d/4d>
:PROPERTIES:
:STYLE:    habit
:LAST_REPEAT: [2019-11-01 Wed 16:00]
:END:
:LOGBOOK:
- State "DONE"       from "TODO"       [2019-11-01 Wed 16:00]
- State "DONE"       from "TODO"       [2019-10-30 Wed 15:41]
- State "DONE"       from "TODO"       [2019-10-26 Sat 14:14]
- State "DONE"       from "TODO"       [2019-10-24 Thu 19:11]
- State "DONE"       from "TODO"       [2019-10-22 Tue 16:00]
- State "DONE"       from "TODO"       [2019-10-20 Sun 10:00]
- State "DONE"       from "TODO"       [2019-10-18 Fri 16:00]
- State "DONE"       from "TODO"       [2019-10-18 Fri 16:00]
- State "DONE"       from "TODO"       [2019-10-16 Wed 08:13]
- State "DONE"       from "TODO"       [2019-10-13 Sun 10:00]
- Created "TODO" [2019-10-23 Wed 09:53]
:END:

The orgmode habits documentation explains that a habit is a special sort of TODO node with the following additional properties, which can all be seen in the above example:

  • The node has a :STYLE: property of habit. Configure with =M-x org-set-property=.
  • The node has a SCHEDULED date in the future on the next date when this habit should take place, along with a frequency / time constraint specification, in this case .+2d/4d, meaning that at the most every second day, and at the least every fourth day.

Furthermore, with DONE state logging configured as explained above, you'll get the LOGBOOK with the required state changes used by the habit graphs.

In use.

Whenever you've completed a habit, fire up Emacs (I'm joking of course: Emacs is always running) and then toggle the state of the habit to DONE.

You'll see that it briefly toggles to DONE, and then automatically switches back to TODO.

(There's some philosophical lesson to be learned from that…)

When this happens, the :LAST_REPEAT: timestamp will be automatically updated to the current time, and, more importantly, the SCHEDULED date will be automatically updated to the next earliest date when this habit should be exercised.

In the case of the running example above, that will be tomorrow, as today is a rest day.

Whenever you activate org-agenda, you'll see the habit graphs right at the top, by default only on the days when they are actually scheduled. In the running example, that habit will not appear on rest days. (This can naturally be configured, see M-x describe-variable RET org-habit-show-all-today).

Conclusion.

  • Being able to forming and maintain habits can form an important component of better living.
  • Habit streaking is a fun psychological trick to keep you going.
  • However, don't be disheartened by a broken streak. Get back on that horse and try again.
  • Emacs Orgmode habit tracking is a great tool for Emacs users to help form and maintain habits, especially non-daily ones.

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