Habit of Mastery

Sometimes the one thing that we should be doing is masked by negative habits. How do we determine the right thing to focus on and create the ability to habituate this behavior?

Creating Clarity

Here I am once again, it’s the 11th hour and another commitment has forced it way to the top of my priority list. It’s the writing of this article and I have a day to start, edit, and finish. While I have known about this since I committed to writing it over five months ago, this like many things I have committed to doing over that time frame has been living on my proverbial personal backlog. I have had many ideas about what to write but never could settle on that one topic. As I am up against the deadline, I finally have to decide on the topic and get to writing. This has been a habit of mine since grade school, wait until the last possible moment and under constraint or time, I start, take action, and finish. One of my favorite quotes stands at the forefront of my mind:

“Action Creates Clarity”

— Peter Sheahan [She09]

I began by reviewing some articles and books at the top of my reading and re-reading list. I gravitated to Gary Keller’s recent business book, The One Thing, which stood out and grabbed my attention. Thumbing through it, I found myself reflecting on the premise. At the onset of Chapter One, Gary repainted a scene from the movie City Slickers, where Curly and Mitch connected over a conversation.




Curly: Do you know what the secret of life is? Mitch: No. What?

Curly: This. [He holds up one finger.]

Mitch: Your finger?

Curly: One thing. Just one thing. You stick to that and everything else don’t mean sh*t.

Mitch: That’s great, but what’s the “one thing”? Curly: That’s what you’ve got to figure out.

Through that illustration Gary brings readers through a discovery of the power of questions and defines a critical question that helps you identify your One Thing. He calls this the Focusing Question, and it simply asks, “What’s the ONE Thing I can do such that by doing it everything else will be easier or unnecessary?” The beauty of this question is its simplicity, while the power of the question lies within how it’s answered. Why? Because when answered it changes your perception and view point.

Even with this question at the forefront of my mind, writing the article still weighs heavily on my mind and time keeps slipping away. I start asking myself a flurry of questions:

  • How did I get to this point?
  • How could I have prevented this fire drill? What else am I not doing?
  • Who else am I disappointing?
  • What am I going to write about?

Realizing all these questions were not getting me anywhere, I stopped and asked myself the Focusing Question. After searching for an answer, one finally comes to me. The One Thing that I can do such that by doing it everything else will become easier or unnecessary.

At some point, we all suffer from this feeling of being overwhelmed and over- committed. The challenge is that the real solution to reducing this dread is rarely how we naturally attack the problem. Our natural inclination is to work faster, harder, and longer. However, the more things we complete, the more things that seem to get added to the list, and we enter the vicious cycle of un-sustainable over-commitment. So instead of fueling the fire, the answer, My Answer, is to create a Habit of Workflow Mastery. With clarity on my One Thing, I intend use this article to distill how to take new single actions which require mastery and tranform them into a habit and eventually mastery. My single action is workflow; yours may be something different.

Understanding Workflow

When I think of workflow, I think of David Allen, author and creator of Getting Things Done (GTD). When David Allen published this book on personal productivity, he reshaped the way many knowledge workers viewed workflow. I am a huge fan of the GTD method, such that I have bought 4 copies of the book, one each time to signify a personal commitment to adopting the method. As I realized I must adopt this workflow method yet again, I began revisiting how David defines workflow. In GTD, he outlined the following Five Phases of Workflow Mastery[All02]:

  1. Collect
  2. Process
  3. Organize
  4. Review
  5. Do

The first step to creating the Habit of Workflow Mastery is to gain, or regain in my case, an understanding of GTD workflow before I begin to adopt this workflow. This workflow requires one to stop and get all these “things” that are garnering their time and attention into a well formed list. And not just any old list, but one that is a system that you can trust to collect, process, organize, review and take action on.

Before I set off on my 5th attempt at GTD and buy yet another copy of “Getting Things Done”, I pause to ponder the fact that I have yet to successfully adopt the method for longer than a few days or weeks. Why am I such a fan but still unable to adopt the method? If I am being honest, it’s because I never truly committed to the GTD workflow beyond the initial pass through the five phases. During previous attempts to adopt GTD, I would collect everything that was currently in my mind, in my notes, in my email, and anywhere else I could find it. There was such a rush of energy each time I completed the process. As I got everything out of my mind, notes, and email, and into a trusted system as part of the initial pass through the five workflow phases, I would feel as though the proverbial monkey was off of my back. The next day, however, is where it all slowly started falling apart. Another request would come in, or I’d make a verbal commitment to a colleague as I had always done. Slowly but surely I would build up a set of commitments that were not collected in my trusted system. Within a matter of days I would end up back to the state in which I started. I was never able to establish the habit of GTD because I failed to collect my commitments on a regular basis. The Collect Phase is what ultimately leads to the creation of a truly trusted system. Even though I went though the workflow once and felt exhilarated, I neglected to repeat the workflow on a consistent and continual basis. Simply doing a process once does not mean you are the master of it. True mastery starts with commitment that is followed up with the discipline, practice, and patience that ultimately form habits.

Creating Habits

I am still left with the need to master the workflow process of GTD. Just doing GTD for a 5th time isn’t enough. I need to create the habit of the GTD Workflow that will ultimately lead me on a path of Workflow Mastery. In a later book, Ready for Anything, David Allen describes Principle 9: If it’s on your mind, it’s not getting done. Principle 9 reads as follows:

Something will “bug” you until you’ve clarified your intention about it (outcome), decided how to move on it (next action), and put reminders of the outcome and action in places your mind trusts that you’ll see as often as you need to and at the right time. Those are also the behaviors that ensure things get done— defining what “done” means, deciding what “doing” looks like, and installing the results of that thinking into a structure that most easily promotes implementation.

— David Allen [All04]

What stands out in this description of both the need and process of GTD is “installing the results of that thinking into a structure.” This suggests that this way of thinking should be built into a system such that it becomes more natural and automatic. I am that system and the only way to make that thinking natural and automatic is to create a habit. I need to create the habit of the GTD Workflow that will ultimately lead me on a path of Workflow Mastery.

Forming Habits

Habit creation is an interesting endeavor. The beauty of habit creation is that we are creatures of habit, and once we have a habit in place our behavior goes on autopilot. The challenge comes in creating habits that are opposite of existing habits, such as new diets, new exercise routines, or new work processes. Large amounts of research in animals has shown that neural pathways begin to harden after repeating the same behavior for 21 days. These studies uncovered that habit formation is a re-wiring of the brain on a fundamental level. It is moving new behaviors from a place of conscious deliberate thought to unconscious and automatic behaviors. The rule of thumb that it takes 21 days to build a habit has become common in self help and how-to books. This has led to the rise of hundreds of book titles from Teach Yourself Java in 21 Days to Learn to Play Guitar in 21 Days. Additional studies at the University College of London showed that in humans the point at which a new habit or behavior becomes automatic ranges from 18 to 254 days, with the average being about 66 days (as shown in Figure 1 [Kel13]).



Figure 1: Discipline of Habit Formation
Easier habits tend to become automatic more quickly. Habits will take both time and discipline. The discipline required to adopt is inversely proportional to the length of time the habit has been practiced or exercised. This requires commitment to both start and maintain the discipline continually. The point at which the habit is adopted can only be determined in hindsight, so discipline must be continued past the day of habit formation. Unfortunately 21 days or 66 days is no guarantee especially with fundamental habit changes as these are not often the easier habits. Furthermore, one must adopt one habit at a time, and build on them over time. Attempting to build multiple habits will decrease or eliminate the changes of formation.

Accountability & Time

Just saying one wants to adopt a new habit isn’t enough. Just saying it and intending to practice isn’t enough. Two other key ingredients are necessary to increase the likelihood of habit formation: accountability and time. Accountability comes in many forms. Verbal commitment is one form of accountability but weak. As we hold verbal commitments only in our head, they are subject to conflicts and loss. We must move beyond verbal commitments to stronger commitments. Writing down a commitment strengthens the accountability and greatly increases the chances of success. Individuals' with written goals are 39.5% more likely to result in success [Kel13]. Reflecting on those commitments or goals is another great way to strength and reinforce accountability. Individuals with written goals and weekly accountability increase their chances for success to 76.7% [Kel13]. Allowing time to practice or adopt the new habit is crucial. Any new habit will take some amount of time. Beyond adoption, time to reflect on the new habits and form the weekly accountability needs to be scheduled. This ensures both practice and reflection occur on a consistent basis and avoids a reversion back to day one of habit formation.

Next Steps

Let the experiment begin! It is about a month until I need to complete my next article, which will explore moving from habits to mastery. That is a bit more than the minimal 18-21 days to begin developing my new habit of collection. In the mean time, I will instill the behavior of practicing the GTD workflow by committing to goal, scheduling time each day to practice, and reflecting weekly on my commitment to increase the chances of adoption. After this month, this habit should be be closer to automatic or quickly becoming an ingrained behavior. In the next article in this series, I will look at how I continue to move my workflow from habit to mastery. We’ll also look more powerfully at how to develop the continual Habit of Mastery on your One Thing(s).


[All02] Allen, David. Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity. Penguin Books, 2002.

[All04] Allen, David. Ready for Anything: 52 Productivity Principles for Getting Things Done. Penguin Books, 2004.

[Kel13] Keller, Gary & Papasan, Jay. The ONE Thing: The Surprisingly Simple Truth Behind Extraordinary Results. Bard Press, 2013.

[She04] Sheahan, Peter. Flip: How to Turn Everything You Know on Its Head— and Succeed Beyond Your Wildest Imaginings. William Morrow Paperbacks, 2009.