Three Days a Week is still a Habit

Lesson from Tranquility by Tuesday

Things don’t have to happen daily—nor do they have to happen at the same time every day—in order to count in our lives. I maintain that anything that happens three times a week counts as happening regularly.

This is the advice Laura Vanderkam gives in her book, Tranquility by Tuesday. The idea behind this advice is that many times, we start out with some thing and then make it a heavy lift, by hoping that we are going to do it daily. These activities can include exercising, journaling, eating healthy or anything else that one might be trying to develop in their life. The idea seems good in theory, and it can also work well for a few days, but then something or the other happens and then we miss it one day, then two days and before we realize it, we are not doing it anymore.

I have had multiple experiences like this. In one of them, I had found out that my university offered free subscription to Rosetta Stone which is an app to learn different languages. Since it was free to me, I obviously had to make use of it. I got excited and downloaded the app, browsing all the different languages that I could learn. It had multiple languages including Spanish. Of course, I checked out Hindi too, to see how they were teaching it. Anyway, my ambitious nature of planning process took over and I thought I’d start off with Spanish and then once I am done with it, I’ll move on to some of the other languages. My plan was ready to launch. Each night, before going to bed, I’ll complete one lesson. Simple enough, I thought. It went great for 10 days and since then, it’s been close to four years and I haven’t opened the app since then.

Looking back, there were at least two problems with my meticulous plan. One, the timing was not the best. This was the fifth year of my PhD, so things were going to come up. Second, as Laura would say, I had set up a very high bar of doing the lesson daily. She would suggest that instead, it would have been better if I had aimed for three days a week and tried to adjust them into my schedule. But, due to me making it a heavy lift, Spanish (and the other following languages I was going to learn) never happened.

I think there are at least three ways why this mindset shift of considering “three days a week a habit” can work:

  • Easier to accommodate: James Clear, in his book, Atomic Habits, talks at length about developing and maintaining habits. One of the principles he talks about it is the we should “Make things easy”. It is easier to make time for something for three days a week as compared to daily or five times a week, especially when starting out. Suppose I want to get into the habit of cooking more regularly and given dinner time, suppose I identify a given hour in the evening that would work best. But I also know that I won’t be available during this hour every day because my schedule doesn’t allow for it on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays. Here, it’s easy for perfectionism to take over and drop the idea altogether. But if I take Laura’s advice and instead focus on three days, that seems possible. I can do it on Mondays and Wednesdays. If I can make one of Saturday or Sunday work, I have completed my three days.
  • It’s easier to strive when goals seem achievable: When the goal is within reach, it’s easier to gather the energy to push a little more. In contrast, if the destination seems quite far away, then it can be challenging to gather the motivation required. To use another example from grad school, if I had graded say 75 out of 100 problem sets and the time was 10 pm, I could muster the energy to finish the rest as well, but say, I had 25 problem sets to grade, 2 problem sets of my own to complete plus a research proposal to write (true situation during second year of PhD), things seemed so out of reach that it was just easier to spend an hour watching funny Instagram reels rather than do any of the work. Laura also writes this in her book that when we are already doing something once a week, it’s relatively easier to accommodate a couple more times in your schedule and we can feel motivated to do it as well as compared to achieving the more challenging goal of doing it daily.
  • More likely to become part of our identity: Another aspect that James highlights in his book is about the role of identity. He says that our identity affects our habits and vice versa. By doing something only once in a while, it’s hard for that thing to become part of our identity. For example, suppose someone who runs only once in a while is unlikely to say that they run regularly. But with doing three days a week, it is much more likely to become part of our identity. Someone who runs three times a week thus is likely to say that they do run regularly. Here, James’ point is that someone who consider themselves to be regular runners are also more likely to keep maintaining their habit of running.,c_limit,f_auto,q_auto:good,fl_progressive:steep/

If you are wondering why three days specifically, I am not sure there is a clear answer. However, it does seem right enough intuitively. She does say that many people who claim to do something ‘regularly’ count their routine Monday-Friday rather than seven days a week. Often Friday also doesn’t make it to the routine category. That puts us at four times a week. If the person skips holidays or vacations, the average over the long haul is probably a lot closer to three days a week than seven. Of course, she says it for most people. We all know people who are really passionate about what they do and they make time for things that they want to do daily. I have a friend who rarely misses her daily music practice. Even with a toddler, she has made it a part of her schedule, but Laura’s point is that such people are exceptions rather than the norms. In any case, for the rest of us, she writes that perfect doesn’t have to be the enemy of good.

I’d love to hear what are some things that you struggle to do daily but should be able to manage three days a week. For me, I know that the next time I go back to Rosetta Stone, I will aim for only three days a week :)