I’ve been thinking about habits lately. It mostly started when I would reflect or review on my weekly productivity output – or more specifically the lack of output – and realized that I tended to procrastinate a lot in fairly predictable ways. My behaviour of choice to avoid work is to allow myself just a small indulgence on YouTube in the morning before I get started on tasks for the day, and then I look up and it’s been hours.
It’s not that I’m unaware of the time passing me by. I fully accept that it’s a choice I’m making. It just so happens to also be a choice that is hard to make to stop yourself from continuing when the cost to switch to work is so high (objectively less enjoyable than watching a video).
Somewhat coincidentally, I just read BJ Fogg’s book Tiny Habits. I didn’t choose it with the explicit purpose of fixing my work productivity; it just happened to be a happy coincidence. I have read a fair number of the self-help books centering around habits. In 2016, I read Duhigg’s book The Power of Habit, Deep Work from Newport, and 7-Habits from Covey; in 2019 I read Atomic Habits from Clear, Mastery from Greene; and in 2021 was The Practice by Godin. At this point, I think I have a pretty good grasp on the common understanding of how behaviour works in the mind, at least as distilled by pop-psychology.
Having said that, I thought Fogg’s book was pretty good. It’s been a while since I read Duhigg and Clear’s books, but while I finished those books feeling like they laid out a decent explanation of a process for changing habits. I felt that Fogg covered the topics in greater depth with more actionable steps. On top of that, Duhigg is a journalist and Clear is a motivational/productivity writer, whereas Fogg is a behavioural scientist. It was super refreshing to have a book entirely based on his work. He avoided having an animated bibliography of summarizing all the work of other people and rehashing old ideas. The anecdotes he included were samples from his own students, which helped give context to the topics he covered.
Finishing this book (especially his section on replacing habits you want to discontinue) made me think of something Ali Abdaal discussed in a recent video on intentional defaults. A lot of my bad habits seem to stem from poor default choices. For instance, when I don’t want to start work, I’ll indulge procrastination by seeing what’s on my YouTube feed. Or when I have a night off, I’ll default to watching television.
Despite these not feeling like a choice, I am still making a choice to do these activities because they are the defaults I have set in those instances. ~When I feel the anxiety associated with work, I default to soothing myself with YouTube.~ Same with downtime at home. Rather than doing something productive, I passively consume because it feels better.
I don’t mean to say that we should maximize productivity at all times. That is a toxic attitude to take.
What I am suggesting is that I should question the process by which I choose to fill my time. When I want to do something productive, say knock off small tasks on my to do list, I approach it as something that needs to be scheduled. That is, I have to think about my time as something I’m earmarking to get stuff done. For instance, my Saturday is free, so I’ll do the laundry, bake some banana bread, etc. I fill that time intentionally.
But it doesn’t have to be this way. I can flip it around and think “I have free time until the next planned thing to do, so what small thing could I do that will help me out?” It might be the case that sometimes I just want to zone out and not think about anything. However, when I do this every time I have free time, it suggests that I’m not choosing how to fill my time but instead am just falling into whatever action will make me feel good in the moment.
I should take the time to reflect meaningfully on my defaults and see if there are better, more fulfilling ways I can occupy my empty time.