How to Change an Unproductive Habit

I was at a party recently when a friend introduced me to someone, mentioning that I write about productivity. They had been having a conversation about bad habits. Perhaps, he said, I could give his friend some advice to help him curb his behavior.

This guy, let’s call him Pat, said he gets sucked into reading news online. Hours will pass, and he’s done nothing but read news. How could he break that habit?

“Sure. The problem is that you get sucked into reading news, right? What is it you want to be doing instead?” I asked.

“Well,” Pat said. He hemmed and hawed for a moment. “I’m reading when I go to bed.”

“Okay. So is the problem that you’re not getting enough sleep? Are you late to work often? Or is it that you want to get up earlier to do something you consider productive but you can’t because you stayed up too late?” I asked.

“Not really,” he said. “I guess sometimes I want to go to the gym. But I usually do go to the gym.”

Is It Unproductive?

The conversation was completely befuddling, but it’s not the first time I’ve had one like it. Let me summarize the matter one more time. Every night, Pat climbs into bed and pulls out his laptop or tablet or phone. He reads something interesting online, which links to something else interesting, and before he knows it, he’s spent maybe two hours in bed not sleeping doing an activity he enjoys. Eventually he goes to sleep. He wakes up at a reasonable hour, early enough to go to the gym or get to the office on time.

What, then, is the problem?

Pat’s problem is that he’s focusing on something he believes to be an unproductive bad behavior that is in fact neither bad nor unproductive. Rather, it’s enjoyable. His staying up reading is not taking time away from something else he’d rather be doing.

So why is he confused?

Sometimes people focus on a habit or behavior they think is unproductive or bad because they feel like there should be something else they could be doing instead that’s more productive. But they don’t have something else in mind. Here’s what Pat may be thinking to himself:

I don’t want to be the kind of person who gets sucked into reading articles on the Internet all night long.

However, he’s not sure what he’d rather be doing with that time. If there isn’t some other behavior he wants to be doing, then there is nothing wrong or unproductive about reading.

Pat’s problem is not about what he’s doing or how productive he is. It’s about his perception of himself.

Managing Tradeoffs

Learning how to manage our time requires learning how to make tradeoffs. If there isn’t something else you want to be doing instead of what you are doing—in other words, if there is nothing to trade off—then it’s very difficult to find a reason to stop doing the behavior you wish you weren’t doing.

Let’s take a different example. Let’s say Constance has a bad habit of sitting on the couch eating potato chips. She doesn’t want to be the kind of person who sits on the couch and eats potato chips. But what could she be doing instead?

Finding an answer isn’t at all as straightforward and simple as it might seem. Maybe Constance is learning to play piano, and she wishes she spent more time practicing. Now, it’s very likely that when Constance is sitting on the couch eating potato chips, she does so because she’s burned out from her day and needs a break. She needs some rest and relaxation. If that’s her state of mind when she’s usually sitting on the couch eating potato chips, it’s not at all the ideal time to be practicing the piano. She needs a different tradeoff that better suits what she needs and what she’s able to do at that point in time.

Some options might be to take a walk, get a manicure, read a book, meditate, or talk on the phone with her friends and family. Whatever it is, it needs to be another form of rest and relaxation. Now, not every bad behavior is born from being exhausted from work, and it’s important for Constance (and the rest of us) to identify whether she truly has more stamina and internal resources at that time of day that she could be putting toward a more challenging activity, such as practicing the piano.

Either way in Constance’s case, before she can make a change she first has to answer this question for herself:

If I don’t want to be the kind of person who sits on the couch and eats potato chips, what kind of person do I want to be?

That’s not an easy question to answer. It takes introspection, self-awareness, and acceptance of one’s strengths and limitations. But it helps tremendously if you have a list of goals for guidance.

Setting Goals

Another way of asking yourself what kind of person do you want to be is to ask what are your goals. Goals don’t need to be highly quantifiable (objectives and tasks do, though; more on that in a moment). Maybe one of Constance’s goals is to talk to her mom on the phone more, or to be the kind of daughter who has a tighter relationship with her mother. Having that goal in mind makes it a little easier to ditch the chips and pick up the phone because there’s a purpose and a drive behind the decision.

Goals are beacons when it comes time to think of behaviors you’d rather be doing than whatever seemingly unproductive thing you spend your time doing.

Actually writing down your goals is also super important. Doing it in your head isn’t enough. When you think in your head that you want to, say, “be fluent in Japanese some day,” it has a very different reality than when you write it down.

Another reason to write down goals is because you can then create break them down into objective and tasks. Objectives and tasks are where you get specific. If you want to be fluent in Japanese, an objective along the way might be to pass the JLPT, or Japanese-Language Proficiency Test, within three years. Another objective along the way might be to master writing all the kanji. A task that leads to that objective could be to study three new kanji characters every day and practice writing them for 10 minutes per day.

Writing down the initial goal and breaking into more specific and concrete objectives and tasks gives you a body of stuff to draw from when it comes time to deciding what you’d rather be doing when identify some behavior that you believe is “unproductive.”

That said, if the behavior you’re doing is enjoyable, and you’re not kicking yourself for not doing something else instead, then is it really unproductive in the first place?

Image by Johan Larsson, CC. 

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