No, I don’t spend my whole day on facebook, but whenever a deadline is fast approaching on a project that needs some efforts on my part to complete, I often find myself swinging between flow, where I’m happily focusing and enjoying my task at hand, and procrastination, which includes among other things checking facebook. With the deadline for posting this blog approaching, I found myself clearing emails that have been sitting there for a few days, reading up on material for workshops that are scheduled a month away, and watching youtube videos that really could be done anytime but now! But that’s when I stumbled onto Charles Duhigg’s video on big think (http://bigthink.com/videos/how-not-to-spend-your-whole-day-on-facebook) and Good Life Project (http://www.goodlifeproject.com/charles-duhigg-nyt-reporter-author/).
You might have heard of his book Power of Habit, which reminds us that we are all creatures of habits ever since we were cavepeople, and in a confronting or uncomfortable situation we make ‘fight’ or ‘flight’ decisions almost instanteniously. Our brain automates many routine decisions because our willpower is limited and so, we selectively use our time and/(basically only) spend it on four to five taxing tasks or decisions per day. With the study into mindfulness we now know more about training up our willpower but like anyone who has tried changing his or her habits it is still not at all easy. Duhigg hence suggests the best way to change our habits is to build new habits that overwrite the old ones.
Habits follow a process of cue – routine – reward. The key to understanding and changing a habit is to find out what the cues and rewards are in a particular habit loop (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OWEXk9LNPYI), which we can do by journaling and alternating our routine for a few days. Take my procratination example, it usually kicks in when I start feeling bored or anxious, and I will try to relieve it by doing something that takes my mind off it like house cleaning or web-surfing. As I find success in finding comfort in such behaviours, the habit becomes stronger and more automatic. Even though I still manage to complete my actual tasks in the end, I usually have to go through several cycles of this habit, the procratination loop, which can be very tiring.
To break this vicious cycle, what I can do is to first recognise that I have such a habit and that I don’t want it to continue. To be successful, the key is not to abruptly stop the old habit but to ease out of it, by integrating my existing habit into the new habit that I want to start. Rather than denying myself any procrastination time, I rewarded myself with 10 minutes of web-surfing for every 50 minutes of focused work. As I build this new habit, replacing the cue from a feeling of anxiety or boredom to that of satisfaction from completing my work, I gradually extended my focused working time with a proportional increase in reward time. While I am still trying this out, I can say I’m already feeling much more motivated than before as I move away from blaming myself for procrastinating to congratulating myself on starting a new habit!