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Changing Habits

A couple months ago I wrote about learned helplessness in the context of being in a situation where I am forced to be in the office for eight hours a day but have nothing to do. (See Unlearned Helplessness.) At that time I viewed my problem as external, that if I only was given more work to do I wouldn't be forced to kill my time and I wouldn't struggle with my moods. Since then I've descended into depression--which is largely okay now thanks to the antidepressants--and only come by a little more work to fill my time. But last week I realized something.

In addition to having nothing given me to fill my time, I have learned behaviors in response to this situation. Over years of being mentally unstable or chemically altering my mental state, I developed a habit of doing nothing, of either staring at the computer screen or simply typing thoughts into a Word document, essentially thinking through the keyboard. Either way, I was doing nothing of substance, nothing that would productively, or profitably fill all of this time. I realized that I had developed a habit of killing this time in the office and that habit contributed to my struggle and depression as much as the lack of directed tasks from my employer.

In essence, I was as responsible for my despair at having nothing to do as my bosses,

Thankfully, I already knew that any learned behavior can be unlearned. Any habit can be broken and replaced by a good habit. But how to do that? How could I change my habit of wasting my own time? I began to search Google. It took me a couple of tries before I hit on a search string that led me to some useful sites, sites that explained how to reprogram behaviors. The first steps to understanding how to change are to first identify what you want to change and then identify the things that trigger the behavior you want to change. And then, once you've identified the triggers, figure out how to either avoid the triggers or develop an alternative response whenever the trigger occurs.

I already knew what I wanted to change. I wanted to be able to proactively use my time, to not sit around wasting the day doing nothing. I wanted to be productive and to spend my time in effective and useful ways. But what were the triggers? First, one I had long ago identified, was being in the office. I knew that when I am at a cafe or at home or in other venues I was capable of getting stuff done and I didn't kill the time by wasting it. In those places, the time was obviously mine, so I had no problem using it to further my own goals. But in the office time, I thought, belonged to my employer and as such I didn't feel justified in using it to further my own goals. So being in the office was a major trigger, a place where I wasted time by doing nothing. Unfortunately, I am required to be in the office for eight hours a day, five days a week. Unless I quit, I couldn't change this trigger, I had to find a way to replace my reaction to it, or maybe there were other triggers that could be changed.

And there was. The second trigger I identified was malleable. At first I wrote down that I struggled to be effective when I didn't have instruction from my boss. When I wasn't assigned a task to do to fill the time. I had previously blamed my wasted time on not having enough to do, but I hadn't realized that that lack could be filled in other ways besides being given instruction from my boss. What if I gave myself instruction? What if I gave myself tasks to do--related or unrelated to work didn't matter, so long as they filled the time usefully--what if I told myself to do something?

It was possible, but it couldn't be in the moment. I couldn't get to the day of and then, while sitting in my chair trying to figure out what to do, tell myself what to do. That didn't work. That had been what I'd been trying to do and it obviously didn't work. But what if I told myself what to do in advance? What if I figured out my day before I got to it and was stuck in the morass of nothingness and forced to come up with not only motivation to do, but an idea of what to do. Instead I would plan the day in advance and give myself alternatives if something fell through so I didn't have any time left undirected. Then, in the moment, I would only have to come up with motivation, not the direction of what task to do as well. It would remove the trigger of having no instruction and would minimize the effort required to do something with my day.

The idea was brilliant. I knew it at once. It was a cure to my problems. I would schedule my day the night before, not just a to-do list, but a full on schedule, something that I could follow or adapt as needed, but that would set out a task for every hour of the day. That way, when I came to the next turning of the clock I could look at the instructions and simply follow them. I would replace the lack of instructions from my boss--which was a trigger--with my own instructions. That way I could fill up my day with useful activity and the time would pass more quickly and I would actually have something to show for the time spent.

That was last Friday. I immediately set out scheduling my Monday. Things got in the way--I actually had some work to do, an hour or two, so I didn't follow my schedule perfectly. But when the work was done, I didn't return to the gelatinous ooze that I'd been when confronted with nothing to do, I had a schedule and I looked at the schedule and I continued with the activities listed. The schedule can change, I'm fine with that, but I have things to do at certain times and they have--during this last week--actually helped me be productive.

A study in England a few years ago actually tested how long it takes for a new behavior to become a habit. The length of time varied by the type of behavior and the individual, but the average was 66 days. That means I have to exert the effort necessary to create and follow a schedule for the next two-plus months before this becomes a habit, but given the evidence from this week and what I have read about productivity, I am confident that this is a very big game-changer. I know I can unlearn habits, change them, and replace them with good habits. I am doing just that.

And puppies have nothing to do with changing habits, but I didn't like the pictures that came up when I searched for "habits" so I went with them instead. Until next time.

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