What to change your life? Start with changing your default behaviors

One of the most common pieces of advice on how to change your life, build better habits, and be more productive is to simply block anything you don’t want to do. Social media, chat, email—block ’em all. However, blocking isn’t a fool-proof plan.

The truth is, if you want to change your life and be more productive you need to first change your default behaviors.

Default behaviors are the actions you take without thinking. They’re your habits, routines, and compulsions. With more than 40% of our daily actions controlled by our defaults, they’re powerful tools for helping (or hurting) our productivity. 

So what defaults are harming your productivity? And how can you address and change them in a truly productive, healthy, and long-term way? 

RescueTime helps you master your productivity and take back control of your time. Find out more and try it for free.

Default behavior #1: Keeping your inbox always open

When the little red number next to your inbox is steadily ticking upward, there’s no better feeling than getting in and clearing out your inbox.

Replying to emails feels productive, which is why 84% of people keep their inboxes open all day (and open 70% of emails in under 6 seconds!)

But if we’re being honest, this default behavior isn’t helping you spend time on meaningful work. Emails are rarely the most important thing on your to-do list. So how do you stop them from taking over your days?  

The solution: Change from “always available” to working in bursts

Instead of constantly monitoring your inbox throughout the day, change your default behavior to working on emails in batches.

This means setting aside specific times throughout the day to check, answer, and send any emails you want to. Not only will this help you focus on more meaningful work, but research has shown that communicating in “bursts” like this makes teams more productive and creative.  

Default behavior #2: Immediately responding to chat messages and texts

Compared to your inbox, chat apps and texts are even harder to control. Real-time communication sets the expectation that you’re always available. And for many of us, our default behaviors support just that.

Even if a message is meant for “whenever you have time”, we feel a pang of needing to check and respond. But just like email, this default behavior keeps you from being truly productive.

The solution: Create a communication contract with your team

The only way you can change your default behavior with communication is to set expectations on response time. Unfortunately, 75% of people have never spoken with a co-worker or manager about their response time expectations.

Are texts more serious than Slack messages? Do chat messages need an immediate response? Can certain communication mediums be dealt with during the same burst as your emails? 

To support these new expectations, change your default notification settings on tools like Slack. You can mute specific channels, get rid of pop-ups, turn off mobile notifications and more to make sure you’re not getting pulled into chats when you don’t want to be. 

Once you know when and how to use these tools, you can reinforce this new default by using RescueTime to block distractions or put you in do-not-disturb mode when you’re focused.  

Default behavior #3: Constantly monitoring social media

Not many of us would argue that social media is a productive use of time. But that doesn’t stop us from constantly checking it. We want to stay up to date on the news, latest memes, and Twitter trends. 

Even if your default behavior isn’t to keep social media open, you probably compulsively check it throughout the day (and definitely first thing in the morning).

Not only is spending time on social media looked down on in the office, but any sort of context switching like this kills your productivity. Even a simple social media check while working on a task can eat up 20–80% of your productive time

The solution: Re-examine your values and ask how social media fits in with them

To change your default behavior around social media consider how it fits into your larger values. 

Is it really that important for you to keep up with social media?

Will you suffer if you miss some Twitter meme or piece of “breaking news” on your Facebook feed?

Probably not. You have projects at work and things to do at home that are far more important. 

This perspective can be a great starting point for changing your default behaviors. Keeping your core values front and center can motivate you to keep apps and tabs closed throughout the day. 

Of course, if you need a little help, you can always set limits to your social media time using RescueTime’s FocusTime. For example, you can set a limit of 15 minutes on social media during the workday and have it blocked if you go over.

Once you’ve reset your default behavior, then use the necessary tools to support your new behavior. 

Default #4: Leaving endless tabs open

If you’re like most people, you probably have somewhere between 5 and 274 tabs open right now. Somehow, tabs became the new to-do list. Instead of dealing with something—a piece of news, Trello card, support ticket—we leave them open for “later.”

But having a huge number of tabs open at all times will almost always lead to a serious drop in productivity. Not only do you have to constantly hunt for the tab you need to use, but you’re unnecessarily opening yourself up to distraction. 

The solution: “Clear to neutral” throughout the day

Rather than leave tabs open for days (or weeks) on end, productivity “hacker” Dan Silvestre recommends “clearing to neutral” multiple times throughout the day. 

Just like you clear the table after dinner, you should constantly “clear out” your workspace, including all your open tabs: 

When you’re done with your computer, close all the apps and browser and shut down.

If you’re leaving the office, spend 5 minutes throwing everything unnecessary away and give your desk a clean.

But also clear to neutral during the day.

If you’re reading email: open it, read it, then close it. No need to leave the browser or the app open.

Browsing social media? Open the app, browse, then log out.

Clearing to neutral helps you eliminate friction points and reduce your tendency to procrastinate.

Don’t leave endless tabs open, tempting you to be distracted and procrastinate. Reset your default behavior by constantly clearing your workspace to neutral. 

Default behavior #5: Multitasking

single-tasking multitasking

It’s an established fact that multitasking kills productivity.

The problem is that multitasking is such an ingrained default behavior. We check email while documenting our software development process. Or pop into Slack while in the middle of working on a new website redesign.

In fact, one study from UC Irvine professor Gloria Mark found that most workers average just 3 minutes on any given task before switching to something else. 

The solution: Give your work the respect it deserves and focus on single-tasking

If you’re going to reset your default behavior you first need to understand what’s at stake. When you multitask, you train your mind to be distracted. You also end up taking longer, doing poor work, and being less creative.

As Gary Keller writes in his book The One Thing: The Surprisingly Simple Truth Behind Extraordinary Results: 

Why would we ever tolerate multitasking when we’re doing our most important work? Just because our day job doesn’t involve bypass surgery shouldn’t make focus any less critical to our success or the success of others. Your work deserves no less respect.

It may not seem so in the moment, but the connectivity of everything we do ultimately means that we each not only have a job to do, but a job that deserves to be done well. 

Do you believe that your work is important? If so, then it deserves your full attention.

So shut down everything except the one thing that you should be working on. Give that one thing your full respect and work on it exclusively. Don’t disrespect yourself or your work by multitasking. 

Take back control of your time and your attention with RescueTime. Start your free trial today!

Default behavior #6: Using too many productivity apps

If you’re reading this post, you’re most likely a bit of a productivity junkie. And us junkies get our fix in the same way: with productivity apps. Bouncing between Omnifocus, Todoist, Things, Wrike, and Planio might seem like you’re being productive. However, it could just as easily be seen as nothing more than thinly-veiled multitasking.

This isn’t to say that productivity apps don’t help. But that the default behavior of thinking you need every app out there to be productive is false. 

The solution: Choose the right tools for your task flow (and resist adding more)

Productivity is not primarily tied to tools, it’s tied to your behavior. True productivity is getting the right things done at the right time, and typically only a few apps are required to make this happen. 

Take a few moments to do a quick productivity app audit.

Write down the tools you use and why they’re important to you.

Which ones are actually helping you work?

Which ones are invisible guides and which ones require your attention?

Pick only the ones that you absolutely need and delete the rest. 

Default behavior #7: Clearing the decks

When you begin your day, there’s a natural temptation to “clear the decks” before you begin working on important projects. In other words, you feel like you need to respond to all your emails, get up to date on news, make sure everything is in its place, etc… 

And while there certainly is a place for clearing things out, clearing the decks is often a form of procrastination. Important tasks seem hard or overwhelming, and so instead of working on those important tasks, you do a bunch of little things.

These little things may feel productive, but they’re really not. 

The solution: Tell yourself to do just 5-minutes of your task before you clear the decks

Procrastination is a result of fear. We take on huge tasks or place too much emphasis on them and so when it’s time to start we look for anything else to take our attention. 

To change this default behavior, Zen Habits founder, Leo Babauta suggests a 4-step process to help you get started:

  1. Notice when you feel like you have to take care of everything else and be okay with that feeling. It’s okay to feel like you need to clear the decks as long as you don’t let that feeling control your actions. 
  2. Turn toward your most important task with an open heart, realizing that you must do that task first if you truly love yourself. 
  3. If a task feels too big or overwhelming, just do the smallest step and then move on to the next smallest step.
  4. Give yourself fully to the smallest step, using all your powers of focus to get it done. 

Another way to change your default behavior is to follow Instagram founder Kevin Systrom’s advice:

“If you don’t want to do something, make a deal with yourself to do at least five minutes of it. After five minutes, you’ll end up doing the whole thing.”

Default behavior #8: Constantly being available (even outside of work hours)

In our hyperconnected world, it’s easy to feel like you must be available to your coworkers at all hours. Of course, this constant availability makes it very difficult to unwind, disconnect, and “turn off.”

It also makes it challenging to be fully present when with family and friends if you’re constantly monitoring your phone for any work-related communications.

Worse, research shows that people who are unable to psychologically disconnect from work experience more work fatigue, worse procrastination, and poor work-life balance.  

The solution: Set guardrails on your workday (and stick to them)

When it comes to changing your default behavior of being always available, you first need to change the way you think about work. Is it healthy to be always “on”? To always be available to your supervisor and coworkers? I’d say not. 

This fundamental change in thinking needs to be followed by fundamental changes in behavior. Quit chat and email apps at the end of the day and delete them off your phone. Disable notifications when you’re with your friends and family. 

Your goal is to have space to breathe at the end of the workday. To think about things other than work and truly rest. RescueTime is a great guide here as well. Using our custom Work Hours, you can set Alerts to tell you when you’re doing too much when you’re supposed to be disconnecting. 

Change your behaviors, change your life

In the movie Jurassic Park, Ian Malcom famously says, “Life… (dramatic pause) finds a way.” The same can be said for our propensity to be distracted and procrastinate.

If you want to truly change your life, it’s not enough to rely on tools, hacks, and tricks. True change comes when you reset your default behaviors. When you fundamentally change the way you think about things like email, texting, and social media. 

It’s only when you do these things that your life will change for the better.

Stephen Altrogge is a freelance writer who specializes in writing about productivity and marketing. He lives in Ashland, Ohio, drinks too much coffee, and loves creating long-form content. 

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2 comments

  1. Logging off of corporate instant messenger and not immediately responding to my manager’s and director’s emails – because I shut down the email program to focus on work – was grounds for a “closed door conversation”. In tech related fields, so much pressure rolls downhill. It sounds great to read this, but it has to start with the C-level. As a mere worker ant, reading this confirms how insane and detrimental to health the workplace has become (in certain fields).

    1. That’s a really good point, Christina, and one that’s come up every time we speak with organizational psychologists. Any change to how people work needs to have buy-in at the top level or else it’s destined to fail. This is something I want to address more in future posts so thank you for your comment!

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