I have a work problem: Breaking Bad Habits: Trying out Atomic Habits’ list

This summer and this semester a lot of things have gone wrong with work.  All summer was non-stop bad research news, followed by almost an entire semester of my work computer being broken and/or replaced unpredictably.  I also taught at days/times I’d never taught before and never really figured out a new rhythm (next semester I’m back to one of my more regular schedules).  And I had so many emotional conversations with students needing to drop a class or out of the program entirely (why me? I have no idea).  And I have a ton of service and teaching and those are just so much easier to do than hard research.  Finally, DC1’s heavy homework load and DC2’s lack of a heavy homework load mean that both our kids need more individualized attention in the evenings than previously. These things combined caused me to feel unmotivated and to lose many of my good research habits and to replace them with the quick hit of websurfing and watching youtube videos.  I kept thinking, I’ll be better later…

But, like tomorrow, later never comes.  But in my case it’s jam every day.  And I need a bit of spinach to grow a strong research agenda.  (Obviously my mixed metaphors need work.)

I finally decided enough was enough.  I need to fix my bad habits so I don’t stagnate.  I’d like to get another paper under review before my annual review in Spring and I have lots of projects, just none close to the right stage, and nothing will be close to any stage if I don’t start now.  Today even.

Having just read Atomic Habits, I decided, why not try their recommendations to see if they help at all.  Of course, it’s really easy to create a new habit if the habit is easily definable.  Like, you want to exercise at a certain point each day, or you want to drink more water, or what have you.  It’s a bit hard to know where to start when your problem is a big amorphous work problem.

So my first step was to list my bad work habits (and, in a later post, to list the good habits that I want back!)

  1.  Surfing the internet instead of working
    1. This has particularly become a problem in the morning– I used to just check email and read a few webcomics.  Lately I’ve been watching full youtube videos!  What used to be ~15 minutes before getting ready can stretch to TWO HOURS.  That’s ridiculous.  I should either be asleep or working.
    2. It’s also a problem at work.  I’ve been avoiding leechblock by using chrome in addition to firefox, or by getting out my phone and surfing on that instead.
  2. I have completely lost my ability to work from home (other than some successes with doing anything involving pdfs on my iPad Pro– more on that when I talk about good habits).  This wouldn’t be a problem if I was being productive at work, but sometimes I have to stay home because DH is out of town and I want to be here when DC1 gets off the bus, or I want to hide out from well-meaning students and colleagues who just want to chat.  I’m great at writing blogposts at home, but not so great at sitting down and doing work.  My home desktop just doesn’t feel like a work computer anymore.  I mean to work, but I either end up surfing the internet from my desktop or I end up on the couch watching youtube videos or reading novels.
  3. I have stopped following my daily schedules for work.  I generally put the important big stuff on my list for the mornings and then the stuff that doesn’t take brain power (service/teaching) and has shorter deadlines in the afternoon.  But instead of doing research in the morning, I’ve been doing the service/teaching stuff and then when afternoon rolls around instead of switching, I just do more service.  Or I go home meaning to work but end up on the couch reading instead.  I would say that service fills up any time hole, but actually one of the reasons I said enough is enough is that I ran out of obvious stuff to do and I want to get back into good habits again before it starts filling up again.
  4. I am not using little bits of free time, and my definition of “little” has gotten pretty wide.  It’s no longer, oh I have 5 min, let’s check twitter, it’s more, oh, I have an HOUR, well, can’t do that thing on my to-do list that’s marked for 2 hours, might as well surf the internet.  This needs to stop.

I would link to the atomic habits cheetsheet here, but it looks like he’s taken it offline.  You have to buy a copy of the book AND KEEP THE RECEIPT if you want a printable version.

In any case:  Here are his laws of breaking bad habits:

Make it Invisible:

  1.  Surfing:
    • Move the iPad charger from the bedroom to the bathroom.  I had initially thought to move it to the living room, but that just lured me to the couch.  I do need to briefly check my email in the morning at home, otherwise I end up checking it at work which leads to a bad habit there.  Putting it in the bathroom provides a good place to do a quick check.  DH also suggested that I allow myself to use my phone while eating breakfast, which will bundle those habits as well (more on this in the good habits post).
    • Leechblock Youtube at work
    • Hide the shortcuts for all web browsers that aren’t Firefox so I don’t just move to chrome when Firefox is leechblocked (my “new” work computer has all the shortcuts)
    • Make the phone more inaccessible at work.  I need it to be such that I can hear the buzz if someone texts or calls, but such that it doesn’t call to me when I should be working.  I am thinking about putting it in a cloth bag that we get tamales in, but it might make sense to put it in a drawer or put a sheet of paper on top of it or just turn it over so I can’t see the face.  I will work on this.
  2.  Working at home:
    • I can’t hide the couch or the bed, so I’m not sure what to do here.  We talked about maybe setting up a work station just for work in another room, but my spot in the office really is ideal (nice window, DH’s desk next to mine), so I’m hoping I can reclaim it for work instead of play.  Also I might have to buy a new desktop or laptop to get another station, and I would definitely need another monitor.
  3. In theory I could hide the service/etc. from myself until later in the day, but I think that might be counterproductive.  For this one I don’t think making it invisible is the best idea.  It will probably require willpower.
    1. DH suggested a calendar reminder for the schedule, though I’m not sure if that will help nudge me when the list is right there.  But who knows.
  4. Using bits of time is more of a pro-active thing than a re-active thing, but hopefully #1 will keep the internet from being as attractive as it had been.

Make it Unattractive:

After talking this one over with DH, we decided this one wasn’t helpful because “highlighting the benefits of avoiding [my] bad [work] habits” just makes me depressed.  I need to think less about this stuff, not more.  Because thinking leads to anxiety, anxiety leads to 2am wake-ups, which lead to too little sleep, which leads to poor work, mistakes, and lost willpower.

Make it Difficult:

Many of the “Make it Invisible” bullets above are also making it difficult.

Make it Unsatisfiying:

The two items recommended here are to get an accountability partner and to make the consequences of bad habits public and painful.  I have a great accountability partner for going on a walk each day, but I have been far less successful in getting an accountability partner for work.  Invariably they start slipping and get irritated by my nagging or they start slipping and I take it as permission to start slipping too.  And when my accountability partner is DH, *I* start slipping and he lets me.  So yes, it would be lovely to get an accountability partner for work, but it’s not realistic.  I did start a weekly brown bag for research at work, and that helps somewhat.  I did have to forbid the phrase, “incremental data progress” from the weekly update recently after using it one last time as it is far too easy a phrase to hide behind.

There’s another item in the “How to create a good habit” list that actually belongs in the bad habit list:  “Make ‘doing nothing’ enjoyable.  When avoiding a bad habit, design a way to see the benefits.”  The example given in the book is each time you don’t eat out, move the money you saved from not eating out to your vacation fund.  I’m not really sure what an analog for any of the four items above would be.

So I wasn’t able to think of ways to get all of my bad habits into his methodology.  However, many of these had opposites that seemed to fit in the “How to create a good habit” section which I will discuss in a future post.

How do you break bad habits?  How do you stay focused at work?  Any thoughts on how I could fit my bad habits into these laws of breaking bad habits?

19 Responses to “I have a work problem: Breaking Bad Habits: Trying out Atomic Habits’ list”

  1. Lynda Says:

    Check that turning your phone over doesn’t mean it stops giving you call and message notifications… meanwhile, can some tasks be broken down further so each chunk doesn’t take 2 hours? Or will that be counterproductive as more tasks to choose from?

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      Re: the two hour thing, that’s me lying to myself. Most tasks even if I block them for a couple hours do have subtasks that could be figured out if they’re not already outlined (and figuring out the subtasks certainly doesn’t take 2 hours). I’m just telling myself that after I get all the task switching done there won’t be enough time left, which is ridiculous when I have an hour free. I have to make it harder for me to lie to myself about that (more on that in good habits next week).

  2. monsterzero Says:

    Motivation is a slippery thing! About a year ago my boss requested that I start sending an end-of-day email with two lists: Completed and Pending. I hated it for the first couple of weeks but now I love it. I don’t come away at day end feeling like nothing got done.

    Also, when I work from home, I dress for work* and that seems to put me into the right frame of mind. Like state-dependent learning, sort of.

    I still have trouble sometimes. Sometimes checking my bank balance helps with that, sometimes not.

    *I do wear sweatpants instead of real pants. I’m not a masochist.

  3. CG Says:

    I have a similar web-surfing problem to yours. Here are some things that have worked for me when I do them. I don’t always do them.
    -Turn off the wifi on my laptop. I did that this morning and got an article review done in a couple of hours. It took me all day to do one yesterday because I kept clicking over to surf. This is also an effective strategy for me with grading, although it’s gotten harder now that we use online course management software. I do not enjoy reading things on my phone, so I don’t tend to switch devices if I disable the internet on my laptop.
    -Make a work plan for the week with reasonable daily tasks. When I’m done with the tasks for the day, I’m done and can go do something else. I think a large part of my motivation problem stems from the fact that I think I’m supposed to work every hour that’s available to me (i.e., when my kids are at school). But I really don’t need to work that much to do my job well. So if I allow myself to go exercise or read a book (or even go to the grocery store) when I’m done with the daily tasks, I’ll make better use of my work time. It takes work to not feel guilty about this, which is why bopping over to another website is the preferred method of distraction: since I’m still sitting there with my laptop, it feels less divorced from work than getting up and doing something else would be. But I’m not actually getting any more done.
    -I realized a while ago that most (not all) parts of my job are either hard or boring (and sometimes both). It occurred to me that perhaps I should find another line of work. But until that time, I should cut myself some slack. It takes a lot of willpower for me to do hard and/or boring things. So I should be realistic about how many of those things I can accomplish in a day. See point 2.
    -Go to a coffee shop. I work at home a lot and can be productive there, but sometimes I need a change of venue. Being surrounded by other people working can be motivating.
    -Do co-authored research. I’m motivated by not letting other people down.
    -When I don’t have small people at home anymore, I suspect that I will often have a really good work session between about 4 and 7pm. That seems to be when I’m at my most motivated. Unfortunately, that time is not available to me right now. So I just can’t worry about it. Most days I quit working around 4 when my younger kids get home from school. I almost never work in the evenings or on weekends unless there’s some big deadline. I just have to do what I need to do during school hours.

    Of course it takes some motivation to put these things in place and I’m not always good about it. But it was helpful to write this out and remind myself that I do have some tools to draw upon and I should use them.

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      That all sounds great!

      And yes, the week that my entire family visited the in-laws and left me at home, I got a lot of good use of evening time.

      There’s a project that I’m dreading working on literally right now… I can’t turn off the internet because the dataset is so big I have to do it on an online server. Right now I’m taking a frustration break because it can’t find a file and the main .do file is so nested (my coauthor writes beautiful but complicated code) that I’m not even sure which sub-do file it is called from. I swore to myself that if I worked on it from 9-12 today I could do other less challenging work the rest of the day. But then my work computer turned out to be broken again and setting up my laptop for work on this project again took another half hour. And then my walk-accountability buddy wanted to go for a walk which took half an hour… and now I guess I should get back to work.

      So maybe not doing too great, but something is better than nothing.

      • CG Says:

        Ugh, that’s so frustrating! You WERE motivated but were foiled by technological difficulties. At least you got the walk, though.

      • nicoleandmaggie Says:

        I feel like someone out there really does not want me to work on this specific project. It doesn’t help that I don’t want to work on it either. Or that my coauthor has gone MIA (but I kind of did tell her I would do this icky stuff first and we need to know the icky stuff results before deciding on next steps, so that’s partly on me).

  4. Revanche @ A Gai Shan Life Says:

    Cutting myself off doesn’t work since I NEED internet to work, so I tell on myself instead. I text or message a friend that I have to do this THING and then I feel guilty if I don’t do it so I have to.

    Sometimes I remember that when I procrastinate on things, it is 90% of the time not nearly the timesuck I expect it’ll be, so I tell myself to just do it when I realize that I’ve put it off for days. But most usually, admitting it to someone that I’m being irresponsible is often enough to kick me in gear.

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      I don’t know why guilt has stopped working as well for me as it used to. Since we hit financial independence I’ve lost a lot of willpower across many aspects of my life. Especially the “you can have a reward for doing this”– I used to be able to stick to that but now I’m like, why can’t I just have a reward now? And it’s not even stuff about money– it’s things like reading novels or watching videos.

      And… some would argue that’s not a bad thing. Why do this to myself if I don’t have to, and the only answer I have is that I start getting depressed if I haven’t been productive, even if I enjoy the little time bits of goofing off. I just cannot ever be happy. https://nicoleandmaggie.wordpress.com/2011/01/11/ambition/

  5. nicoleandmaggie Says:

    I haven’t leechblocked youtube at work yet because I need it to play Christmas music!

  6. Norwegian Forest Cat Says:

    I read Can I Have Your Attention? (Curt Steinhorst, I think) a few months ago to try to conquer some similar bad habits. I appreciated the specific focus on digital intruders into your day and would definitely recommend it. There were a lot of helpful nuggets in there, even if making a ‘vault’ for yourself isn’t feasible. I still have my email program set up to load my calendar instead of my inbox when I open it, which was probably my favorite pro tip. It’s hard to waste time on email when your calendar reminds you that you have better things to do! I should probably go back for a refresher read and see what else I can learn…always a work in progress. :)

  7. Mina Says:

    Maybe you need a break! Or your brain needs a break. I have been in a similar situation lately. Instead of youtube videos, I have been reading blogs about productivity, time management, etc :))) Ironic, right? I read books about academic writing. I joined FB academic groups. At the end of the day, I realized that I was tired, simply tired, and lost my motivation for my work. Nowadays, I do small chunks of writing time. Some days it is just 15 minutes, or 30 minutes. But, at least I sit down and work on my research. I lowered the bar and try not to feel guilty about it. After reading all those blogs, books, etc., I realized that many academic women feel this way unfortunately.

  8. First Gen American Says:

    Gosh, I could have written this post. I myself have been trying to evaluate why it’s happening to me and wondering, is this what a midlife crisis is like? Part of me thinks it’s because I haven’t taken a big risk on anything in years. I used to regularly step out of my comfort zone by doing stuff like taking jobs that were a stretch position. I’ve said no to a lot of jobs that would allow me even less time with family than I already have sacrificed. I guess In a nutshell, I put challenging myself on the back burner in exchange for a sane family life. Now That the kids are a little older and I am able to come up for air, I am noticing what’s missing.

    Then the other part of me thinks maybe I am just burnt out and this period of lack of productivity is just me trying to recharge in some way that is necessary, but the tv watching has also led to weight gain, pain and just letting myself go…and that’s not cool. My health should be the most important thing to maintain, but the deeper you get the harder it is to dig yourself out of the hole.

    I think for me, I need to really sit down and write out some strategic goals for my life rather than continuing on autopilot…and see where I can add a little risk taking back into my life that doesn’t come at the expense of my family. I’d be interested on more posts on this topic. I suspect there’s more to it than just breaking bad habits.


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