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…
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!)
- Surfing the internet instead of working
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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?