Work problem Part 2: Creating Good Habits: Trying out Atomic Habits

In my previous post, I discussed my work problem and how I’m trying to break some bad habits.

As a reminder, my bad habits were:

  1.  Surfing the internet instead of working in the morning and at work.
  2. Not being able to work from home, even during working hours.
  3. Not following my work schedule, instead binging on service/teaching tasks.
  4. Not using unexpected free time chunks wisely.

The laws of creating good habits are similar to those of breaking bad habits, but they have a lot more detail.

Make it Obvious

A.  Fill out the habits scorecard:  I opted not to do this as I want to fixate on specific work habits, not a complete life audit.  Instead I thought about problem points with work.

B.  Use implementation intentions for each habit.

  1. Surfing
    • On weekdays I will either snooze or get up/use restroom/brush teeth/get dressed/eat breakfast/leave when I am woken by DH’s showering.  I will not lie in bed with the internet.
    • I will work when sitting at a computer.  Playing/surfing will be relegated to the small iPad and my iPhone except during specific break-times when leechblock is off.
    • I will write for one hour when I get to work.
  2. Home
    • If I wake up in the middle of the night and using the restroom/trying to get back to sleep doesn’t help, I will get up and do work.  I will not surf the internet.
    • I will work when sitting at a computer.
    • I will continue to use my iPad pro only for reading/commenting on pdfs.
  3. Schedule
    • I will follow my schedule by prioritizing harder things in the morning and leave class prep/service/etc. for after 3pm (exceptions:  lunch break I can do whatever and getting reviewers for articles newly in my editorial box can happen whenever)
  4. Free time use
    • I will not consider half hour or more chunks to be small chunks of time, but rather larger ones in which tasks can be started.
    • I will have a list of things I can do with unexpected free time (email, cleaning out office, updating classes for next semester) for smaller chunks of time.  I will not binge through these over the course of a few days, but leave them to be spread out.

C.  Use habit stacking

  1. I have stacked the iPad to the restroom which is stacked to teeth brushing.  Other internet usage is stacked to breakfast which is stacked to getting out the door.
  2. I have stacked being at the computer with work.  Being awake at night with work instead of play.
  3. The schedule is a stack.  I just need to start following it.
  4. N/A

D.  Design your environment

Most of the things here were covered under bad habits.

Make it Attractive

A.  Use temptation bundling– give an immediate reward for working on or completing the habit

One of the examples in the book is to play podcasts or watch shows while exercising.  Unfortunately, the tasks I need to do require attention and so do the temptations.  I mean, I could eat chocolate while working, but that seems likely to be not good for me in other ways.  Post-rewards used to work for me, but lately I’ve been realizing that I can just give myself the reward any time I want to and I end up just, say, reading the entire novel.  I think this may have something to do with being financially independent– I seem to have lost a lot of that delayed gratification muscle.

B.  Join a culture where your desired behavior is the normal behavior

I mean, I do work at an R1, and I did start that weekly brown bag.  So I already kind of am in this culture, but I’m definitely not doing great.

C.  Do something you enjoy immediately before a difficult habit

This is what has gotten me into trouble in the first place, so not a good idea as the enjoyment part has been stretching out.

So I’ve kind of struck out on the “Make it attractive” step.  Any thoughts?

Make it Easy

A.  Reduce friction

  1.  Surfing.  Most of these things are covered under bad habits (increasing friction), but for writing in the morning I will plan ahead the day before to know what I will be working on writing.
  2.  Home.  Most of these things are covered under bad habits (increasing friction).
  3.  Schedule. I need to continue to plan the morning work the afternoon before.  I used to do this and it worked well.  One of the current problems is that even when I do this, I just ignore the schedule.  This started happening when things out of my control messed up my schedule too many times in a row.
  4. Free time.  I need to make a list of odds and ends that can be done in shorter amounts of time that is easily accessible.

B.  Prime the environment.

  1. Surfing. Leechblock and other things from bad habits
  2. Home.  Isolate particular areas of the house, specific machines, and specific times of day for work vs. play.
  3. Schedule.  Have a working computer.  Remember to take Vit D (possibly even schedule in the second pill?)
  4. Free time.  Have the list easily available.

C.  Master the decisive moment

Not sure what to do about this.  Maybe just be better about getting started on things?  (Though getting started isn’t my only problem– not getting distracted is also a problem.)

D.  Use the two-minute rule to downscale your habits until they can be done in two minutes or less

I think that doing this is part of the problem– it’s not the small habits I have trouble with, it’s the longer ones.

E.  Automate your habits.  Invest in technology and onetime purchases that lock in future behavior.

I’m not sure what to do here.  I could buy another computer, but that’s worthless if I just start using it for play.

Make it Satisfying

A.  Use reinforcement.

See above on “temptation bundling”

B.  Make “doing nothing” enjoyable– this actually belongs under getting rid of “bad habits”

C.  Use a habit tracker.  Keep track of your habit streak and “don’t break the chain”

I need to think about whether or not this is worthwhile for keeping track of writing or getting into work by a reasonable time.  In the past keeping track has been more of a pain than a help because I know if I’ve broken the chain or not without plotting it on a chart.  And plotting on a chart is another step that takes effort I’d rather use for something else.  But I can think more about good metrics.

One big problem with measurement is that when you measure, you tend to focus on the measurement rather than on the larger goal.  For example, with weightloss, you focus on the number which can lead to unhealthy behaviors and forget about the “why” (it’s not actually weightloss that’s the goal, but health or whatever– pounds is a really bad metric for that.  Even if fitting into your clothes better is the goal, pounds are not the right metric).  So I can see myself wasting time writing unnecessary stuff or coming into work completely sleep deprived just to hit some arbitrary metric when that actually hurts my true goal of getting stuff done.  So this is non-trivial.  What are good short-term metrics?  I don’t know.

D.  Never miss twice.  When you forget to do a habit, make sure you get back on track immediately.

I will try to be better about this.  Part of my problem has been multiple days of interruptions outside of my control.  But hopefully those will have settled down.

How do you keep up with good habits?  Any thoughts on how I could fit my desired habits into these laws of creating good habits?  Do you have any tricks to suggest?

28 Responses to “Work problem Part 2: Creating Good Habits: Trying out Atomic Habits”

  1. dirtandrocks Says:

    I haven’t read it yet, but I heard Cal Newport discussing his latest book on reducing internet use. He advocates for taking most apps off your phone & ipad. If you really need to use something, use it on a computer. The thinking is social media is no longer designed for computers, so it doesn’t feed the addiction. I found this true of Instagram. He also recommends a full 30 day off any internet but what you must use for work and then add back in only what you deem really necessary. I haven’t tried it myself.

    I feel like I’ve been reading a lot about bad work/writing habits on academic blogs lately. It probably has to do with the New Year coming. It makes me think of approaches to dieting. Labeling habits as “good” or “bad” (like food) probably works against us. Wisdom around healthy eating starts with being aware of what you are getting from the food you eat and how it makes your body feel. I think the same can be said for work habits. It sounds like you’ve become really aware of some of your habits and the negative outcomes. Perhaps spend some time focusing on the habits that promote productivity???

    I don’t think we can “hack” or willpower our way into “good” habits any more than we can willpower our way into healthy eating. I like the book’s focus on really examining what you are doing but I don’t think the rewards & friction part will really hold out in the end.

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      I definitely have all the problems I have on a desktop! Though I am not on instagram or facebook, which definitely limits their use as they are designed to take people’s information and they don’t want someone to be able to see a restaurant’s facebook page without facebook being able to track them. Facebook (which owns instagram) is an evil evil company.

      Sounds like you are more into the hopelessness of changing habits that Wendy Wood talks about. Hopelessness of course is self-fulfilling. The thing is, I have had these specific good habits before, so I should be able to reclaim them.

  2. rose Says:

    Wow. That is carefully laid out. Avoiding temptations. Limiting access. Setting the stage for winning.
    I’d add telling someone else the plan regularly in advance as helpful.
    THEN: SELF PRAISING verbally, aloud (to even just your self) about what you got done (specifics with details) and how proud you are of yourself. (I know. Feels stupid. Feels like ‘gold stars for using potty’ silly.)
    But, in fact, self praising is really really important.
    It is not bragging.
    It is not ‘unbecoming in women’.
    It is important for mental health and self-image.
    It makes your world happier.
    It makes maintaining good habits easier.
    It is also hard, so hard, to say “I did X and that was great and I am proud of myself for it.” Watch yourself worry that those words will make your tongue swell up, turn bright green with sky blue polka dots, and you will die. Huh?! That doesn’t happen?! In fact you smiled. …. And your day got brighter.
    I am looking forward to hearing more about your implementations and successes. THANK YOU for writing about this topic. It is not easy.

  3. Michael N Nitabach Says:

    Wow, this is some srsly complicated shittolio! I get myself to do what I need to do with self-talk about future consequences: what a f*cken disaster it’ll be if I don’t do them & how f*cken awesome it’ll be if I do them.

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      I think that’s harder now than it used to be because the worst case scenario is no longer that I’ll live in a van down by the river. That willpower channel is no longer believable. And the how awesome is pretty demoralizing because I can do amazing groundbreaking work and end up published in a field journal (if that) because no single reviewer understands it all (and explaining it all makes it tooooo lonnnng).

      • Debbie M Says:

        Wow, that’s depressing. Are there amazing papers you can recommend for explaining the confusing bits? Maybe footnotes pointing to these would be okay? Can you recommend reviewers that *would* understand it all?

    • Michael N Nitabach Says:

      At this point in my career trajectory, the disasters & awesomenesses are all abt the careers of the students & post-docs in my lab, not abt me. And my concern for their well-being & fulfillment thus keeps salience high.

      • nicoleandmaggie Says:

        Alas, I do not have a lab. And we try to have our advisees have solo-authored papers (unless coauthorship comes with money).

        So I’m really fast at getting feedback to students!

  4. Alice Says:

    I don’t know about fitting it into the laws of creating good habits, but– looking at your list (and thinking about my own life and work habits), it looks like a lot of your distractions from the habits you want are internet-related. I work from home, and have done so since 2002. When I’m having trouble focusing or if I have a major deadline, I’ll press the button on my laptop to turn off the wifi connection. It shuts off my ability to do an unthinking, “oh, I’ll just…” that can lead me down rabbit holes. And it stops the e-mail pings until I’m at a pause point and can look at them more purposefully. I don’t do it often, but it’s what I do when I need to. (The other stuff I do more often is more garden variety– clean desk, dress up, move the laptop to the couch for a few hours if i need a change of scene, calendar/to-do, etc.).

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      Yes, that’s definitely a problem!

      One major problem is that one of the projects I’m working with requires me to work from a server. Though I guess I could set up a Unix box… DH has done that before. It just requires money and a place to put another computer. (Last time we tried to partition a harddrive to be half unix half windows it was waaaay more trouble than it was worth.)

      I really need to think about changing where I work at home. :/ Maybe I should try setting up the laptop and an extra monitor in the dining room or something to see if that helps.

      • xykademiqz Says:

        Re changing where you work at home. To me, how much light I get is really important. Unfortunately, my desktop is in my and DH’s shared office, which is more of a man cave in part of where it is located (under a tree, facing west) and is well optimized for his gaming but not for my work. I will often take laptop and sit in dining room or elsewhere when I need to focus.

        In general, I try to indulge myself as much as I can. If there’s something I want to do, I let myself do it first thing in the morning, at least a little bit. I do work well in a crunch; it’s more exhausting than it used to be, but I can still do a ridiculous amount of work in a small amount of time if motivated and otherwise with a full creative tank.

        I personally think that optimal strategies for productivity are dictated by personality and can be hacked to an extent. I used to be much more regimented before; I beat myself up more and was much more anxious about external recognition and failing to receive it. I also had way fewer activities than I do now. These days, I’m all about self-indulgence and following my bliss while maintaining the research ship on course.

        PS. Facebook is evil, evil, EEE-VIL. Why people give it access to any information is beyond me.

  5. Lisa Says:

    When I’m trying to get writing done, I find it helpful to (a) avoid all internet until I’ve started and (b) open my project document(s) as soon as possible when I get to work and commit to spending 15-20 minutes/day on it. I almost always stretch that to more, sometimes lots more, but it’s enough to get me started and to keep me thinking about it when I’m busy with teaching/service.

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      I really need to get back to that! It has worked for me in the past too. I’m not really at a writing stage for anything right now and I need to be because it is such a good way to start the day.

      I sort of feel like I have a big blockage in the pipeline of my work– not sure if it’s best to try to blast it out or to dissolve it. I have break after we get back from the in-laws to figure it out!

  6. nicoleandmaggie Says:

  7. Cloud Says:

    I work from home one day a week and my two “tricks” are that I have a “I’m starting work now” routine (I make a pot of tea and take it to my office) and if I finish my to-do list in time, I get to go out for a rollerblade, which is my favorite thing in my weekly schedule. I’m not sure how generalizable the second one is, but I suspect that having a routine that signifies the break between hanging out at home and starting work is something that might be useful to a lot of people.

    I’m currently thinking about how I want to change my social media habits. I am finding that the mix of usefulness to time-wasting/energy-sucking is wrong for me right now, but I haven’t figured out how to fix it. I find some aspects of Twitter very useful so I hesitate to just quit… but it might come to that.

  8. Debbie M Says:

    Weird, none the make-it-attractive ideas actually make it attractive. It’s like the horrible educational math video games I reviewed when I was a teacher’s aid–all the fun parts were the parts where you weren’t doing math.

    When I think of making it attractive, I think of intrinsic rewards, not extrinsic. Now, I know very little about your work, so I’ll just throw out some random brainstorming in case something sparks a good idea for you:
    * Focus on research that is based on research of people whose papers are fun to read.
    * Focus on the part of research that is fun for you, delegating the icky parts to others. You probably attract students who like what you like, so maybe find another faculty member you can share students with.
    * If you are using icky software, switch to better software or find an expert to help make it less icky for you.
    * Or even just make it prettier. Use pretty colors on your spreadsheets, use nice paper and pens, etc.; use gorgeous unprofessional fonts (that you change back at the last minute).
    * Make your chair nicer–better for your back, or with a heating pad, or put a sissel rug against the back so you can rub your back on it (this idea is from my grandma), or have better lighting or change to comfy slippers or something.
    * Volunteer for service that sounds more fun (to you), asking to trade it for something less fun. Or get more fun colleagues to work with you on your service projects.

    On making it easy, it didn’t quite say break things down into smaller parts (it did say make two-minute tasks). But if your work is overwhelming and small victories are motivating, that could help. But if small victories just make you want to stop and celebrate, maybe do the opposite and organize your goals in bigger, full-day chunks.

  9. First Gen American Says:

    Many of the thoughts I have are similar to Debbie M. It sounds like you are at the point where financially you could quit your job and be fine. This also put me in a rut for a while…what do I do? So I started doing only the most enjoyable parts of my job that hit my metrics and pushed back on the rest. I thought it would negatively affect my career but it made me more productive and creative and my performance ratings actually went up…I can go into a whole rant about the Patriarchy here but I won’t. In the end, I started doing stuff no one else was doing and it made me stand out in a good way. Early on in my career, I was super ambitious and that in itself was fuel enough to work hard, but once I had to balance it with 100 other personal goals around family, the ambition had to be replaced with balance…and for a person who likes to go all in, that’s not easy.

    I still think you need to find the nuggets in the work that you find the most fulfilling and see if you can expand that part of the work. Is there a wacky research topic that you’ve been dying to explore but think it wouldn’t fly? Why not try it? One thing I started doing more of is mentoring and that’s helped too. Screw the habits…focus on making the work better so you’re not escaping to the internet. Find a trusted friend who doesn’t think like you and brainstorm how to change your job to more what you want it to be.

    Sometimes I feel so brain dead I don’t know what the next task should be. I literally have been playing whack a mole lately at work and have completely forgotten about tasks I’ve completed recently until I look back in my emails. It’s a little scary. Hoping some time off will reset the brain but I think this is also a symptom of mindless work that is not fulfilling and I need to have a critical look at it again.

    Good luck.

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      Right now none of that is up to me— I did the work I found enjoyable. It presents well. It just got its 6th straight rejection on Dec 23rd (just in time for Christmas) and I don’t know where to send it next. It’s demoralizing trying to publish.

      I would have been better off not taking chances and sticking to less innovative stuff. That’s demoralizing.

      • Debbie M Says:

        Oh, yikes. Multiple rejections are indeed demoralizing. I do know someone who wrote short stories who created his goals in terms of submissions rather than acceptances, which was much more under his control. But it’s tough when you run out of places. But it’s also demoralizing to stop taking chances and do boring stuff.

        I wonder if you can continue with this same thing but tie it to applications or similar fields, thus opening up new possibilities for publication. Or if you can generate excitement some other way like making a video (it’s the digital age!) or presenting at a conference. And I will also encourage you to send it to places where you think it’s relevant but you don’t have much of a chance (if you haven’t already), because who knows? Or maybe other countries? Sorry, I know my brainstorming sucks.

        Hang in there. You know we’re all rooting for you! And for innovative work!

      • nicoleandmaggie Says:

        It’s been presented all over the place. It presents really well. I don’t think there are any major conferences left for it. Other countries are not really valid because they’re ranked lower and if this work ends up in a second tier journal or lower it will have negative effects on later related work.

      • First Gen American Says:

        I fail a lot in my job (trying to penetrate our technology into brand new spaces) like over 70% of the time….and it can get to you after a while especially when you were sure something should have been one of the ones that succeeded. I was in a funk for months the last time a big one like that failed and I thought it was going to make my year. Eventually, I did pull myself out of it but it took immersing myself in another big project to get there. Hang In There. You’ll pull yourself out. It’s only a matter of time.

  10. CG Says:

    Re: the rejected article. That is super demoralizing. Do you know any experienced journal editors well enough to call up and ask for suggestions about where to send it? I had a “bad penny” paper (kept coming back) that I really needed to get published, both because I wanted it in my tally for tenure, and because its whole point was to specify a concept that no one had yet specified in my field and I wanted to cite it in future work. I called a well-regarded editor of a well-regarded journal that I knew slightly (she used to work at my institution) and said, I’ve got this paper and I know it’s not something you’d publish, but who would? She pointed me to a lower-tier journal that accepted it with minor revisions. It’s not my most-cited paper, but _I_ can now cite it! Maybe there’s someone like that in your field who could steer you in the right direction?

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      I have — unfortunately I’ve been getting really bad luck. Good advice but bad luck. I can’t go into more details but it’s demoralizing.

      Thing is, many people thought a top journal would publish this one and I did get mixed reviews from a top journal. But the places top journals recommended I send it desk rejected or in this most recent thing bad luck. And there’s bad luck I can already foresee for the next two obvious places.

  11. jls Says:

    Regarding the make it attractive issue, can I suggest checking out the app Forest? (you do need either an Android or Apple phone for it.) I stumbled onto it in September when I was trying to solve my own work problem and looking for a minimal Pomodoro-type app, and have been utterly delighted by it and its effect on my work habits. It’s essentially a gamified Pomodoro: you start a work timer (basic unit 25 minutes, but as low as 10 and up to 120), which plants a virtual tree. Successfully planting a tree earns rewards (and some of the trees are very pretty). I have to be on the honor system for it — it can’t be used to Internet-block a desktop, and some of the work I need to chug through is Internet-based — so there are definitely loopholes that could be exploited, but all in all I have found it a remarkably successful incentive system for getting focused work done. Obviously what I find motivatingly attractive is not necessarily what you find motivatingly attractive, but just in case it helps I thought I would mention it.

  12. SP Says:

    How is this going? Can you provide an update on what perked for you? I guess probably later in the month, because I expect holidays were not very productive.

    I’ve been having issues with this too. Part of it is that my personal life has been really distracting (mostly just getting a handle on being a parent, nothing abnormal, just life stuff). Part of it is sooooo much autonomy at my current job. Part of it is that I’m at the beginning of several major work tasks and I’m a little overwhelmed on how to start/progress because I don’t have a good vision of where I’m going. Plus, the beginning is always hard for me. I think there are some other causes. Maybe I should stop ruminating on why and work on fixing…

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      You are correct that the holidays have not been very productive! I also got hit with a bunch of bad work luck which put me in a funk (which I guess is good schadenfreude for people likely to be upset at the upcoming “I am awesome and so are you” post) which didn’t help. (AND in non-work bad luck, the zipper on my favorite jeans broke and none of my other jeans currently fit. I am trying to decide if getting the zipper replaced on a pair of 20+ year old jeans with fashionably worn through fabric is a good idea or not.)

      One thing is that there’s just too much stuff in the creating good habits and removing bad ones– I’m going to need to go through the list and check off the things I did (extending leechblock etc.) and then streamline anything that’s going to take willpower because just remembering what I said I’d start doing is non-trivial. That’s a reason simple habits are easier to change! But changing just one thing here isn’t going to help– I need to get back to my previous normal.

      It also doesn’t help that all my econ colleagues/coauthors are in San Dieeeeegoooo but I didn’t get in to the conference this year. :( So I have a ton of deadlines on Jan 7th when people get back. Luckily most of my RAs get back next week and the kids are back in school but classes haven’t started. So that’ll be a good time to start again.

      And I’m not sure the work badluck streak is over yet– both my work computer and laptop bluescreened at the same time today while they were doing NOTHING which makes me think that I should just work from home for the rest of my life.

      (sigh)

  13. booksplusbusiness2 Says:

    I really like your plan. I really enjoyed Atomic Habit by James Clear.
    I was able to use his strategies place triggers around me to jump into my workout after work. I would drink protein shakes 30 minutes before I left work. Listen to workout videos or motivation videos driving home. Then run to my room and change into my workout clothes and run to the gym. It really helps having a plan and triggers.


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