This is the third episode of Digital Control, a season about how we can transform our relationship with our phone and its promises. Our host is Cristina Chipurici, content creator seeking for ways of doing things better.
In this episode we are talking about how every micro-decision is consuming our will power and self-control, and about the power of a routine that can help us to focus.
“I need to start working out again. Jogging, something.”
“Less time on social media, more time reading.”
“Start writing again.”
I casually opened a page in my journal, and I found these bullet points with my resolutions for 2014, with a highlight on the things I didn’t like myself in that moment.
It’s as if there’s 2 different people living in my head. There’s that Cristina that thinks and plans big things, and there’s that Cristina which is very rarely reacting in harmony with her head mate. I am ashamed it took me so long to bring both of them on the same path: from the moment I started being aware that I need some changes, until I actually started to action (and it doesn’t always turn out right).
I like to devour articles about the routines of those highly performing, but I kept telling myself for a long time that it’s not for me. I was convinced that having a routine wouldn’t allow me to be as independent. Over time I realized that when I have too much freedom, when I am waiting for the willingness to come, for the mood or muse to hit me to do something, I end up not doing much.
I understand now why David Brooks was saying that creative people are disciplined and organize their lives by routines: they think like artists but work like accountants.
All these new year resolutions only started to take shape after I built a routine for myself. I did everything I could to make it is sticking on to them, to not overthink the next step. I scheduled everything in my Google Calendar: at the end of the day, why wouldn’t I treat them as any other meeting or a visit to the dentist? They are just as important.
THE CONNECTION BETWEEN ROUTINE AND THE DIGITAL LIFE
Imagine we charge our “batteries” over night and we wake up every morning with our self-control power to 100%. Or a little less, especially if we didn’t sleep enough and the first thing we do is to snooze the alarm couple of times.
From the moment we wake up, every micro-decision is using our “battery”. The more we get stressed by the stimuli we are exposing ourselves to (see second episode), the quicker the battery will lose power.
Even the most obvious decisions are a part of it. What am I going to wear today? What route should I take to go to work so I can avoid the crowd? Where to order my food from? You have probably read as well about the “uniforms” of leaders that always dress up the same: Steve Jobs with his black turtleneck or Mark’s Zuckerberg wardrobe full of grey T-shirts. They automatized a process and got rid of taking another decision, that wasn’t very important to them.
The more we go through the day and we are exposed to all sorts of information that fight for our attention, the power of self-control decreases, and we risk ending up to something called “decision fatigue”. If we run everywhere like headless chickens, we waste our energy instead of using it for something that really matters.
Talking about the battery, be careful with this: when we start a task and we let ourselves get interrupted by a colleague, a Messenger we left open or a busy Slack channel, it takes us 23 minutes on an average to get back to what we were doing before. In case we manage to. And the battery consumption when we jump from one thing to another versus when we focus on just one thing? Enormous.
Think of those evenings when you got back home exhausted after a hard day at the office and you didn’t have energy for anything else but laying on the sofa and watching a series that was in trending on Netflix, bad eating (something with sugar preferably) and non-stop scrolling on Instagram.
The brain would have needed a small percentage of self-control to make better choices, but it doesn’t have it anymore, as you have wasted it on other stuff during the day. Therefore it’s normal that in the evening we won’t be able to read the novels we had on our list for this year, to pay attention to our family or friends, to exercise. We are going towards easy – and bad – choices.
When we don’t have prolonged concentration periods, we risk entering a vicious circle: we lose practice and, long term, we become more and more vulnerable to distractions. The quality of our work drops dramatically. We are achieving less and less of our plans.
I ended up starting my mornings the same way. I am grabbing my coffee and sit at my desk, where my journal, my agenda and my books are waiting for me. I am writing in my journal, so I can clear my mind of all the rotting thoughts. I am opening a book and I am starting to read a few pages – not too many, enough to start becoming impatient of starting writing. I have already wrote down in my agenda what do I have to work to that day, so I won’t have to waste my time wondering what am I going to write about.
I am writing at least 500 words every morning. I would bin many of them, but some come out right and they build up in time. In 2019 I wrote tens of thousands of words.
I am not touching my phone until I finish with this routine. To make it easier, I am not sleeping with my phone in the bedroom, I am leaving it somewhere else in the house, on silent and with no wi-fi connection.
If I have meetings in the morning, I am trying to wake up earlier so I can go through the whole routine. If it’s a weekend or I am on holiday, my days start the same.
I am not aiming to “read more” anymore, but if I read at least 10 pages every morning it adds up. In 2014 I was reading 10 books a year, slowly I ended reading 30, then 50 and in 2019, 60.
Sports wise? I started jogging alone couple of times and I didn’t manage to keep on going. Until the beginning of 2015, when I joined a group. My jogging mates have been by my side when it was becoming hard for me, when my lungs were screaming, and I wanted to quit. We are meeting every week, same day, same place, same time, no matter the weather, and if I skip they call me to ask if I am OK.
I didn’t quit jogging anymore ever since. Once the group habit was formed, it was easy for to start training alone every other day of the week as well.
WHAT CAN YOU DO?
1. Automatize. Good news? The willingness is like a muscle that we can train. It is important to be aware of every micro-decision that is consuming us and, at the same time, to accept that in a normal day we have a finite capacity to focus and do quality work.
Maybe you can’t control how your day goes, but you can start building a routine for the way you are ending it. Put it in writing, automatize as much as possible, think how you can eliminate some of the decisions, noise or any other external factor that could interfere with your concentration.
You can prepare the agenda with the things you are planning to do in the morning and everything to help you achieving it the evening before. For example, if you want to exercise, you will prepare the workout outfit and shoes, so in the morning you won’t have to think about it, but only start doing it.
If you want to read more, you can wake up 20 minutes earlier to go through 10 pages of non-fiction (I estimated 2 minutes per page). Or you can end up your day with 10 pages of fiction, so you can give your brain the opportunity to disconnect before sleeping. On paper, ok? So you can avoid the temptation of opening other apps.
2. Create recurrence. You can block recurrent tasks in your calendar: no matter what is going on, every Tuesday you have jogging in the park scheduled for example. And also let your peers know, because it will always be easier to keep up when you will have a group to keep you accountable.
It’s not enough to decide isolating yourself from your phone or laptop, because it’s not going to work long term. You need alternatives to focus on, to replace that behaviour with positive experiences.
Don’t forget through to be patient to yourself. You built these harmful habits over years, don’t expect to get rid of them over night. It took me years until I managed to change something. But when I’ll be 80 I don’t think I will regret I didn’t spend more time in inboxes.
HOW IS IT GOING?
What is the routine that helps you the most? What is the change you’ve made in the past years that kept your battery charged longer? What did you try from the tools I recommended so far? Send an e-mail to xx and let us know. You are not the only one facing these issues.
RECOMMENDATIONS FROM CRISTINA AND DOR
We all need more support in keeping up with the good habits we start. Here’s some helpful tools.
I read a lot (maybe too much) about building new habits and how to get rid of the bad ones. Two of the best books I read on the subject are Atomic Habits by James Clear (it’s personal and has a practical focus) and The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg, which involves a lot of neuroscience and examples from various fields.
Two podcasts: here’s one about how to form a new habit (hint: by creating rewards) and here one about the complicated resorts in the brain that end up creating a fissure between who we say we are an how we are behaving in reality. And if you want a guide to remind you everything we talked about, here’s how to make a resolution to hold on to. (DoR Team)