Defaults and Cues for Improving Life

Humans are creatures of habit; blame it on our need to feed (refuel) or need to sleep (recharge), but we regularly find ourselves set in our ways of how we go about things, how we see things, and how we resolve things.  This can be good when we establish habits that are good and beneficial to our health, relationships  and work.  However, it can also be detrimental when we form habits that negatively impact our health, relationships, and work.  A part of my life has been trying to improve upon the more problematic or unhealthy habits I've accumulated along the way through circumstance, accident, or overindulgence.

There are two great strategies that I've found to help me make reasonable changes that direct me towards more healthy habits without a lot of internal struggle or relapse into bad habits.  They work well with redirecting my energies and thoughts, enabling me to make the better choices more often than the bad choices (which is what it's all about, no?). 

Strategy #1:  Defaults

Dan Arielly has me thinking lots about default settings.  In the chart below, he examines the difference in organ donor rates among different European countries. As can be seen by the chart, countries are either extremely high or extremely low in their capacity to donate organs.  The reasoning for this is that the countries with low organ donor rates sets the default as "not a donor" whereas the countries with a high organ donor rate sets the default as "donor".  Because it is a default--not necessarily because people are more ethically dedicated to their fellow humans in those countries.

That's not entirely surprising for some.  After all, companies all the time create the a service the default (e.g. automatic renewal, monthly subscriptions, etc) and make opting out a required conscious (and often tedious) act.  However, it can be used to help one reorganize and refocus one's efforts.  Thus I have spent a good deal (and continue to do so) creating beneficial defaults for my life that produce healthier and more rewarding results.
No passivity while watching TV

In hindsight, creating and using a standing desk at both home and work was one such default.  I changed the default of sitting around to standing around.  In my life, this idea continued to grow until I fundamentally changed my living room into an activity room.  Between standing desk, treadmill, and spin bike, if I'm inclined to watch TV, I'm inclined to be active.  If I want to sit down and watch TV, then I have to consciously move a chair around to do so.   This has significantly changed my level of activity and screen time.  I still enjoy watching films or TV shows but rarely do I just sit in front of the TV And to be clear, I understand the reason for wanting to just do that (sit and watch TV), but many of us create that as the default and probably do way more of it than we want--many is the time that people share with me how much time they waste watching TV or ask me how I do so much.  Some of it is just that I don't let the time-suck that can be sitting in front of the TV consume my hours.  

Notice with both chairs, to use
them for TV, requires
a conscious act.
Similarly to this, I have purposely made my bedroom a TV-free room.  I have plenty of books in my bedroom and ample lighting, but no TV.  Electronics are for other rooms, my bedroom is for sleeping and reading.  In that way, it gives me a distraction-free zone to enjoy and get lost in a good book.

There are many other defaults that I set.  The book Mindless Eating pushed me to reset certain defaults in my kitchen, including getting smaller dishes for my meals.  They recommend smaller cups as well, but since all I ever have in refrigerator for drink is coffee, tea (home-brewed), and water, I'm less inclined to follow that recommendation.  However, if you are someone drinking other types of calorie-heavy beverages, it might also be a consideration.

I still want my treats;
but the giant back is too inviting
The "snack-size" version now popular in many grocery stores is a great idea for setting a size default, but I had trouble with the environmental side effect of wasting all that extra packaging so regularly.  My solution to this was to buy the large bin worth, open it up, and break it into small reusable plastic contains.  (and depending on the snack, rewashing after every use isn't always necessary.  This way I can have my sweets or less healthy snacks but not necessarily overindulge as a large contain would lend me to do.
Morning routines can sometimes be hard to get into and I find that if my default is to set my clothes out the night before along with my meal for work and my breakfast (by set out, I mean prepare enough so that the bare minimum is needed, e.g. add liquid, microwave, or just open), it makes getting up much smoother.  The major blockades have been dealt with and it's just about acclimating to the new day.  This can work particularly well if you want to try to go to gym or work out in the morning; pack the back the night before and there's less to argue against in the morning.

Strategy 2:  Cues

Cues are a great mechanism to get remind you to do something.  We use cues all the time.  Traffic signs are cues.  The classic string around the finger is a cue.  I've collected a handful of useful cues that help me better keep focus and organize my life.

The most promising cue that has worked for me is being vegetarian.  I became vegetarian for health, environmental, and ethical reasons, but at the end of the day, it's mostly about the health impact.  Being vegetarian means that I do have to make conscious decisions about what to eat.  Given that we are a meat-centric society (want proof--go into a restaurant--what's the ratio of meat to meatless meals?), by saying that I won't eat meat means I have to consciously think about what I am eating.  In doing so, this acts as a cue to pay attention to what I'm eating.  That in turn makes me do better (more often than not, at least) in making sure I eat a reasonable amount of food and not necessarily overeat or mindlessly eat when I'm not actually hungry.

Other cues that work well for me is where I place my work bag at night.  Different days determine different things to throw in the bag and sometimes some of those things are still linked/charging on my computer or may be what I'm reading before going to bed.  Regardless, at night, I place my bag either at my desk or by the door.  If I place it by the door, that cue tells me it is ready to go.  If the bag is by the desk, it tells me I still need to put stuff in it.  My water canteen cues me to regularly drink water.  I always try to carry it on me and when I do, I'm prone to drink and refill it twice a day or more (upwards of 80-120 oz).

Finally, I use (ok, abuse) my Google Calendar to help generate cues for different things to do around the apartment.  I can fill up my calendar with regular reminders about the different things that need regular doing (e.g. changing the litter box, washing the sheets, etc)--habitual things that I will forget at times (that is, forget exactly when I did them last) and can use some consistent cues to keep me on track.  These calendar events will be sent as reminders to me in my email or cellphone, making it much easier for me to stay on top of life and the regular needed chores.

Recommended Reading

The following books have proved helpful in getting me to come up with these ideas.
  • The Honest Truth About Dishonesty: How We Lie to Everyone--Especially Ourselves by Dan Ariely
  • Consumed: How Markets Corrupt Children, Infantilize Adults & Swallow Citizens Whole by Benjamin R. Barber 
  • Sway: The Irresistible Pull of Irrational Behavior by Ori Brafman
  • Shop Class as Soulcraft: An Inquiry Into the Value of Work by Matthew Crawford
  • The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business by Charles Duhigg
  • Switch: How to Change Things When Change Is Hard by Chip Heath
  • Mindfulness by Ellen Langer
  • Imagine: How Creativity Works by Jonah Lehrer
  • Brain Rules: 12 Principles for Surviving and Thriving at Work, Home, and School by John Medina
  • Wait: The Art and Science of Delay by Frank Partnoy
  • Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us by Daniel Pink
  • Food Rules: An Eater's Manual by Michael Pollan
  • In Defense of Food: An Eater's Manifesto by Michael Pollan
  • Cheap: The High Cost of Discount Culture by Ellen Ruppel Shell
  • Here Comes Everybody: The Power of Organizing Without Organizations by Clay Shirky
  • The Wisdom of Crowds by James Surowiecki
  • Mindless Eating: Why We Eat More Than We Think by Brian Wansink

What kind of defaults and cues do you use to help organize your life and keep sane (or partially sane)?

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