As I have addressed in the first part of this article, whether we like it or not, our lives depend on our habits. Even though these might be variable, good, bad, healthy, unhealthy, we rely on our peculiar set of habits to structure our lives, as otherwise, it is impossible to cope with the daily routines ahead of us. The question is that some of these habits aren´t helpful or healthy at all. How can we change them, when willpower is not enough ?
Why is often so difficult to change our habits? There isn’t enough room here to respond adequately, and I’m not sure I know enough to answer fully anyway. All I wish to do is bring to your attention two important questions which are key factors in our ability to change.
Firstly, I’m going to speak about our tendency to choose the path of least resistance. Or in other words, we tend to go for what comes easiest (unless a better option presents itself). I’ll go into this in more detail later. Secondly, there is the question of our distractions. It’s not that there are too many distractions. The real problem is, how readily we allow them to distract us!
3. Two questions to Bear in Mind
The path of least resistance
We’re only human, you and me both, dear reader. If we are not the exception that proves the rule, we are then more likely to be the one taking the path of least resistance. So what do I mean by this? Plainly, we tend to look for the easy way out. I’ll get round to explaining exactly what I mean by giving practical examples.
Pastimes considered to require physical energy, such as hobbies or sports, tend to be rather enjoyable and beneficial for us. However, sometimes we tend to go for something a bit more sedentary, since it seems to be easier to do, at first sight. We end up switching on the television with the remote and spending hours glued to the screen. In general, such passive activities are only fulfilling for short periods of time (something like 30 minutes).
In other words, more strenuous pastimes (however enjoyable they may be) normally require us to invest more energy to get started. If you want to play guitar, you have to go fetch it; if you feel like riding a bicycle that means leaving the house and so on. It can then seem more appealing to just switch on the TV with the remote control.
All our lives we tend to choose the path of least resistance. To give another example, take mobile phones with their variety of ring tones. The greatest majority of us will just stick for the default ring tone, even though there might be other ringtones that we might prefer. Most of us don’t even bother to listen to them all, to see how they sound like. And why is that?
Companies are well aware how passive we tend to be. That’s why supermarket shelves are stocked with more expensive goods at eye level – they sell more. Hence also offering us those free magazine subscriptions with the option to cancel (they know full well that more often than not, we won’t).
For better or for worse, our habits follow the same pattern of least resistance, because the reality is that it is easier to keep doing the same old thing repeatedly. That’s all well and good, if our habits contribute to our success and happiness. The problem is if they don’t.
Sometimes the truth is more complicated. Habits we think are good for us aren’t always so (and vice-versa). In any case, if we want to improve our lives and get rid of any kind of unhealthy habit, we have to get out of our comfort zone. But as we shall see, the resistance to change can be overcome.
Another hurdle to changing the habits of a lifetime are our distractions (and temptations). Beaware though that it’s not so much the sheer number of distractions and temptations all around us that can distract us, but how readily we allow them to distract us.
There’s more to this than meets the eye. According to studies referred to by doctor Shawn Achor in his book The Happiness Advantage, when we work we are interrupted, on average, every 11 minutes. But even more crucially, it takes us another 11 minutes to get our concentration back. This can hardly be good for us.
These days, computers are to blame for getting us side-tracked so often. This is all the more true when we are connected to the internet, with its attractives such as email and social networks, such as Facebook. How many times a day, on average, do we check our inbox and the social websites? I don’t know, but I daresay it’s far too often.
Timothy Ferriss, author of the best-seller The 4-Hour Workweek: Escape 9-5, Live Anywhere, and Join the New Rich is the owner of two separate computers which is his way to avoid getting side-tracked. He uses one computer for writing, which does not have access to the internet, (maybe something I should also do). Then, he has a second computer that has access to the internet, the one he uses for checking email and social websites.
In other words, his writing and his distractions are kept at arm’s length. Some can argue with his decision of having two computers by pointing out for example how it might be an extra hassle, as for example if you need to see your messages you have to boot up your other computer. Tim Ferris’ strategy (making it more difficult to be distracted) has a lot to do with one of the two strategies I’ll be address later on in the text.
Another main reason that makes us constantly side-tracked is the mobile phone, that can get us constantly interrupted by calls all day long. What’s more, as our phones are increasingly like our computers with permanent internet access and all kinds of applications the chance that we are being permanently interrupted and distracted, increases considerably.
What about muting our mobile phones whenever we need to concentrate on something? That way we avoid being distracted by it ringing all the time. There are also those however, who insist on checking for calls or messages, even when their phone is on mute. One extreme solution to this problem would be to simply turn off our phones for a while.
I’m not saying mobile phones aren’t useful. However, we have to be the ones in charge, not the other way around.
Ivo Dias de Sousa is a Portuguese writer born in Mozambique. Ivo is also a Professor at Universidade Aberta, Portugal, giving courses on information management. Currently, Ivo is interested in using his experience on information management to construct applications (see http://windit-app.com/ ) for smartphones, in collaboration with others. Ivo holds a Master in Statistics and Information Management (Universidade Nova de Lisboa) and a Ph.D. in Information Management (Universidade Aberta). Amongst his main interests are information management, psychology of luck and literature.