How I took control of my time (and how to break bad habits)

Over the past few years I've had a terrible habit of frittering away time checking email. Because I work from home and because my computer is always on and open, I found myself constantly checking my messages throughout the day. Each year I vowed to break the habit but the addiction was stronger than my willpower. 

This year I made a commitment to take back control of my day. First, I investigated the habit and explored why it had such a strong hold on me. 

  1. It's a dopamine issue. Each time I check my email I get a hit. (Remember that movie You've Got Mail with Meg Ryan and Tom Hanks? That "ding" of a new message was music to their ears) Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that causes you to seek out rewards and propels you into action. Interestingly brain scan research shows that there's more dopamine activity when people are ANTICIPATING a reward than getting one. Hence, it was my anticipation of getting a new email that kept me hooked. 

  2. I was constantly exposing myself to triggers. I had a habit of keeping my email window open so that I could tell every time I received a new message. Which means every few minutes I would interrupt what I was working on and switch tasks to see what gifted my inbox. This made getting in the zone an uphill battle that I was sure to lose. 

  3. I had no boundaries. I didn't create any rules for myself around how I use my time and how I do my work. 

Then I decided to put all of my knowledge of behavior change to the test and commit to breaking the habit once and for all and stop being a slave to my inbox! 

Having my own business and working for myself means that there's no one to hold me accountable to my projects and to create deadlines for me to adhere to. This unbounded freedom of how I spend my days means that I needed to create my own rules to follow if I want to get anything accomplished. And because I have a lot that I want to do, it was very important to me to make some serious changes in how I spend my time.  

So after reading The 12 Week Year for the third time, I decided to be disciplined about using the time blocking system outlined in the book. I decided on set times I would check my email and set times I would single-focus on getting work done, undistracted by the continuous stream of emails infiltrating my inbox. I promised myself to close out all the windows except what I was working on (no triggers). I told my husband I was doing this to create public accountability. Now, when it's time to check my email I set a timer and stay within the boundaries I've created.  

So why was I finally able to make the change? Let's break it down into a few steps so that you can apply it to a bad habit YOU want to break: 

  1. I recognized the challenge. I realized I was addicted. Once I was aware of the pattern I was in, I had the power to change it.  

  2. I had a powerful enough why. I have big goals that I'm serious about accomplishing. I can’t afford to waste my precious time on email. Those messages can wait a few hours! It was important enough for me to make the change. 

  3. I identified the cue that triggered me to do the habit. Deconstruct when, where and why you are repeating the bad habit. Visual cues prompt certain behaviors. This is why it's so important that we architect our environment to support the behaviors we want to have. Remove triggers if possible (in this case I turned off notifications and closed out my email windows). If you can’t remove a trigger (for example if the trigger is emotional), then replace your bad habit with a better one.  

  4. I made a firm commitment. I had wanted to break this habit before but wasn't able to. It wasn't until I was 100% all in that I made it happen. I was ready to make the change.  

  5. I declared my goal to help me be accountable. By telling my husband he could remind me when I slipped (which happens from time-to-time). Sometimes we need outside support. Also, declaring your goals makes you 50% more likely to achieve them – we all want to have integrity with our word so we make more of an effort when we've made them public.  

  6. I created rules and set standards for myself and adhered to them. One of the great paradoxes is that boundaries = freedom. Initially it was hard for me to wrap my head around that one but the more I practice it, the more I know it from experience. By having boundaries around when I check my email, I broke free from the chains of the habit. I decided no email before I meditate and do my morning yoga practice and no email after 5pm.  

  7. Recognize the costs and rewards. Figure out what you're getting out of the habit. What's the reward for your behavior? In my case it was the hope of an exciting email. Giving up instant gratification is hard, but gaining productivity, being more present and more focused was worth it. What's it costing you to maintain your bad habit? What's the possibility if you break it? Remind yourself of this every time you're tempted.