I wish I could adequately describe the feeling I get each morning when Mia is safely dropped off at school and I'm alone in the house, the point when I'm supposed to start my work day. Somehow everything that seemed so urgent when I ran out of time yesterday afternoon feels nebulous and far away. I tell myself I'm going to get started early today, but instead I open the computer and check Facebook, email, a few blogs. I'll just chill out for a few minutes while I drink my last cup of coffee, I tell myself. But the truth is, I don't want to face my work and all that it entails. Just a couple minutes longer, I think as I finish the coffee, and the next thing I know an hour has passed, maybe two. If too much time goes by, the tone for the day is set: unproductive, sluggish, unhappy.
My multipart new year's resolution about computer use has been a total flop. I knew when I made it that I was breaking all the rules of habit change, but I somehow imagined I would summon the willpower that other people couldn't. Turns out I'm just like everyone else, ready to slide back into old habits over and over again, no matter how bad they make me feel. So, it's time for a new plan.
I've been hearing a lot about how habits work lately, both at Zen Habits and now from a New York Times writer who has a new book about how most of our behavior is ruled by unconscious habits. This writer describes the process that happens in our brain. First there is the trigger, then there is the habitual behavior, and then there is the reward the behavior gives you (however fleeting). The idea is that if you identify the trigger and the reward, you can develop a new habit that will get you the same reward. Everyone seems to say that we should try to change only one habit at a time, so I'm going to focus on my computer procrastination at the beginning of my workday.
The trigger: Opening my computer at the beginning of the day
The habitual behavior: Wasting hours procrastinating on the internet
The reward: Putting off something I fear
This is a tough one, because the reward is problematic. I'd like to be able to face that fear and do my work anyway. But for now, maybe I could structure my "putting off" time in a way that it isn't so soul-sucking and demoralizing, and that it doesn't end up eating up multiple hours a day. I'm going to allot one hour every morning for non-work activities. That feels really hard, because I start every day with the fantasy that, today, for once, I'm going to get started early, goddammit! But all this fantasy does is push me into the same old trap again and again. The reality is that if I get to work exactly one hour after dropping Mia off for school, it will be a significant improvement. And if I actually schedule this hour into my day, it will no longer be a source of guilt and shame that infects my whole day.
I'm still not sure the best way to manage that hour. I'm thinking it should involve using the computer, without the pressure to do any work. Otherwise, I'm just delaying the trigger by an hour, and I'll still have to face that first opening of the laptop at the beginning of my workday. So the plan is that during that hour, I'm allowed to spend about half the time doing non-work related stuff on the computer. I'd also like to use the time to eat breakfast, meditate, listen to music, make calls to family, straighten up the house, cook, walk the dog, etc.
And then, after one hour, it's time to get started. That's still going to be a hard time for me, but on days when it feels impossible, I'm going to ask myself to work for just five minutes before doing anything else. Just five minutes. Because it's just looking at the work for the first time that's often the hardest, and if I can get over that hurdle, I just might make it. Don't know if this will work, but I'm going to try. And right now, my hour is up...