Habit Breaking and Habit Making

22 Apr

Field experiment four was a sad lesson about the lack of self-control I am capable of employing when it comes to school work. In completing school assignments, I changed a lot of factors from my normal habits. I usually do most of my work in my bed, grabbing the materials I need as I work. But this time, I gathered all the books and other materials I would need before starting anything. I drafted a to-do list and tried to be as specific as possible, setting up lots of small accomplishable tasks to break up the overwhelming amount of work that I needed to do. Knowing that I usually have trouble focusing and often turn to social media when I’m feeling bored with what I’m working on, I decided to try a new technique that would make sure I felt stimulated while I was working. I turned on the TV, thinking that maybe multitasking on watching a show while working on reading might make me more productive. I closed out of the tabs I usually keep open on my web browser with Twitter and Facebook so I would not be tempted to check them, and even moved the social media apps on my phone from their normal position on the home screen to the last page of apps. Finally, I set time limits for myself. I gave myself forty-five minutes to complete each task on my to-do list, and decided whether or not I was finished with a task, after forty-five minutes I would move on to the next one.

I think that using Sean Achor’s concept from The Happiness Advantage of lowering the activation energy required for the tasks I needed to complete was a really great way to improve my productivity. Generally when I complete one task, I then need to revisit my syllabus to figure out my next assignment and then get the materials I need, during which time I am very prone to distraction since I am up and moving around the apartment. By preparing a to-do list and collecting all of the materials I needed, I was ready for each new task and did not waste as much time between tasks as I usually do. Raising the activation energy of my social media sites was also effective. Even though I did not totally break the habit of being distracted from my work and wanting to check my social media sites, since I had to open a new tab on my web browser or flip to the last page of my apps, I usually decided against actually going to the site. However, I did not ever really feel myself enter into flow, though I did experience some of the rewarding elements of flow.

One element of flow I became very aware of was that of goals and feedback. Having a to-do list was a large part of this, but simply being aware of the goal of productivity was also extremely helpful. This awareness made me feel much more driven to complete my work, and brought me back into focus when my mind started to wander. Control was another element of flow that I felt very aware of while I worked. Again, the to-do list was beneficial because despite its length, it consisted of tasks that I knew I had the skills to accomplish. Had the work gone faster, I think I really would have felt like I had mastered all the tasks required of me and felt even more confidence and control over my responsibilities. Unfortunately, my mind still did wander and I was not able to complete all the items on my list in one sitting, resulting in some feelings of disappointment in myself and the experiment. The next time I make a concerted effort to use techniques to try and achieve flow, I think I will set a timer on my phone so that I am really committed to the time limits I set for myself. The race against the clock was not as urgent as it could have been, and I think a visual count down of the time that has passed or the time remaining to work on a task will motivate me to focus and get everything done.

Although I was not as thrilled by the results of this experiment as I hoped I would be, there was definitely an overall positive outcome. I often procrastinate, and seem to work best under tight deadlines. Even though I did not finish everything I set out to do, it was nice to see a significant amount of my work for the week already completed or at least well on its way to being completed. However, I struggled and was especially unsuccessful in two particular areas of the experiment, leading me to make some changes midway through. First, the attempt to multitask by watching television while I worked was an absolute failure that put me an hour and a half behind my timeline. For the first forty minutes of “working” I got absolutely nothing done because I was so distracted by the show that was on. After that first episode finished and I realized how unproductive I had been, I gathered my motivation and tried once more to read and annotate a book while the television was on. I got through about five pages in an hour, so once that episode was finished I turned the television off. I was driven to be productive and it clearly was not helping.

The other area in which I was particularly unsuccessful was completing my tasks in the time I had allotted–forty-five minutes. Of the nine items on my to-do list, I was only able to complete three in forty-five minutes or less. Unless I was able to truly make my productivity more urgent, I would not repeat the time limit parameters in the future because it was pretty disheartening to move on to a new task when I had not actually finished accomplishing the previous one. At the end of the evening, it was even more upsetting to look at my to-do list and see that most of my tasks were only mostly accomplished, but not actually finished.

This experiment was disappointing because I thought I would be able to achieve Jane McGonnigal’s concept of blissful productivity. Perhaps I was not successful in gamifying my homework enough, or perhaps I am just too set in my bad habits and frame of mind regarding large amounts of homework. I hoped that crafting a list on concrete goals I needed to accomplish would give me the feedback I needed to feel immersed in the work, but having that list did not make my readings any more interesting or any less tedious. This experiment has made me very excited for the future because I think I can be much more successful and make myself lastingly happier by applying these techniques in the workplace. When my work is focused on a topic I really care about, even if my task at hand is to read a long academic article, I feel much more motivated to complete it and am much more likely to achieve flow or blissful productivity. Further, when I am working on concrete projects and not something arbitrary like doing a reading for a class discussion, I feel more driven to complete it. I enjoy creating and being physically productive, so I think that being aware of these techniques and implementing them in my future work tasks will make me much happier, as well as influential to the happiness dynamic in my workplace.


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