Dear Crucial Skills,
How do I change my behavior when it’s basically an addiction? I want to stay away from distractions, but I can’t help myself from checking my phone or really any other digital device. Can the GTD skills help me?
Dear Digitally Distracted,
Thank you for your question, or questions. You began by asking how to change behavior, and then concluded with “Can the GTD skills help?” The answer to the latter is a resounding “Yes!” But only if the skills become habits.
A habit is “Something you do (mentally or physically) that starts out as a choice and then becomes a nearly automatic pattern.” The real question isn’t “Can the GTD skills help?” but rather “How do I make the GTD skills habits?”
How Habits Work
Let me introduce you to The Habit Loop. Habits form because the brain is trying to save effort. This loop consists of three steps:
First, there is a cue, something that triggers your brain to go into autopilot. This could be a place, a time of day, a person, or an object.
Then, there is a routine. This is the physical, mental, or emotional behavior, the thing most people think of when they think of a habit.
Finally, there is a reward. Some emotional payoff that reinforces the routine.
Over time, this loop becomes more and more automatic. While you must identify a routine to build a new habit, that often isn’t enough. It’s key to leverage cues and rewards.
The Golden Rule of Habit Change
The golden rule of habit change says you can’t break a bad habit, you can only replace it. Too often we try to quit bad behaviors. But quitting isn’t a behavior. Instead, we need to replace the bad behavior with a good one. Here’s how it works: use the same cue, leverage the same reward, but change the routine.
Our modern technologies make it easy to respond to whatever is latest and loudest, so we end up busy but unproductive. Many people get hooked by digital distractions first thing in the morning. To combat this tendency, GTD practitioners find it most effective to look at their calendars and their to-do lists before checking emails or texts. Why? If you begin your day by looking at email and notifications, you put a lens of “latest and loudest” over your eyes. But if you begin your day by checking your calendar and to-do lists, you see your goals and priorities first.
So, why do we do the ineffective behavior? Let’s look at the loop.
Cue: You wake up and see your phone or see and hear notifications.
Routine: You grab your phone and immediately check email, texts, or social media.
Reward: What’s the reward? You might be thinking there isn’t one. “There’s no reward to checking my email every five minutes. It’s a waste of time and gives me anxiety!”
Rewards can be extrinsic (something tangible you receive in exchange for completing a task or routine—like money, recognition, and so on). Or they can be intrinsic (an emotional payoff when a psychological drive is satisfied).
For a behavior to become habitual, there must be some intrinsic reward. What is rewarded is repeated. So, ask yourself, “What is the emotional payoff I get from the distractions on my device?” You may have to dig deep to identify what’s driving your behavior. A common payoff is a sense of control. Maybe it’s social interaction. Maybe you feel like you are helping others. Maybe you like the sense of urgency, stimulation.
Let’s assume, as an example, you gain a sense of being in control. Checking your email incessantly gives you a sense of control because you know what’s coming at you.
Or do you?
If a sense of control is your payoff, notice that in fact you’ve sacrificed control because these latest emails become the loudest voice in determining what you do. You begin responding to these emails when you’ve got other things to do that are more important.
You might tell yourself, “I have to stop checking my emails first thing in the morning.” But remember, you can’t break a bad habit, you can only replace it. You must substitute your current routine with a new routine.
Cue: You wake up and see your phone.
Routine: You grab your phone and immediately check your calendar and to-list.
Reward: Control. This new routine allows you to view your decisions through the lens of what you’ve already deemed important. You can now more effectively engage with your daily work.
There are two quotes from The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg that have served me well when I’ve tried to change a habit. The first is this: “Change might not be fast, and it isn’t always easy. But with time and effort, almost any habit can be reshaped.”
And the second: “If you believe you can change—if you make it a habit—the change becomes real.”
I hope these ideas help. I’d also like to hear how others have used the principles and skills from The Power of Habit to improve productivity. Tell us in the comments.