Habits can make our lives richer, or make them miserable. They’re so powerful that, one way or another, most of us let them run our lives. The results of that ceding of control are usually unspectacular, sometimes wonderful, but often disastrous. In the disastrous category, the obvious villainous habits include using illegal drugs, alcohol and tobacco. For most people, however, it’s not these clearly dangerous habits they need to worry most about; it’s the unspectacular, seemingly benign. Most people have numerous such habits, some unique to those individuals and many they have in common with the wider population. Three of the habits most people share with others are worth looking at because changing them has the power to transform their lives. The three are the Internet Habit, the Good Excuses Habit and the Procrastination Habit. Many people have a fourth such habit – Persistent Lateness – which is so insidious and pervasive that I’ve written a separate blog about it; it’s called “Don’t Leave it Too Late to Start Being Early.”
The Internet Habit
Loneliness and the Internet are hot topics. The main reason is an apparent contradiction: We’ve never been so connected as we are today, yet it seems many people are lonelier than ever before. Two reasons for this paradox stand out. The first is that expectations from online connectedness are greater than what that connectedness actually delivers. It’s a bit like coffee: the taste never quite lives up to the promise of the aroma, (which is why clever advertisers almost invariably promote coffee’s aroma rather than its taste). The second reason is a surprise to many people, ironically because it’s so obvious: We need physical contact with other human beings as well as with the material world simply because we’re physical beings who have evolved to benefit emotionally and competitively from that kind of interaction. Virtual experiences on the Internet are quite different and don’t nourish those primordial needs – Facebook and face time have almost nothing in common, and that’s why so many people are lonely online. Yet, the Internet creates a much bigger problem for us than loneliness. You could call that problem The Internet Habit.
The Internet would be an enormous asset for most people and not the problem it has become for many, if the virtual world were not so addictive and if most of us didn’t spend many hours online everyday. The ubiquity of smartphones and other devices that facilitate access to the internet has made the matter worse. All together, these connected devices become almost an extension of people’s selves, especially if they’re able to access social media and personal email while at work. Some people only disconnect when they’re asleep. Not surprisingly, an increasing number exhibit quasi-withdrawal symptoms when something interferes with being online for even a few minutes.
The solution is right in front of us and involves fighting fire with fire. In other words, fighting addictive habits related to the Internet by developing counter habits. The process can only be done slowly. It will fail if we attempt to achieve too much too quickly. The best first step is to strictly limit online activities. If we have a smartphone, we must turn it off when we’re working, attending a meeting, or having a meal with other people. We should not be online while we’re using stand-alone software such as Word, Excel, Photoshop, or Quark Xpress. During work breaks, we can deal with online activities – email, websites, social networks, etc. We must restrict how long we stay online to, say fifteen minutes, and then go offline again to resume our work. That’s Plan A.
Some work can only be done if we’re online. In that case, we must implement Plan B. Plan B is more difficult to adhere to than Plan A. Like Plan A, Plan B starts by switching off the smartphone while we work. Next, it entails restricting Internet access rigidly to the software needed for work (and to use it only for work purposes). So, we must close all other programs, including our email client and Web browser, and banish from our minds all thoughts of social networking. Life will be difficult at first, whether we’re on Plan A or Plan B. We’ll be like a smoker who recently quit, but who knows there’s a full cigarette pack in the desk drawer. We shouldn’t try to kick the habit overnight. Instead, we should adopt Plan A or Plan B initially for just a few hours each day, then for entire mornings or afternoons, finally for the entire day.
This may all sound frivolous. It’s not; the process is very serious simply because the outcome may be a transformed person. By persevering with the plans for even a few days, surprising things begin to happen. First, the urge to constantly check what’s happening online diminishes, with the result that work gets done significantly quicker. Second, and of even greater importance, we feel noticeably less stressed. The reason is simple: we’re no longer obsessed with what we may be missing online; we quickly discover that we don’t miss what we thought we would because anything worthwhile is still there when we finally log on. It dawns on us that before we got the better of the Internet Habit, we were like children who experience agony because they have to wait just an extra few minutes for a candy treat. Happily, we no longer need instant gratification because we’ve discovered that waiting makes the prize even better. We’ve grown up.
The reasons so many people need the constant diversion of the Internet that leads to a virtual addiction stem from personality traits that exist independently of the Internet. The Internet, in fact, is just a more convenient way for us to be our true selves.
The Good Excuses Habit
Nearly everyone is guilty of this one, at least sometimes. We grapple for excuses when we make some big mistake. Yet, it’s a more insidious problem when we offer automatic excuses for frequent trivial mistakes – then it’s a habit – an addiction that’s very difficult to kick. This problem is not about morality, though excuses are often lies. Most people see through those kinds of lies and are rarely deceived by them. In fact, usually we’re fooling only ourselves. It’s similar to the habit of being late; indeed, those of us, who don’t deliver on what we promise and make excuses for it, are the same people who are persistently late. In both cases, we develop a frame of mind that trivializes what we do as well as insulting people we deal with.
Those of us guilty of The Good Excuses Habit are not incompetent; we’re just lazy and we’re shortchanging ourselves and everyone we deal with. The work we do is never our best, because our best would be just too much hard work and, anyhow, we can always conjure up a plausible excuse for not doing our best. Our approach to life can be summed up with the question: “What’s the least I can get away with doing?” It doesn’t just apply to our work; because of it we achieve much less than we’re capable of in most parts of our lives. We don’t even take proper care of our own health; we just do the minimum to be on the safe side. We constantly sell ourselves short with work colleagues and with friends.
The irony is that people like that are usually very intelligent and most would be capable of significant achievements if they weren’t so averse to hard work. They learned in early childhood, however, that doing their best took some effort. They developed a plethora of creative excuses that very quickly allowed their lazy disposition to dominate their lives. From early on, they were content to plod along in the “average” lane because being their best would have meant venturing outside their comfort zone. Even occasionally venturing outside their comfort zone was dangerous because, if others became aware of their real abilities, the game would have been up and they would have been expected to work hard from then on. Perhaps, their parents and teachers should have seen through the ruse and prodded them more, but with other problems and other children to worry about, they were probably relieved that the child’s performance was, at least, no worse than the average.
Most people carry into adulthood some bad habits learnt in childhood. The sad irony is that, as adults, most become aware of their addiction, but feel that it’s too late to change and that, anyhow, to change would be far too difficult. But that’s just their lazy natures trying to dominate once again. It’s not too late. Every bad habit can be eliminated by a counter habit. The process consists of a series of steps that have to be repeated many times until it becomes a new habit. Like countering the Internet habit, it starts with one easy step – one easy step that leads to another easy step and then to another. Together they build counter habits to the bad ones. The task seems overwhelming, if looked on as a whole before it’s started, but, after a few of the steps are taken, it suddenly becomes much more manageable. At times, it will seem like hard work, but the rewards will be immense.
The Procrastination Habit
Putting things off till later, obsessive Internet use, constantly and compulsively making excuses for trivial errors and being pathologically late for appointments all have one thing in common. Indeed, people who suffer from one usually suffer from the others. The one common factor most sufferers share is a pathological fear of hard work. Procrastination is an obvious manifestation of that fear. The Internet is one of the best procrastination tools ever devised and compulsive excuse making and consistent lateness are just variants.
In the same way that the taste of coffee never quite lives up to the promise of the aroma, actual hard work is never quite like what people fear it will be like. Rather than being a chore, it’s nearly always rewarding and motivating. The greatest challenge of hard work is to develop a habit for acknowledging the fear it may elicit, yet, to still do it – replacing the comfort-zone habits that provide a plethora of reasons for not doing it. Remember, nothing is as powerful as a man who won’t let fear get in his way. As I mentioned in the blog entitled “Magical Words: How Slogans Transform Your Life,” this uniquely human trait was captured by Nike’s famous advertising slogan. It perfectly condenses the entire message of this blog into just three words: “Just do it.”