Career & Finance / Mind

Old Habits Don’t Need to Die Hard with These Hacks

I’ve read various *What Successful People Do In the Morning* and *X Things You Should Do to Make Your Mornings More Productive* articles and one of the constant “Do Not Do This” tips tells me to never check my email.

Regardless, these are the first things I do to start my morning every day:

  1. Shut down my alarm clock.
  2. Check my messages on Facebook
  3. Look through my Instagram feed until I get bored
  4. Check my two email accounts
  5. Berate myself for starting my morning routine so unproductively.


My social media habits used to be worse, constantly checking my social media apps on my phone and on my laptop way too many times in a day that it sucked out precious time doing more important things. I knew this was unproductive and a waste of my time, but the instant gratification mechanism in my brain coveted and anticipated the “rewards” of clicking those notifications. No more, I said. Instead of just listing “use social media less” as a New Year’s Resolution, I decided to actively find ways to finally do it. Thanks to The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg and Hooked by Nir Eyal, I uncovered insights on the psyche behind habits and habit-inducing tech products, in an attempt to stop these addictions.

 

A Little Briefer on Habits

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Habits go through what we call the Habit Loop.

  1. The cue, created by external or internal triggers (ex. an app icon on the phone reminds me that this app exists for me to use.)
  2. The routine, or the behavior itself. In my case, it’s the act of checking my email or social media accounts.
  3. The reward of doing the behavior that helps us remember the habit loop for future engagement.

These principles allow us to think about habits in two ways. First, we can use these ideas to motivate us to continue a habit (like exercising every day or reading a book a week.)

Second (and what this post will mostly be focusing on), we can use these principles to stop us from habits we continuously do —  smoking that next cigarette, eating that chocolate cookie or clicking that social media app icon.

 

How to Break the Loops

Below are a list of psychological hacks and interesting apps that helped me reduce my unproductive ways. I freed up time through these hacks by maybe about 10 extra hours per week (that’s how bad my social media habits were). The first three are useful Chrome extensions while the latter four are more subtle design-related hacks. I discuss the psychological underpinnings of each hack based on what I derived from the two books.

  1. News Feed Eradicator

There are two big reasons we scroll through our Facebook news feed. One is that we seek social information from our peers and two is because we receive variable rewards from seeing something new every time we scroll down. We’ve developed such intense FOMO (fear of missing out) that it cuts through a lot of productive time. The Newsfeed Eradicator Chrome Extension replaces your Facebook news feed with an “inspirational quote.” This way, the variable rewards of scrolling go away. It has not only cut my Facebook time, but has also guarded me from dissatisfaction (basically makes me happier!) because I’m not always looking through all my friends’ posts and comparing my seemingly mediocre life to theirs.

 

  1. Stay Focused

This is another Chrome extension that gives me a limited amount of time on a list of websites. I get to choose how much time I can spend on a website and the list of websites the time limit applies to. After the limit is up, a dominantly white screen appears asking “Shouldn’t you be working?” The timer restarts every day. I personally give myself 30 minutes total for the entire day. The time limit acts as an anchor (see: anchoring effect). I know that I have 30 minutes on a site and that’s the anchored amount of time in my head.

  1. Forest

Forest is similar to StayFocused, except it works for only a set amount of time. It’s a simple but genius app that comes as a Chrome Extension or as a mobile app. You create a list of websites you are not allowed to use for the next x amount of minutes. If you don’t visit any of those websites, you create a tree to add to your forest! If you do, your tree dies.

This plays at the “Reward of the Self.” We’re conditioned to want to compete with ourselves or prove to ourselves that we can achieve something, in this case, plant a tree. In games, users seek to master skills needed to pursue a quest. Forest gamifies productivity and gives us a reason to master the skill of avoiding temptation to pursue the quest of building a forest.

  1. Delete the app!

Seriously. The first step in going through a habit loop is the cue or trigger. Once you take that away, you take all subsequent actions away. I deleted my Facebook, Twitter and Snapchat apps and it’s worked wonders!

  1. Embed the app in layers of swipes

If it’s an app that you do need to use constantly without having to download every time, but an app you want to reduce your time on, make it difficult to get to. In product design, to get users to behave a certain way, they make the desired action as simple as possible. Do the opposite.

  1. Keep yourself signed off.

I’ve long been considering deleting my Twitter account; it does me more harm than good these days, but there are still some ways Twitter provides value. Because I’ve kept my Twitter account, I find myself mindlessly scrolling through my Twitter feed, even though I don’t really want to. But after signing myself out of Twitter and unchecking the “Sign me in automatically” box, whenever I type Twitter onto my address bar and see that I’m signed off, I don’t even bother signing myself in anymore. The desired action of scrolling through my Twitter feed takes longer to get to and I’d rather not bother with the hassle of it.

  1. Take away all notifications.

Animals crave variable rewards, as with B.F. Skinner’s experiment with pigeons. The birds were placed in a box that was rigged to deliver food pellets every time the birds pressed a lever. In a separate box, Skinner added variability — the machine gave food only after a random number of taps. This dramatically increased the number of times the pigeons tapped the lever. The same phenomenon happens when we check our emails — we anticipate the variable reward of a new message and so we check on it constantly, despite knowing that we may sometimes not even receive anything. In addition once we see an unread message, getting to inbox zero represents a goal to be completed.

Similarly, we’re psychologically dispositioned to click the apps with those annoying red dots. We want to see what’s new, and at the same time remove those strikingly and alarmingly red circles from our home screens. Undo the notifications in all forms (red dots, banners, sounds, etc.) and you’ll frequent those apps less.

 

These are some of the little things I’ve discovered that allow me to get off my unproductive habits. I’m still on the lookout for an app that will turn me away from checking my messages every morning. But for now, these will do. If there are any suggestions, do let me know via the comments or email! Always happy to hear about new products or hacks!

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