Are you being thrown off by bad habits?
Every morning I open my eyes and reach for my phone on my nightstand. My bad habit has become not just a routine, but a reflex: First, I scroll through Instagram, then check news headlines — not recommended until you’ve had at least one cup of coffee — and finally, I check my email to get a jump on the day.
I know this is not the most effective start to the day — tons of experts say so — but it’s easy to justify it to myself. I’m busy and I have to squeeze the most out of every waking moment.
While it hasn’t taken much to uncover this bad habit, it has been hard to break, even when I know it has an adverse effect on my productivity.
Often, we go through our days on autopilot – even if we have jobs or projects that challenge us to think in new ways or push us out of our comfort zones. A bad habit might not necessarily always be harmful, but it can stunt progress and prevent you from showing up as your best self.
On days when I start out scrolling, I feel more scattered and it’s harder to focus all day long. There’s a false sense of urgency about my to-do list. I feel generally just more “blah.” This one little bad habit can totally change the course of my day, and I didn’t really realize it until I took a break from my morning madness.
Most hidden bad habits are like this. They’re maintained because they lay just below the surface. They’re not just part of your routine, but probably something you don’t think about much. They can have bigger consequences, such as causing you to be chronically late, or manifest like mine does, causing you to feel a little off.
Identifying your bad habits
It’s noticing the little things that will help you uncover and isolate your bad habit. A mindfulness practice can help, all while having a host of other benefits.
Checking in with yourself on a regular basis will give you a foundation to investigate what it is that prevents you from feeling your best.
The practice isn’t as daunting as it sounds. A Reflection Journal is a good way to review your day in just a few minutes. By noting what went well (and what didn’t) you’re able to take a step back and be honest about where you can make changes. Oftentimes, this is where you’ll find those pesky bad habits.
If you’re an avid daily planner user, this can also be a good way to look into what might be draining you and your productivity. Afterall, these “bad habits” might not seem so bad on the surface. It might be that you’re overburdened by your to-do list and you need to delegate more work. Or, maybe you’re finding that you’re always late because you misjudge the time it takes to accomplish a task.
Making a change
Hidden bad habits can be harder to change than ones that are more obvious. When I pick up my phone first thing in the morning, I still make my meetings on time. I hit all of my deadlines. There isn’t anything overtly alarming about my habit that forces me to change it — which is why it took me so long to even identify it.
Once I did, change did not come easily. Yes, I could wake up, roll out of bed and find something better to do — like spend some time reading or perfect a morning skincare routine — but the temptation to just spend a few more minutes in bed on my phone is high.
Psychologists say there is a reason for this.
“Put simply, reward-based learning involves a trigger (for example, the feeling of hunger), followed by a behavior (eating food), and a reward (feeling sated). We want to do more of the things that feel good and less of the things that feel bad — or stressful,” writes psychiatrist and neuroscientist Jud Brewer, who specializes in anxiety and habit change. “These three components (trigger, behavior, and reward) show up every time we smoke a cigarette or eat a cupcake. This is especially true at work. Each time we try to soothe ourselves from a taxing assignment we reinforce the reward, to the point where unhealthy distractions can become habits.”
While my scrolling leaves me feeling frazzled later on in the day, it feels pretty good in the moment.
The solution to stopping a bad habit, Brewer says, is also how you spot it: mindfulness.
“By using mindfulness training to make people more aware of the ‘reward’ reinforcing their behavior, I can help them tap into what is driving their habit in the first place,” he says of his method. “Once this happens, they are more easily able to change their association with the ‘reward’ from a positive one to a more accurate (and often negative) one.”
When I acknowledge that the result of my morning scroll is not actually “getting ahead” and instead consequential to my productivity later on in the day when it really matters, I’m able to better reason with myself and remove the trigger, which Brewer says is the first step in correcting it.
“Once you know your triggers, try to identify the behaviors you engage in when you are acting out. Do you check social media instead of doing work? Do you snack on sweets during challenging assignments? You must be able to name the actions you turn to for comfort or peace of mind before you can evaluate their reward values.”
More often now I don’t leave my phone on my nightstand because I know I’ll only repeat my habit loop. Now, I’m less tempted to pick it up first thing when I wake up, and once I’m out of bed, I find ways to spend my morning before sitting down to work.