For another entry in the “life hacks” and productivity category, I recently read a book that may prove to be life-changing, Small Move, Big Change, by Caroline L. Arnold. The premise of the book is that we generally fail at big goals like New Year’s resolutions because they’re too big and vague. You’ll have more success with what the author calls “microresolutions,” which are small but meaningful behavior changes. For instance, a broad resolution to get and keep the house tidy is bound to fail because there’s no sense of when or how to start, exactly what to do, or how to measure it. But you might succeed in resolving to make the bed every morning. That will make the bedroom automatically look a lot neater, and that might motivate you to do other things to tidy the bedroom. After a while, when it becomes a habit you don’t have to think about anymore, you could start a new microresolution, like putting away the laundry right after you do it instead of letting it pile up in a chair. Over time, all those new little habits will add up to accomplishing that big-picture goal.
It’s hardly earthshattering stuff. I wrote a radio feature years ago with a psychiatrist’s tips for sticking to resolutions that included making the goal small enough to achieve and measurable, but the way it’s phrased in this book clicked with me, and the author offers a lot of tips for making it work.
One suggestion she has is to create a mental message that goes with the habit, something you think to yourself to motivate you to do it. For the bed making resolution, you might remind yourself how much you’re going to like coming home to a neatly made bed or how nice it will be at bedtime. It also helps to have a cue to trigger the behavior you’d like to turn into a habit. Tying it to another habit you already have makes it easier to create a new habit. You might make the bed when you get dressed. You can remember “dress yourself, dress the bed.” The resolution may take some fine-tuning to figure out exactly the action to take, the cue, or the message you tell yourself, as well as spotting any obstacles that make the behavior harder. It may turn out that your reluctance to make the bed every day is because you’ve got an elaborate “bedscape” involving layers of coverlets and a complicated arrangement of throw pillows. Switching that out for a comforter and pillow shams so that making the bed is quicker and easier might make you more likely to make the bed.
She also gets into how to find the behavior that will have the most impact. The example she gave from her own life was her desire to get to work on time more consistently. She had to analyze her morning routine to figure out where the trouble spots were, and she figured out that one of her biggest problems was at the train station. She often had to dig in her bag for her fare card, then she didn’t know how much money was on it, so she’d have to check, and then she often had to add money to it for the morning ride, but the credit card readers on the ticket machines were generally not working, so she’d have to scrounge for cash to add just enough for one trip. Meanwhile, she’d miss a train and have to wait for the next one, which made her late. After some trial and error to figure out what would make this go better, she ended up keeping a separate fare card just for the morning commute, which she kept in a special coin purse so she could find it easily. Every Friday before she left the station on the way home, she’d add enough money to it to cover the next week’s morning rides, and she carried enough cash in the coin purse to pay for that. Once she started being able to go right to the turnstiles every morning, she stopped being late to work.
The second half of the book is a lot of specific examples covering some of the bigger resolution categories, like diet, exercise, communication, and organization.
By the time I’d finished reading the first few chapters, I’d enthusiastically made a long list of microresolutions, but then I got to the part where it says to do no more than two at a time because that’s all the willpower your brain really has. Focus on those two, and when they become habit, you can add two more. It takes three to eight (or more) weeks to really develop a habit, depending on how frequently you do a behavior and how big a change it is for you.
I narrowed my resolutions down to an easy one and an important one. The easy one involves the “nest” that tends to develop on my sofa. That’s where I sit to read the newspaper, work crossword puzzles, do knitting or embroidery, brainstorm or outline books, read, etc. I end up with piles of books, papers, notebooks, newspapers, and craft supplies on the sofa, which makes the whole living room look messy. I resolved to totally clear off and reset the sofa before I go to bed every night. There will be nothing left on the sofa — books on the coffee table or end table, newspapers in the recycling stack, craft projects put away — and I’ll straighten the pillows and the throw I keep on the sofa. To encourage myself to do it, I tell myself that it will be so nice to come into the living room in the morning and see it looking neat. The first day was the most difficult, when I had a lot more stuff to put away, but it’s been pretty easy since then, and after three weeks I think it’s become enough of a habit that I’ve taken on a new resolution, to clean up all the dishes from dinner right after dinner — load the dishwasher and wash anything from cooking that has to be hand-washed. I tend to let things pile up in the sink to the point that I can’t fit everything in the dishwasher once I finally get around to loading it. It’s only been a few days, but it’s going well so far. Again, day one was more difficult, but since then there’s less to do and I love coming into the kitchen in the morning and not seeing dirty dishes.
The important one involves work productivity and avoiding distractions, mostly social media and e-mail. I had a bad habit from back in my day job days of checking e-mail as soon as I got on the computer, since e-mail was a big part of my work, and I kept doing that once I started freelancing, then social media got attached to e-mail since that’s also communication related to my work. I might end up reading e-mail and social media and then realize it was lunchtime. A few years ago, I started writing before I go online, since e-mail first thing in the morning is less important to my work now. I formalized that as a resolution to not go online until 10:30. That’s worked pretty well, and I may need to add to that and not answer the phone during my peak working time because that also kills my productivity for the day. I’m still fine tuning what to do about the afternoon, trying to find the right schedule to follow or the right approach. A lot of it is a procrastination tactic, or else the way I take “breaks” when I get stuck, so I need to think of a way to deal with this. I do need to check e-mail after lunch, since that’s when the people I usually deal with for business tend to get back to me about things, so I need to find a way to do that without getting sucked into the rest of it. I think my next tactic will be a designated time for online stuff other than e-mail, and maybe a list of things that must be done before I check social media or any other online stuff that’s likely to eat up a lot of time.
Just a few weeks after I started reading this book I already have a visible difference in my house and a good boost in my writing productivity, so it seems to be working. The question will be whether or not it will stick once the initial enthusiasm wears off. The book is a quick and easy read and even pretty entertaining, so look for it at your library if you’re looking for ways to make changes that work.