Dialling Down and Habits

In the last month I’ve noticed a few people I follow on the internet choosing to dial back their information intake. Most notably CGP Grey wrote an article called Dialling Down in which he described the creeping sense of overwhelm he was feeling in his life despite doing less ‘work’ than before.

I’m not sure why Grey’s article particularly spoke to me, but I suspect that it’s because I’m feeling similar to him despite a massive decrease in the ‘work’ I’m doing in the last few months. On reading his post, I found myself nodding to his description of the creeping Internet:

For lack of a better term, I’ll call it 'The Internet' but it's a broader than that: it’s the rise of all the digital vectors of information delivery pointed at me.

Daily Habits Make up life

Whether we notice it or not, every day all of us are building our lives by the habits we keep. They can be good habits like drinking water or exercising; or bad habits like smoking. That said, I don’t think it’s necessarily useful to think about habits as good or bad, they’re just habits. It’s what they add up to after weeks, months, or years of repetition that makes them good or bad. It’s whether they allow us to progress towards our goals.

I paused and listened and found another kind of background noise in my brain that had been increasing, ever so slowly, since I became self-employed a few years ago.

I think that the background noise Grey describes is the representation of habits he formed. I think this because I have formed very similar habits. I found myself spending my days listening to podcasts and not doing much else. I stopped being able to find time to write on my blog, think, read, and create. Through the power of the habit I had formed that was ‘listen to podcasts in every bit of downtime I have’ I had vanquished boredom in my life. At the same time, my mind slowly lost the capacity to create in the way that it had before.

Forming Habits

Forming habits is both hard work and incredibly easy. We can form a new habit through simple neglect. For example, after a week of coming home from work very tired and watching television, one might seed the beginnings of a ‘watch TV straight after work’ habit. However, when one wants to form a new habit often there are a few things in the way:

  1. Old habit
    • sleeping in vs exercise in the mornings. When faced with the choice to get up or not each morning, the old habit of staying in bed is really hard to break.
  2. Building momentum in the new habit
    • habits need to gain momentum to stick. It depends on what it is, but generally it takes around a month to build momentum.
  3. Seemingly unrelated habits
    • trying to do more exercise? Finding that you just don’t have enough energy to do it? It could be that while you are changing from the habit of being inactive to being active, your eating habits aren’t giving you the energy you need.
  4. No clarity around your reason to develop a new habit
    • This is a huge one. If you aren’t clear on why you’re trying to do this, you won’t be able to stick to it.

So often when we are trying to develop new habits, we’re doing it because it seems like it might be a good idea or that we see that it’s working for someone else. The fact is, if you aren’t really clear on why you’re doing it, and what you hope to gain from it, when things get difficult you won’t be able to stick to your new habit. Most of the time people do things because they want to feel something. For example, you want to feel good when you look in the mirror. If you can focus on how you want to feel and develop your habits to get you to that feeling, you should be able to stick to it.

Dialling Down

That brings me back to Grey and dialling down. I’ve made a conscious choice in the last week to try to change the ‘distract myself all the time with podcasts/internet’ habit I had formed. I’m not going as full on as Grey - I still subscribe to all the same podcasts, and I will still read my RSS feeds. I’m just making some changes to the routine that I found myself in that will allow far less time for those things. The new routine will also put the time for those things at times where they won’t creep into my day and distract me from what I really want to be doing that day. I’ve tried to list how I’m dealing with the forces that will try to stop me from building this new habit.

  1. The old habit: I believe the old habit in this case isn’t so much the podcasts or RSS itself, but the unstructured way in which I allowed those things into my life. Therefore the old habit is ‘a lack of structure’ whilst the new habit is structure.
  2. Building Momentum: Since it’s December and things tend to get very hectic in this month with family commitments, I think this will be the most difficult problem I face. It’s not what we do on sunny days that defines us, but what we do when things are hard.
  3. Seemingly unrelated habits: I think that a lack of structure in other parts of my day has contributed to these issues. I’m trying to ensure that I understand what I’m doing in other parts of my day, and being more aware of when I lose focus. That way when I fall of the wagon I have also built a habit to be able to catch myself and get back to work/creating.
  4. No clarity on the reason for the new habit: I want to build this new habit to give myself more time for meaningful creative work. I want to do more meaningful creative work because I want to feel accomplished and proud in my days and weeks for things that I have created.

Wish me luck in my new habits!