Whenever I walk into a library, something clicks in my brain.
The sight of an unmistakable banker’s desk lamp with a green glass shade primes me to focus and concentrate.
And I’m sure that’s the result of about a decade’s worth of higher education. Thousands of hours in the quiet section of the library have taught my brain to associate that environment with study and concentration.
The interesting thing is, modern technology has a similar effect on us. But instead of priming our brains for focus, we’re being taught to seek instant satisfaction and stay distracted.
Our habits are becoming less aligned with some of the most important goals we want to accomplish.
That misalignment can lead to plenty of problems in our personal and work life — and in our relationships. Modern habits have created ways of working and living that feel more convenient but are robbing us of the ability to concentrate.
And that lifestyle is epitomized by these three habits:
1. Not eating your broccoli.
Most people don’t want to immediately start the day by working on their toughest tasks.
Those difficult conversations (the tough-to-swallow foods) are put off as long as possible. Instead, we answer emails, go to meetings, jump on conference calls, or text colleagues.
It all feels like a lot of work. Realistically, it’s not hard work — it’s communication.
When you spend large portions of your day on easily repeatable activities, you’re wasting time that could be used for your most difficult challenges.
But you’ve been programmed to respond to the stimuli of messages, alerts, and vibrations, which means if you want to break out of this cycle, you have to structure a proper working environment.
You may need to do something radical to accomplish this. For example, I’m always tired by the time I get home from work and most prone to let my guard down. If I even start looking at Twitter or LinkedIn, in that weakened state, I will veg with it for hours.
The thing is, I would rather be doing something meaningful or spending this time with my kids.
So, I’ve learned the only way I can avoid that trap is with exercise. I force myself to immediately change clothes and go for a run or spend 45 minutes on the Peloton bike. Exercise is a potent drug, and afterward, any craving for electronics is gone. I’m refreshed and can focus on what I want to spend time doing.
You may need a less extreme habit, but you’re going to have to put the time in to figure out what works for you.
2. Failing to see the larger picture of your life.
Your current self is only concerned with the present moment.
Skipping a workout, attending a happy hour, waiting until next week to call a friend — these are all things your current self usually prefers to do.
Of course, whether you’re trying to lose weight or maintain friendships, what you’d rather do in the moment is often the direct counter to your stated goals.
To help see the larger picture you’re working toward, make friends with your future self. You can even create a Photoshopped older version of yourself as a reminder that there’s a future self you need to take care of.
However, developing a strong vision of your future requires an ability to pause.
Slow things down. Start by getting a glass of wine, along with a tabloid-sized piece of paper, and spending a few hours mapping out what you want to get done in the years ahead.
If you’re not one to slow down, you’ll have to carefully orchestrate your environment instead. Find a few activities that force you into a reflective state, like housework or mowing the lawn.
I learned the benefit of this last fall when a baseball broke the front windshield of my car. Something happened to the electrical system, and the car couldn’t hold a charge for very long. Each day, I would have to jump it at least once.
For a couple of months, I didn’t fix it.
That dysfluency slowed me down and forced me to test what I was doing. I couldn’t just run out the door and immediately take off, so my routine required a different type of planning and revisiting basic assumptions.
In the same way, orchestrating your environment in certain ways can force you to automatically refect long term.
3. Communicating in an ad hoc manner.
We live in a world full of cheap communication.
What does it cost you to send a text message? To fire off a few emails? Essentially nothing, if we’re talking about money.
The truth is, there’s a hidden cost to our ability to instantly communicate. The price we pay comes in the form of an overwhelming amount of poorly thought out and unnecessary communication.
There are few situations that require continuous ad hoc communications.
When I was a young physician in residency, I bought a cell phone. These phones were just appearing, and I kept it in the glove compartment of my car for patient emergencies. If necessary, I could call from the car to help with a life-threatening situation — even in a traffic jam.
But in those three years of medical residency, I only remember one time when I pulled over, plugged in the phone, and called the hospital. It showed me that introducing even the tiniest amount of friction dramatically changes the amount of communication.
Unfortunately, that friction is largely ignored today. Everything slows down when we constantly send messages back and forth with little purpose. Large projects take more time because each person has to sift through a cascade of messages, some of which hold important information, others that contain nothing useful. There are real costs to coordination.
When contacting someone feels effortless, people tend to put less effort into it.
And this is just as true for personal relationships as it is in the business world. A friend who may have received a birthday card decades ago now gets a “happy bday!” post on Facebook. Texting, while more convenient for us, is an inefficient and impersonal means of communication.
Just remember, you don’t have to work or live like this. Responding with a “thumbs up” to a friend, or sending out information one piece at a time, rather than in a comprehensive document, is a choice.
Structuring your days and weeks to communicate effectively requires more effort than taking things as they come. That’s true. But you’ll be rewarded with a greater sense of control over your life. Feeling focused, sharp, and productive is enormously satisfying, as is making time for someone you care about.
In the end, all these bad habits really come down to a lack of structure and an overreliance on technology to make life more convenient.
At some point, you have to turn your phone on “Do not disturb” and get busy building the life you want.