Time Saver: Identify and Conquer Your Default Activity

Want more time in your day?  Identify and attack your default activity.  And use this one simple trick to get important things done. (Keep reading).

What the heck is a default activity?

We all have one.  I’ll just ‘fess up now and say that mine is email.  Your default activity is whatever you usually find yourself defaulting to, when you think maybe there are other harder, more strategic things that you might be doing.  It’s what you use when you are procrastinating. They are usually, by definition, endless.

I once worked with a professional whose default activity was billing his clients.  How could I argue with the fact that he started and ended his day with his business revenues?  It sounded logical until we dug in and realized two things:  he could earn $100 an hour in the same space that he could be paying someone $10 an hour to capably handle his billing.  And secondly, he could spend the next two months doing nothing but billing and he would never get to the end of the pile. In order to get out of his office at the end of a reasonable workday, something his family would really appreciate, he needed to get ahold of his default activity.

Why Do We Have Default Activities?

Our habits are hard-wired over time.  We know from research that social network feedback hits the same place in our brain’s reward center as chocolate, cocaine, and the like.  That’s right, you may really, truly be addicted to incoming email, tweets, or Facebook status updates.

This is the same reason many of us procrastinate on complex, strategic goals. It’s not that we don’t want to reach our goals.  Rather, it just seems easier to get the feel-good sensation from accomplishing something small, like clearing out our email box for today or even just marking emails as unread.  If we do this enough, this evolves into a habit, however unproductive.

How Do You Identify Your Default Activity?

Default activities aren’t found only at our desk.  They can be whatever you find yourself doing repeatedly, often at the expense of the bigger picture:

  • Browsing catalogs but never buying
  • Window shopping at the malls
  • Opening every piece of charity junk mail
  • Puttering in the kitchen, but never cleaning
  • Writing poetry compulsively
  • Doing the same task at work manually, without researching new techniques
  • Compulsively checking the cell phone while waiting for anything at all
  • Extreme couponing

There’s too many to list them all…

How Do You Effectively Control Default Activities from Taking Over?

Like I said, my default activity is email. If you send me an email, unless I’m having tech problems, there is a good chance I’ll at least read it.  But really, I’m better off when I default to another activity, something more complex and strategic.  But my brain keeps yelling, “JUST ONE LITTLE PEEK, AND THEN I’LL BE HAPPY.  NO ONE GETS HURT.  I PROMISE.”

You know how this turns out, right?  While I’m clearing the last 10, I get 5 more in.  Well, it’s got to stop somehow.  Here’s how to curb the monster:

  • Instead of opening my computer and checking email first thing, I delay until I have one thing on my to-do list completed.
  • When I need to buckle down or meet a deadline, I shut down email altogether so it doesn’t alert me, and cause my brain to go peek at the new stuff, getting that quick “coke hit” to my brain.
  • I put a timer on checking my email, so I only get through 10 minutes, rather than getting it all done.
  • And here’s the one simple thing that helps me and many of my clients. write down the three things I’ll accomplish in the next few minutes (or before I leave my desk).  Those three things are already on my to-do list, probably even near the top.  But if I write down the most strategic three things on a scrap paper or sticky note, I can knock them off quickly while staying focused and staying away from my addiction.  You can even use a regular spiral-bound set of notecards, writing down only 3 things for immediate completion, and then flipping the page tomorrow.

organize, don't procrastinateHere’s the one on my desk right now.  This isn’t my whole to-do list, just the three things I had to complete before I could leave the office yesterday.  I’ll pick a new most strategic three today, and do it again, then I’ll go check my email.  (Halleluia, says my brain, in withdrawal.)

Have you ever thought about what your default activity is?  Is it different than ones listed above?  Please share in the comments!

(If you’re reading this in email, please click on the post title, and it will take you to the webpage where you can comment.  Thanks!)

This Post Has 4 Comments

  1. Linda

    This may be worst than your checking email. I can’t stop checking my iPhone. That’s just like having a portable mini computer with you 24/7.

    1. Darla

      Yes, the need to check your iAnything is literally addictive. If you didn’t know before, now you do. MRI’s show your brain lights up when checking email or texts just like it lights up when you get a hit of cocaine. Does that change anything for you? Remember, there was a world before iPhones, before PCs, before faxes, even. Try a 24 hour blackout and see how it feels. Even better, take a trip to the mountains where there is no coverage. You might like it. And you’ll sleep better, guaranteed.

  2. Amy

    Laundry. When everything is crazy in the house and nothing is put away, the pile of mail and catalogs is huge, the pile of store returns barely fits in the trunk of the car, the toys are all mixed up and the dog needs a long walk, I do laundry because it has a start and finish I can see with the digital display and I feel like I have accomplished something important for my family. And it is much easier than sorting through the toy closet and making 27 trips up and down the stairs getting it all back where it belongs. Or I sweep the floor and wipe the counters. Again dumb, but rewarding and quick.

    1. Darla

      Thanks for sharing. I’ve been there.

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