Old Habits Die Hard

An old friend came by this week and ended up taking up so much of my time that I now feel very under-the-gun about my school work.

[proh-kras-tuhney-shuhn, pruh] noun
the act or habit of putting off or delaying, especially something requiring immediate attention.

This week was challenging. My workdays were full and by the time evening came, I felt too drained to turn to school work. Every night I would say to myself “it is important to rest and come back to this tomorrow when I’m refreshed.” But instead of doubling down on the rules I set for myself around bedtime and screen time, I drank wine and scrolled instagram and slept terribly. If I wasn’t going to do 100% the right thing, I might as well do 100% the wrong thing. And every day I felt just as drained when I finished my work but there was also that little extra something… the anxiety cycle that often comes along with a bit of good natured procrastination.

I’ve put it off too long. I will never finish. I should just give up. I am a failure.

(My brain, 2020.)

Much to my surprise, when I finally buckled down and opened to the assigned chapter of Deep Work, Cal Newport seemed to be speaking directly to me. Newport begins part two of his book by posing a simple question: isn’t embracing the value of deep work enough to remind us to do deep work?

Having spent the last three weeks touting the benefits of going deep and congratulating myself on my already on-its-way abilities on the subject, the irony of my faltering habits at this moment in the book was not lost on me. I was comforted and encouraged by the findings of psychologists Wilhelm Hoffman and Roy Baumeister: human beings are bombarded by desires all day long and can only resist them about 50% of the time. The findings of the Hoffman/Baumeister experiments were groundbreaking in their assertion that willpower is not a bottomless well, but a finite resource that can be depleted with use. As if Cal Newport was sitting beside me, listening to my sigh of relief he offered the summation that I needed to hear.

Your will, in other words, is not a manifestation of your character that you can deploy without limit; it’s instead like a muscle that tires.

(Newport, 2016)

So, the good news is that I am not a bad person, as I had originally suspected. I am just a tired person with unhelpful habits. Fortunately for me, Cal Newport spent the next 55 pages of his book sharing techniques to increase my ability to do deep work including choosing a deep work philosophy, ritualizing doing the work, setting goals, and learning how to properly disengage for the downtime my brain craves. Newport argues, and I would have to agree after this week, that since willpower is a finite resource, creating your own personal roadmap from these tips and techniques will help minimize the willpower that it takes to transition into a state of deep work. The what and how were pretty cut-and-dried but I was lacking an explanation of why failing to do my work this week in a timely manner left me feeling a deep, scary level of shame.

Perhaps it was through this shame lens that I took to the rest of my week’s reading because little by little a thread of understanding wove its way through everything else I digested. In A Sociology of the Smartphone, author Adam Greenfield reminds us that “we count on [smartphones] to fill the dead spaces, the still moments and silences that used to occupy so much of our lives.” And it is true that even when I was trying to give my brain permission to rest, I was instead barraging it with a constant stream stimuli from hulu and netflix and social media. Greenfield submits that by allowing the smartphone to replace many of the material things we used to employ to get through our days – keys, money, maps, calendars, watches – we have not only merged our reality with the interests of paid advertisers, but shaped our lives “by the detailed design of the smartphone handset; by its precise manifest of sensors, actuators, processors and antennae; by the protocols that govern its connection to the various networks around us.” We have given up so much of ourselves for the convenience of constant connection. We cannot escape the outside world because we have fused with it. It is always at arm’s reach (or closer), a swipe, a tap, a fingerprint or facial scan away.

Work invades our personal time, private leaks into public, the intimate is trivially shared and the concerns of the wider world seep into what ought to be a space for recuperation and recovery. Above all, horror finds us wherever we are.”

(Greenfield, 2018)

If we know that the smartphone has changed how we interact with the world around us, and if I’m being blunt, has changed the world around us because it only shows us the things we may want to interact with on the literal google map of our life, why do we continue to allow the smartphone to rule our existence when only a decade ago we lived so differently? Because as Roy Baumeister has taught us, our willpower is not infinite. As the Psychology Today article The Limits of Self Control states, “smoking cessation interventions that include nutritional counseling or diet plans have higher failure rates than programs that only focus on quitting smoking. While trying to overhaul your lifestyle all at once may sound appealing, it isn’t sustainable, especially in the early days when cravings are at their worst.” Much like trying to quit smoking and junk food at the same time, we have mixed so much of our lives up in our smartphones, we couldn’t possibly break their hold over us cold-turkey. The convenience of having everything you may possibly need in one sleek 6″ x 3″ package is too great, and when we make allowances for one temptation (I need my phone because of the gps), it is far easier to give into all temptations (I have my phone so I might as well check social media.)

So what does this all have to do with my crippling sense of failure around my hard-to-break habit of procrastination? Fundamental Attribution Error. Clinical psychologist Noam Shpancer describes Fundamental Attribution Error (FAE) as “the human tendency to favor internal over situational explanations of behavior” in the Psychology Today article A Fundamental Error: Beware the Gospel of Self-Improvement. Because personal traits are easier to grasp than overarching societal forces, which are often supported by systems of power, we tend to view our successes and our shortcomings as internal characteristics which we alone control. When looking at my week of procrastination through the lens of FAE, it would follow that I would see it as a personal failure and something reasonable to feel shame about. We are programmed to believe that our successes and failures lay squarely on our own shoulders.

Tendency toward FAE appears to be hardwired. Notions of personal agency and responsibility help us form a sense of identity and facilitate social commerce; our traits and decisions certainly affect our health and functioning. All things (environmental) being equal, our individual characteristics will decide the game. But all (environmental) things are not equal, and ignoring their differential effects is a mistake.

(Shpancer, 2020)

In summary, old habits die hard. In my family, we call the ability to procrastinate and still pull off the buzzer-beater “smart lazy.” I’d say smart lazy is born of Fundamental Attribution Error. Smart lazy is not a personality trait ingrained deeply within the building blocks of my DNA, but I have learned that by buckling down in the 11th hour, I may just be able to pull a rabbit out of a hat. But now, in my thirties, the stakes seem higher. I regret a lifetime of doing just enough. I want to take my time and produce work that I am passionate about, and in order to do that, I need to set myself up for success. I am not the grasshopper or the ant, by nature lazy or industrious. Both live within me and both are important to producing good work. Just like I can’t put the genie back in the bottle when it comes to how the smartphone has changed the course of our society, I can’t change the undesirable effects my past habits have had on my life up until this moment. What I can do is adjust my understanding of what those habits mean about me as a person, and set forth with my toolbox full of new and ever growing knowledge to change the habits that no longer serve me. But not all at once.

One thought on “Old Habits Die Hard

  1. Jacklyn Bunch says:

    “My Brain, 2020”. Ugh, way too true! I like your analogy of the “toolbox full of new knowledge”. I think that’s what Cal’s bringing us. He’s not just presenting us with new knowledge, but he’s challenging our thinking. He’s telling us not only to, “embrace the value of doing deep work” but to practice it and change our work habits. Nice article!


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