One of the most common pieces of advice on how to change your life, build better habits, and be more productive is to simply block anything you don’t want to do. Social media, chat, email—block ’em all. However, blocking isn’t a foolproof plan.
The truth is, if you want to change your life and be more productive, you need to first change your default behaviors.
Default behaviors are the actions you take without thinking. They’re your habits, routines, and compulsions. With more than 40% of our daily actions controlled by our defaults, they’re powerful tools for helping (or hurting) our productivity.
So what defaults are harming your productivity? And how can you address and change them in a truly productive, healthy, and long-term way?
Default behavior #1: Keeping your inbox always open
When the little red number next to your inbox is steadily ticking upward, there’s no better feeling than getting in and clearing out your inbox.
Replying to emails feels productive, which is why 84% of people keep their inboxes open all day (and open 70% of emails in under six seconds!)
But if we’re being honest, this default behavior isn’t helping you spend time on meaningful work. Emails are rarely the most important thing on your to-do list. So how do you stop them from taking over your days?
The solution: Change from “always available” to working in bursts. Instead of constantly monitoring your inbox throughout the day, change your default behavior to working on emails in batches.
This means setting aside specific times throughout the day to check, answer, and send any emails you want to. Not only will this help you focus on more meaningful work, but research has shown that communicating in “bursts” like this makes teams more productive and creative.
Default behavior #2: Immediately responding to chat messages and texts
Compared to your inbox, chat apps and texts are even harder to control. Real-time communication sets the expectation that you’re always available. And for many of us, our default behaviors support just that.
Even if a message is meant for “whenever you have time,” we feel a pang of needing to check and respond. But just like email, this default behavior keeps you from being truly productive.
The solution: Create a communication contract with your team. The only way you can change your default behavior with communication is to set expectations on response time. Unfortunately, 75% of people have never spoken with a coworker or manager about their response time expectations.
Are texts more serious than Slack messages? Do chat messages need an immediate response? Can certain communication mediums be dealt with during the same burst as your emails?
To support these new expectations, change your default notification settings on tools like Slack. You can mute specific channels, get rid of pop-ups, turn off mobile notifications, and more to make sure you’re not getting pulled into chats when you don’t want to be.
Default #3: Leaving endless tabs open
If you’re like most people, you probably have somewhere between 5 and 274 tabs open right now. Somehow, tabs became the new to-do list. Instead of dealing with something—a piece of news, Trello card, support ticket—we leave them open for “later.”
But having a huge number of tabs open at all times will almost always lead to a serious drop in productivity. Not only do you have to constantly hunt for the tab you need to use, but you’re unnecessarily opening yourself up to distraction.
The solution: “Clear to neutral” throughout the day
Rather than leave tabs open for days (or weeks) on end, productivity “hacker” Dan Silvestre recommends “clearing to neutral” multiple times throughout the day.
Just like you clear the table after dinner, you should constantly “clear out” your workspace, including all your open tabs:
- When you’re done with your computer, close all the apps and browser, and shut down.
- If you’re leaving the office, spend five minutes throwing everything unnecessary away, and give your desk a clean.
- But also clear to neutral during the day.
- If you’re reading email: open it, read it, then close it. No need to leave the browser or the app open.
- Browsing social media? Open the app, browse, then log out.
- Clearing to neutral helps you eliminate friction points and reduce your tendency to procrastinate.
Don’t leave endless tabs open, tempting you to be distracted and procrastinate. Reset your default behavior by constantly clearing your workspace to neutral.
Default behavior #4: Constantly being available (even outside of work hours)
In our hyperconnected world, it’s easy to feel like you must be available to your coworkers at all hours. Of course, this constant availability makes it very difficult to unwind, disconnect, and “turn off.”
It also makes it challenging to be fully present when with family and friends if you’re constantly monitoring your phone for any work-related communications.
Worse, research shows that people who are unable to psychologically disconnect from work experience more work fatigue, worse procrastination, and poor work-life balance.
The solution: Set guardrails on your workday (and stick to them). When it comes to changing your default behavior of being always available, you first need to change the way you think about work. Is it healthy to be always “on”? To always be available to your supervisor and coworkers? I’d say not.
This fundamental change in thinking needs to be followed by fundamental changes in behavior. Quit chat and email apps at the end of the day and delete them off your phone. Disable notifications when you’re with your friends and family.
Your goal is to have space to breathe at the end of the workday, to think about things other than work and truly rest.
Change your behaviors, change your life
In the movie Jurassic Park, Ian Malcom famously says, “Life . . . (dramatic pause) finds a way.” The same can be said for our propensity to be distracted and procrastinate.
If you want to truly change your life, it’s not enough to rely on tools, hacks, and tricks. True change comes when you reset your default behaviors—when you fundamentally change the way you think about things like email, texting, and social media.
It’s only when you do these things that your life will change for the better.
Stephen Altrogge is a freelance writer who specializes in writing about productivity and marketing. He lives in Ashland, Ohio, drinks too much coffee, and loves creating long-form content. A version of this article originally appeared on RescueTime and is adapted with permission.