Note 1: No shed necessary. That's a promise!
Working well shouldn’t be difficult. Make a list of things to do; tell yourself that you will do a, b and c before lunch; apply posterior to chair; do a, b and c. But most of us know what actually happens: in the absence of a boss to enforce when and where we produce a piece of work, bad habits come into play and we (I) play Spider Solitaire, go on Twitter, answer social emails, pay bills, make more coffee, dust behind the fridge…
That was me, until May 2011. Years of self-employment and working from home had created appallingly chaotic working habits. I got the work done – never missed a deadline yet – but it felt unhappily ill-disciplined, ineffective, pathetic. Social, domestic and work tasks were mixed up; the hours spent at my desk were too long and ineffective; real writing seemed to come last, if at all. Work-life not so much balance as collapsed in a heap of tangled intentions.
In May that changed. Now, if I say “shed”, you’ll roll your eyes and want to switch off, but I promise this is not about getting a writing shed. It’s about stimulus generalisation, as I now realise, thanks to my clinical psychologist friend who nodded wisely when I told her how my working habits changed instantly, the day I got a shed. Stimulus generalisation is something psychologists harness when dealing with addictions and negative habits, she said. Hmmm, sounds like me. Does it sound like you?
I’ll briefly explain the relevant aspects of stimulus generalisation but then, more importantly, unpick the elements of what I accidentally did, in order to make suggestions that anyone can use to alter poor working habits, including internet addiction. (Disclosure: I’m not a trained psychologist, though some of my work involves a degree of understanding of how our brains work; I’m just making sense of what happened to me and what might help others.)
Stimulus generalisation is akin to a Pavlovian response, although reflexes are not necessarily involved. Behaviour (leading to habits) is conditioned subconsciously by stimuli around us. So, if you tend to have a glass of wine while cooking the evening meal, cooking the evening meal becomes part of the set of triggers to have a glass of wine. Aspects of cooking the evening meal are the general stimuli around you: the clock saying 7pm, the light falling, the sound of a partner coming home, your own body clock, the smells in the kitchen, all the cues to anticipation of a relaxing evening. Together, these stimuli subconsciously reinforce a habit; and breaking the habit will be very hard if you don’t break the stimuli. In theory, you could just say, “I won’t have a glass of wine,” but the stimuli play heavily on your desires and behaviours and you are pretty likely to have that glass of wine. Thus speaks the voice of experience.
So, let’s unpick what happened with my shed. Effectively, I had suddenly changed almost all the stimuli around me, in one go. This made my existing desire to change working habits much easier; it enabled an immediate fresh slate, allowing new stimuli to create new habits. In the same way, an addict is encouraged, as part of therapy, to remove all physical aspects of the situations in which previously he took the addictive substance. Move house; throw away posters, furniture, possessions; avoid the friends who accompanied the addictive behaviour; take up new activities; change as much about your life and environs as possible. Every repeated stimulus has a hold on the person, each one like a strand within a rope.
Let’s move away from the specific shed example and generalise the conditions which may make new behaviours possible, conditions which any of us could replicate if we wanted to break undesired working habits.
1. Desire to change. We need to know what we want to change, and to want it strongly enough that we will make effort and think positively about the outcome. Part of this may involve feeling sufficiently negative about the current situation.
2. Planning ahead. Making detailed advance decisions about the changes, and setting a date on which the changes will start, help prime the mind to activate those changes.
3. Investment. It makes sense that if we have invested time, money and/or effort in the changes, this will help motivation.
4. Rising anticipation. If we have to wait eagerly for the start date, this is likely to help.
5. Support from others. Support from partner, family or friends, and their own investment in your success, are likely to have a positive effect.
6. Out with the old and in with the new. The tendency of the brain towards stimulus generalisation means that the more physical surroundings you can change, the better. You may not be able to afford a whole new room, or to replace all the furniture in it, but the more you can alter the physical surroundings, the better.
7. The use of all the senses. Our brains learn best when several senses are used.
Based on those principles, there follow some specific suggestions to help change working habits. Some are small and may seem trivial but your brain will notice more than you think. Some of the larger things won’t be practical for everyone and I’m not suggesting anyone does them all: pick a few that suit your situation; plan when to instigate the new regime; then do them all at once. Remember: once you have selected your new stimuli, make sure you apply them to your working hours, not your social or domestic hours. The point is to use a specific setting to teach your brain that it is supposed to be working, not doing social or domestic tasks. Or playing Spider Solitaire… The new environment will perform the role of a boss.
o Move your work-space to a different room.
o Rearrange the furniture in your work-space, including the position of your desk and your view.
o Redecorate with new colours, changing as much as possible.
o Choose new furniture, particularly chair and desk and whatever is in your range of sight while working.
o Create a time-table for arriving and leaving work; leave your office door open if just taking a break, but close it (lock it?) when your working day ends. Make sure you take everything you will need during the evening, just as if you worked away from home; use a briefcase?!
o Have a separate in-tray for domestic/social tasks, and only deal with them outside working hours.
o Even something small can help, such as using a specific mug during working hours, or a particular pen or notebook for “real” writing.
o Anything separate for “work” use will help: stationery, clothes, shelves, diary, etc. Make use of the visual element: eg if you use blue files for work docs, have only the blue files in front of you during work hours or in your work space.
o Use all the senses. The suggestions above are all about what you can see but consider the following: you might play music when working (or when not working); you might harness the sense of smell by lighting a scented candle when doing writing work, or enjoy the smell and taste of real coffee; and yes, you have my permission to eat chocolate to herald the start of a writing session… Anything that you can commit to doing every time you start what is supposed to be a proper working (or writing) session.
The more we can change, the more coherently we plan the changes and the more simultaneously we effect them all, the easier it is for our brain to break old habits and allow new behaviours.
But you’ve got to want to, as much as I wanted that shed, and you’ve got to keep wanting it. Old habits not only die hard, they can return. Be vigilant!