Category Archives: Habits

Escaping unplanned Netflix binges

In the Netflix vortex

What regrets will you have on your deathbed? It almost certainly won’t be “I wish I’d caught the last two seasons of Brooklyn 99!” If you have goals that don’t involve sitting on the couch watching endless television and films, limiting your Netflix time is important.

This post has a bunch of obvious suggestions like that – and oftentimes the message we need is the obvious message. If you’re managing your viewing habits just fine, move along to the next article.

For everyone else, some strategies that work:

  • Turn off autoplay. Seriously.
  • Decide that it’s okay to watch part of a movie or show. If you find yourself thinking “Ugh, I shouldn’t have started, but I’m already 5 minutes in so I have to finish”, don’t believe your thoughts. You don’t have to do anything. Netflix will keep your place.
  • Act in the moment – if you have the impulse to get up, follow that impulse.
  • Set a simple “implementation intention” for the end of the episode, to help transition. (For me it might be “Make a cup of peppermint tea.”)
  • Use the 10 minute rule. If you have the impulse to watch another episode, wait 10 minutes. Use the time to exercise or do a household chore. After that, decide whether you actually want to watch – but either way, you’ve strengthened part of your prefrontal cortex in your brain that’s associated with willpower, given yourself more control over your own life, and done something constructive during those 10 minutes.

Or go deeper. How much do you care about your actual goal – the thing you want but keep procrastinating on? Your book, your side hustle, your reading or online course. Given the choice, would you achieve your goal rather than watching a bunch of television?

To go to the next level, don’t start watching in the first place. There are few great shows in the world, and they’ll be here next week or next year. And there are very few that compare to actually achieving the thing you want. So let’s get specific:

  • Put the remote in another room. In a drawer. With the batteries removed. Use whatever degree of barrier you need to avoid habitual “let’s see what’s on” behaviour.
  • Decide never to watch a show unless it’s been recommended to you by multiple people. This means no time wasted searching through an index of shows.
  • Pull out the plug. To watch the TV you’ve got to physically plug it in again.
  • Pack the TV away. Turn it to face the wall, put it against the corner in your spare room. These last two depend on others that you live with.
  • Turn a sofa away from the TV and place your reading material next to it. That’s now your chair. You or the person watching the television can use headphones as needed.

The “pull out the plug” strategy worked for me in my last years of high school in 1987-88. It worked because I was living with my father, who rarely watched television. I would walk into the lounge room, flick the TV on out of habit, and when nothing happened, I would (a) remember why I’d unplugged it, and (b) ask myself whether there was anything on that I really wanted to watch, or if it was just a habit. The impulse weakened as I refused to reward it, meaning my brain was rewiring, and the changed habit has served me well to this day.

Which strategy will you use? Take action now.


Image adapted from on Unsplash (CC0 licence).

Return to the desired behavior without judgment

Perfectly expressed:

Getting organized (or establishing new habits) is like following your breath when learning to meditate. We are taught that, when you notice your mind wandering off and straying from the intention of following the breath, you simply notice having done so, without judgment, and return to following your breath. What if we could apply the same technique to habits, following routines and using strategies? What if the habit was not the new desired behavior, but the habit was returning to the desired behavior without judgment? If you solidify the habit of return, you will worry less about leaving the path. You will always have a way back.

– A listener’s letter to an ADHD-themed podcast. Link.

How to Avoid the Resolution Traps

Today we look at the common traps that prevent people from forming new habits and keeping resolutions. While we are focusing on exercise goals here, the lessons apply in all aspects of your life. Do not go for your regular run the first weekend of a new year. The resolutionists will outnumber you. It's dangerous.

There is a time to push yourself hard – if you’re working on your fitness, that’s likely to be when you’ve been in training, you’re in good condition and you know you can do it safely. A trained athlete has to deal with psychological limits, the brain screaming “Stop! Fatigue! You’re going to break! There are no more resources!” – long before you’re actually in danger of injury or running out of resources.

But here is the key: what is true for the trained athlete may be bad advice for the novice, risking both injury and failed goals.

Three kinds of over-exertion can defeat your commitment to a resolution. From doing zero exercise, you start exercising 30 minutes a day. Your body isn’t ready, and then you’ve got:

1. Physical overexertion. By the time you recover from the strain, life has happened, and your resolution has become a vague intention. Vague intentions don’t achieve goals.

2. Psychological overexertion. Maybe your body held up, but it was an unpleasant experience. Your subconscious mind will offer endless distractions to avoid repeating the ordeal.

3. Planning overexertion. It takes mental effort to plan and make time. The more time you commit upfront, the bigger the impact on your schedule.

Start Small. Persist.

For most people and most new resolutions, I advise starting small and being consistent. Push yourself within your own safe limits, and enjoy the energy you get from your new exertions. Build from there.

  • Want to start running? Perhaps a 5 minute walk mixed with gentle jogging is the right way to start.
  • Want to lift weights? Start with your own weight – do some pushups and bodyweight squats – a small enough number that you can maintain good form throughout.

The key to follow through is to make planning easy. Your first goal can be a small habit, done consistently. Just 5 minutes – even 2 minutes – but every day. When that’s strong, slowly build on it – exercise more intensely, and go a little longer. And by the way, if you’re unfit and just starting, skipping for 2 minutes is a good workout.

Apply these principles to any resolution, for a new year, or a new month.

And of course, take your own needs into account, and talk to your doctor before starting any exercise program… for your own sake, of course, but your doctor might also appreciate the inspiration.

Making Success More Likely When Changing Habits

What are the warning signs when making resolutions? And how can you do it better? We’re talking New Year resolutions or any decision to change for the better.

  1. A strategy that consists of “I mean it this time!”
  2. Any strategy that is based more on willpower than on triggers and routines. (A milder form of point 1.)
  3. A goal that sounds good – when I think “I really should do this” rather than really thinking through the most likely paths to achieve my goal.
  4. A vague goal, without a clear target, such as like “eat healthier”, “exercise more” or “blog”.

What can work better? First, let me emphasise: Find what works for you, and be willing to experiment.

Below are some insights which have helped me to create good habits:
– Expect that you’ll need to improve your strategy, as you find things that aren’t working, and try new approaches, until you have it working just right.
– Goals to “get X done” haven’t been the most effective for me. Goals to “Make it easier for myself to do X”, or “Work out a routine to do X” have given better results.
– Make it easy. Put effort into minimising any obstacles.
– If what I need for my habit is within reach and within sight, so I can start on my habit in seconds, it’s much more likely that I’ll do it. E.g. my yoga/exercise mat lives on my bedroom floor. It’s not the only place I exercise, but it makes starting that much easier.
– A good routine is awesomely powerful, making your new habit easier and much more consistent.
– The energy I have for life determines the energy I have for achieving my goals. For this reason, exercise and good sleep are key for me, and I’ve persisted in getting these right. (These habits are much improved, and my energy levels are better for it.)
– If your new habit requires focus, create time when you won’t be distracted. E.g. getting up early is by far the best way for me to write. (Staying up late to write can work for me in the short term, but ruins my energy and productivity in following days.)

What are you doing to make success more likely in 2015?