At the end of the day, shut it down

This is a story about habit change, told via two recent examples related to work/life balance. I’ll conclude with some recommendations on how to apply this to your own life.

The setup

To improve at “living in the moment,” to be more present during non-work hours, and to more effectively balance work and life, I’m working to eliminate two small bad habits:

  1. checking work email off hours
  2. using my work laptop to do, well, work, during off hours

Important detail: I work from home, so leaving work devices at the office isn’t an option. Now then:

I initially thought a few small tweaks and a good dose of self control would do it. First, I shut off the audible alarm on my phone when emails arrived. Second, I shut down the laptop lid and disconnected it from the external monitor. Neither worked, at all.

I’ve been reading  the excellent “Thinking, Fast and Slow” to learn more about why we make the judgments and decisions that we make. And while reading, I learned that our willpower is at our weakest when our energy is drained (not the stuff of rocket surgery, surely). It’s no surprise, then, I’ve been having trouble breaking habits through willpower when it’s at my lowest energy times of day that these behaviors emerge. In addition, I needed to ferret out the cues that trigger these habits, and either eliminate the cue or replace it with a new response.

To change these behaviors, I needed to stop relying on self control and instead remove the need for it in the first place.

When work is finished, it’s finished

When starting my current job in January, 2013, I was issued a phone and a Mac. The phone simplifies checking email, and the Mac is generally a fine developer machine — largely thanks to iTerm and homebrew — especially compared with my personal Windows laptop. More on that later.

Shut off the phone

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I always keep the work phone turned on, and I noticed that several times a night after work, and several times a day on weekends, I’d find myself checking it for email. “Why would I do this?” I’d ask myself. I had no idea. Not infrequently, the result of checking would be some email that would add intellectual or emotional burden off-hours until I could deal with it when I logged back in during the next work day.

So, time for a new habit: Every day, when I finish working, I shut off the phone. Simple, effective. It adds just enough friction, making it easier to achieve the behavior I want, which is stop checking work email off hours.

By removing the cue — the beep or red blinking light of an unread email, or even simply being near the device — I short-circuited the habit loop. By creating an environment where checking email would actually require energy and patience during a time of day when they’re in short supply, and not just a mindless tap-tap-tap, I removed the reliance on willpower.

The year of Linux on the laptop

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The second habit I needed to break was using my work Mac for personal stuff, namely evening and weekend web browsing and personal coding. I noticed that I’d sit down to read something, learn something, or do some play coding, and a half hour later I was logged in to the work VPN, checking GitHub pull requests, looking at Jenkins jobs, or glancing at Graphite graphs of a production environment. It’s not that I needed to do this off hours as part of my job duties; rather, by simply being on the machine, it was easy to do so, and usually enjoyable. For example, if I had a fun coding or system configuration problem to solve that went uncompleted by end of day Friday, it was common for me to inadvertently find myself working on it Saturday morning. It looks like this:

  1. Fill up coffee cup (just like any work day)
  2. Open work computer (again, like any work day)
  3. Browse the news (like any work day… see a pattern?)
  4. Oh, look, there’s the Jenkins tab I had open Friday afternoon… I’ll spend 5 minutes on that
  5. 1 hour later….

Just in that small set of steps, you see the classic patterns of habit that Charles Duhigg describes in The Power Of Habit: Cue, Response, Reward.

In the case above — which is representative of so much of my heretofore off-hours time spent on my work Mac — the cue is a morning routine (coffee, computer), the response is “work on problem”, the reward is “solve problem, yay!”

The thing is this: Because I have my development environment set up just so on the Mac, it’s much easier to do personal development / learning on it. A large part of that is that most non-Windows tech stacks are much simpler to install and use on Linux environments. Enough so that after just a few months on the Mac, I quit using my personal computers for new development (freelancing excepted) because the Windows experience was so suboptimal in comparison.

Breaking the work-Mac habit started with this question: what is it about developing on a Mac that is so enjoyable? And then, how can I get that on my current Windows laptop? In other words, if the cue to doing off-hours work stuff on the Mac is “open Mac,” how can I avoid doing so in the first place?

The answer was to make it more enjoyable to work on my personal laptop than it is to work on my work Mac. Considering that my personal laptop is a much bigger 17″ Samsung Chronos with much more screen real estate and is arguably more powerful than the 13″ Air, it came down to operating system. My personal laptop is Windows, and that had to change. Considering that when I’m on a Mac my most used apps are iTerm, Intellij Idea, and a browser, I figured: it’s not OSX per se that I like; rather, it’s a solid terminal and great package management (i.e., homebrew). The natural choice then was, of course, Linux.

You’re laughing at me. You’ve been running *nix on your personal machines since 1969. I know. Moving on…

I started by using Vagrant and an Ubuntu VM, but that didn’t stick. I wanted a full desktop experience, not a mediated one.

After asking around for opinions, I then settled on Ubuntu Gnome installed side-by-side on my current laptop. Installation was painless, and the dual-boot experience works great. In addition, Ubuntu Gnome has proven to be intuitive and just works.

Consequently, because the development environment on my personal machine is now more enjoyable than on the work-Mac, I no longer use the Mac for non-work activities. As a result of shutting off the phone, and not being incentivized to use the work computer, when work is finished for the day or week, it’s finished.

Without the tiny but noticeable distractions that pull one out of presence — the blink of a new email on the phone, the ease of a work-related eye-catching distraction whilest doing personal development on the work computer — it’s easier to truly disconnect from work for essential recharge.

Learn more on habit change

This sounds so simple, doesn’t it? To the point where any reader would be right to ask: “Why in the hell are you writing about this?” Here’s the point: these same mechanisms — the habit loop, willpower, self-control — are at the heart of behavior change for everything as small as not checking work email off hours to as large breaking cycles of addiction. They are not the whole story, but they’re an important component. Note: this is not easy! Well, shutting off a phone is. But that is about the simplest case you could wish for. Changing ingrained habits can be seemingly impossible, even when you understand the cue-response-reward habit loop. If you’re interested in learning more, I strongly recommend The Power Of Habit and Thinking, Fast and Slow.

Start with a small habit you’d like to break. Find a way to remove the habit cue entirely, as I did, or change some other part of the cue-response-reward cycle. And find ways to remove the need to rely on willpower. Like most things, habit change can benefit from practice. And by practicing the mechanics of behavior change on even the tiniest habits, we better prepare ourselves for more difficult ones.

2 thoughts on “At the end of the day, shut it down

  1. Sounds like you have thought it out well. I’ve read those books and got a lot out of them too. I didn’t retain all that you did. I don’t get caught up so much in work as in day to day house stuff. I have too many projects going on at home so I do more thrashing back and forth rather than getting projects buttoned up.
    I need to revisit those the things in the books to see if I can finish a few things before starting some others.
    I don’t have as many non work coding issues as you do since I am ramping down my career towards retirement, but I do waste a lot of time on habits that keep me from home projects that I really want to complete before I die. Thanks for the update as it has given me a kick in the pants to work on some bad habits.

  2. Hey Roger,

    I’ve definitely experienced the thrashing back and forth that you describe. Now, I by no means have this licked, but it’s so much better for my wife and me since instituting “personal kanban” this year (I do *not* call it that, but that’s what it is).

    We were driving each other nuts with having so many projects in the air. I’d start something, get so far, and then it’d require her. She’d do the same. We were always blocking each other in some fashion, or starting new projects before completing old ones.

    So I bought a white board of sorts, and we agreed to start using it. We had a simple guideline: limit our work in progress to 2 or 3 things, no more. We tried to stick to 2 things, but sometimes things get stuck or are waiting on something out of our control, so we’d “park it” and start something else if time permitted.

    That simple thing made a huge difference for us. It all came down to simply identifying the problem as “too much WIP” and agreeing as a team to stop doing it.

    We don’t always get it right… one of us will find ourselves saying “No, we aren’t starting this thing until XYZ is finished.” And sometimes, one of us (her 🙂 ) will just ram a small project through because she wants it done and “happy wife happy life.”

    Mostly, though, it’s working great for us.

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