Breaking bad...habits with good ones?
October 27, 2014 9:43 AM   Subscribe

They say you should kick a bad habit to the curb by replacing it with a good one. Well, what should that be? Let's say it should be something you can do at a desk to replace a bad Internet-related compulsion. It should preferably be something straightforward but productive that (eventually) makes you feel like you've accomplished something of value, not just a useless "tic" (so, something more meaningful than pen-spinning or card shuffling, but not something overly complex that will be given up on). Any suggestions?
posted by Seeking Direction to Grab Bag (15 answers total) 28 users marked this as a favorite
When you want to go back online when you know you shouldn't try:
Sipping at a bottle of water (always good to hydrate!)
put lotion on your hands
stand up and do some stretches
going to the bathroom
posted by PuppetMcSockerson at 9:52 AM on October 27, 2014

Journaling. You could start with a few lines a day in one of those 5 year journals. I find it incredibly rewarding. You know that pithy quotation? In a year from now you'll wish you'd started today.
posted by maya at 9:53 AM on October 27, 2014 [1 favorite]

For me and my relationships with the all-to-available Hulu, Netflix, and Amazon streaming it is thoughtfully asking myself out loud "What does this have to do with my life?".

Doing it enough makes me thoughtful about things that all too easily become thoughtless.
posted by Tchad at 9:56 AM on October 27, 2014 [6 favorites]

I play on freerice for a while when I know I'm getting bored. It makes me use my brain and also manages to help feed people.
posted by Solomon at 9:56 AM on October 27, 2014 [1 favorite]

Read Metafilter. Unless that's the bad habit.
posted by If only I had a penguin... at 10:01 AM on October 27, 2014 [3 favorites]

Is this at home? One of my somewhat-effective transitioning techniques is to give my self permission to do the thing as long as I do the replacement task first. If I want to dick around on Twitter for a bit in the middle of my work? Do my 10min pushups and planks routine first, which is 3 sets of 10 pushups with a 30sec plank in between each set.
posted by rhizome at 10:04 AM on October 27, 2014 [6 favorites]

I'm not clear on whether this has to be something you can do while remaining sitting at your desk? Because if not, I think the most powerful thing you can do is get up from your desk and do something, ANYTHING else. Like:
* a brief stretching or exercise routine
* 5 minutes cleaning/tidying
* a quick walk/skip/run around the office/your home (carry a binder, you'll look like you're working!)
* talking to a human (on the phone or in real life)

If you *have* to be at your desk (like you're a receptionist or something) try turning off the monitor and:
* sketching (copy an image, or draw stuff on your desk from life)
* origami or other paper-folding craft
* knitting or other fiber craft
* learn and practice card or coin tricks
posted by mskyle at 10:17 AM on October 27, 2014

Actually BJ Fogg of Stanford's Persuasive Tech Lab has found that useless tics - baby steps - can work. Check out his site at He also holds 1-week free email courses. I did one and it was an interesting experience.
posted by troyer at 10:19 AM on October 27, 2014 [2 favorites]

Depends on the bad habit, and what you get out of it. The bad habit is likely a problematic way of satisfying a legitimate need. Look for a less problematic way of satisfying the same need.
posted by jon1270 at 10:30 AM on October 27, 2014 [9 favorites]

I've found this varies a lot for me depending on what I'm trying to stop. If I just need to divert myself to avoid engaging in impulse behavior, it's usually best to have it be something very different--like, getting up and going to get a drink, or taking out the trash, something that would displace me from the keyboard long enough for the impulse to pass? I actually get a fair number of really small chores done that way. Even in the workplace, there's usually some small thing--a fax that needs sent, supplies to get from the closet, whatever. If I stay right at the computer where that impulse is, other computer-related things don't pull my brain far enough away from the impulse. If you literally can't get up at that point, stretching is good, or doodling in a Zentangle sort of way--something where you know you can fill up precisely this Post-it and then you'll go back to the computer.

If it's really more of an activity-sized thing that needs replacing, rather than an impulse, then I guess when I'm just trying to Get Down to Business, what I have found most useful is to pull up my plain-text editor and just make a list of the next five things that need doing to prepare for the main thing I'm trying to get down to. Very detailed, like, "find textbook, find syllabus to get page numbers for reading, get a drink, find lip balm, skim last week's notes". Once I've done those five things, then suddenly I'm sitting there with my syllabus and my book and a drink, I'm no longer going to be distracted by the fact that my lips have been dry for the last hour, I'm actually ready to settle down and do it. And I've spent those five small tasks getting into the right headspace for the big one, so I'm no longer going to careen off into something else because I'm trying to avoid this reading. (I'm taking an estate tax class and I just had a death in the family, I know that's why I'm avoiding it.)

Sooo, I'm going to go do those things now, actually, and good luck.
posted by Sequence at 11:05 AM on October 27, 2014

This depends on what you want to do during your lifetime. If you have some vague nebulous goals you can start working on them.

Let's say you'd like to travel to Nepal, plant trees or get a PhD in bio-chemistry. Anyone of those goals can be broken down into micro-goals and you can get started on them.

Do some planning first. To go to Nepal you will need to be in good shape for back-pack trekking and to take a flight there. The first requires you to be in good shape for much up and down hill walking, the second requires several thousand dollars of money. So every time you are tempted to waste time net surfing head for the nearest stairwell and start climbing stairs. Get a piggy bank and drop a quarter into it. Memorize a phrase from a Nepalese-English - English-Nepalese phrase book. You will be a micro-step closer to this long term goal. Even if you never get to Nepal your body will be in better shape, you will have saved a bit of money and learning a second language helps stave off dementia so the effort will not have been wasted.

Similarly planting trees requires you to be in good shape for digging and bending over a lot, so you can start doing the right kind of exercises. You can learn how to start tree seedlings. It's not as easy as poking acorns into a flower pot. (We ended up with no space in the fridge because it was full of chestnuts wintering over in peat moss.) You can start tree seedlings at home so as to learn to keep them alive while researching where the heck you can plant them.

What you need to do is figure out what some of your long term ambitions are before you can answer this question. Fitness? Music? Knowledge? Experiences? Recovering from childhood trauma?

Failing that, what are somethings that you need to do? There is almost certainly a nearly inexhaustible list of chores that have been waiting for your attention. You can cultivate a mindset so that they come to mind when you start reaching for the mouse. You know the sort of thing: rake the cat pan, start sorting through your late great-uncles old financial estate, do something about your athlete's foot, unload the dishwasher, empty the trash... It will be harder to do micro-useful things if you are at work instead of in your own space, but not impossible. There are probably work tasks; if not you can start working on the overdue letters or e-mails or Christmas cards, or throw out the old dud receipts that accumulated in your wallet, or enter your expense receipts, or go back and put some notes in your code, or delete old e-mails. The trick is to keep dreaming up more and more two minute tasks.
posted by Jane the Brown at 1:02 PM on October 27, 2014 [1 favorite]

I built Pay the Piper specifically for Internet surfing displacement. It weans you off your surfing habit by showing you one of your tasks from your task list when you go to a distracting web site.
posted by rouftop at 1:32 PM on October 27, 2014 [3 favorites]

Learn/practice drawing in a sketchbook
posted by Jacqueline at 6:16 PM on October 27, 2014 [2 favorites]

If you want a concrete place to start with drawing: Lynda Barry has some great fun on her tumblr, which is the companion website to whatever course she's teaching at UW-Madison. You need a comp book, some black Papermate Flair pens and some non-photo blue pencils.
posted by BrashTech at 7:14 AM on October 28, 2014 [2 favorites]

My most successful and favorite replacement task is flashcards, which I do with Anki. I can easily get through a few dozen cards in 5 or 10 minutes.

You could use flashcards to
* improve your vocabulary
* remember interesting things you've read lately
* learn a foreign language
* quiz yourself on great works of art
* study something related to your job or personal goals
* learn something completely new, like bird calls
posted by kristi at 8:54 AM on October 29, 2014

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