Habits are the darling of the self-help and productivity worlds, but I’ve found much of the approach towards them not quite helpful in my own life. Instead, I find it more useful to think of defaults.
A habit is something that’s always there, every single day. Missing a day or two breaks your streak and sets you back at zero. Even making the commitment to start a habit can be daunting — meditating every day, never drinking alcohol again, waking up early every morning, it feels easier to never even start.
A default is just how you do things, unless you have some reason not to do it that way. There’s no shame, no failure if you don’t pick the default option. That said, it’s worth monitoring and seeing if you need to reset the default or make a conscious change.
I’d been stuck in a rut lately: feeling down, anxious, stressed, self-medicating with alcohol and generally meh. If you insist on labels, it’d likely be depression and anxiety, but the stories and communities surrounding those labels weren’t something I wanted to identify with. The options looked like forever whining about being powerless or taking a terrible cocktail of drugs. No thanks.
Looking at how I was living, it was obvious that many of my default behaviors were contributing to my poor mental health. When you’re in such a state, motivation and willpower are in short supply. Thus it’s important to use them prudently: find something you can change and then use that victory to generate additional motivation. And that’s how I’ve reset some important defaults over the course of the past three months or so.
My default alcohol consumption is now zero. That doesn’t mean I’m never going to have another drink in my life, although I suppose I could go that route. Instead, it means that without a compelling reason, I’m not going to drink.
When I need to unwind in the evening, a cup of herbal tea does a better job than a beer. I’ve been working on reducing anxiety, which means I also don’t feel the need to drink in awkward social situations.
My real bane was binge drinking. I’ve found that going to parties with some board games and non-alcoholic beer does the trick just fine. And no hangover is a real plus.
I came to this new default, because I could see that at 35, my body couldn’t handle alcohol like it used to. Furthermore, having more than a couple of beers left me feeling down for days afterwards. I’m not some AA touting prohibitionist; the cost-benefit analysis of alcohol no longer makes sense for me at this stage of my life.
Am I going to have a single really nice Trappist beer on my birthday? Probably. And that’s the beauty of defaults: I can “break” the habit whenever it makes sense to.
Coffee had become an anxiety bomb for me. Now that I haven’t had a cup in over two months, I can’t understand how I used to have three or four cups a day.
Of all of my resets, getting rid of daily caffeine might be the biggest bang for the buck. I sleep like a baby, my background anxiety has dialed way down and I wake up feeling refreshed. Beating back the anxiety means that I don’t feel as inclined to grab a beer at the end of the day or doomscroll away the evening.
I’m not sure yet what the final result of this is going to be. I’m playing around with having a cup or two of tea a week. This feels like it’s giving me the benefits of caffeine when I want them without the negative side effects.
Caffeine is one drug where I’m not convinced that zero is the right default for most people. Limiting myself to one cup of coffee or tea a day still gave me 90% of the benefits, so that might be the right choice for most people.
In any case, my default is no longer rolling out of bed and fumbling towards the kitchen to make myself a coffee. In self-help speak, this is the atomic habit that’s the cornerstone of everything else right now.
Treating this as a default rather than an absolute might just be a psychological trick, but it works for me. If I really want to, I can hop on over to a coffee shop and get a gourmet coffee — just not every day.
If I’m feeling a little off, a bit sore, then I take a nice relaxing, warm shower. Otherwise I take a cold shower. This works out to be 4–5 cold showers a week.
This is enough to get the benefits of cold exposure without having to dread an everyday commitment. And these benefits include a burst of euphoria, and improved heart rate variability, which in turn makes you better able to handle stress, lowering anxiety and setting that feedback loop in motion.
My default is one 24-hour fast a week. I don’t hit it every week if I’m too busy or something comes up. But it’s another default that’s an easy win, which increases motivation and also makes the me feel better.
All of these defaults work together in feedback loops. Skipping a heavy night of drinking means I don’t feel morose for the next two days, which means I’m less likely to experience worse depression symptoms, I don’t need to have multiple anxiety-inducing coffees to get through the day, which means I’m less likely to need to mindlessly unwind come evening.
Likewise the health benefits build. I’ve lost some extra weight over the past few months, sleep better and naturally end up doing more exercise. Improved physical health naturally leads to better mental health, which in turn further improves physical health. It’s nice to use feedback loops to your advantage!
Rereading this, it came off as more self-helpy than I would have liked. My intention though is challenge the idea that you need perfect habits. You will fail, you will want to make exceptions from time to time, and that’s why I prefer to think in mostlies and defaults.
In my case, changing my default alcohol and caffeine intake to zero on any given day led to some big changes. Adding in a couple of healthy practices as defaults still brought benefits while letting me be more relaxed about grabbing some junk food here and there.
So yeah, go and change a couple defaults and see how it affects your life.