Understanding the Importance of Defaults

People wanting to achieve goals use all kinds of tools: to do lists, writing in a journal, talking to others, and willpower just to name a few. One of the most powerful of these tools, but seldom used, is setting defaults.

What is a default? It's something that you do automatically when you don't want to make a decision. Defaults have a massive effect on behavior, because they require no thought, only doing, and the doing becomes quickly becomes a habit.

For many, the default for spending time is to pick up their phone and scroll on Facebook or engage with some other form of social media. It's not hard to see why that's a default. There's always something new, interesting, or enraging. The apps are specially designed to keep you logged in all the time. It requires no work at all to use social media, and that's by design so that you'll do it when you're not in the mood to think about what you should be doing. It's pretty easy for social media companies to fill this space because very few of us bother to create our own defaults. Heck, few of us even understand the way default behaviors control us.

Suppose you were in front of a group of people talking about your goals for the next year. It's not likely that you'd say "My goal is to spend 2000 hours scrolling on social media looking for stimulation." No, you'd have goals for work, goals for improving yourself, or maybe goals to help others. If that's the case, why does social media win out? It wins because it's easier to use social media than it is to achieve our goals. We can take that a step further. If you could work on your goals as easily as you can use social media, you'd be working on your goals all the time. We know that's true because some people do work on their goals all the time.

For most of use, there's a serious mismatch between our defaults and our one-year goals. We need to change that. We need to make it as easy to start working on our goals as it is to scroll on our phones. If the goal is to write more, keep a notebook with you at all times and write down ideas when you have a break. If that sounds easy, it's because it is easy, we just don't do it. In order for it to become a default, you need to have the notebook and pen within reach at all times so it becomes automatic to start writing. Nothing complicated, just a grab the pen and go. When it's time to go back to work, set it down and wait until the next break, the same as you do with social media.

If you want to learn, pick out the right book and carry it with you everywhere. When it's time for a break, pick up the book and start reading. Have a notebook beside you so you can jot down notes or things to look up while you're reading. If your goal is to improve at work, brainstorm ideas for better ways to do your job. If your goal is to start a business, research business ideas when you take a break. Have some websites or search terms set out in advance. As soon as it's time for a break, open your browser and go to work. It has to be a zero-overhead thing so you don't resist. Some things don't necessarily fit into this framework, but a lot of things do.

You may need to work on an intermediate goal. If your goal requires the use of heavy machinery to do landscape work, it will obviously not work as a default. You can, however, make phone calls, review email messages, do research on costs, and so on in the small breaks in your day. Put a list of small tasks into your task manager. When you pick up your phone, rather than opening a social media app, open your task manager to your project instead. Find the next item of the list of small tasks and start working on it. Don't try to figure out which task to work on, just do the first one you see that you can do at that time.

Setting appropriate defaults requires serious thought, and you might have to experiment. It's worth it because you're many times more effective once you get it right. The gains are not 5% or 8% when you learn to set your defaults. The gains are 100% or 200% or 400%. You'll be achieving some goals that you'd never even have started once you properly use defaults.

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