The magic of setting defaults for your life

Planning can require a great deal of time and effort.

But I believe it’s worth every minute you spend on it, because if you don’t plan how you’re going to live, you may never get to where you want to go. It’s like setting out on a journey with no specific end in mind. You will get somewhere, but is that somewhere a place you want to be?

I don’t know if it’s possible to live by your plan 100% of the time. Life is full of surprises. Just when you think you’ve got the hang of things, your plans can be derailed by people, events, and circumstances.

But if you have an agenda to fall back on, you can always get back on track. Maybe not the same day, maybe not even the same week, but usually within a short amount of time, you’ll find yourself back in your routine.

I believe an important part of creating your routine is setting your defaults.

What is a “Default”?

A default is something you do, without thinking, by design.

So, let’s say you get up every morning at 7 AM and begin your exercise routine. That would be a default.

Since you made the choice to take this action, you don’t need to think about it anymore. It may not be a habit just yet, but it will become one in time. You set yourself up for success by determining that it’s something worth doing in advance.

Why Set Defaults for Yourself?

By setting defaults, you can eliminate a lot of unnecessary thinking and conserve your energy for the things that matter to you most.

Steve Jobs was said to have worn the same clothing every single day, so that he wouldn’t have to go through his closet trying to figure out what to wear in the morning. He saved his energy for what he felt was most important in his life.

Since we all have limited willpower that diminishes through the day, using up that willpower for the minute details of life can steal energy and creativity that could be better applied to your highest priorities and projects.

Where’s the Fun in Defaults?

I can hear some of you objecting already: “If I set defaults for every part of my life, I will never have any fun!”

I know exactly where you’re coming from. I enjoy being spontaneous, and I have a lot of fun when others involve me in their spontaneity too.

But therein lies one of the benefits of setting defaults for yourself — you’ll probably eliminate a lot of boredom!

If you’re the fun-loving, spontaneous type, there’s a good chance you find yourself bored a lot of the time anyway. So, think about it — if you always had something new and different scheduled in your calendar, you would have a lot to look forward to, and you wouldn’t get bored or restless as often.

Plus, you can schedule spontaneity blocks into your life. There’s no rule against it!

Easy Decisions vs. Hard Decisions

If you’re anything like me, you’ve probably wasted a lot of time trying to figure out what to do on a given night. From about summer 2011 to summer 2017, I often defaulted to work, because that was the easiest thing to do. I was already at work, so soldiering on and doing more work was an easy decision to make.

At that time, finding something to do, asking friends to join me, and going out was the harder decision to make, as weird as that might sound. And, that wasn’t part of my value system at the time.

The easy decision isn’t always the right one, though, especially long-term, as evidenced by the fact that I was severely burnt out before going on my trip to Japan in November 2017. Yes, I did it to myself as much as anyone else, but at least I learned from it and took proactive steps to correct my mistakes.

I hadn’t taken much time off, if at all, between 2011 and 2016. At times, I was burning the candle at both ends. So, in 2017, I booked time off and set aside my work for two weeks. I was deliberate about this.

Was going to Japan an easy decision or a hard decision? Believe it or not, it was a hard decision for me.

When I reflect on my trip, I recognize it should have been an easy decision to make, because I enjoyed myself tremendously and created a lot of incredible memories.

The hard part was the cost and anxiety associated with making such a commitment. There can be opportunity costs associated with taking time off too, but in this case, that would not have amounted to much because I had no mental space or energy to handle more projects.

Setting defaults can help you make hard decisions when you don’t feel like it. Let’s say, for instance, your calendar app reminds you to read a book at seven in the morning.

There’s a part of you that might dread having to start your day that early. But if you’re committed to your success, and you’re not a flake, then you would follow through on the decision to practice your instrument at the specific time you set aside for it.

Commitment begins with self. If you can’t commit to your own priorities and follow through, how can you expect to make a commitment to others and deliver on your promises?

What Does a Default Look Like?

Let’s say you go to book club on the first Thursday night of every month. So, that would be a default of yours, though you may not have identified it as such.

We all have defaults — work, church, meetings, meals, family life, date nights, social events, and so on.

It’s worth thinking about what your defaults are and mapping them out in a calendar app, or even on a piece of paper. When our defaults go unexamined, it leads to wasted time and energy drains. I think you’ll see this for yourself if you audit your schedule.

If you want to create a new default, look at the available time blocks in your calendar and schedule something new in an open slot. Let’s say you want to work on your personal growth. So, you set aside 7:30 PM to 8:00 PM on Wednesday nights as your default time for reading relevant, value-adding books.

Then, it’s just a matter of living by the defaults you set in your life. When experimenting with a new default, try it out for at least a month and decide whether it works. I would suggest not creating too many defaults at once, because it takes time to adopt new habits. Starting with one or two would allow you to get the feel for things before you commit to more.

As your defaults start to stick, you’ll eliminate a lot of stress and create more freedom for yourself. Commitment is the beginning of freedom.

Create Contingency Defaults

Let’s say Thursday night at 6:00 PM is when you meet with your collaborators. But things can come up, and sometimes meetings can get cancelled, right?

If you didn’t have a contingency default, you might twiddle your thumbs for a while and think about what to do with that time. Should you eat? Should you go out? Should you work on that project that’s been on the backburner for a while?

Meanwhile, if you had a contingency default, you would waste less time and energy thinking about what to do next. Your contingency plan could simply be preparing for the next meeting. That way, you would still be sharpening your axe.

I understand this can be a lot of defaults to be thinking about, but if you want to achieve big and enjoy life, you need to be intentional about your plans.

Question Your Defaults

Are your current defaults benefiting you? Are you making progress towards your goals and dreams, and are your habits supporting your progress?

As I already pointed out, everybody has defaults whether they’re aware of them or not. And, actions always reveal a person’s character and priorities. Words are unreliable, but actions never lie. I can always tell what someone’s priorities are by watching what they do.

I would encourage you to question your defaults, as more than likely there are items in your schedule that need not be there. They are holding you back from becoming the best you can be, and accomplishing what you’re truly capable of accomplishing.

If you’re going to book club, ask yourself why that’s a default of yours. Reading can be beneficial, and I talk quite a bit about the importance of reading myself, but with something like book club, you also need to look at the material you’re reading and the people you’re hanging around.

Are you reading material that stimulates your creativity or benefits your life in some way? Are you meeting and spending time with people that add value to your life?

If you want to optimize your schedule, you need to be willing to question everything you’re doing. You have both positive and negative habits, as we all do. The goal of setting defaults is to create a set of habits that continually push you in the direction of your dreams.

Purging unproductive defaults can be challenging. It’s easy to get attached to an activity or group of people. And, it’s also easy to rationalize and justify an emotional decision with logic later.

But ask yourself — what is the long-term impact of what you’re doing? If it’s going to make you unhealthy, unhappy, or unproductive, you need to examine it seriously. There can be dire consequences for sticking with a bad habit for too long.