13 Ways My Desk is Saying, ‘You’re on the Right Track, Kiddo’
What’s your environment telling you about your commitment to new habits?
I did myself a real favour in the latter part of 2018: I finally fulfilled a long-held intention by joining a book club. A large, amazing group of people come together each month, each one of us there because we wanted to read more nonfiction and realised that we could use a kick up the backside to nudge us in that direction. I’ve been enjoying it no end and have been excited about the vast majority of the book choices as they’ve been announced.
When we got the email about the book for January, though, I have to admit that I was a little nonplussed. It was Atomic Habits by James Clear, someone I’ve since learned is a Medium writer himself. Since I hadn’t heard of his work before, I had no informed reasons to despair. The reviews of the book were really good. So my hesitation wasn’t about him. It was about me.
I help other people change all the time, but I didn’t have much faith — at all — in my own ability to develop better habits.
Believing myself to ‘just be the sort of person’ who struggles to break out of certain bad habits, ‘just the sort of person’ who couldn’t be relied upon to sustain any push towards more organisation, less screen time, more consistent writing or more frequent exercise, I reckoned that reading James’ book would only make me feel bad about myself.
It would go like this, I predicted. First, just like I do when trying to get my daughter to eat her cabbage, I would encourage myself to prise open my mind and just do it. Second, I would read the book while feeling guilty and sceptical. Third, I would try to implement some of what the author said. Fourth, I would fail to pull this off. Fifth, I would feel shame.
Yep. This was not going to end well.
Despite my fears, I like the book club and wanted to attend, and I didn’t want to turn up only being able to speak about the first chapter. So I finished it a couple weeks ago. And I just noticed something.
Look at my desk.
Looks just like an ordinary desk, doesn’t it? Hm. Doesn’t look like there’s much to talk about here. But hang on! What’s that I hear? I’m picking up a message…
You’ve got this, kiddo! You go, girl! You are killing it! Keep up the good work! Yay you! (etc.)
I realise that this isn’t entirely clear from what you’ve seen thus far, so let me break it down for you.
Look at this desk.
On closer inspection, just this small bit of my physical environment actually tells me a lot about my commitment to making and keeping better habits, and breaking a few bad ones. Thirteen things, to be specific. By looking at your own physical environment, you’ll be able to discern quite a bit about how easy — or hard — you’re making it for yourself to commit to change.
I’m able to spot what my desk is saying because, in Atomic Habits, Clear presents four laws of good-habit formation, broken down into a number of sub-laws. All the quotes you see in what follows are from his ‘Habits Cheat Sheet’, which is free when you become one of his subscribers.
By looking at what my desk is saying to and doing for me, perhaps you’ll have a few insights about what your own environment is saying to and doing for you. Here we go:
Number 1: Hand weights.
These hand weights didn’t live here before. They were out of my eye line, and I rarely touched them, even though I wanted to do more exercise.
By simply moving the weights less than a metre, to this location, I was following Clear’s Law 1.4, ‘Design[ing] my environment [to m]ake cues obvious and visible.’ I’m was also following Law 3.2: ‘Prime the environment. Prepare [it] to make future actions easier.’
The outcome? Unsurprisingly, when I can see and reach them I use the weights more — whenever I hit a creative lull I can kick out a few bicep curls or shoulder presses. Not a massive workout by any means, but never forget that small moves in your desired direction count too.
Number 2: Wigwam.
This toy used to live in a cupboard downstairs, out of sight and out of mind, taking up valuable space. As cute as it is, it no longer sparks joy, as Marie Kondo famously says. It could make some money on eBay or a sell ‘n swap site, which is a desirable outcome but one I’d never pursued. Why? No reason other than having it hidden away kept it off the priority list.
By putting the wigwam here, I’ve made selling it easy, and forgetting about it hard. Law 3.2 is in effect here too, but also, when I succeed in selling it, the cash and clutter reduction will be satisfying — Law 4.1 encourages the use of reinforcement, an immediate reward when the habit is completed.
The outcome? I expect the wigwam and the 10 little First People that inhabit it to be saddling up and moving on within the week. Clutter officially reduced!
Number 3: Shredder.
I’ve always let documents stack up on my desk. When the clutter starts to upset me, I shove the reams of unedited, undifferentiated paper into lidded boxes or unmarked files. When I need something fast, it becomes massively stressful, like being asked to conduct a major archaeological dig in five minutes.
Most of my documents don’t spark joy, but by having the shredder plugged in and ready by my desk, I’m reminded to ask myself another question that Marie Kondo would encourage me to contemplate: Do I need it? Do I really need it? If the answer is no, into the shredder it goes. If the answer is yes, the scanner is just behind me. The document can be preserved and filed in digital form. Law 3.2 in action again!
The outcome? I’m tackling my paper-hoarding habit, one shredding session at a time. It won’t get done overnight, but every move is in the right direction. I visualise a virtually paper-free office in my future, with scads of space in my office. Heaven!
Number 4: Values-tracking diary, designed by psychologist and blogger Nic Hooper
As you may know if you’ve read some of my other posts, as a proponent of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy I’m committed to living a values-directed life. At the end of each year I do a values-alignment health-check with myself to clarify and prioritise things for the year to come. That isn’t really enough for me, though. I function best and stay on track the most if I check in with my values on a daily basis.
The diary is here because I was working on my end-of-month values reflection. Ordinarily it sits on my bedside table with a sharpened pencil at the ready, and I fill it in before I go to sleep each night. My diarising practice is an example of Clear’s Law 4.3: ‘Use a habit tracker.’ In this case, the habits I’m tracking are staying aware of my behaviours and whether they are consistent with my values, identifying obstacles, and noting ways I could overcome them.
The outcome? I’ve never been more consistent with values tracking than I’ve been thus far in 2019. This has everything to do with consistent physical placement of the diary and a pencil at the side of my bed, and a commitment to writing in it each night. Law 3.2 again, ‘Prime the environment’!
Number 5: Book on the Multi-Hypen Method by Emma gannon
This book means something to me partly because I bought it at a particular literary festival that I love, the Hay Festival. The experience of being at this festival in 2017 convinced me to finally write my own general nonfiction book. I saw authors speaking about their work and thought, ‘I could do this.’ When I purchased Emma’s book at Hay 2018, I had an agent and a publishing contract and was almost finished, and I was able to think, ‘I will do this.’ At Hay 2019, whether I’m a presenter or an attendee, I’ll be there and I’ll love it.
Clear’s Law 2.2 is ‘Join a culture where your desired behaviour is the normal behaviour.’ I’ve done this in various ways ever since I made my career change and commenced writing. I joined a private member’s club populated largely by artists and writers. I started writing at a co-working space that only accepts creatives. I started reading more overall — joining Rebel Book Club was all about encouraging me to do that. I went to writing retreats and spent time in the company of other writers while there. I am living life in accordance with the subtitle of Emma’s book: working less, creating more, and designing a career that works for me. Importantly, as Clear advises, I’m putting myself in the places and with the people where my desired behaviour — writing — is the norm.
The outcome? I submitted my book ahead of deadline. It’s being published on the 25th of April. And I’m not resting on my laurels — it’s not enough to be a published author, I want to be a writer, and writers write.
Number 6: A tattered bit of paper containing the lyrics to Robert Burns’ Comin’ thro’ the Rye
Amongst the values I’ve targeted this year are Courage, Creativity, and Curiosity. When I got a message from the hostess of a Burns Night party asking if I was ‘the sort of person’ who could sing a song or perform a poem by Scotland’s national bard at the party, I thought the answer was no. I don’t sing in public and can’t do accents, I protested, protecting the status quo.
On the other hand, saying ‘yes’ was in service of Courage, Creativity, and Curiosity. Aye, I said, trembling in my boots. I’ll do it.
Clear’s Law 3.3 says, ‘Master the decisive moment. Optimize the small choices that deliver outsized impact.’ I got some coaching from the street’s resident Scot. I memorised the song, tackled some terrifying Scottish vowels and consonants (‘R’), and I bought a Black Watch tartan dress to help me inhabit my role. I went forth with courage.
The outcome? I went to the party, belted out the song, and was met with a huge roar of applause. Everyone was blown away, including me. I was so happy I did this terrifying thing. Clutter or not, I’m keeping this piece of paper on my desk for a while to remind myself to keep taking risks in service of my values. And my rendition of Comin’ Thro’ the Rye will probably be my party piece for years to come. Result!
Number 7: Printout of The Habits Cheat Sheet from James Clear
Well, this one is pretty self-explanatory. I know how easy it can be to drift when you take your eye off the ball. So I’m keeping this cheat sheet front and centre in the middle of my work surface.
The outcome? Well, I wouldn’t have been able to write such a well-referenced blog post for you if this habits sheet hadn’t been where it is, and it might not have occurred to me to write it at all. I rest my case.
Number 8: Assorted yarn pom poms and paper snowflake
When I was doing my old job in academia — and I say this with a considerable pang of regret —I largely lost my connection to Family and to Fun. When I was overstretched, my daughter would ask me to play with her, and I would demur, telling her that I had too much work to do. Today she arrived in my study and asked if I would join her ‘pom pom workshop’. I quickly finished the immediate task before me and we made pom poms together. The snowflake was from a wintry craft session before Christmas that came about the same way.
I never want to allow my values of Family and Connection to drift into such a state of mismatch with my behaviours again. By letting these little guys be on my desk — a working space where I never kept such things in the past — I maintain contact with a visible reminder of my values. The tactile, pleasing qualities of the pom poms are useful too — I can touch them and they’re a fuzzy little reinforcement in themselves, reminding me of time with my daughter and increasing the possibility that I’ll engage in this sort of playful, present-centred, connected behaviour again.
The outcome? I see many more pom poms and snowflakes in my future.
Number 9: Two glass vases containing black stones
This was a fantastic reinforcement mechanism mentioned in Atomic Habits —move an object from one place to another once you complete your task. Anything can be used, but I’ve always loved marbles and smooth stones. When I heard the technique mentioned in the book, I could barely wait to get home and implement it, because I knew it would be effective for me.
This is an example of Clear’s Law 4.1, ‘Use reinforcement. Give yourself an immediate reward when you complete your habit.’ It doesn’t sound like a reinforcement, but there’s something super satisfying about hearing the clink of the little smooth object as I move it from the left-hand receptacle into the right. I have 25 marbles upstairs for exercise sessions and 20 stones in my study for blog posts. (Another technique Atomic Habits suggests is designating different areas in your home for different purposes, if you can manage it with the space you’ve got.)
The outcome? This really works for me — a super simple, physical habit tracker that’s easily done and satisfying to the tactile, auditory, and visual senses. At the start of February, all the objects will move back from right to left, and I’m feeling highly motivated to fill up that right-hand glass over the course of the month. Why does simply moving a marble work? It doesn’t matter. When something works for you in a positive way, you don’t have to figure out why. Accept it.
Number 10: A microphone and pop filter
I was incredibly chuffed to be asked to do the audio for my own book. I’m also scared, because it’s completely out of my experience and comfort zone. But you know what?
I’m only guaranteed the introduction thus far. If I don’t pass muster, they’ll get a professional actor in. This microphone and pop filter are manifestations of my commitment to ensuring that I get to do the whole thing. I got a great audio coach who has really helped me. For this project I was already motivated to keep up the practicing habit, but keeping this equipment situated here makes it dead easy.
The outcome? Soon I’ll know whether I’ve done enough to seal the deal for the whole book. Fingers crossed, but I’m stacking the deck in my favour. Think about how you can better incentivise and make it easy for yourself to perform the behaviours that matter in service of your goals.
Number 11: A charging tower
I recently read Why We Sleep: The New Science of Sleep and Dreams by neuroscientist Matthew Walker — highly recommended. One of his top tips is a gadget-free bedroom. Insomnia wasn’t my problem, although devices in the bedroom can definitely contribute to that. My problem was disconnection and distraction. I’d watch Netflix instead of talking to my spouse at night, and first thing in the morning I’d immediately pick up my phone to look at the news, read my emails, or check social media. Reasons not to do this are legion, and I knew it, but the lure of the phone was too powerful because it was right there. I’d get distracted, lose track of time and realise I was running late. Then I’d panic and be snappy with my kid. I’d rush and panic all of the subsequent morning. But I wasn’t doing anything to change it.
Clear also has a list of ways to break bad habits, and this was number one. ‘Reduce exposure,’ he says. ‘Remove the cues of your bad habits from the environment.’ It wasn’t just the phone that had to go. It was the whole light-emitting, multiple-device-charging tower, into which I plugged everything. The iPad on which I watched Netflix. My smartphone. My computer. Into the study it all went.
The outcome? The butterfly effect of this simple relocation of the charging tower has been absolutely extraordinary. I don’t fetch my phone until after I am dressed, breakfasted and ready to leave for work. This has changed the pace and tone of my mornings completely, for both me and my daughter. At night, my husband is not competing for Netflix and I’m not destroying my eyesight with blue light. I’m reading more and getting to bed earlier, meaning I’m more intellectually stimulated and well rested. Everybody wins, in multiple ways. So, you want to shoot down those big bad habits? Lock and load your physical environment.
Number 12: A tab on my browser open to my Stories page on Medium
When I do make a goal, I always make sure it is values-aligned. This year, with Creativity and Flexibility as values, I have been doing what Emma gannon talks about in her book — creating more and working on my own terms. I want to be a writer in the fuller sense of the word.
But…it’s not always easy. Discipline can always slip. We’re all human. So that’s why that Rule 3.2 keeps coming up for me…I have to make it easy to succeed. I’m keeping the Medium tab permanently open on my browser. I’ve made it even easier by populating the ‘Drafts’ column with 15 titles, subtitles, and images. As I think of more potential stories, I’ll add those too, including from the mobile app if I’m on the go. Like James Clear says, ‘Prepare your environment to make future actions easier.’ How can you do that for yourself?
The outcome? I’m on track. I’m really on track. And as evidence of that, I present you with…
Number 13: An email that I just got from Medium notifying me that they were featuring my latest story.
I felt absolutely elated when I received this email, in response to the fourth story I’d published on Medium. Talk about reinforcement! I feel incredibly motivated to keep the quality up, to keep offering up stories that will be of use to others. It won’t happen every time. Maybe it won’t happen very much. But that’s okay, because here’s the thing…
Variable interval reinforcement schedules — reinforcement schedules in which you can’t predict when the reward will come, but the payoff does come occasionally — are incredibly powerful in sustaining behaviours. A variable interval reinforcement schedule keeps gamblers pumping those coins into the slot machines in Vegas, waiting for the next hit. This is one of the reasons I’m publishing on a platform like Medium’s Partnership Program — I know that it will give me precisely the kind of variable interval reinforcement schedule that will help keep to keep this writing behaviour going.
The outcome? I am raring to go. If you can find ways of using reinforcement effectively yourself, you’ll soon find yourself reaping the benefits, just like I find myself doing now.
So actually, you see, it turns out that maybe I was wrong. I told myself I was innately incapable of forming and maintaining new, better habits. I was an old dog, and surely I couldn’t learn new tricks.
But this self-talk, in and of itself, was one of the things keeping me from making necessary and positive change. When I suspended my disbelief in myself, and in my ability to alter my course for the better, when I started making clear and decisive practical changes, good things started to happen right away.
And now here’s my desk, ordinarily rather mute, telling me loud and clear what a fab job I’m doing.
Look around. What is your physical environment telling you about your commitment to change? Are you keeping your environment arranged so that good habits are difficult, and bad habits are easy?
If not, well, flip that balance. You’ve got this. Believe you me…if I can do it, so can you!