My name is Tom O’Leary and this is the Time Academy podcast. Today we are talking about Time Defaults.
The term default is used in behavioural science to mean pre-set courses of action or behaviour that we follow almost instinctively. It is estimated that over 40% of our daily actions are managed by such default behaviour, which we call habits, routines and rituals. These are basically the ways we tie up our time and energy without giving it a second thought.
Let’s make this tangible by taking a common example many of us can relate to: dealing with calls, messages or emails pretty much as they come in.
Now, on the face of it this is a neutral behaviour and it feels good not to let them build up. And yet, this one behaviour highly conditions how we go about our day. I was perhaps lucky that in my first job out of college I was faced with an avalanche of email each day and yet email was only a small part of the job. So I was forced to learn behaviours that allowed me to switch the default from allowing email to interrupt everything to scheduling email like I did everything else.
So, in the case of email, I would ask you the same question I asked myself – Is email your priority? If it is, then dealing with emails as they arrive makes perfect sense. If it isn’t, what default might you create that would allow you to focus on your core work?
And this brings up to the deeper question of what purpose the default behaviour is serving? In the case of email, the fear of missing that important time-sensitive email can certainly be a driver. Also the uncertainty of coming back to a full inbox can feel overwhelming. The desire to feel connected, be responsive, be seen to be responsive, be helpful, not slow things down can all play a part. That sense that you are making progress by having a clean inbox can also be powerful – it offers a feeling of completion and even satisfaction we don’t often get in our days and can hide the fact that we might be using this to procrastinate on something much more critical.
It is therefore important to understand what is driving each time default – they likely developed for a good reason in response to some deeper concern but we can find ourselves serving very different and even conflicting masters.
The simple email example offers us a template for all aspects of our lives in the form of three questions.
- Firstly noticing – what are my time defaults?
- Secondly, what underlying purpose does each one serve?
- Thirdly, what time default might be more beneficial?
So let’s go through them one by one:
- First question: What are my time defaults?
Answering this question requires a certain spirit of curiosity let’s say – a desire to unpick your behaviours during the day to get a sense for how you might be conditioning your time and energy. Start with the first thing you do when you wake up in the morning, your morning routine and the invitation is to stay curious throughout the day.
- Once you identify a time default that isn’t really benefitting your life then call on the second question: what underlying purpose does it serve?
This is a very personal but powerful question – I see friends and clients continue to engage in behaviour they consider counter-productive – working too much, smoking too much, not doing enough exercise, being constantly distracted by notifications and yet they still do them. In each case, there are powerful underlying drivers.
Whatever they are – go easy on yourself! This is simply a wonderful opportunity to start doing something that may be more beneficial to you. If you can’t figure out the underlying purpose, do consider getting some support from those around you. Just talk it through – for example, Why do I work so much? What is that serving? Who is that serving? This comes up a lot in my client work and each person will have their own highly personal story driving them.
- Now the third and final question, what default might be more beneficial?
Once you address whatever concern is motivating the default you can often uncover a fresh canvass full of possibility. You can design the defaults and rituals you want and harness the power of default behaviour. If you’re looking for a primer on building powerful habits the book Atomic Habits by James Clear provides some great frameworks.
So the invitation today is to pay more attention to your time defaults and as you go through your day consider bringing this question with you–
“What is my default behaviour in this situation?”
Thanks for listening to the Time Academy podcast. I hope this has offered you a slightly different perspective. If you find it helpful please share! I’d also love to get your feedback and hear your stories so please feel free to email me.