Before & After: “I Decided I Wouldn’t Go Near My Computer Before 9 am or after 9 pm”

blue and yellow plastic blocks

I’m writing my next book, about how we make and break habits—an issue  very relevant to happiness. Each week, I’ll post a before-and-after story submitted by a reader, about how he or she successfully changed a habit. We can all learn from each other.

This week’s story comes from someone who wants to stay anonymous.

I made a decision a couple of years ago that I did not like the feeling I had when wasting time on the computer. On mornings I didn’t need to get out early, I could find that I’d ‘lost’ over an hour just surfing, or on Facebook. The same would happen at night, when I’d find myself tired but past my sleepy need to go to bed because of having stayed too long on the computer, usually pointlessly, in ‘veg- out’ mode.

The new habit. I simply decided that I would not go near my computer before 9 a.m. or after 9 p.m.

Now, I can’t say that I never slip, but on the whole, I find I feel so much better, more relaxed, more in control of my day at its start, and of my rest, at its end, that when I have slipped I’m reminded very quickly of why I developed this habit in the first place. It’s also helped to keep things in proportion. As I don’t (yet) have a smartphone, my new habit means it can sometimes be 24 hours or more that I don’t see my email. I’m happier when I feel I’m choosing when to open my computer and deal with emails, and choosing how to spend my time.

This is a good example of a “bright-line rule,” a useful concept I learned in law school. A bright-line rule is a clearly defined rule or standard that eliminates any need for interpretation or decision-making; for example, observing the Sabbath, or using the New York Times’s Manual of Style and Usage to decide grammar questions, or never buying bottled water,  or making purchases only from a prepared list.

Habits are so helpful, in part, because habits eliminate decision-making. It’s draining to make decisions — even little decisions — and by setting bright-line rules, we make things easier for ourselves, and it’s easier to keep our good habits.

In my habit-formation scheme, a bright-line rule is an aspect of the Strategy of Clarity. The more specific I am about what action to take, the more likely I am to form a habit.

Do you use any bright-line rules to help yourself stick to some good habits?

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