Breaking Habits: Considering Saliency

Breaking Habits: Considering Saliency

Last week I was feeling rather pleased with myself, having successfully rebooted the “going to sleep early” habit. I was well on the way toward creating a framework productivity-enriching habits…

But suddenly, a shot rang out! The maid screamed! And a project emergency loomed over the horizon, promising darkness and tragedy if certain drastic actions were not taken…

Yes, I ended up breaking my carefully-established sleeping schedule to pull a few all-nighters. The result: my optimal energy management plan completely went out of the window. And you know what? Instead of resenting it, I loved it.

This was very surprising. Thoughts follow.

Deconstructing the advantages of waking up early

Now, I still like waking up early and experiencing the first kiss of sunlight as I sip coffee outside of Starbucks. I really like being able to predict how many hours of sleep I’ll need every night. Contemplating the ruins of my habit, though, it seems that the greatest advantage was just having so many elements in synch with each other. First of all, I’m in synch with the sun. I L-O-V-E the sun. And everyone else local I know is synchronized with the sun too: people, work, restaurants, stores, and social gatherings.

The second advantage of waking up early, as I noted in my recent summary, is that it gives me time to start up. It’s a luxurious feeling, waking up early enough that I can take time to do all those other things in the early morning, and still have plenty of time to get to the real work.

What I find surprising is that losing these advantages did not freak me out, make me mad, or lead to a prolonged period of grumpiness. There’s something else at work here.

The upside of breaking the habit

I had to do a lot of on-the-fly graphic design and familiarization with a program that I haven’t used extensively, InDesign CS3, to meet an impossibly aggressive timeline. When things look that bad, it’s time to go into crunch time. Going back into crunch time reminded me of grad school and game development, and while I wasn’t looking forward to it I nevertheless knew how to prepare myself for it. There are several stages that I practice:

  1. Clear my schedule. Make warning calls. Nothing else matters.
  2. Provision the office with plenty of refreshing beverages.
  3. Throw everything on my desk in a box.
  4. Set up my development environment with shortcuts. Back up everything else.
  5. Get the music, crank it up, and start pushing.
  6. When tired, drink water, go for a walk.
  7. When tired again, take a shower, go for a walk and maybe eat something light.
  8. When tired again, go to the hot caffeinated beverages.
  9. If necessary, take a 2-3 hour nap. Do not exceed 4 hours.
  10. Repeat cycle once from step 5.
  11. At 48 hour mark, make detailed description of next steps, then go into deeper sleep. That way, it’s easier to remember where I left off after having slept.
  12. If I have to, repeat the cycle again.

It helps when I have other people crunching with me, and in this case I was lucky enough to have such a person who had the right attitude to get things done, putting the project ahead of personal stuff. The constant feedback that someone else was in the room working kept us both going.

Admittedly, crunching is a terrible way to work for sustained periods of time. There’s an article called why crunch mode doesn’t work, with many fascinating historical citations, posted on the International Game Developers Association (IGDA) website. In my vicariously-derived experience, crunch mode sucks for family life, but it ceases to be a problem during extended crunch periods because you won’t have a family anymore. It’s really that bad.

The one saving grace of crunch time is that something gets done and delivered. And this is probably why I’m not mad about having destroyed my sleeping pattern in a matter of days. However, as the IGDA article notes, crunching is the single most expensive way there is to get the work done. That isn’t very productive at all! Is there some way to combine the positive elements of getting something with having good habits?

recovering the salient bits

Taking a step back, let us consider why I started to reboot the sleep habit in the first place:

… [to establish] a sequence of habits that I believe will be conducive to greater productivity; it’s a framework for maintaining a working store of time and energy.

In other words, these serial habits (sleep, exercise, drinking water, regular meals, regular chores) are supposed to create the conditions where productivity can flourish. I was trying to convince myself that these habits are mandatory overhead for managing my life, given my current resources. It’s hard to argue, however, that crunch mode working bypasses all that stuff and just gets stuff done. Sure, the aftermath was a couple of days feeling dazed and unfocused, but what had 3 weeks of early waking accomplished? Not all that much, in terms of cold hard finished tasks. I had been busy, but not productive. Nevertheless, that busy-ness took care of a lot of lingering crap that would have eventually built up to stress-inducing levels.

It is frustrating to not be able to be the way I want to be, which I think is a sentiment shared by many productivistas seeking to become model machines. If only I was more disciplined and focused. I happened to hear a fragment of the solution on NPR over the weekend. It was about how breaking an addiction is difficult because our mind is wired to select the most salient experience available to it at a given time. To break the hold of a bad habit, you have to rewire your brain to desire a better habit at a very fundamental level. Without this rewiring, it’s impossible. Finding something more salient than the bad habit is the trick. I have friends who only give up smoking if it’s for their children or for a loved one; for them, the emotional bond and commitment outweighs their need for the cigarette. For other people, though, the neurological hook is so deeply embedded that they can’t break it at all; it takes individual will coupled with a positive feedback social network to provide enough energy to break free.

What’s salient

If I come right down to it, the reason why I’m not productive (in the “task finishing” sense) is that I prefer conversing with people about their interests over working in isolation. As a freelancer, this is a real problem. The way I push through is by constructing scenarios in which I’m drawing conclusions from the work that can later be turned into a new product, blog post, or business opportunity. In hindsight, all these tricks fall into the category of converting work into conversation.

If I put my “waking early” experiment into this context, I can see that the entire reason it works in the first place is that it gave me the opportunity to spend more time working on blog posts, synchronizing with friends, and being able to meet people for coffee under the guise of “business development”. Perhaps what I need to do is transform the nature of my work from production to conversation, which is an example of the strategy of embracing so-called faults and turning them into strengths. I can do the technical production work too, but at a vastly lower efficiency. This suggests that management is a course of action that I should pursue, or perhaps as a producer that works through other people.

Recovering the habit

Another reason I’m not mad is that I believe I can get my body back on schedule fairly easily. I’ve noticed that no matter what time I go to sleep, I seem to wake up after 8 hours. And If I get out of bed immediately, then my mental clarity is fine.

If there’s anything I learned from this experiment, it’s that the body has its own memory and momentum. It takes a few days for a new behavior pattern to set lightly, holding its shape delicately like a newly-poured bowl of Jello® that’s been in the refrigerator for only a couple of hours. If I plan for this, and stay generally in the range of hours that I prefer to maximize sun exposure, I think the habit will reform more naturally. We shall see in the next week. The emphasis, though, will be to pursue the salient qualities that I like about waking up early, not merely conforming to the schedule. Set schedules have their place, but the level of “hard set” perhaps can stand to be varied. Marina Martin has a great rant/post about why you should not wake up early tomorrow that is filled with great reasons why you should wake up whenever the hell you feel like it. I think the common principle is that different people have different priorities, energy sinks, and energy sources. Either habit by itself doesn’t guarantee success.

I suspect that sifting through the ruins of broken habits can yield justifications for why they broke: there’s some force offering an experience that’s more salient and more immediately accessible to you. You can try to fight that force through sheer willpower, knowing that it’s going to take much more energy, or you can run toward it and make that force a strength. In some cases you’ll have no choice to fight it; in which case, you must seek comrades and bind your destiny together.

A second direction to pursue: learning to apply the crunch time methodology in non-crunch time situations. For some reason, I’ve only applied it when the stakes seemed very high. I have to convince myself that the stakes are high ALL THE TIME, so I can enter that mental flow state.

So with that, I’m calling the WAKING UP EARLY experiment done, but I’m not giving up on the sequence. The next one up is GOING TO THE GYM. What’s going to help is a challenge I accepted with my friend Angela, which is to be able to run (Or jog. Or walk) for eight miles to her gym by August 3rd. I am not a runner by any stretch of the imagination, but I got some instruction and think I can take it slow IF I recondition my cardio-vascular endurance by going to the gym. It hasn’t degraded as much as I thought, but regular cardio sessions at a prudent level of exertion should be beneficial. We shall see!

Other articles in this series

If you’re interested in the other articles about rebooting the “Waking Up Early” habit, check out the following links:


  1. CricketB 13 years ago

    A couple of lines caught my attention:

    “The busy-ness took care of a lot of lingering crap that would have eventually built up to stress-inducing levels.”

    Sounds like those were Covey Q2 tasks. Low adrenaline, even though they make you more effective.

    It’s common for people to need a certain level of adrenaline to focus. They procrastinate until the adrenaline reaches that level. Is there anything you can do to move the adrenaline to the Q2 tasks?

    I used to have a four-week cycle. Go to bed an hour late for three weeks, and be sick and barely productive for the fourth. Ten years and a very different life-style later, it’s still hard to break.


    What about a shared office? Our small city has several. Sometimes a group of artists renovate an old buildling for studio space. Another arts group has a building with desks, good printers, and a large meeting / performance room. The local mall plans “incubator” offices upstairs, where you rent a room and share reception, meeting and break rooms. Some even have a shared receptionist.

  2. awake 13 years ago

    “I have to convince myself that the stakes are high ALL THE TIME” [quoting Dave]

    I’m not sure that you want to do this because not all stakes are high PERIOD.  What is considered a high stake (or priority) should stem from you values (according to Mr. Covey).

    There’s nothing wrong with having a Crunch time routine and knowing how to use it when it’s needed, but doing so continuously can no doubt be detrimental.

  3. Dave Seah 13 years ago

    CricketB: Hm, lack of adrenaline? That’s an interesting idea! What are some adrenaline-producing activities?

    I’ve been looking into shared space, and have a place in mind. Just waiting for it to open up. It would be ideal in many ways, though I probably should be pushing on it.

    Awake: That’s a good observation, and I didn’t mean to imply that all stakes are all high. Some stakes are high, particularly the ones I was thinking about related to business/personal growth are all high. Or perhaps I’m simply not differentiating between them enough, but I don’t think that’s the way to go.

    I probably should reread 7 Habits after both these comments :-)

  4. Christopher 13 years ago

    Yes, crunch time v regular schedule.  Let me share my way to handle it.  I have 3 types of days:

    1. I’ll take the day off.  That means I am not allowed to do work nor household chores.

    2. Project day.  It is similar to the crunch time working style you described: I dive into one project and work on it until exhaustion, I don’t work on anything else.

    3. Management day.  I do all those little tasks that have to get done.

    I try to have these days in a sequence that uses my energy levels in an optimal way.

  5. CricketB 13 years ago

    I wasn’t thinking of adrenaline-producing activities, so much as moving the adrenaline to the Q2 activities.  (Q2=important, but not urgent).

    E.g., Mid-week, check BBQ tank is full and soap the lines to check for leaks. Q1 method is run out of fuel during a big party, drive to the store for new tank, connect and light it, then race for the fire extinguisher. Mid-week, I think about what might happen if I don’t check the tank, and use that adrenaline to get it done. Less exciting is knowing what will happen if I try to work in a messy kitchen. I’ve broken several dishes and gotten greasy crumbs on good copies that way.

    Another way is rewards. Yes, I get excited checking off my list, and watching the “chain” grow. And I get excited about that project I can do on the clear kitchen table.

    Some of my best weekends were when I worked away from my fiance. I had to get all my laundry and shopping done during the week. Knowing it was all done was much better than knowing that Sunday I would return to a pile of laundry and an emergency grocery run. “I have to do groceries on Wednesday and laundry and packing on Thursday, so I can take my suitcase to work Friday and go right to the bus station so I can concentrate on important things this weekend, and maybe take the late bus home.”

    A third way is to fill the schedule, so the “last minute” moves forward. I do this with my son. For an assignment due Monday, we work backwards. His typist (me) is busy Sunday evening and afternoon. Saturday evening is family movie night, afternoon is library and shopping. Friday evening is game night, afternoon is relax from the week at school. So Sunday morning is the last-minute for his good copy, Saturday morning is the last minute for the bibliography, and Thursday is the last-minute for most of the thinking. He still gets the last-minute adrenaline, but it’s moved.

    (Yes, I’ve been known to invent things to fill in the schedule, to make the point, but please don’t tell him. He also gets adrenaline from telling me, “It’s done! You can’t nag me! Na-nah!”)

    All three ways require valuing the end result, and knowing what needs to be done. Reward, fear and adrenaline are then moved around as needed.

    I can’t say I follow it exactly. I haven’t practiced singing or shorthand in months, and we won’t talk about tonight’s performance. It’s one I know well, but I should review the language and storyboard, so I don’t forget to “Put the gun on the wall.”

    Now, if I don’t get my daughter to do one of her three tasks this instant, we’ll have to do them all in a rush. If they aren’t done before the matinee, it’s a no-win situation.

  6. Dave Seah 13 years ago

    Christopher: I like the system you have. I wonder if that would work for me? Do you find it requires discipline to maintain?

    CricketB: So it sounds like you are the source of adrenaline for your kids, and they are a source of adrenaline for you in the form of feedback. It sounds like I need to generate adrenaline myself. Most of the time I’ve been very mellow and unstressed, but perhaps this languor is what leads to lack of motion. It’s starting to turn into apathy :-)

  7. CricketB 13 years ago

    What about taking adrenaline from your next crunch project (the one that’s hiding in the wings) and using it to prepare space for that project? What do you want to have ready for it? Well-stocked pantry, with easy meals. Laundry done. Meeting / living room clear so you can host meetings or space for a coworker. Bathroom ready for guests and coworker. Place for coworker to crash. Kitchen ready to cook in. Bookkeeping up to date and organized. Table ready to lay out storyboards. Long-term projects ahead of schedule, so they can slip back to “on schedule” while you crunch.