Resetting the Defaults Across Your Life

Habit change has been written about to death and back. Anything you could ever want to know about how to change a habit can be quickly found by heading over to Zen Habits or spending about .3 seconds on Google. I'm not here to rehash that old topic again. However, I do want to talk about a specific type of habit that I've been working on recently.

A default is the setting something reverts to. It's the original configuration that you're stuck with originally. When it comes to computers, defaults are generally what feels like "normal." Lots of people like to tweak the defaults that a new computer comes with to better suit their needs. However, computers aren't the only thing with default settings. People have defaults, too. We all have the automatic actions we take without thinking about in our lives. Our defaults are what we do when we aren't thinking about what we're doing. Are you still operating with factory-set defaults? Do you think it's time for a little customization?

How many of your defaults are affecting your life in a positive way?

A couple months ago I sat down and took a serious look at what my defaults were. I didn't like what I saw.

  1. 1My default behavior when I was bored was to check Twitter, Reddit, or my email.

  2. My default emotion when I received criticism was defensiveness.

  3. My default activity when I got out of bed in the morning was to plop down in front of my computer.

  4. My default decision when I was procrastinating seemed to be pretty similar to my boredom default.

For every stimulus in your life you have a default reaction. What do you seem to automatically reach for when you get hungry in the middle of the day? Do you crack open a soda every time you get thirsty? It's 2:30 in the afternoon and you're tired, what do you always seem to automatically do?

Defaults can be very destructive if they aren't set to help you. There's no reason they have to be negative, though. In fact, harnessing and changing your defaults for the better is one of the most powerful things you can do to make a lasting positive change in your life. If you can mindlessly do something positive every time your default action is triggered, you are going to be in a much better position -- and you won't even realize you're doing something incredibly positive. Default actions are mindless so why not make them as positive as possible?

After I took stock of the negative defaults I wanted to change, I started systematically improving them one at a time. This is where the traditional advice about changing habits comes into play.

Now, my new list of default actions looks something like this:

  1. When I'm bored I automatically pick up a book or my latest writing project.

  2. When I'm criticized, I take a step back and decide if it's valuable feedback.

  3. When I get out of bed in the morning, I pour a cup of coffee and read for half an hour.

  4. When I get hungry in the middle of the day, I drink a big glass of water.

By changing my default behavior I've been able to add a huge dose of positive change into my life without having to think about it every time. It's just automatic. Once you've put forward the energy and the effort to change your default you are essentially reaping the rewards for free from that point forward.


If you want to start profiting from your defaults instead of being hurt by them you need to do two things. First, figure out what your defaults are. Think about all the various triggers you face throughout the day that automatically make you do something. What do you do when you get up in the morning? What do you do when you get to work? What do you do when you turn on your computer?

Once you've made a list of your defaults you need to decide which ones to change. Don't bite off more than you can chew by trying to change too many of them at once. In fact, just do one at a time. It's not easy to break a default and if you spread your focus across many of them then you won't be able to break them. Start practicing your new default every time you hit that specific trigger. You'll have to think about it for awhile. In fact, I made sure I had constant visual reminders about what my new default was supposed to be. For example, when I was trying to break the default of always opening my email and Twitter when I opened my browser, I changed the settings so that it would automatically open my Google Docs first. That way I'd be reminded that if I'm just trying to distract myself from being bored, I should probably do some writing instead. Leave yourself notes wherever you're likely to see them until your new default becomes automatic.

I'd love to hear about the defaults you've broken in the past and your new, more positive, alternatives in the comments!