Changing the Default

Changing the Default

Most productivity advice doesn’t help me. I work on a lot of projects at once. I read and reply to email throughout the day. I say yes more than I say no.

But I’ve found a new habit that is helping a lot. The habit is changing my default behavior.

Those of us who do knowledge work for much of the day have no shortage of choices. As I’ve written before, for me the ultimate superpower is to always know what to do next.

I’ve noticed that my default behavior, whenever I’m not sure what to do next, is to consume. I read the news online or check out social media. When I’m done with one news site or one social media platform, I look at another.

I don’t think this is bad, but I don’t need to do it all the time.

I’ve now started doing something else. Whenever I come to the end of a task and wonder, “OK, what’s next?” I try to answer it with something active, not passive.

The story I tell myself is that the default behavior is to create—not to consume.

I can now default to working on my manuscript, writing blog posts, developing the case studies for our new Adventure Capital course, and preparing for WDS.

I save the news reading for the morning and late afternoons, or whenever I make a conscious choice to take a break.

What helps you in your work?

Feel free to share in the comments.


Image: Lanier

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  • Sam G says:

    Thanks – I like the simplicity of this.

  • Vincent Nguyen says:

    That’s a great way to put it. The mindset of creating instead of consuming is similar to my method of kicking myself into work too. I’m actually very fortunate when it comes to work because I love all of the work I’m doing. Of course, there are times when I am just not in the mindset and what works for me then is to change the environment. Go to a place outside of where you usually work and you’ll find that working becomes much easier then.

  • Stephanie Rogers says:

    Chris, I love this idea of focusing on creating instead of consuming and the importance of changing our default behaviors.

  • Jonell says:

    I like setting a timer and working in 30 minute chunks. If I’m really into something, I just reset the timer again (sometimes after a good long stretch).

    It helps to bring my focus back to intention–am I (still) working on what I set out to accomplish 30 minutes ago, or do I need to reexamine or reset what I’m working on? Or do I just need a stretch, a drink of water, or a bathroom break?

    I love the idea of making creating the default. Creating is what makes me happy–why not make it the default?

  • Pat Larsen says:

    Ah, active vs. passive default. I find myself in this trap as well. The Internet is an evil distraction machine. So many people are trying to create all this great content that it can totally sideswipe your personal creative activities. You can go through a whole day and find that you’ve read a lot but haven’t done much. I keep myself accountable by writing my must do’s on an index card and looking at it often. Analog vs. digital.

  • Elisa says:

    Much needed thought! Thank you for sharing!

  • Sean says:

    I love that you said you “always know what to do next”. So powerful.

    As cheesy as it sounds, I work from daily list in Evernote. I then power through stuff in 90 minute bursts. And to really crank up productivity, I blast Ska or Trance.

    Here’s to creating!

  • Ruth Carter says:

    I have an extensive to-do list that helps me stay on track throughout the day. When I feel the urge to slip into mindlessly checking social media, I look at the list and ask, “What’s the next right thing to do?” That tends to help me stay productive and efficient.

  • Paul says:

    Ok- I’m a person who needs a list to deal with my adult a.d.d. and I work it out for the week. I take a five to ten minute break every hour to stay fresh.

  • Julia says:

    Such a timely reminder, Chris. Exactly what I needed at the moment. Thank you!

  • Andrew Brady says:

    I’ve been working on being more of a creator than a consumer too. Thanks for the renewed motivation!

  • Casey Case says:

    Hey Chris, I am trying to work on this as well and love your idea. It’s easy to stop and get caught up in a distraction when I hit a tough spot in a task.

  • fidimom says:

    I can easily get distracted working from home or on a computer… my husband is an attorney and bills by time spent on projects so he keeps a meticulous journal. I took that idea and use my calendar to block out time for customer projects, emails, lunch, personal tasks and at the end of the week I can see where my time is being spent. It has made me more efficient and knowing that I will have a written record of “Pinterest cruising” …really helps to curb. It also helps to see how a 2 hour project turned into a 10 hour project and helps me to analyze the whys and hows to be more efficient. If I spent 10plus hours on a research or a task that I can outsource, I can get those 10 hours back the following week.. it really works.

  • Pedro says:

    That is my default behaviour, and the one that I struggle to change. This single behaviour is currently holding me back on everything, because I just consume in auto pilot and I need to create.

    Good luck with your change!

  • Elias Scultori says:

    Our brains are such wonderful machines that as soon as we finish a task it starts trying to find “what’s next” with the easiest occupation it can find – news, entertainment, facebook, email – and they all seem so very important. Having a purpose and a direction can always help in avoiding the distractions. So noise out there. Gotta be mindful! Thanks for the post…

  • Joe says:

    I do the same thing! I have a sticky note on my computer that says Input>>>Output, which is supposed to remind me to stop consuming information and focus on output. It doesn’t work. My lists help in knowing what to do next, but not when there are more appealing distractions. Doing something physical (exercises, etc) in between activities when I don’t know what else to do, or lack motivation & inspiration helps most. I want to start playing congas (because I’ve always wanted to learn), and in order to reset the default setting, i.e. waste time with consumption, and do something outward that is totally organic and analog and away from the computer.

  • Ree Klein says:

    Wow, how timely! I’ve been struggling with this myself as a newish blogger. I find myself flooded with emails from blog subscriptions. So many posts are great and one leads to another. I click on commenter links because they seem like interesting people and I want to peruse their site…it goes on and on.

    I tweet what I like, update FB and LinkedIN to share and find that it’s late afternoon and I’ve yet to write my post or even shower!!! Okay that was probably too much info but you get the idea.

    I like your approach. I’ll practice it now…make myself some breakfast and then draft a business requirement for a little app idea I have.

    Thanks, Chris!

  • Ryan says:

    Ok… and on that note, it’s time for me to stop my morning consumption and start being productive.

  • Bucko says:

    It was good to read this! I usually find I like to read news as a way to break up my day. I’ve read advice on other sites that say you need to try and eliminate distractions, get software that tracks where you’re “wasting” your time, etc. But I’ve found that when properly monitored, these distractions don’t need to take away from your productivity, as long as you know how to stay focus and know when to move to the creative as you mentioned.

    For me, I usually combine the consumption break with some other task, like making coffee or waiting for a download or something like that. That helps to provide a bit of a time limit on the consumption break and snap me back to reality when it’s time to stop reading news.

  • Danielle says:

    This is actually as simple as it is profound, and it’s RIGHT on target!! My default is the same, and I’m choosing to adopt this idea going forward. I’m excited to see what happens when consumption is ONLY on planned time…and how much more I can create than I thought possible.

  • Robin Eichleay says:

    Great pivot point and one that I try to keep in mind when I get into the “consumption” rut. When that “next” issue comes up it’s a clear trigger point for making a conscious decision to “produce.”

  • SV says:

    I havent cracked it, sigh. This comment itself is procrastination from a slightly daunting task I need to wrap up now.
    Any suggestions? Apart from blocking out internet that is!

  • Tom Allen says:

    Two big things work for me:

    One is to remind myself what’s supposed to be enjoyable (writing, blogging, video editing, trip-planning) and what’s supposed to be boring (booking trains, accounting, inbox-clearing). When everything’s mixed together throughout the course of a day, it’s easy to forget what things you’re doing because you wanted to, and what’s just surrounding admin.

    The other is to go physically offline for regular creative sessions. I don’t mean switching off the wifi, I mean getting up and going somewhere where there’s no electricity or cell service, let alone wifi. (Extreme, perhaps, but works for me and is practical as I live on a national park!)

  • Karin Pinter says:

    I love how you wrote, “those of us who do knowledge work.”
    I hadn’t looked at what I do as that… yet. Thanks for another beautiful spark of simplicity.
    To answer your question… I often find myself doing the same thing. But lately I’ve replaced more of that idle/consumption time with reading more books. Love love love to be forming my daily reading habit again! It fuels peace of mind, focus, enjoyment, and replenishes my creative processes.

  • Deborah says:

    I as many of you including Chris have the same default. I need to check in the morning and at night as well. I like the billing system of keeping track of time on an activity and default so you know exactly what your doing when, how long and how much. Then you can start making effective changes. To do lists can be helpful but sometimes just another distraction, another thing to consume time instead of create and put your work out there. Thanks for sharing Chris. It is nice to know there are a lot of people doing this type of default and how we are each finding ways to change and be more effective.

  • Isabelle says:

    I’m exactly the same way. I’ve learned to say more no’s, which is helpful. What helps me is creating a Day setup chart. Three main big tasks of the day, and of course I will find little tasks in between. But it’s hard to find the balance between the workaholism (which I love) but my friends do not understand. 😀 Thanks for sharing this Chris!

  • Tom Owens says:

    Once again, Chris delivers the right words at the right time. For me, I’ve changed my default by substituting “why?” with “why not?”

  • Vanessa Uybarreta says:

    Love it! I agree, and I also get sucked into social media and reading stuff, and like you said, it’s not bad, but I also feel better when I am creating more and consuming less. I like the way you put it…..

  • Mike says:

    Great! Focus on providing output instead of consuming as default behavior. Knowing what to do next.

    I use a Pomodoro [time blocking] technique to focus while working and a real-time prioritized list to focus on the next output.

  • jehangir06 says:

    Asking myself, ‘what can I make next?’ is my way of maintaining productivity.

  • Adam says:

    Break the momentum.

    When I find that I’m caught up in distractions (web, TV, conversations, etc.), I get up and walk away. I find that physically stopping the wrong thing is often all I need to restart the right thing.

  • Pam Paulien says:

    I find I can default easily into looking for expertise, taking a class, or buying a how-to book when I am nervous about the next step. What I am trying to do more of now is to follow the example set my my pets…they spend much of the day resting. When I am over scheduled I force myself to stop and take a real and unplugged break without guilt the way they would. Often I then find I have more energy and focus for work time.

  • Chelsea says:

    Interesting idea. As I’ve gotten more and more into graphic design, I’m finding that I spend my transition time in between tasks.. designing. This has been great, and much more productive than “consuming”.

    To help me work, I purposefully shut everything down on Sundays… and think nothing of the coming week if I can help myself… read… reflect… and rest.

  • Rebekka says:

    I tend to read my email first thing in the morning, though now I have started writing my TO DO list the night before. IT’s more like a MUST DO list, since it’s easy for me to get caught up with multiple things since I do life coaching, sewing instruction and also Real Estate! I do administrative tasks in the morning, field work in the afternoon and relaxation at night.

  • Jesse Barger says:

    I read something a while back regarding the creating vrs consuming concept and it really stuck with me. Like you, most of the productivity stuff doesn’t really jibe with me either. Everyone has to find their own rhythm I guess. This idea hit home with me though, now I just ask myself periodically, are you creating something? If the answer is no, I get cracking. It seems so simple, but it’s made a huge impact on how much I seem to get done.

  • Jamie says:

    Same here, I default to consuming passively on Twitter, FB, email when I feel tired or not sure what to do next. I like your solution: Create, not Consume. Thanks!

  • Tim says:

    This is great advice. A task that forces you into a synthesis process (like writing) will definitely help you formulate your plan.

    While research is important at all levels, writing will get you to a working draft of your plan, and perhaps a decision of what to do next–the fastest.

  • Natalie the Singingfool says:

    Ooo, I love this! I had been trying to change my “default” from reaching for a book during every spare second to spending time creating – either writing or painting – only I didn’t have a name for it. Thank you for making clear what I had been attempting, lol!

  • Taylor says:

    Great perception twist! I also give myself a challenge for ‘tasks’ when time is short: what can i get done in 5-15 minutes? Anything can be done a few minutes at a time. 🙂

  • Chris says:

    Timely stuff, Chris. If find I need to distinguish creative stuff that gives me energy, and creative stuff that ’empties’ me. I’ve just finished writing two books, and that’s left me neither drained nor tired, but I’ve definitely written myself empty!

  • Owen Marcus says:

    Chris, as an ADHD, dyslexic and more I also need to do it my own way. I too attempt to lean to creating, unless my brain is to fried and I do my research. Or better yet, I take a nap.

    There are some great techniques to learn to be more efficient, I use some of them. Yet the most productive technique as you indirectly suggest is finding your own style and rhythm and honing it.

  • Benny says:

    What helps me in making sure I’m doing the right things is asking myself, “Will this help me make money?” If the answer is no, then I need to put it off.

  • Teresa Roberts says:

    Extremely awesome advise. I love it!
    Thank you for ‘creating’ in a way that is sharing.

  • Laura G. Jones says:

    I have definitely found this to be true as well. When I am not clear on “what’s next”, I also consume. I usually think it’s just a harmless break, but recently I’ve discovered it really breaks my pattern of productivity. Instead, what I’ve found useful is to constantly engage with a bigger focus throughout the day. So every day I have a “theme” that I become obsessed with. Keeping that in the back of my mind allows my “back burner” to do its job, and I never have to wonder what to do next or break my pattern. If I’m surfing or consuming, it’s usually with a purpose or it’s a real break that actually helps me recharge instead of draining me. Thanks for the great post!

  • Laura says:

    Thanks, I needed to hear that!

  • Darnell Jackson says:

    Good topic Chris,

    What’s next is cool but what’s IMPORTANT is what it’s all about.

    Just make sure whatever is next is ALWAYS important.

  • Clay Myers-Bowman says:

    Diversions and distractions will be the downfall of our culture. As a society (at least in the U.S.) we’ve become addicted to diversions in a very unhealthy way. How many more NASCAR races do I need to watch? How many more Coke branded serving platters to I need? I get that we need hobbies, but our consumer addictions are way out of control. Which makes it even harder to switch to a producer/creator default.

  • Yannick Nel says:

    Love! If you know what your choices are its easier to choose. You just made choosing a little easier for me. Create. I’m never going to forget that. Thanks for sharing.

  • Janet k. West says:

    I find I do the same although I haven’t yet updated my process. It’s sometimes difficult to get my mind back on the job of writing or producing if I’ve just finished a project. You’re right. I need to just start doing something active again.

  • Daisy says:

    Priorities, time management, and deadlines help determine what I’ll do next. I change focus occasionally, too. I teach online. When I just can’t face another essay or research paper and do it justice, I switch gears and grade math tests. Better yet, I give myself a break and work on writing grant applications or preparing posts for the national blog.

  • Joseph Bernard says:

    Nice insight Chris and excellent strategy to reframe it so it meets the results you want to create.

    Awareness and insight are what I use to help my work. When I see or recognize something about myself that isn’t working then I look at it and make healthier more successful choices.

    I find the clearly I am about where I am heading the better I move forward.

    One last idea and too me the greatest insight I’ve had – When my ego gets invested in what I am doing, I get in my own way. If instead my higher mind/intuition/soul is guiding me then I am empowered to make things work in the best of ways.

  • Jeff Urmston says:

    I’ve noticed that when I’m working on a difficult problem or task, especially ones where you really need to think about what you’re doing, that the impulse to check my email or various feeds can easily distract me if I’m not careful. In that moment when I really need to concentrate is when I can feel it the worst. I’ve found with mindfulness techniques that just my awareness of this process helps me resist the urge so my attention isn’t hijacked. Additionally, I think your idea of creating a new default is perfect for giving your attention a counter-technique to distraction to keep you focused on creation and not consumption. Thanks Chris!

  • Jo Olive says:

    It’ all about movement for me, a very physical form of “re-calibrating”. As a printer and designer I NEED to leave the studio. I wander and I walk and I try not to think too much. Basically it’s about being like a clean slate so that new ideas, new motivations and new visuals “stick” as I walk through the forest. The other choice I make is to write. Meaningless, non focused, anything goes writing. It’s like removing all of the chatter from your brain and clearing out the stagnant thoughts that are just not working for you. You get a second chance at the day, or the hour or the project your working on.

  • Diana says:

    Am thrilled you touched on this, Chris. Some great suggestions here too.

    I am conscious how the consuming can easily roll from one to the next, especially at the end of a long project/day. Just before I take a break (to consume) I pre-plan what I need to be producing next. That way, I get time to be distracted but can jump right back into creative mode.

  • Fervent Life says:

    Simple yet mind tickling.

  • Faith Watson says:

    I always have too much of a creative backlog, so many to dos, I could never run out of creative energy…that is my default I now realize (thank you). So I need to change my behavior to finalizing, accomplishing, pushing it out there… whatever you do once you create. I’m working on it but it’s certainly been a weakness.

  • Elisa Lionne says:

    I thought about this too lately and I think it’s a great idea to change our default from consuming to creating. Thanks Chris!

  • Chiara Cokieng says:

    Good idea. I see this working for the same underlying reasons 1) moderation doesn’t work and 2) why Paleo works for a lot of people.

    Because it takes guessing and willpower out of the equation.

    Thanks for the idea Chris!

  • Felicity Fields says:

    To my surprise, part of my productivity woes are not knowing what to do next, either. But it’s not because I don’t have a list. I always have a list.

    The problem, I recently discovered, is that the list isn’t in order. So, when I finish with a task, and I look at my list, there are 10 things waiting for me to do, and I have to figure out which one to pick up next.

    So, I’m now experimenting with having an order to them, so that I can just keep working and not allow that “oh god, so much to do!” moment of panic to gain a toehold. 🙂

  • Diane says:

    Thanks for this Chris; it was very encouraging! I am about to embark on my own non-conforming journey & one of my biggest fears is “how will I handle focusing on being productive?” I will use this tool of creating rather than consuming to keep on task!

  • Rachel says:

    I have the exact same default, and it goes through phases; one week I’ll be all about creating and consuming won’t even be attractive to me, but then I’ll have one rough day and the next week is spent surfing from blog to blog or watching far too much television, and it’s hard to pull myself out of that rut once I’m there. Routine is probably the best way to be consistent, but I’ve always struggled with making a schedule for myself. I definitely think that limiting the consumption to the beginning and end of the day is the best idea.

  • Rob Schneider says:

    Create rather than consume. That’s the best advice ever. As for changing my default behaviour, I’m trying to take a 5 or 10 minute break between assignments rather than letting myself get caught up in checking in with my email, G+, Twitter, etc. By break, I mean stepping away from the computer and checking in with the real world. It’s refreshing and inspiring.

  • cotey says:

    Hey Chris,
    great distinction between creation and consumption, it’s so easy to think that consuming everything we can find is going to get us ahead but then when we look back we realize we haven’t made anything new.
    A for staying on task I l’ve started doing what I call mini-tasking. It’s a lot like super sets in weight lifting. I’ll pick three or four tasks and cycle through them in a Pomodoro type manner. So each cycle could have writing, reading, even some physical exercise. This helps keep me motivated and from getting overwhelmed. I’v also found it’s helpful if each task is done in a different location. even if different is just a chair across the room.
    Great post. It’s super entrusting to see how differently (or similarly) we can all approach the same issue.

  • Thomas Lashier says:

    Very true. It’s incredibly easy to get caught up in reading and researching and checking social media for the latest trends and information. But, unless you ACT on this information, you are just running in place.

  • AJ Gonzales says:

    Wow. That was like the social media version of one of Oprah’s Aha! moments.

    Consumer – that is me. I consume a lot of information and at the same time my time is uselessly consumed. Talk about a paradigm shift. Salamat, Chris!

  • Aecio says:

    Awesome, so simple and so wise.

    I’ve the same problem, and I’m doing this now (consuming), and I need to create.


  • Harvey says:

    I stopped reading the news about 2 years ago after reading Tim Ferriss’s “4 Hour Work Week”. He argues that the important news gets to you anyway. It’s changed my life! I still get the main news but the flotsam and jetsam is filtered out. I love the create rather than consume philosophy. I think my default is to get distracted by rubbish small jobs rather than get on with the main job in hand.

  • Michaela Chung says:

    I really like what you said about creating as opposed to consuming. I always find creative work intimidating even though I enjoy it once I get started. It will be tough to set it as my default, but worthwhile.

  • David says:


    I have two sabbatical days(the weekend) when I do not use technology at all. I was amazed to find out that friends freaked out when I told them.

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