By Default: Habits, Good and Bad – Part 1, by N.C.

Part 1: Design Your Default, or Lose

We’ve all had the experience of realizing that you were zoned out while you were driving. Your brain was fried from a long day at work, you got in your car and realized that (without a conscious thought) you were somewhere. Maybe at a drive-through restaurant. Maybe your house. Maybe a bar. Wherever it was, it was not where you told yourself you would go this morning. Your conscious intent was to run an errand, hit the gym, go to Wednesday night service, or go to the park for a walk. But it didn’t happen. Why? Because you have a default setting — an unconscious habit — and you didn’t overcome its momentum.

You have defaults. So do I. In fact, you have default settings to about a million different things and we are only half aware of them. What we wear on a summer day, what we eat on a work day, how fast we drive given a speed limit, when we lock doors, when (and how long) we watch television, when we check our phones, what we stock in the fridge, what you drink when thirsty, where you sit down, what radio station comes on when you turn on your vehicle, what you do with an extra moment of downtime. Rarely are these things conscious decisions. Sometimes they are but more often it’s just the echo of the actions we’ve performed in the past.
We are all always going to have a default. We are all always going to have exceptions where we don’t perform our default behavior but we’re still going to have a default.

A lot of people writing about this give you some spiel about “building good habits to give you your best life now”. I’m not going to do that. I’m going to be far more pessimistic: Design an adequate default for yourself or lose. In fact, that’s my first principle of designing your default.

1st principle: If you are entirely reactive, you lose

I don’t care what it is. It could be chess, wrestling, budgeting, parenting, time management, getting away from a salesman, or trying to survive in the wilderness, it doesn’t matter, the principle holds: If you are just reactive then you will lose. Not only will you lose against an even minimally trained opponent or an unforgiving environment, you will also lose against your lazier self. The self who doesn’t want to do the work to win. We all have that self too.

At best, a reactive lifestyle will have you tread water and not fall behind. As soon as you get a curve ball the decline will hit. A reactive lifestyle is like living hand to mouth financially. You might get away with it for a while but as soon as an unexpected expense comes your loss is coming. It might start slow but the writing is on the wall. That 60-dollar balance on the credit card will become $200 and then $2,000 before you realize it.
Supply your own examples, and see if you can destroy the truth of this principle. Any time that someone has a conflicting interest with you (including your own worst self), if you are only reactive then you will lose and become a resource to others. Whether that is your money (predatory salesmen) or your time (app and website owners). That is why I am arguing that you must design your default so that it moves you toward your goals.

2nd Principle: Reinforcement is constant

Yes, we are more than the behavioral psychologist B.F. Skinner thought, but the backlash against Skinner too easily makes us forget the power of his insights. Reinforcement exists. If you are reinforced for performing a behavior you will be more likely to repeat it. This can happen consciously when we think or say ‘I want to do that again!’ but far more insidiously reinforcement also happens without conscious thought. Reinforcement is the reason we mindlessly open a refrigerator or unlock a phone without a clear purpose in mind (i.e. a thing to retrieve or a thing to do). Opening those devices has led to reinforcement in the past (food or entertainment) so we mindlessly repeated it.

Reinforcement can get complicated. What we find reinforcing depends on who we are, what tribes we belong to, how we frame/interpret things, and ultimately the tastes we’ve developed. Stay on that “taste” analogy for just a second, it gets you a good chunk of the complex ideas without getting lost in the weeds. Enjoying certain foods and drinks is partially innate and partially developed. We can develop a taste we didn’t initially care for (spicy, alcoholic, bitter) with input from peers, parents, and multiple exposures. For all of us though, we prepare or buy food we like. We repeatedly exhibit a behavior that yields us reinforcement.

Your default is partly conditioned. I’d say it’s mainly conditioned. Your default is your default because it answers a need/desire/drive that you have. Your default behavior may be a shortsighted answer but it’s trying to respond to a normal drive. Give the devil his due, figure out what drive brought forth the behavior and what outcome reinforced you into a full-blown habit. As we get into strategies we’ll come back to this but for now, understand that reinforcement is a key to habits.

3rd Principle: Habits spontaneously daisy chain

Habits are contextual, they start and end in response to a “cue” that is often physical. So if one habit you’ve developed ends at a certain place and time, it’s very easy for that endpoint to become the beginning of another habit. A series of habits chained together eventually can get chunked into a habitual routine.
The fact that we eventually join together behaviors that follow each other is how you can train a chicken to peck out a simple song on a piano. It starts with reinforcing a single note. Then reinforcing 2 notes. Then 3. Then at a point, you stop reinforcing for individual notes and you only reinforce the entire chain. The single reinforced behavior became a chain of behaviors. Our chains are more complex but remember the beginning example where we wound up somewhere we didn’t intend to go in our cars. Once we started the chain of behavior we just kept going. That can be good and it can be bad. If you’re not aware of it, it will be bad. The principle has to be understood: Habits daisy chain into routines.

4th principle: Behavior has lines of drift

I’ve been recently thinking about this in terms of “natural lines of drift”. If you see a crowd moving and the terrain they will cross, then you will be able to predict the route the crowd will travel very easily. It’s more random than the route water or wind would take but it is still very predictable and visible to humans. Those routes are called “natural lines of drift”.

So take a second and consider a crowd of your previous “selves”. The terrain is your day, and your previous selves are the crowd. Sure, a couple of selves from really motivated days struck out on their own but most of them followed and milled in the same general path. Each day you added to the horde of previous selves and they follow the line of drift you’ve laid down for them. They were all you. They are all what you did.

This principle gives us significant power. Unlike the physical landscape we can fairly easily change the metaphorical landscape. We can change the environment in and around our day so the line of drift is beneficial. We can see where we can add habits, especially early in the day, to make our selves follow a different path. We can make it easy to go where our selves need to go. We can make it hard to go where they shouldn’t. Our selves across time will respond and we call that response “habit”.

Application of the Principles: Watching Television

Consider if you watch some television before bed. Most Americans do, certainly I do. If it’s video games or social media as your vice feel free to substitute in your head. And if carpentry isn’t the area you wish to grow substitute for whatever prep or fulfilling hobby you haven’t been doing as you wish you were. Which of these three routines is most likely and which least?

A. Turn on the television after dinner is cleaned up, watch an hour, get up and work on a carpentry project for an hour, then go to bed.
B. Turn on the television after dinner is cleaned up, watch one episode, justify “one more episode” a couple of times and then go to bed.
C. After dinner is cleaned up, do carpentry for an hour, then watch an hour of television, and go to bed.

Routine A reads like it should be reasonable but reality tends towards Routine B. It feels like Routine A and Routine C should be equally easy to implement but you have the best chance of implementing Routine C.

The principles we’ve just covered are at play. If you sit down and watch 2-3 hours of television each day you’re losing against your lazier self. Watching is reinforcing. Starting the next episode (or just letting it start) is a habitual daisy chain and one we’ve probably repeated several times in the past. Add to that the natural line of drift in our day towards winding down after dinner and it’s easy to see why so many humans opt for Routine B even though their better selves want to choose Routine A or Routine C.

As we have less and less energy as the day progresses the odds of the routine changing from unproductive to productive (though possible) is low. When we are tired and thinking is difficult, we tend to follow the behaviors that naturally follow each other and are easy. That’s why your default isn’t helping you.


You have a default that is the result of what you have done in the past. That default is the result of your choices, behavioral lines of drift, and reinforcement. The more this default is a result of happenstance, the more inadequately prepared you will be against other agents and hostile environments. I hope this has shown you why you have a default and how it got there. Now let’s work on designing rather than discovering your default.

And remember:  “We are what we do repeatedly.” –  Aristotle

(To be concluded tomorrow, in Part 2.)