Almost no one changes the default settings on their tablet or their computer. The majority of people use the default ringtone on their cellphones. Many people don’t sign up for their 401k because they never get around to it. Such is the power of default settings. Much like anything else, our personalities have defaults; defaults that we are both born with and learn over time. However, these defaults can also be changed to something better, if we choose to do so. If not, defaults can be dangerous and lead to unproductive behavior.
If you google “default life”, you’ll receive many articles about a default life versus one of proactive design. The default life is generally painted as the typical go to school, get a job, marry and have kids, and retire at age 65 or 70. To the authors of these articles, this is absolutely horrifying and they instead tell you how to focus on designing your ideal life. One that likely includes lots of travel and free money falling from sky, apparently. This is not what I’m focusing on here.
The default life that I’m interested in is the one based on our default habits, reactions, and characteristics. Much of our normal daily life is simply a reaction to external events and most of our life outcomes will be based on these default reactions. In some ways, it can make you feel powerless, because external events often lead you to feel like you lack control. In that point, the authors of these ideal life articles are correct: how much are you just reacting versus deliberately going out and creating the life you want? We all struggle with the feeling that our life isn’t being lived to the fullest. In fact, to an extent, hopefully you always feel that way because that means you still have room to grow! But in most cases, limits and constraints are self-imposed. They’re just our current default settings, and not actually hard restrictions.
Since our default life is our normal operating program, much of our life will be lived here. Your internal autopilot has been learned and hardened through the years, but it’s there for a reason. If we had to think about every small decision, we’d never think about or get anything done in the big picture. Who your friends are or what career path you’re on – basically everything you spend your time on is the result of a default setting. Your job is probably on a career path you set yourself on 20 years ago after college – default. Going out to happy hour every Friday with the guys or gals – default. Someone cuts you off on the highway and you flip him the bird – default.
Overall, this is a good thing! Be glad we have defaults, because without them, we’d never get anything done. But given their importance, spend time setting your defaults up correctly and making sure that your default is YOUR default, and not someone else’s. Set yourself up so that your default is not only acceptable, but also leads to a great life. If not, make the change.
The mindfulness obsession over the last few years seems to be a sales technique more than anything else. Give me some real, concrete, and useful ideas over vision boards any day. However, one thing the mindfulness crowd gets right is the importance of self-awareness. Self-awareness is where we have to start any change in our life. This is where the concept of the ideal life can be helpful. Who do you want to be as a person? How do you want people to remember you when you’re gone? Do you want your family to think of you as a rock – strong, stable, and dependable, or as a rock – weighing everyone down?
We have to determine for ourselves what we want our default settings to be, and then work to change them. Our reaction to external events is of primary importance. Since our lives are dictated by external events, starting here will have the most impact. When something negative happens, will you react with fear and doubt, or will you try to see the opportunity and react with hope? Are you constantly at your wits end because you never feel in control? Do you seek approval from others instead of having the confidence to blaze your own trail? Do you blame others or play the victim card when things go wrong?
All of these are learned reactions, and changing our default settings can change our reactions.
Changing Your Defaults
Default reactions are similar to habits; they can be changed, but require work and commitment. Habits overwhelm goals, and defaults lead directly to our habits. All parts of our life are connected, so problems in one area can bleed into others. Just getting rid of negative defaults won’t work – you need to replace them each with another. Here is where self-awareness is key – you must recognize what you’re doing and determine if it’s getting you where you want to be. If you cannot recognize the unwanted default reactions, then you’ll never be able to make the change.
Every day is just a series of choices. If you want a new outcome, you need to make new choices. First, identify your triggers and have an alternative ready. Stress is often the reason for bad defaults, but go a step further and figure out what starts the stress. Maybe it’s stressful to get the kids out the door on time, or traffic is always bad on your route to work. Improve your reaction to these events by making a decision to. Often, just the act of recognizing your trigger points is enough to change your reaction. Then, you can begin to make proactive changes to your life. For example, figure out what the most important thing is that you want to do each day, and then do it first. As Gary Keller, author of The One Thing says, make the one thing you want to do the first thing that you do. Expect more out of yourself – you’re more capable of change than you give yourself credit for.
During this transition, you’ll need to get comfortable with awkwardness, fear, and the unknown. Most of us settle for things the way they are because we’re at least comfortable that we know how things will go. Change is scary, but if you’re not living how you want, you’ll need to try new things. Not all of them will work out.
Real Life Examples
Okay, enough with the concept. Let’s work through some real life issues.
- Healthy Living: Healthy living is number one on the list, because without good health, life is just too difficult to make any significant changes. Identifying triggers is key, because unhealthy eating is often triggered by stress.
- Stress eating: If you know you stress eat (I’m guilty), then determine your triggers and recognize when they’re happening. Then you can begin to make a smart food choice.
- Water over soda: This is an easy default switch. When you’re thirsty, start first with something as simple as water. Have it handy wherever you are. You’ll miss your soda initially, but getting rid of the sugar and empty calories is big.
- Fruit & Veggies first: I generally eat a light lunch, so when I get home from work, I’m often ravenous. I used to just raid the fridge for anything, and then go on to eat dinner. Now, I sit down with the kids and have apple slices or a pear.
- Move more: Getting active is important. If you have kids, make one of the first activities you do when you come home be running around and playing with them. Trust me, you won’t have any more energy later in the evening, so do it right away.
- Work & Co-Workers: You spend the bulk of your day at work and with co-workers, so naturally this can be a big stressor. Our default reaction to work and co-workers is often negative, but it doesn’t have to be.
- Focus on your reactions to others: If someone makes a mistake, put yourself in their shoes. Maybe they’re new to it – remember a time that you were new, too? Practicing empathy is one of the best ways to control negative reactions.
- Recognize that most things are not a big deal: If one thing gets done incorrectly, you can fix it. If a report is a day late, it’s probably not a big deal. Business is simple (although not easy), so don’t overcomplicate it.
- Do the work: Boredom is one of the biggest issues at work. When you’re bored, make the conscious choice to do the work. Focus on bigger issue research projects, or go deeper where you’ve only previously skimmed. Doing the work will have the day pass much quicker, and most of the time it can be quite enjoyable once you get into it.
- Family: Your default reaction to your family may be the most important of all. These people are your tribe. You want to care for them and have everyone lead a fulfilling life. They can also be a source of great stress. How do you make sure you all thrive while minimizing the stress?
- Treat them with respect: We have the closest relationships with our family members. This makes us less guarded in our behavior, so they tend to see both the best of you and the worst. Each of us has an empty bucket to start the day. In this bucket goes all the crap that drives us nuts and at some point, we reach the top and it overflows. This tends to happen at the end of the day, when we’re spending time with our spouse and children. Sometimes, all the headaches that you handled well during the day spill over and you say something snarky or mean to your family when your target was likely someone or something else. This is common, but incredibly unfair. Treat your family with at least as much respect as you treat others. Recognize when you’re close to having your bucket filled. Take a breath and calm down.
- Zoning out: We’re all tired at the end of the day, but give your family your best. Do you just zone out during each evening, with your spouse and children with you but not really interacting? That’s not a well-lived life. Make the choice, suck it up, and spend some actual quality time with your tribe. Instead of watching TV, play a game or do something with your hands. Life is lived in the real world, not the digital.
- Money: Our default spending, saving, and investing habits have a tremendous impact on our future selves. We’re all standing on our own, previous self’s shoulders. Smart financial decisions now will set us up for a far better life in the future.
- Spending without thinking: This can be simple things, like having all of your bills on automatic. I’m a big advocate of not doing this, as paying your bills manually forces you to look at each outflow. With automated finances, spending can creep up.
- Caring about what others have: Keeping up with the Joneses can be a problem, but only if you let it. Our default reactions are to look at our in-law’s new car with lust, and then compare it to our five year old Nissan. But you can control that reaction. Instead of looking at the new car with lust, look at it with all the new payments going forward or all the money not saved.
Defaults Can Be Dangerous or Beneficial
Our defaults are there for a reason. We can’t change the fact that we use them, but we can change what they are. Defaults are like any other habit or process – it takes work, but you can improve them through time. Making a conscious effort to do so is just the first step. Without self-awareness of your normal reactions, you will not be able to make the change. From there, focus on replacing the old defaults with the desired ones.
Keep building my friends.