Decisions, productivity, and the power of habits

I thought it was just me, but it really seems that no one likes to make decisions. I’ve just listened to the Ted Radio Hour podcast episode called “Decisions, decisions, decisions” from March 10th. In this episode, they discuss a lot how making decisions is hard, and not only big decisions – but also small decisions like what to eat for breakfast (or what spaghetti sauce to buy!). But more importantly, they discuss how most people simply do not make a decision unless they are “forced to”. The example they cite is how organ donation varies among several countries in Europe. It turns that the “decision” to be an organ donor has little to do with consciousness – but with the fact that in some countries the DMV has an option “check this box if you want to be an organ donor” versus “check this box if you DO NOT want to be an organ donor” when you apply for your driver’s license.

This past week I also started listening to the Advanced Selling Podcast. Of course, they cover a lot of specific selling tips and advices, but they spend a lot of episodes discussing productivity. Knowing where and when you should spend your time and energy. Learning how to differentiate something that will turn into a sale from others that will just waste your time. After taking a critical look at my current prospects, I realized how I was spending a lot of time (and energy) in opportunities that definitely were not going to turn into real business any time soon. Although this was put through the specific goal of selling your product, I believe this can be transferred to other careers, and even to other aspects of your life!

At first, these two topics may seem unrelated. You might ask, what decisions have to do with productivity? That brings me to a third interesting thing that I’ve started doing this week. I was invited by TheNewishPI and Veronika Cheplygina to join an Habitica group. I am still a newbie in the “game” and trying to figure things out, but basically this is an online task management application. You add your habits, daily goals, and to dos – and receive bonus and rewards for completing them. It may seem silly, but it seems to be working for me! There’s the reward component of gaining (virtual) gold medals and going to a new level. But also, and more importantly in my opinion, because it prevents you from making decisions!

I’ll explain. We all have habits we want to keep. Eat healthy. Exercise. Read more. Several, many more. Or others! But whenever it comes to the point where you are going to perform those habits, there are always two or more options. Should I eat salad for dinner or just pick up some junk food on my way back home? Should I stop by the gym or head to the bar for a beer? Sometimes you make the *right* decision and avoid the fries and the beer – or you go to the bar AFTER you’ve exercised 😉 But my point is, if you have previously decided what habits or tasks you want to achieve, it is just like the European DMV form – the default option is your desired one, and you don’t have to think about it! Does this make any sense?

One example I can bring from my life has to do with running and exercising. I’re recently run a half-marathon and believe me, I am no professional runner. Overweight and in my 40s, it took careful planning. I researched online, I talked to many other runners – and I finally came up with an excel sheet with a training plan for about 2 months or so, with activity, mileage, and intensity. Of course there were some hiccups, but in general I was able to follow it pretty closely. Even if I was tired or not feeling like it, it was in my schedule, and I didn’t really think about it, I’d just go and do it. Now that I’m not training for any competition I spend way too much time deciding if I’m going for a walk, a run, or to the gym. Meh, I’m too tired and have too much to do, so I’ll just skip it for today.

So here is my take home message: set up your personal habits and goals in a way that prevents you from having to take a decision on a daily basis. Set up your desired goal as your default option, and you’ll have to think and actually check that little box, deciding NOT TO do it. Realizing this has been working for me so far, and I hope it does for you too!

 

Before you do problem solving you have to do problem finding


Earlier this week, I’ve listened to the last episode of the NPR Hidden Brain podcast: How Silicon Valley Can Help You Get Unstuck (Thanks Ian, for the suggestion!). It is a really good one, and you should listen when you have some time. I could totally relate to the first story of the podcast, about a young woman that suddenly realized she wasn’t the person she wanted to be. I believe this have happened to me recently, after the SFN meeting, and I wrote about it here. As the woman from the podcast, I still don’t know exactly what I want to be, but I’m sure that the ideal version of me is out there, and I just have to find her.

Everybody feels stuck at some point. And most of the time, people don’t really know where they want to go, to begin with. People complain that they don’t know what to do with their lives, and they want to find the right pathway (that is already there, and we just need to find it). What people usually don’t realize is that there’s not only one right destination, there are many. In the podcast, Dave Evans, a former product designer from Apple describe design thinking. According to Google, design thinking “refers to creative strategies designers utilize during the process of designing”. However, this can be applied to our lives as well. There isn’t just one life, or one career, for any of us. So what we need to do is create several prototypes – create three completely different variations of your life, try some different things, and finally choose the one you WANT to be.

I see many people posting their New Year’s resolutions for 2017. I never do that. I don’t really believe that a new year will begin and I can magically turn into a new person. I am more of a person that suddenly decides things need to change, and just do it. It may take a long time to get to that point, but it doesn’t have to come with a new year, or a Monday. For example, it took me years to decide to quit smoking, and I finally did it on December 26th, 2013. Four days before the new year, and on a Friday! Anyways, I decided to try this prototype design of my life, and here are my three possible pathways for me:

  1. Continue working in Biotech Sales: Let’s be fair. I am far from unhappy with my work. After one year and a half, I feel much more comfortable doing it. I’ve become better at dealing with my customers and I’m already making more money that I was doing as a postdoc. I like the idea of doing a job that is based on creating relationships. As an extreme social person, I love being the hub connecting all teams from my company to the customer. But working home by myself is still a challenge. I wished I could travel to do more visits. Maybe I can try to work on that. Also, I’d like to move into a more administrative position, where I could manage promotions and strategies specifically to the academic environment. I know how both worlds work and I fell I could help make them interact better.
  2. Science Outreach: In the last months, I’ve been spending more and more time doing side projects on the internet. Running our #DiversityJC and #RecoveringAcademic podcast is very exciting, but also, very time-consuming. But I do it, simply because I love doing them. I love the idea to advocate, to help. I also love Science very much. My ideal Science Outreach job would be one where I would need to deal with lots of people, organize events, travel to many conferences, and advocate for Science. Is there a job like that? I am not sure, need to do some research about it.
  3. Come back to academia: About six months ago, my former PI approached me asking for help to write a new R21 grant. As a mathematician, he wanted the view of a neuroscientist on it. We did it, and we are waiting for the review. It took much longer that I thought it would, but it felt good to read neuroscience articles and think! Coming back to academia as a full time researcher is not my ideal plan, but I miss the Science aspect of it, the scientific thinking. I believe if I could do it as a side project, either with option number 1 or 2, I’d take it.

Actually it turns out it was tough to choose only three pathways! I’ve thought about many, many more. My favorite one so far is option number 2. But still very vague. Maybe I need to turn it into three different sub-options? I may do that in a later post, stay tuned!