This January, Thrive is celebrating Microstep Month. Instead of setting overly ambitious New Year’s resolutions that make you feel bad when you can’t accomplish them, we want to help you revolutionize your approach to resolutions with Microsteps, Thrive’s science-backed, too-small-to-fail mini habits that you can easily integrate into your life right away.
Research shows that nearly half of New Year’s resolutions fizzle before February. To make sure that doesn’t happen to you, we invite you to join us this month in selecting an easily achievable (totally free!) Microstep that is proven to help you meaningfully form new habits.
We challenged Thrive staffers to test a Microstep for 32 days and write about their progress. The result? Some very honest and encouraging Microstep Diaries, like this one.
Thrive staffer: Mallory Stratton, Associate Editor
Microstep: Declare an end to the day, even if you haven’t completed everything.
Why I chose it
When my colleagues and I embarked on our Microstep Challenge, I was looking forward to finally holding myself to account on something I’ve been wanting to change: my habit of working late into the evening.
I tend to get a good amount of work done toward the end of the day; I can hear myself think once the office quiets down and can synthesize everything that’s happened over the course of the day. I recognize that this happens to be my particular work rhythm (chronotype) and that these late afternoon and evening hours are some of my most alert, focused, and productive. But taking advantage of this optimal time frame means I’m always at the office, and that’s not ideal. I have a hard time leaving work with items still left on my to-do list; I’d rather just chug through and get them off my plate, even if it keeps me there until 9 p.m. or later. I can’t remember the last time I left the office and saw any semblance of daylight. My nickname might as well be “Mallory, go home!” (My boss’ regular rallying cry.)
My goal after 32 days was to have established a habit of calling it a night by 7 p.m., emergencies notwithstanding. I hoped I’d be able to respect my self-imposed daily deadline and not simply excuse my way out of it. I’m was also taking this as an opportunity to improve my relationship with my to-do list. I wanted to feel more comfortable leaving it where it stands at the end of the workday, even if I didn’t check off as many boxes as I would have liked.
A reality check
On week one I cheated. (Hey, at least I’m upfront about it.) I spent my first week of the challenge at — you guessed it! — the office long past 7 p.m., so I nudged my benchmark back to a more realistic time: 7:30 p.m. It’s not an adjustment I’m necessarily proud of, but I am glad I failed so thoroughly so early on in the challenge. I realized I’d been a bit too aspirational in my initial vision and hadn’t set myself up for success with such an overly optimistic goal. I think it was ultimately well worth revising my goal to a more attainable time.
A new rhythm
Once I made the adjustment, I started seeing real results. I wrapped up before 7:30 p.m. almost every night. I was quite pleasantly surprised at how well I was actually sticking to it. I didn’t even have to be that hard on myself about it. It had become an external rule, a structural reality. Oh hey, it’s 7:30. Time to peace out. On the few evenings I did have to stick around on timely assignments, I felt uncharacteristically restless. I couldn’t wait to get the work off my plate and call it a night. It was a strange but welcome feeling.
Revaluing my time
One thing I’ve noticed is although I’ve freed up valuable evening hours I didn’t even know I had, I’m pretty terrible at actually enjoying them. I’ve somehow managed to find other work to do, like running errands on my way home or tidying the apartment instead of going to the gym. I’ve had to interrupt my own autopilot as I go about my mindless busywork. Does this really need to get done right now, tonight? (No, it doesn’t.)
I’m floored that I’ve actually managed to change this habit after only 32 days. I’m still not perfect, but packing up by 7:30 p.m. has become implicit enough that I now do it without a second thought. But what’s struck me the most was how with all this newfound freedom, I didn’t really know what to do with myself. Even though I was opening up valuable hours in my day, it was too easy for me to feel like I should be more productive and find other ways to occupy those hours. I never realized just how deeply I’ve been undervaluing my time.
I’ve come to see that my behavior change in this case involves two components: stopping a maladaptive behavior and replacing it with more positive, productive action. I’ve solved the first part of the equation but won’t have achieved true equilibrium without the second. My after hours should be protected for relaxing and decompressing after work, and honoring this ultimately improves my work quality and output the following day. My next goal is to use this evening time for things I find fun and fulfilling, that help me unwind from the day. I hope to get back into the swing of yoga classes and home-cooked dinners. And maybe I’ll finally catch some end-of-day rays of sunlight once spring comes around.
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More Microstep Month Diaries: