Leaving targets in the 1990s where they belong, leaving habit-stacking to other people and going with the flow

Since the ’90s governments and businesses have worshiped at the alter of targets. Targets have become ubiquitous in education, fitness programmes and the workplace. Who hasn’t attended a workplace sermon preaching the gospel of SMART objectives? Like most productivity advice at first glance it makes sense. It is rational to quantify what you want to achieve, set time limits and monitor progress.

But this dogma doesn’t allow for the myriad of ever-changing internal and external variables or the features of a non-linear, neurodivergent brain. The toxic byproduct of any targets-based approach is shame. It seeps into your operating system causing it to malfunction. Anyone familiar with the academic Brene Brown will know that shame is kryptonite to growth, learning and creativity. So much for productivity.

With the explosion of the attention economy, habits have made it into the canon of sacred producivity texts. Silicon Valley, the diet industry and employers have a vested interest in understanding the mechanisms of habit-formation. The theory goes that if you sow the seed of new habits in the right plot, they will take root and grow. Tag new habits onto existing ones and voilà! You’ll be a creature of perfect habits in no time. Want to run every day? Leave your trainers by your toothbrush as a visual reminder. You’ll be ticking off a marathon in no time.

But what if you don’t have a lush abundant field of consistent habits in which to sow new ones? What if while brushing your teeth your mind is elsewhere and you don’t even see the shoes? What if you brush your teeth at a different time every day? What’s the alternative?

Tracking targets and forming new habits is like pushing a boulder up the hill. In flow state my brain is unstoppable and the currents take me where I need to be. So, rather than arbitrary, punitive targets or slippery, shaming habits, I focus on flow.

It is a truism that you should listen to your body, but it is just as crucial to listen to your brain. Indeed, recent research suggests that your brain is actually part of your body! Really! My brain tells me when it is ready to work. As this tends to be in the morning I ignore advice on morning habits or a ‘normal’ 9-5 routine. Others can have a morning run, get into ‘work clothes’, write lists of objectives or meditate. My laptop is on as soon as the coffee hits my lips.

Conversely 1pm to 3pm is my ‘should-free time’. I no longer beat myself up if focus eludes me in the afternoon. My brain is my guide. I stare at the wall (formerly known as being ‘lazy’, now rebranded ‘recharging’), do housework, have a bath, whatever I feel like until my brain tells me it wants to get back to work.

Your brain knows what it needs. Listen to it.

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