Overcoming the Urge to Switch

By Leo Babauta

The hidden enemy of mindful productivity is the urge to switch to a different task.

We all have this urge, repeatedly, so it’s not a character defect or anything to be ashamed of. It’s just a part of us.

The problem is that we’re usually not aware that the urge comes up. It works on us unseen, unbidden, in the dark, and so is more powerful.

I learned this when I was trying to quit smoking — I would resolve to not smoke, and then later in the day would find myself smoking despite my best intentions. What happened? I would feel guilty and undisciplined, until I started paying closer attention.

It turns out that urges to smoke would arise, out of nowhere. I didn’t want these urges, didn’t ask for them, didn’t create them. They’d just come.

So I learned to watch this powerful urge, and it turns out that the mere watching of the urge reduces its power. By shining a light on the urge, I took away its secret sourcery.

This is also true of the urges to switch to a different task. When we’re trying to work on something, we resolve to work on it, and then all of a sudden get an unacknowledged urge to check email or social media or read our favorite blogs. So we switch, and now we’re not working on the thing that’s most important.

So here’s how to overcome this urge:

  1. Sit and watch the urge arise. Pick a task, resolve to do the task for at least the next 5 minutes, and also resolve to watch the urges to switch as they come up. Watch it come up.
  2. Sit with the urge as it gets stronger. The urge will arise out of nowhere, then get stronger if you don’t act on it. Just sit and watch it, don’t act on it.
  3. See that you’re OK. We tend to want to act on our urges right away, or we panic. I’m not sure what we think will happen if we don’t act on the urge, but it becomes very urgent. Instead, sit and watch the urge and realize that you’re OK even if you don’t act on it. The world doesn’t end.

Repeat this process as many times as the urge arises. Watch it, sit with it, see that you’re OK.

By succeeding at this process a number of times, you start to build trust that you’ll be fine even if you don’t follow your urges.

It’s OK that the urge arises — we can’t stop it, and it’s a part of who we are. But it’s also OK not to follow every urge. Once you practice this, you’ll be much better not only at focusing on a task, but changing any habit.