How to break bad habits using the Pareto principle

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Photo by Matthew T Rader on Unsplash

Identifying causes with the Pareto principle

I used to have a bad social media habit. I would check Facebook and Reddit over a hundred times a day, even re-opening the page right after I closed it. I talked I would try and try again by leaving dramatic notes for myself or increasingly weird fixes (ever modify a Hosts file?) , but it never worked. Then I heard about the Pareto principle.

I know, you’ve heard of it many times before (Here’s a link if you haven’t). It’s an axiom for business management. A law for epidemic change. There’s even a diet about it. The Pareto principle, or the 80/20 rule as it’s more commonly known, basically states that 80% of the effects will come from 20% of the causes.

The problem I was having was that I was trying to address the effects without understanding the causes. I would block one website that I found to be super unproductive, and then immediately get addicted to another.

On one particularly productive afternoon, I decided to write down the top 10 reasons why I went to those sites. When I looked over the list, I saw a few main themes among the reasons.

  1. I was bored.

Boredom was a hard problem to tackle. It wasn’t like I didn’t have things to do: it was that it wasn’t what I wanted to do at the moment. What I realized from this was that these served as a catch-all for everything that I wanted and didn’t. If I was bored, this had a bunch of stuff I might be interested in.

The idea of something cool being there was tied to FOMO, or fear of missing out. Given the speed of these platforms, I often felt like if I didn’t go there often enough, I might miss out on something that would be entirely up my alley.

Lastly, and most frighteningly, was that it was familiar to me. I still remember one of the reasons I wrote out: It was a familiar phrase my fingers could type out. As in, these sites were almost sub-consciously working their way into my internet experience.

Addressing the root causes

I’ve since taken some steps towards success by addressing the root causes.

I have my browser automatically open up several tabs: In order to avoid going to the catch-all website, I open up several different tabs that might pique my interest. Some of these are focused on learning or news. Others, might be music. The idea is that if I’m bored, there are pre-set categories I can explore rather than searching for whatever’s out there. This also addresses the second point: sites like Facebook and Reddit are aggregators, meaning they take information from several different sources. If something is really that cool, it’ll show up in the tabs as well as on that site.

I have a re-direct extension: Unfortunately, my fingers are still going to be unconsciously typing things because they’re so familiar. But at the very least, if my fingers end up typing in those web addresses, they’ll be redirected to another site.

Written by

Healthcare-focused UX designer and researcher. Creator of two online courses on design communication and UX research planning:

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