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Adjust your defaults

Adjust your defaults

“Adjusting your defaults” is one of the goals of mindfulness meditation, and it's all about living life with more awareness. How can this idea help us to lead healthier, more active lives? This article encourages you to explore your default settings and consider whether they might benefit from some adjustments.

Our computers, televisions and mobile phones are just a few of the gadgets in our lives that have default settings, and it's an idea that we can apply to the way we live our lives as well. So what are your default settings? Think about it for a moment. What is your overall default approach to life? Your default mood? Your default activity level? Your default eating pattern? Your default relationship to other people?

Problems with default settings

Operating in default mode is not a problem as such. It's a sort of shortcut that enables us to function reasonably efficiently in a complex, fast-paced society. Just imagine if evey single daily activity were a matter of carefully weighing up all of the options. Just deciding to get out of bed might take considerable time! So it's not the case that we can do without default altogether. But too often, we haven't actively chosen our defualt settings – they've just developed out of convenience or circumstance. We stand to gain a lot by taking a close look at what these default settings entail and considering whether we might benefit from adjusting them to incorporate a more wholesome approach to life. This is perhaps best illustrated with some examples.

Default activity patterns

“Are you sitting comfortably? Then get up, because sitting is killing you.” This was the striking opening line of Oliver Burkeman's column in The Guardian a few months ago. He made the excellent point that, for most of us in the sedentary West, sitting down is a default position. This is a problem because evidence is accumulating that our sitting habits are taking years off our lives – one study suggested that you lose 22 minutes of life expectancy for every hour that you spend sitting down over the age of 25. We all know we should be moving more. And yet, most of us spend most of our waking hours sitting down.

Burkeman took the interesting step of adjusting his default sitting setting by buying one of those ergonomic chairs that encourages a good posture. He found it impossible to sit comfortably in this chair for more than 30 minutes at a time, so he had to get up and stand or stroll around the room. Result: His default setting in this context changed from sitting down to standing up or strolling. Sitting became an active choice rather than something that happened without much thought.

Burkeman's experience involved just one small change, but the effect on his default activity levels must have been considerable. We could all make similar changes. We could decide that our default setting is to go for a workout first thing in the morning, cycle to work, take the stairs instead of the lift, and so on – rather than spending each day considering whether or not we have the time and energy, we could just make it the automatic thing we do.

Default thought patterns

Anyone who has ever tried to meditate very quickly becomes aware that the default position for our minds is a continuous stream of judgement, commentary, reminiscence and planning – anything but a clear awareness of the here and now, which means that we risk living our lives in an autopilot mode without really experiencing them. It's not that this constant thinking is a problem in itself – after all, we need much of this mental activity in order to process the sheer complexity of being human – it's that it happens without us making any active choice to engage in it. It's just our default mental activity.

There are various different ways of tackling this default setting. Meditation and different kinds of relaxation techniques help us to become more aware of our thinking patterns and make an active choice as to whether we engage in them or not. Becoming entirely engrossed in an activity that we love – what psychologists often refer to as creative “flow” - is another way of switching into a different mental mode. It doesn't really matter how you decide to tackle default thinking – what matters is that you become aware, in the first place, of the fact that you're engaging in it nearly all of the time. This awareness then gives you a certain freedom of choice as to whether you engage in that default setting or not.

Default diet

Consider how we eat: For many of us, the default position involves food that is quick and convenient, often barely tasted as we rush between other activities, and generally chosen more on the basis of instant gratification than true nourishment. In fact, it's often barely chosen at all – we just eat what's easiest.

The alternative is to stop and consider what you are putting into your body. With a little practice, it is perfectly possible to make your default setting one that involves plenty of vegetables, for example, with junk or convenience foods being an active choice that deviates from the default. Once again, it is a matter of making active choices.

Adjusting your defaults: Leading a healthier, more active life

As these examples make clear, there are several processes involved in adjusting your defaults. First and foremost, you need to become aware of them. That awareness itself is often enough to trigger any necessary changes. Once you've gained a degree of awareness, you then have an element of choice as to whether you stick with your current default settings or whether you try to adjust them. Note that the goal is not to function without default settings at all – that would make life ludicrously complicated – but to have default settings that are beneficial to you.

Of course changing default settings needs a certain amount of commitment and motivation. You're asking yourself to examine and modify what are often lifelong habits, and that takes time and practice. But it's time and practice that are well worth the effort.

What default settings would you like to change? Are there any that you've changed already – if so, which ones, and how did you do it?