Living by Design, Not Default

Rebecca Kochenderfer


As humans, we have the amazing ability to soul-search, to choose and to create. And yet we have the tendency to accept things as they are — to blindly accept the “defaults” in our life. Why do we do this? This article explores “the psychology of default “ and how we can break out of default-mode and begin creating a life of our own design.

For this article I used four textbooks:
• The Artist’s Way
• Essentialism
• Atomic Habits, and
• Bright Line Eating

Part 1: What Does Default Look Like?

I experienced a little “default” this morning. I had gone out to the patio and was thinking to myself, “It might be nice to stretch out on the lounge chair instead of sitting in my usual spot on the swing.” But the lounge chair was set up facing the wrong direction. It was looking away from the grass, and what I really wanted this morning was to face the lawn so that I could see the birds playing in the birdbath. What to do? I almost “accepted the default” and was about to sit down in the lounge chair as it was, even though I would be facing a wall for the next 3 hours. Why was I willing to do that? The obvious thing to do was just to move the chair to where I wanted it to be. But that would require me to make an effort AND it would also mess up the established arrangement of the furniture (the status quo). Then a thought came to me. “If I am not willing to change the little things in my life, how am I going to have the courage to change the big things?” So I took a breath and I moved the lounge chair to where I wanted it to be. And of course the change was easy, even though it had felt daunting just a moment before.

How many times in our lives do we “sit facing a wall” — perhaps staying in a relationship or at a job that is not what we want — because change feels too hard?

Several years ago, a company called Cornerstone OnDemand discovered something very interesting. Their mission was to help employers recruit and retain workers. As part of their hiring process, they required job applicants to take an online assessment. When Cornerstone analyzed the data from the 30,000 people who took their online test, they discovered something they didn’t expect. They discovered that if the applicant used a “non-default browser”, they stayed on the job 15 percent longer than those who used the computer’s default browser. (The default web browser for Apple computers is Safari and the default browser for Microsoft computers is Internet Explorer. At the time, the non-default browsers included Firefox and Chrome and it didn’t matter which non-default browser the person chose.) Cornerstone discovered that if a “default browser employee” encountered something about their job that they didn’t like, they would just quit. But the “non-default browser employees” were willing to look for a solution to their problem, in much the same way they looked for a better browser. i1

Part 2: The Psychology of Default

Why do we automatically use the default browser on our computer rather than seeing if there might be something we like better? Why was I willing to sit facing a wall for 3 hours, rather than simply move my lounge chair? It turns out that there are some powerful psychological reasons why we often live by default, rather than by design.

One reason has to do with “decision fatigue.” The average adult makes over 35,000 decisions a day.2 When I walked out to my patio, my “decision making tank” may have already been running on empty. When our tank is low, we tend to accept things as they are, rather than make any more decisions.

Decision fatigue can also sap our willpower and drive us to the default option. For example, rather than work out on the patio as I had promised myself, if my tank has been emptied by all of the decisions I made that day, I might just plop down on the couch and watch tv. Willpower, scientists have discovered, is a finite resource that can be drained by decision fatigue.3

Drained willpower can then lead to what psychologists call the “what the hell affect.”4 If I feel I’ve already failed because I didn’t work outside as I had planned, I might tell myself, “What the hell. I’ve failed already so I might as well have a big bowl of ice cream and watch TV.” All my designs for the day to work, eat healthy and exercise have just gone out the window.

Or maybe drained willpower isn’t the problem, perhaps I have developed “learned helplessness”.5 If I failed every time I attempted to “move the lounge chair”, I might eventually give up and never try again. Through the experiences of our life we can come to believe that we are helpless and powerless.

Another reason we live by default and not design may be that we have been “punished by rewards”.6 Many of us have been conditioned to look outside ourselves for validation and reward (external validation). When I designed my patio, people praised me for how beautiful the furniture placement was. I liked their praise. So even though I was internally motivated to make a change, I was tied to the external reward of praise and I didn’t want to lose their support. (My neighbor, who is a doctor, has fallen into this trap. She is internally unhappy with her work, but she is rewarded financially and socially for being a physician and she is afraid of losing those external rewards.)

There might be one final psychological reason affecting my experience with the lounge chair. Carl Jung called this “collective unconscious”.7 These are beliefs we hold that are based on what others have taught us. What if I have been conditioned by my culture to believe that moving the lounge chair is for males only? Or for whites or young people only? Sometimes we accept the default because “this is the way things are.” This is how life is supposed to be.

Part 3: Getting Unblocked
Textbook: The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron

The Artist’s Way is a 12-week program that includes a textbook, weekly “dates” with your “inner artist”, and daily journaling called “Morning Pages.” I also added weekly zoom meetings with three friends of mine who want more creativity in their life, and each week we shared our insights and experiences as we went through the program. I loved this book and I really needed it.

The central idea in The Artist’s Way is that we are all creatives, but we block our creativity. I discovered that I had two big blocks. One block came from my husband. Basically he believes that unless my creations bring in money, they don’t really count. Another big block came from myself — my need to know at the beginning of the project that what I am creating is going to be a success.

The Artist’s Way helped me get over these issues by training me to be bold and take chances. Each morning, in my Morning Pages,8 I took a chance, never knowing what would come out of me, but writing anyway. I took chances on my Artist Dates,9 never knowing how they were going to turn out, but making them a priority and going anyway.

I learned to approach creating from a beginner’s mindset and I understand now that the final outcome isn’t what’s important; it’s the act of creating that brings us to life. Perhaps the biggest thing I learned from this wonderful program is to trust in divine inspiration — the idea that the guiding hand in our life might not be our own. The person sitting next to you might not be there by default, they might be there by design — the universe working its magic to bring two people together who need to meet.

How do we know the difference between design and default? We listen to the “still small voice within us. “ From my own experience I know how softly that guiding voice speaks. It can be hard to hear unless we practice going within and listening for it. Then the even harder part is trusting that small voice when it softly suggests that we go right, when we had planned to go left.

Part 4: W.I.N. (What’s Important Now)

Textbook: Essentialism by Greg McKeown

Something I learned from the book Essentialism is that it can be helpful to cut down on the number of options available to us (which helps with Decision Fatigue) by passing our choices through a screening question. Essentialism author, Greg McKeown, suggests that we apply the W.I.N. acronym and ask ourself, “What’s important now?” (In the book The Artist’s Way, author Julia Cameron advises us to ask, “What do I want to create now?”)

In Essentialism, the author tells the story of Stephen Covey who was out on a “date” with his granddaughter. While he was on his date he ran into an important business contact who invited Stephen to join his group for dinner. The dinner was important to Stephen, but keeping his word to his granddaughter was essential. So he politely declined the invitation, promised to catch up with his business contact another time, and continued on with his date.

It takes a lot of courage to say “no”. But if we want to design a life that has meaning to us, we will sometimes need to say no to the good in order to have time for the great. I’ve been experimenting with the WIN question and I find it is giving me greater confidence. Once we get clear about what is important to us, it’s easier to say no to “non-essentials” and we can focus on what matters most, with a lighter heart and fewer doubts.

Part 5: Baby Steps to Change
Textbook: Atomic Habits by James Clear

The idea behind Atomic Habits is a powerful one. Author James Clear believes that the path to our dreams and goals is not filled with giant leaps, but with small steps — small changes that lead to remarkable results. One of the biggest reasons, I believe, that we live by default rather than by design, is because design can feel uncertain and hard. The solution? Break your designs into easy, bite-sized actions that you know you can follow through on.

My first experiment with Atomic Habits was with foreign language. My dream/design for my life is to be multi-lingual, but until Atomic Habits I would start a language program and never finish it. But thanks to Atomic Habits and Duolingo,10 I have now studied German for 390 days in a row and I am close to finishing their entire German curriculum!

This has increased my self-trust tremendously. So much so that I finally had the confidence to begin a doctoral program. I told myself that if I just study a little each day (Atomic Habits), before I know it the little bits will add up to a remarkable result – my doctorate.

It was Atomic Habits that also gave me the confidence to make another big change in my life — to clean up my eating by stopping my sugar habit.

Part 6: Case Study
Textbook: Bright Line Eating

The other members of my family – before they died young – were all obese. I have never suffered from obesity, but I did suffer from the constant fear of obesity. My head was filled with anxious thoughts about what I had eaten, did I eat too much, and did I need extra exercise to compensate. I wanted so much to be free of those thoughts so that I could use my mental and emotional “bandwidth” for something more important. What would my life be like, I wondered, and what could I create, if I was free from food obsession?

I loved the book Bright Line Eating and I listened to it twice. But I didn’t really believe that a sugar-free lifestyle was possible for me. In my entire life, the longest I had ever gone without sugar was two weeks. How could I live without my beloved, 24 grams of sugar, chai latte each morning?

But I really wanted to see what would happen if I gave up sugar, so I signed up for the Bright Line Eating Bootcamp11 and began immediately. I am proud to say that as of this writing, I have gone 135 days (4 ½ months!) without sugar. My weight has gone from 182 pounds to 152 and my clothes from a size 16 to a size 10. I’ve experienced some wonderful non-scale-victories as well. My favorite is that my husband and I are eating at the table now, instead of in front of the TV. And, I never really enjoyed cooking before, but now cooking is an act of of beauty and creativity for me.

Will I never eat sugar again? I don’t know. I am taking it one day at a time. But I am enjoying this lifestyle very much. When I am tempted to break my no-sugar “bright line”, I remind myself that “nothing tastes as good as this feels.”

Part 7: Conclusion

It takes courage to open your eyes and admit to yourself that you have “lounge-chairs” in your life that are facing the wrong direction. I have been making many changes this past year and my current “life design” feels like a combination of The Artist’s Way, Essentialism, and Atomic Habits.

Art – I’m creating my own “bright” recipes. I love how pretty the fruits and vegetables are and I often take photos of my plate because it is so colorful. I’m also enjoying clothes for the first time in a long time and it’s a creative joy to decide what I am going to wear each day.

Essential – Decreasing health seems to be the default for many people my age (I am 60 years old). But health and vitality are essential to me. That is why I was willing to give up sugar and to clean up my eating habits. Rather than it being an extreme sacrifice, eating “bright” feels like a logical next step for me and I am hoping it will be sustainable.

Habit – Atomic Habits and Bright Line Eating both taught me how to add “automaticity”12 to my day. By turning the behaviors I want into habits, I don’t have to depend on my willpower to get things done. I just do them automatically. For example, I do Duolingo (for German) everyday no matter how busy I am. I can do this because what is required of me is a small (atom sized) effort that is easy to do. I also have automaticity around my eating and I think this is a big reason why I have been able to stay sugar-free. To encourage automaticity I use a “nightly checklist” each evening before I go to bed. I ask myself:
• Did I meditate today? Check!
• Did I write down what I will be eating tomorrow? Check!
• Did I write my gratitude list? Done!
• Was I sugar-free today? Yes!

Part 8: Next Steps:
What Living by Design Looks Like

The idea of “living by design, not default” fascinates me and I am eager to learn more about this topic. Specifically, in my future studies, I would like to learn more about positive psychology and how it relates to life design. Then I would like to apply design thinking to specific areas of life. For example:

Health by Design, Not Default.
Including lifestyle medicine

Careers by Design, Not Default
Living by design requires self knowledge. Who is “myself” and what is my work? What is my highest future possibility? People asking themselves, “What is the work that I want to be a part of in my journey forward?”

Education by Design, Not Default
Much of our education system is “education by default” — outdated learning methodologies with the teacher as lecturer. Education by design will be more personal, more practical, and more transformative. What’s emerging is teacher as facilitator and learning by doing. What is being born is learning outside of the classroom where students engage with the real world. Education by design will link the intelligence of the head and the hand to the intelligence of the heart.

Climate by Design, Not Default
We know that what we are doing now is not sustainable. Individually we all want something different, but collectively we keep doing the same things and producing the same results. MIT professor Otto Scharmer calls this, “The three major divides of our time”:
• The ecological divide (the disconnect between self and nature),
• the social divide (the disconnect between self and other), and
• the spiritual divide (the disconnect between self and Self).13

I look forward to diving more deeply into these topics. Thank you for allowing me to share my love of Life Design with you. I created this article as part of my doctoral studies. These four wonderful books have unblocked my creativity, shown me what is possible, and given me daily habits to help me move this beautiful and exciting work forward.

May you live by design and not default,
Rebecca Kochenderfer

Rebecca Kochenderfer

Founder of

About Rebecca Kochenderfer

Rebecca Kochenderfer is’s founder and host. She is the author of Joy Journal, an uplifting collection of journaling tips and techniques. Rebecca is honored to hold this space for the journaling community to connect, thrive, and grow. Fellow journalers can connect with Rebecca at  [email protected] or on Facebook and send her questions and stories about their own journaling experience. For press and advertising inquiries contact here.