On Habits, part one

Like a lot of people, I struggle to cultivate good habits and break unwanted ones.  And like a lot of people I’ve often thought that my willpower just sucked. Nowadays though I don’t really subscribe to that idea. I came to this conclusion after a lot of reading about how the brain works and how other people approach habit formation.  It’s not my character failing me, but it is my brain’s default behaviour that means habits are hard to make and break. Armed with this idea and a few favourite books I’ve been planning something of a personal overhaul.

The older I have become the more concerned I am that if I don’t address areas of my life that have ‘fallen through the gaps’ in the course of everyday living, the less likely I will be to spend my precious energy on them at all.  This is the ‘I’ve had one cupcake already so the damage is already done’ or the ‘I’m too old to change now’ approach to life. Neither of which I want to indulge in.

I’ve been paring back on a few life-energy grabbing areas and activities in preparation for this rearrangement of priorities. Even as I do so, I feel a modicum of guilt about it. I love the things that are now drifting into the distance and the people I’ve been doing them with.  But it’s time to move on and put me and other areas of life closer to the top of my priority list.  So something has to go.
There, that’s the salve to my conscience about leaving others to do some hard, often underappreciated hard work on behalf of an entire community.

Step One is under way:- Create space by decluttering my time & attention.

The next step, after beginning a re-read of Better than Before and reminding myself of a couple of basics, is to start with some foundations.  The one that I am currently focusing on is Monitoring.

Have you ever wondered why groups like Weight Watchers have you record what passes into your mouth? It’s because of Monitoring. If you record it, you have to face the choice you are about to make.  There is no hiding or ‘forgetting’. It gives you a chance to pause before proceeding. A cooling off period, albeit a short one, that allows you an opportunity to override a possible emotional response with a more considered decision.

In conjunction with monitoring acting as a brake on poor decision-making, it can also provide you with a picture of your behaviour that you were completely unconscious of.  That’s why recording and analysing your spending is a great way to get a handle on all those ‘small’, ‘inconsequential’ purchases that over time add up to a horrible looking credit card bill and awful debt spiral.

In short, Monitoring acts both to inform you of and curtail impulsive and automatic behaviours.

I have always used varying forms of monitoring because I like numbers, statistics and benchmarking. It’s my personality – don’t judge! But usually, the monitoring is for a short-term and with information gathering as its key purpose.  This time I intend to use it to reinforce changes I want to make, as well as stimulate more positive choices.

I already have a regular monitoring practice set up for my morning routine in my bullet journal – a monthly habit tracker spread.

Not only is this a retrospective on how I’ve been doing with keeping to my intended habits, it’s also an encouragement to follow through.  Four Tendency Alert: Obliger in the house.
I know I will be faced with recording my actions each day and the tracker gives me a visual ‘break the chain’ model, which was supposedly conceived by Jerry Seinfield.

I have recently added a Sleep Log to my Monitoring system because I wanted to see just how bad my sleep routine was getting, but at the moment it is just based on an approximation of when I am likely to have fallen asleep as well as the time when I wake up and check the clock.  I’m hoping to improve this approximation with an activity tracker in the near future.  As I’m sure we all know now, good quality and length of sleep is a rather large box to check on the health front, so I want to see what I can do to make an improvement in this aspect of my life.

The other biggie on my hitlist is the twins of healthy eating and exercise.  Due to injury and innumerable well thought out excuses, I have let both of these areas slack off and drop through the gaps of my daily life. September is the start of me chipping away at both of these.  I have booked an appointment with a personal trainer as part of my aim to build accountability into my effort to change these habits, and I have begun to log what passes my lips. I’ve always had an exercise line on my habit tracker, but usually, it’s been the sole uncoloured line.

At this point, starting out, I don’t know if I will be successful in changing the key areas that impact most on my health and wellbeing, but I am going to try. I will use my better understanding of myself and the habit reinforcing techniques I’ll write about here to improve my chances.

If you’re working through a habit change I’d love to hear how you approached it and how it is going.

Thanks for reading.


Hell in a Handbasket

I don’t know about any of you, but lately I’ve been feeling like the world has started to go to hell in a handbasket.

In fairness, this could be because I have recently started to read Twitter again after a long absence, but I suspect that does not adequately explain my feelings.
I feel like I am watching the splitting of social bonds and the norms that held them together; but I worry about overstating it and appearing to be that person wearing a “the end of the world is nigh” board on a bright summer’s day.

The culprit that is blighting my sense of community stability? The internet and social media.

Is it ironic that I am making this observation on the internet and this blog posts to social media?  Why yes, it is.

So what’s my gripe with it then?

Well, it seems to me that social media is to our deteriorating social bonds as human industry is to global warming. Both add to the heating up of things and do almost as much damage to human society as they do good.

Let me be clear, I am not a Luddite, but I have begun to fear the power of the social media and internet echo chamber.  This article by Birender Ahluwalia lays out a number of the key points of how echo chambers came to be, thanks to human nature, and how they are now even more self-selecting in the social media age.  The most worrying statement in the article, I think, is:

…presenting any contrarian information leads to a further entrenching of beliefs.

It’s this accelerated echo chamber of social media that has shone through as underpinning the recent lurches to “illiberal democracy” in long-time “liberal democracies”.  Realising this has made me shudder and, after the two most notable examples of Brexit and the US election, I have been spending a large amount of my free time reading about how that came about.  This New York Times article would be a good starting point if you wanted an overview.

Prior to these events I would have said that I was relatively apolitical.  Not apathetic, just not as aware or engaged in learning and thinking.
The more I have read, the more my existing feelings about what sort of society I want to live in have crystallised.   I most certainly do not want to live in an illiberal democracy.  I do not want to see a widening gap between the most wealthy and the least.  I do not want to see my kids priced out of their own homes, should they choose ownership as an option.  I do not want to look at my neighbours in Asia, the Americas or anywhere else as a “threat” to my livelihood.  (After all, they have a livelihood to earn too!)
I want our country to face this without ideology, as this statement from the NY Times article, states:

We need better systems for buffering people against disruption, even as we recognize that disruption is inevitable.

Ideology and rhetoric do not work out those ‘better systems’ – pragmatism does. And a willingness amongst the greater population to feel that their fellow citizens (both within the country and within the world) deserve a fair shake at things.

This may, in fact, require a bit of sacrifice.  And if there’s one thing people aren’t great at, it’s personal sacrifice for the good of others.
They may be willing to give up stuff for their own greater good – if they’ve figured out that delayed gratification works – but that guy over there?  Hmm, that’s a toughie.  Is he a good guy?  Does he share my values?  My faith? (Or non-faith?) Is he inclined to be a bit lazy? Uhhmmm, not so sure about giving up my little bit of paradise for that lazy one!  And I made it up from a poor start, so can they!  (Only your poor start was forty or fifty years ago when it was still, just, possible to live and save on a single income.)

You get the idea.

But there’s reasonable proof that self-sacrifice for the wider societal good benefits everyone.  Lower levels of inequality impact positively on everyone – not just the poorest folk.  Check out the list here for some insight.

It turns out I’m still apolitical – but only in regards to not being ideologically connected to any specific political party.

What a political party needs to offer me this election year is evidence based, pragmatic solutions to inequality; not ideological platitudes, not bribes to line my own pocket, not excuses, not “them or us” rhetoric (*lazy* folk or foreigners alike), but an actual answer that will go some way to stalling and reversing the widening gap between the haves and the have nots.  I want it for the ‘have nots’ and I want it for myself.  I want to live in a liberal democracy that gives a damn about everyone, and has no truck with the divisive echo chamber politics that have reared their ugly head overseas.

And I will no longer sit by silently thinking this to myself but not saying it out loud for fear of offending people or losing friends.

A decade ago

As the tenth anniversary of my very first labour arrives, I am very mindful of this quote by Gretchen Rubin,

“The days are long, but the years are short.”

As a parent, I don’t think there has ever been a more apt description of the special fluidity of time that engulfs you and your child.  Each day seems interminable; then all of a sudden it is a whole decade since you first held a little person in your arms.

Life becomes a blur of constant growth and milestones.  And then a big one sneaks up on you.

Miss Oh Waily is turning ten.  Double digits.  Her first full decade on Earth with us.

She is absolutely wonderful, and infuriating.  Generous, kind and thoughtful.  Soft-hearted and funny, alternating with stubborn insistence, and directness. A true mix of characteristics.

She loves all things elephant, especially still her Lumpy. She enjoys Guides and swimming, and is currently missing her old gym class.  She is mastering origami and loves to give gifts.

She is growing up in to a lovely, kind, caring, assertive and thoughtful person.  She knows her own mind and is happy to speak up. I suspect (and hope) she will be a future leader of people.

And we love her with all of our hearts… to the moon and back, to the ends of the solar system and back, and to the ends of the universe and back.  Always and forever, our Miss Oh.

Happy 10th birthday my darling.
– Mum, Dad & Master Oh –

To celebrate, here is one of my favourite photographs of you.


A Simple Task List Hack

Recently I came upon the Autofocus System of task tracking by Mark Forster.  I went to YouTube to see if I could find a video to give a good visual explanation of it, but I ended up watching a video about Forster’s “Final Version” method instead.  And it’s a variation on this that I’m going to suggest as a task hack today.

The system is extremely simple.  Essentially it is a running list of things that you need to do.  Every time you think of something new that needs doing, it gets added to the bottom of your list.  Every time you finish an item on your list it gets crossed off.  Recurring or incomplete tasks are added to the end of the list when you are done with them for now. It couldn’t be more straightforward.

I chose to trial it around the house in place of a set cleaning schedule and a specific de-cluttering task list.

Here’s how I have been implementing it.

I took my pad of paper and a pen, stood in the middle of my bedroom and took stock of everything that needed to be tidied, cleaned or removed.  I wrote down all the obvious things that needed to be done. Things like ‘put passports away’ were listed alongside ‘clean window sills’ and ‘vacuum the floor’. I moved on to my bathroom and by the end of that I had a full page of tasks to tend to.

Really? One page and I had only been through two rooms!  Holy moly!  Lots of work to get on top of.  So I started.

I started by reading through the list I had made and, driven by my need to get some small wins under my belt, I chose smaller tasks that maximised visual impact.  I cleared up ten out of the sixteen tasks in the bedroom and five out of fourteen tasks in the bathroom.

The following day I re-wrote the list for the unfinished items in the bedroom and bathroom, then went on to add items for the living room, dining area and kitchen.  At this point I stopped when the list had reached two pages long!

By day three I was able to get enough tasks completed that I could add another two and a half rooms, plus note what laundry was waiting to be done.

Each day I was able to make small, but noticeable gains in multiple rooms, while maintaining the successes of the previous day. It was super simple to create the list – all of 5 minutes each day, and really encouraging to see the list shrink and the house become tidier and cleaner.

My big goal is to eventually get all of my household tasks on to the two pages or less.  I know that this will fluctuate depending on how much time I have to spend on these tasks, how much mess we make and what season of the year it is.  But I believe it will be possible.

Here are some observations about why I think this hack may actually work, even if it does fluctuate back and forth a bit.

– I organised the list of things to do in to logical sections – rooms.
– I split the jobs in to smaller parts – ‘put away passports’ instead of ‘clear up room’.

Both of these simple changes to the original idea of the “Final Version” long, rolling list, would fit nicely in many organisational guru’s toolkit.  They are forms of chunking; breaking things down in to small steps that the brain can easily deal with.  It reduces decision fatigue or overwhelm as barriers to achievement.
I also noticed that jobs can’t hide if you list them out this way.  “Wipe down the window sills” no longer hides somewhere in “Clean the room”, and voilà it doesn’t get forgotten or overlooked, or avoided.

– I wrote the list out by hand.
– I re-wrote the list each day.

Handwriting out notes is known to improve engagement with what is being written.*   Re-writing also serves this function, as well as ensuring that I see which tasks are being avoided as they reappear daily on the new list.

Like all organisational systems this one is not a cure all.  It still relies on the human trying to use it.  This human will have good days and bad ones, but on the whole I think that the act of creating the list each day connects to my nature as an obliger and a ‘list-ticking’ one at that.  I want to tick off the list and see it shrink.  I get pleasure out of the changing list and the changing environment that comes from it.  It creates a positive snowball effect.

And what gives us pleasure, we repeat.  Because we’re like that.

At this point I wouldn’t use this for organising my important tasks as I know that the list encourages my tendency to go for the ‘easy wins’ first and then work my way up to the bigger, more time-consuming or onerous tasks.  This wouldn’t be appropriate for me in a work environment as I would want the important tasks to take priority rather than the easy, feel-good ones.

If you give this hack a try, I’d love to hear how it works for you.  Thanks for reading.


* I know there’s a scientific study or dozen that backs this up.  If I find a reference to it (them) I’ll pop back and annotate this.