Work problem Part 2: Creating Good Habits: Trying out Atomic Habits

In my previous post, I discussed my work problem and how I’m trying to break some bad habits.

As a reminder, my bad habits were:

  1.  Surfing the internet instead of working in the morning and at work.
  2. Not being able to work from home, even during working hours.
  3. Not following my work schedule, instead binging on service/teaching tasks.
  4. Not using unexpected free time chunks wisely.

The laws of creating good habits are similar to those of breaking bad habits, but they have a lot more detail.

Make it Obvious

A.  Fill out the habits scorecard:  I opted not to do this as I want to fixate on specific work habits, not a complete life audit.  Instead I thought about problem points with work.

B.  Use implementation intentions for each habit.

  1. Surfing
    • On weekdays I will either snooze or get up/use restroom/brush teeth/get dressed/eat breakfast/leave when I am woken by DH’s showering.  I will not lie in bed with the internet.
    • I will work when sitting at a computer.  Playing/surfing will be relegated to the small iPad and my iPhone except during specific break-times when leechblock is off.
    • I will write for one hour when I get to work.
  2. Home
    • If I wake up in the middle of the night and using the restroom/trying to get back to sleep doesn’t help, I will get up and do work.  I will not surf the internet.
    • I will work when sitting at a computer.
    • I will continue to use my iPad pro only for reading/commenting on pdfs.
  3. Schedule
    • I will follow my schedule by prioritizing harder things in the morning and leave class prep/service/etc. for after 3pm (exceptions:  lunch break I can do whatever and getting reviewers for articles newly in my editorial box can happen whenever)
  4. Free time use
    • I will not consider half hour or more chunks to be small chunks of time, but rather larger ones in which tasks can be started.
    • I will have a list of things I can do with unexpected free time (email, cleaning out office, updating classes for next semester) for smaller chunks of time.  I will not binge through these over the course of a few days, but leave them to be spread out.

C.  Use habit stacking

  1. I have stacked the iPad to the restroom which is stacked to teeth brushing.  Other internet usage is stacked to breakfast which is stacked to getting out the door.
  2. I have stacked being at the computer with work.  Being awake at night with work instead of play.
  3. The schedule is a stack.  I just need to start following it.
  4. N/A

D.  Design your environment

Most of the things here were covered under bad habits.

Make it Attractive

A.  Use temptation bundling– give an immediate reward for working on or completing the habit

One of the examples in the book is to play podcasts or watch shows while exercising.  Unfortunately, the tasks I need to do require attention and so do the temptations.  I mean, I could eat chocolate while working, but that seems likely to be not good for me in other ways.  Post-rewards used to work for me, but lately I’ve been realizing that I can just give myself the reward any time I want to and I end up just, say, reading the entire novel.  I think this may have something to do with being financially independent– I seem to have lost a lot of that delayed gratification muscle.

B.  Join a culture where your desired behavior is the normal behavior

I mean, I do work at an R1, and I did start that weekly brown bag.  So I already kind of am in this culture, but I’m definitely not doing great.

C.  Do something you enjoy immediately before a difficult habit

This is what has gotten me into trouble in the first place, so not a good idea as the enjoyment part has been stretching out.

So I’ve kind of struck out on the “Make it attractive” step.  Any thoughts?

Make it Easy

A.  Reduce friction

  1.  Surfing.  Most of these things are covered under bad habits (increasing friction), but for writing in the morning I will plan ahead the day before to know what I will be working on writing.
  2.  Home.  Most of these things are covered under bad habits (increasing friction).
  3.  Schedule. I need to continue to plan the morning work the afternoon before.  I used to do this and it worked well.  One of the current problems is that even when I do this, I just ignore the schedule.  This started happening when things out of my control messed up my schedule too many times in a row.
  4. Free time.  I need to make a list of odds and ends that can be done in shorter amounts of time that is easily accessible.

B.  Prime the environment.

  1. Surfing. Leechblock and other things from bad habits
  2. Home.  Isolate particular areas of the house, specific machines, and specific times of day for work vs. play.
  3. Schedule.  Have a working computer.  Remember to take Vit D (possibly even schedule in the second pill?)
  4. Free time.  Have the list easily available.

C.  Master the decisive moment

Not sure what to do about this.  Maybe just be better about getting started on things?  (Though getting started isn’t my only problem– not getting distracted is also a problem.)

D.  Use the two-minute rule to downscale your habits until they can be done in two minutes or less

I think that doing this is part of the problem– it’s not the small habits I have trouble with, it’s the longer ones.

E.  Automate your habits.  Invest in technology and onetime purchases that lock in future behavior.

I’m not sure what to do here.  I could buy another computer, but that’s worthless if I just start using it for play.

Make it Satisfying

A.  Use reinforcement.

See above on “temptation bundling”

B.  Make “doing nothing” enjoyable– this actually belongs under getting rid of “bad habits”

C.  Use a habit tracker.  Keep track of your habit streak and “don’t break the chain”

I need to think about whether or not this is worthwhile for keeping track of writing or getting into work by a reasonable time.  In the past keeping track has been more of a pain than a help because I know if I’ve broken the chain or not without plotting it on a chart.  And plotting on a chart is another step that takes effort I’d rather use for something else.  But I can think more about good metrics.

One big problem with measurement is that when you measure, you tend to focus on the measurement rather than on the larger goal.  For example, with weightloss, you focus on the number which can lead to unhealthy behaviors and forget about the “why” (it’s not actually weightloss that’s the goal, but health or whatever– pounds is a really bad metric for that.  Even if fitting into your clothes better is the goal, pounds are not the right metric).  So I can see myself wasting time writing unnecessary stuff or coming into work completely sleep deprived just to hit some arbitrary metric when that actually hurts my true goal of getting stuff done.  So this is non-trivial.  What are good short-term metrics?  I don’t know.

D.  Never miss twice.  When you forget to do a habit, make sure you get back on track immediately.

I will try to be better about this.  Part of my problem has been multiple days of interruptions outside of my control.  But hopefully those will have settled down.

How do you keep up with good habits?  Any thoughts on how I could fit my desired habits into these laws of creating good habits?  Do you have any tricks to suggest?

I have a work problem: Breaking Bad Habits: Trying out Atomic Habits’ list

This summer and this semester a lot of things have gone wrong with work.  All summer was non-stop bad research news, followed by almost an entire semester of my work computer being broken and/or replaced unpredictably.  I also taught at days/times I’d never taught before and never really figured out a new rhythm (next semester I’m back to one of my more regular schedules).  And I had so many emotional conversations with students needing to drop a class or out of the program entirely (why me? I have no idea).  And I have a ton of service and teaching and those are just so much easier to do than hard research.  Finally, DC1’s heavy homework load and DC2’s lack of a heavy homework load mean that both our kids need more individualized attention in the evenings than previously. These things combined caused me to feel unmotivated and to lose many of my good research habits and to replace them with the quick hit of websurfing and watching youtube videos.  I kept thinking, I’ll be better later…

But, like tomorrow, later never comes.  But in my case it’s jam every day.  And I need a bit of spinach to grow a strong research agenda.  (Obviously my mixed metaphors need work.)

I finally decided enough was enough.  I need to fix my bad habits so I don’t stagnate.  I’d like to get another paper under review before my annual review in Spring and I have lots of projects, just none close to the right stage, and nothing will be close to any stage if I don’t start now.  Today even.

Having just read Atomic Habits, I decided, why not try their recommendations to see if they help at all.  Of course, it’s really easy to create a new habit if the habit is easily definable.  Like, you want to exercise at a certain point each day, or you want to drink more water, or what have you.  It’s a bit hard to know where to start when your problem is a big amorphous work problem.

So my first step was to list my bad work habits (and, in a later post, to list the good habits that I want back!)

  1.  Surfing the internet instead of working
    1. This has particularly become a problem in the morning– I used to just check email and read a few webcomics.  Lately I’ve been watching full youtube videos!  What used to be ~15 minutes before getting ready can stretch to TWO HOURS.  That’s ridiculous.  I should either be asleep or working.
    2. It’s also a problem at work.  I’ve been avoiding leechblock by using chrome in addition to firefox, or by getting out my phone and surfing on that instead.
  2. I have completely lost my ability to work from home (other than some successes with doing anything involving pdfs on my iPad Pro– more on that when I talk about good habits).  This wouldn’t be a problem if I was being productive at work, but sometimes I have to stay home because DH is out of town and I want to be here when DC1 gets off the bus, or I want to hide out from well-meaning students and colleagues who just want to chat.  I’m great at writing blogposts at home, but not so great at sitting down and doing work.  My home desktop just doesn’t feel like a work computer anymore.  I mean to work, but I either end up surfing the internet from my desktop or I end up on the couch watching youtube videos or reading novels.
  3. I have stopped following my daily schedules for work.  I generally put the important big stuff on my list for the mornings and then the stuff that doesn’t take brain power (service/teaching) and has shorter deadlines in the afternoon.  But instead of doing research in the morning, I’ve been doing the service/teaching stuff and then when afternoon rolls around instead of switching, I just do more service.  Or I go home meaning to work but end up on the couch reading instead.  I would say that service fills up any time hole, but actually one of the reasons I said enough is enough is that I ran out of obvious stuff to do and I want to get back into good habits again before it starts filling up again.
  4. I am not using little bits of free time, and my definition of “little” has gotten pretty wide.  It’s no longer, oh I have 5 min, let’s check twitter, it’s more, oh, I have an HOUR, well, can’t do that thing on my to-do list that’s marked for 2 hours, might as well surf the internet.  This needs to stop.

I would link to the atomic habits cheetsheet here, but it looks like he’s taken it offline.  You have to buy a copy of the book AND KEEP THE RECEIPT if you want a printable version.

In any case:  Here are his laws of breaking bad habits:

Make it Invisible:

  1.  Surfing:
    • Move the iPad charger from the bedroom to the bathroom.  I had initially thought to move it to the living room, but that just lured me to the couch.  I do need to briefly check my email in the morning at home, otherwise I end up checking it at work which leads to a bad habit there.  Putting it in the bathroom provides a good place to do a quick check.  DH also suggested that I allow myself to use my phone while eating breakfast, which will bundle those habits as well (more on this in the good habits post).
    • Leechblock Youtube at work
    • Hide the shortcuts for all web browsers that aren’t Firefox so I don’t just move to chrome when Firefox is leechblocked (my “new” work computer has all the shortcuts)
    • Make the phone more inaccessible at work.  I need it to be such that I can hear the buzz if someone texts or calls, but such that it doesn’t call to me when I should be working.  I am thinking about putting it in a cloth bag that we get tamales in, but it might make sense to put it in a drawer or put a sheet of paper on top of it or just turn it over so I can’t see the face.  I will work on this.
  2.  Working at home:
    • I can’t hide the couch or the bed, so I’m not sure what to do here.  We talked about maybe setting up a work station just for work in another room, but my spot in the office really is ideal (nice window, DH’s desk next to mine), so I’m hoping I can reclaim it for work instead of play.  Also I might have to buy a new desktop or laptop to get another station, and I would definitely need another monitor.
  3. In theory I could hide the service/etc. from myself until later in the day, but I think that might be counterproductive.  For this one I don’t think making it invisible is the best idea.  It will probably require willpower.
    1. DH suggested a calendar reminder for the schedule, though I’m not sure if that will help nudge me when the list is right there.  But who knows.
  4. Using bits of time is more of a pro-active thing than a re-active thing, but hopefully #1 will keep the internet from being as attractive as it had been.

Make it Unattractive:

After talking this one over with DH, we decided this one wasn’t helpful because “highlighting the benefits of avoiding [my] bad [work] habits” just makes me depressed.  I need to think less about this stuff, not more.  Because thinking leads to anxiety, anxiety leads to 2am wake-ups, which lead to too little sleep, which leads to poor work, mistakes, and lost willpower.

Make it Difficult:

Many of the “Make it Invisible” bullets above are also making it difficult.

Make it Unsatisfiying:

The two items recommended here are to get an accountability partner and to make the consequences of bad habits public and painful.  I have a great accountability partner for going on a walk each day, but I have been far less successful in getting an accountability partner for work.  Invariably they start slipping and get irritated by my nagging or they start slipping and I take it as permission to start slipping too.  And when my accountability partner is DH, *I* start slipping and he lets me.  So yes, it would be lovely to get an accountability partner for work, but it’s not realistic.  I did start a weekly brown bag for research at work, and that helps somewhat.  I did have to forbid the phrase, “incremental data progress” from the weekly update recently after using it one last time as it is far too easy a phrase to hide behind.

There’s another item in the “How to create a good habit” list that actually belongs in the bad habit list:  “Make ‘doing nothing’ enjoyable.  When avoiding a bad habit, design a way to see the benefits.”  The example given in the book is each time you don’t eat out, move the money you saved from not eating out to your vacation fund.  I’m not really sure what an analog for any of the four items above would be.

So I wasn’t able to think of ways to get all of my bad habits into his methodology.  However, many of these had opposites that seemed to fit in the “How to create a good habit” section which I will discuss in a future post.

How do you break bad habits?  How do you stay focused at work?  Any thoughts on how I could fit my bad habits into these laws of breaking bad habits?

Woooo! I got paid!!!!

We start work in August but don’t get our first paychecks until October.  I don’t know why this is, but we do get a full paycheck in June for a partial month in May, so it kind of balances out.

It’s been a long unpaid summer and a number of summer reimbursements have not come in for months.  Usually I get a little burst of summer travel reimbursements near the end of August to repad the cushion, but not this year.  I even have some summer salary that has gone completely MIA despite its being requested for July in early August.  Ugh.  Stupid red tape and having to follow up.  (I did finally get a research reimbursement I had requested in MARCH deposited this summer, and of course daycare reimbursements, but those were early summer.)

/end grumbling

I love getting paid!

Fellow academics, do you take 9 or 12 month paychecks?  Everyone else, do you love paydays?

Ask the grumpies: Should universities take Koch or Epstein money?

SLAC prof asks:

Is taking money from Jeffrey Epstein worse than taking money from the Koch foundation?  Which is worse?  Clearly we shouldn’t take money from the KKK.  Is it ok to take anyone’s money if there aren’t strings, or is there a line?  Who gets to decide the line?  Does Koch money ever truly have no strings?  Should personal morals be irrelevant when an institution takes money?

Oh wow, this is a hard one.  We’re really not ethicists and don’t have enough expertise to have an opinion on non-obvious cases.  That said… here are some thoughts.

First off, personally I think it’s fine to take money that doesn’t have strings attached (including naming rights!!) from the estate of someone who is dead.  So if you’re an institution that has a morally horrific but extremely wealthy graduate and he just gives you a couple million in his will but it’s completely unrestricted, go ahead and take it without advertising it.  Put it towards something completely antithetical to what he would have wanted (sexual assault prevention training for freshmen with a focus on how not to assualt) or spend it on something boring (utility bills) freeing up that fungible money for other things.  If he says you have to name something after him or hire someone specific etc., then don’t take the money (and advertise you didn’t take it).

If the bad person or group is still alive, don’t take money with strings attached.  No naming rights.  No final approval of tenure track hires.

When there aren’t strings it gets much more complicated.  Yes, one shouldn’t take KKK money (unless it’s used for training frats how not to do blackface or to pay for programs etc. that benefit black students and faculty– I’m a big fan of F-U uses of bad guys’ money).  But if Koch money is offered for something that isn’t evil (no strings scholarships)?  And they do fund things that aren’t evil along with their massive funding of evil… I’m not sure.  I mean, I’d like to encourage them to spend more money on not-evil and less money on evil.  But I don’t want them to get credit for the not-evil stuff as if it makes up for the evil stuff because it really doesn’t.

This is hard.

What do you think, Grumpy Nation?  Should institutes of higher education accept money from bad people and bad organizations?  Under what circumstances?

Ask the Grumpies: How to handle maternity leave for a mid-semester baby?

anonymous in the midwest asks:

I am a faculty member at a small SLAC. I am newly (spontaneously!) pregnant with my second child, and likely due at the beginning of week 13 of the 16-week spring semester (it’s so early that I haven’t had my first prenatal appointment yet). My first child was an IVF baby and due the day after the end of my academic-year contract, so I didn’t take maternity leave. In that pregnancy, I developed a complication that, if it recurs (and it has a 50-90% recurrence rate) would mean I would deliver at 37 weeks. My fellow female faculty members have managed to have an astonishing number of May babies – since I’ve been here and in at least the two years previous, no female faculty member has given birth during any other month.

The college’s maternity leave policy for faculty offers 6 weeks at full pay or a full semester at half pay. How have mothers at your institutions handled babies due mid-to-most of the way through a semester? I would love to hear experiences and ideas from the grumpy nation!

Congratulations!

My sister and were each born the first day of spring break. For me, my mother paid for her substitute out of pocket for the week after Spring break and then went back to work (she left that institution after it became clear that having a baby meant she would not get tenure).*  For my sister, the university where she was working paid for her substitute for that week. Your SLAC sounds much more humane!

I was lucky enough to have an end of winter break baby– actually this was only lucky because there was a freak snowstorm the first week of class so I got two weeks before going back to work (I had no maternity leave)– and an end of summer break baby which lead into “alternative work duties” (that is, not teaching) for the semester.  Most of my female colleagues have also had summer or sabbatical babies.  My colleague who was due in late April bought out her core course and front-loaded her elective and had a guest lecturer lined up, had them video tape their presentations for her to grade, and then cancelled her last couple of May classes.

I know a woman at a 1/1 school who team taught two courses the semester she was due (grad and undergrad versions of the same elective) and taught both the first half of that semester, then took the next semester off.  Come to think of it, that’s what one of my friends at a 0/1 medical school did as well– team taught the first half of the teaching semester, bought out the rest.

So, other than in situations in which there was no maternity leave, I don’t know how women with regular teaching loads generally handle mid-semester babies.  Men, of course, take a week or two off during the semester their wife (always a SAHM in my department) gives birth and then take the full maternity leave in the next semester.

Grumpy Nation, What have you seen academic women do when facing a mid-semester pregnancy due date? 

* For those not familiar, it takes about 2 weeks to stop bleeding and to be able to sit down in something other than a warm water bath after an easy natural childbirth.

How many referee reports do you do?

per month?

per year?

Do you ever get paid for any of them?

Do you ever refuse any?  How do you decide what to refuse?

#1 has found that she’s getting more and more all the time.  One of her senior mentors has told her she needs to start saying no to the ones from journals she’s never heard of.  So she’s done that once so far.  She did say yes to a recent journal she’s never heard of, but only because the editor is someone she has heard of, and in her field it’s good to do favors for people.  #1 does probably ~20 referee reports per year, including grants, and that’s probably too much.  One journal pays $100/report.  Grants and books pay $100 to $500 per report, or sometimes just a free copy of the book.

Ask the grumpies: What to do when you suspect students cheating off each other?

Lecturer asks:

I give a take-home exam every semester and this year it was clear that two students had the same bizarre wrong answers.  So I gave them both zeroes for the final (25% of their grade) which earned one of them a D for the class and the other an F.  Now the student with a D is protesting his grade and has filed paperwork to drop out of the program because he says that he did not cheat on the exam and thinks the other student copied him without his knowledge since he turned his exam in early to my mailbox.  What should I have done instead?

Cheating is the worst!  We at ask the grumpies have had to deal with so many instances.  And sometimes it really is just that one person copied off the other without the first kid’s knowledge.  (#1 had a student turn in his roommate in his first year because he was planning to go back to his home country as a government official and could not have any stains on his record– he is now an ambassador!)

So… what we do is generally the following:  As soon as the cheating is detected, make xeroxes of the offending documents.  Then talk to your chair to either inform them of what you are going to do or ask for advice about what to do.  Then email both students separately and ask them to come in to talk with you ASAP.  If you are a junior professor or lecturer or adjunct, you may want to ask for a more senior professor to sit in the room with you– I found that helpful when I was in my 20s but no longer need it now.  When the student comes in, just show them the documents and ask what happened.  Why are they so similar?  A surprising number of students will just admit to you that they copied from each other at that point.  In one case I had a student (different one from the future ambassador), after some confusion, narrow his eyes and say he bet he knew what happened and that he was planning on having words with his housemate (who must have copied his problem set when he left it out).  Said housemate was extremely apologetic and corroborated that theory and took full responsibility and the group of guys living in the house teased him about it for the rest of the semester (and started coming to office hours and learning the material).

I’d say in over 80% of the the cases one or both students admits responsibility and takes the punishment.  In the cases in which they don’t, I then go to my chair and ask for advice– I have had supportive chairs who I can trust on these matters.  #2, before she left academia, did not and in her last year got overruled by a chair on an obvious cheating case in which the students confessed and is so glad to be out of that [excrement]-hole. (#1 again) In one case in which the student did not admit wrong-doing, it turned out that my chair knew she had also been caught cheating in another class, so we pursued that (she decided not to take it to the honors counsel and eventually left our program).  In another case, the plagiarism from the wikipedia page was blatantly obvious so we pursued that one as well– he appealed to the honors counsel and we went through the full proceedings and they were not happy with him in the least.  For weaker cases in which they don’t admit responsibility we’ve just continued to monitor the situation and future assignments– usually they’re scared to try anything further at that point.  I haven’t had any weak final exam cases, only problem sets.

Once you find plagiarism and decide on a punishment, it is very important to see what your university rules are about reporting it.  Our university requires professors to notify the university so that they can put the incident on the student’s internal record.  If they get a certain number of reports of cheating (I think 3, but it might be more) then they are subject to a suspension or expulsion depending on the severity of the complaints.  One of my favorite things about our honors system is that you can force students to take a semester-long hour per week seminar on how not to cheat which I think is a fantastic punishment, especially for our students who plead that they didn’t know it was wrong to plagiarize.

Additionally, if you are going to have take-home exams, it is always good to do a few things to make it more difficult to cheat.  That includes doing things like telling them to put the exam in a sealed envelope if they turn it into your box (if you have an office you can also allow them to put it under your door).  I also like to have problems that include choice, like everyone chooses a dependent variable from a list of 50 dependent variables.  That makes things harder to grade but also more interesting to grade and even if they cheat they can’t just copy each other directly (or if they do, then it’s even more obvious that they copied), they have to learn a little bit.

Good luck and I hope you don’t have to deal with this much in the future!  It’s never fun.

Academic grumpeteers, how do you deal with student cheating problems?