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?

Atomic Habits: A book review

After being less than impressed with The Power of Habit, I decided to give Atomic Habits (amazon link=> we get a cut) by James Clear a spin.

tl:dr Although this book is much better than The Power of Habit, it is ultimately still an imperfect book.  Definitely worth giving a read, maybe not worth purchasing unless you have a specific easy-to-define-and-implement habit you want to focus on.

Unlike The Power of Habit, most of the book (until the last section) is made up of examples that make sense and are not taken out of context. It also goes much more into depth with more nuance than the previous book (which it does cite extensively).

Each chapter ends with bullets and potentially actionable items.  There are habits cheat sheets with “laws” explaining how to create a good habit and how to break a bad habit.  These laws are broken into easy to remember subheaders:  Make it obvious, Make it attractive, Make it easy, Make it satisfying.  Make it invisible, Make it unattractive, Make it difficult, Make it unsatisfying.  This is helpful– I hope that the podcasters at By the Book pick this one up sometime.

The “Advanced Tactics” section that the book ends with is problematic, relying almost entirely on anecdote and contradicting most of the rest of the book, leaving the reader with a particularly confusing “it’s complicated” message, along with additional bizarre messages like you should only try to do what you do well (I should really be a grocery bagger, I thought to myself, though that is not where my comparative advantage lies) but you should also only chase your passion (because people do more when they enjoy the work) but you should also do the boring bits (because the most successful people do the parts they don’t enjoy).  Examples from this section are very correlation is causation.  After reading it, I felt a sense of hopelessness, like maybe I should just early retire and forget my career, which I hope was not intentional.

For me– most of the stuff discussed in the book I already do or have done.  But I also have been struggling with bad work habits for the past couple of years.  I used to have very good work habits, but somehow they’ve been broken.  I need to fix that, but I’m not sure how.  It seems to be more complicated than say, getting into the habit of taking a walk every day or calling about politics.  (And… when I start focusing on one area of life, something starts slipping in another, which is not what any of the online lifestyle bloggers ever mention… it’s always exercise more and everything else will get better too.)

I’m not sure if this book will help with that, but I’m going to think really hard about the systematic problems I’ve been having with my work and give these checklists a spin.  I also want to get a book on habits by an actual academic to see if that has any useful advice.

And, of course, I will blog about all of this in a future post.

I cannot tell if most men are attractive or not

After enough reading of Captain Awkward, I learned that being demi-sexual is a thing.  It is, in fact, a thing that I am.

What that means is that I do not get physically attracted to people unless I know them really well first.  Love at first sight is straight out for me.  I’m definitely not asexual, as my feelings for DH can attest, but when DH is out of the picture I get much closer to that end of the spectrum.  If anything ever happens to DH, I will likely spend the rest of my life single because I am not going to find  “chemistry” on a first or even third date.

Along with that, I really cannot tell which men are supposed to be attractive.  Women I think I can tell because culture is better at defining attractiveness for women and pushing that culture on us.  With men, I think there’s a lot more leeway allowed for what is considered attractive.  I can tell if men’s bodies are supposed to be attractive– if their muscles look right, then that’s attractive for men.  But with faces it’s a lot more difficult.  If they look like DH, they’re more likely to look attractive to me.  If they have symmetric features, then I can tell that they’re supposed to be attractive.  But as I scan through the Bachelor in Paradise cast, I really just cannot tell.  And in theory, all of these men were picked because they *are* attractive.  They wouldn’t be on Bachelor in Paradise otherwise.

When I started watching Try Guys videos, I could tell that Eugene was conventionally attractive.  He’s got great hair, symmetric features, and a dancer’s body.  But the other three guys didn’t look that great.  As I watched more and more of the videos, and got to know their characters, they started looking good to me because they are likeable characters.  But are Keith, Ned, and Zach actually good-looking?  I have no idea.

February Challenge Fitness ladder update

Recall this February challenge I did the calisthenics Fitness Ladder.

I got up to Rung 4 and was on the cusp of Rung 5.  The sticking points are push-ups (my arms have gotten weak) and, oddly, running in place.  I keep getting lactic acid build-up.  DH tells me that as my circulation gets better the lactic acid build-up will gradually become less of a problem.  The fact that I have this as a problem makes me concerned about my lack of circulation!

My progress wasn’t as impressive as when I did the 7 min workout (for example, I can barely do 5 pushups, but I ended that challenge with 9).  I don’t know if that’s because I’m 4 years older and in worse shape, or if it’s just not as intense a workout.  However, I did not hate this workout.  I kind of like it (except the lactic acid part), and DC2 and DH are also into it.

Of course, on March 1st when the challenge was over, I was like, I don’t *really* need to do this, so I didn’t.  And March 2nd I completely forgot until after I’d showered and was already in bed.  If it had been February I’d have gotten out of bed and done it, as happened a few times, but since the challenge was over I felt I didn’t need to.  I have no willpower.  March 3rd I decided to do it in the morning.  I kind of felt like doing sit-ups which is the first time I can say that in 4 decades, give or take.

I think the big thing for me if I want to keep up with this is to have some sort of regular time and reminder for me to actually do it.  Mornings would make sense except that I am barely making it to my 8am classes this semester.  There’s just too much packed in the mornings already (and I don’t shower in the morning like DH does, so if I get to the point of sweating stinkily I’ll have to add a second shower to the day).  Right before bedtime is what I’d been doing because that’s when I would remember, but now that there’s no challenge going on, that’s not a great idea because I have no willpower before bed.  Though I suppose it could be fit in before the shower in theory.  I also don’t know if I have willpower to do it right after work– usually at that point in time I’m trying to get dinner ready.

I’m still doing a walk every day at work– generally sometime between 10:30am and 1:30pm.  That happens because I have a motivated colleague who also needs an exercise and gossip/work break in the middle of the day.  It’s also a good vit D pick-up for me since I’ve given up on trying to stagger my pills (I generally forgot the second one and it would take a couple hours to realize why I’d been so tired) and just take both of them after I brush my teeth in the morning.

It may be that I need to set a timer for calisthenics for sometime in the evening.  It helps if DH is doing it at the same time too.  I don’t know if he’ll be going back to doing it in the morning though.  I also think I should add some stretches because the ones in the workout are kind of silly… or at least seem silly to me because they’re not stretching the muscles that my American education has taught me should be stretched.

For any of the self-care things I need to do every day, showering, teeth brushing, etc. it’s important that I have a regular process for each– finishing showering means it’s time for teeth, and so on.  For things I really don’t want to do, it’s extremely helpful to have someone else there to nudge it along.  Though I can’t use another person as a crutch or excuse– I just need to be grateful for being included.

How do you get yourself to do self-care things regularly? 

On Art (not ART) and creativity

(Because I have plenty of experience with ART .)

There’s been some recent twitter kerfuffles about quitting one’s day job to pursue one’s CREATIVITY.  Scalzi talks about his take on the movement in this post.

… I suspect I am not “a creative”*

I would far far rather read novels than write them. Writing a novel sounds like work.  Writing any kind of *book* sounds like a lot of work.

Also: I have no artistic talent.

So… I’m pretty happy not having some kind of creative passion that I’m supposed to be fitting into my copious free time or quitting my job to do.

Yay me?

Are you a creative?  Do you find the time to create?

*no, I don’t think this blog counts as a creative passion… I’m not sure what we could call it, but… we’re not quitting our jobs to monetize it.

The year of the oxygen mask

My current goal is to make 2019 the year I finally find my oxygen mask.  You know, “make sure your own mask is on first before helping others”?

Background:

In October 2016 I was having a very stressful time and then election day hit.  It did not go well for feminists.  Fortunately I had recently started therapy again and was still on one psychiatric medication, but I got an additional one at the suggestion of an excellent psychiatrist who is unfortunately hard to get hold of and who doesn’t take my insurance.  At the time I was working with a group that researched (among other things) health in Latinx communities, and I am White.  I was chicken and called in sick to work the day after election day.  Then I pulled myself together.  You know how politics has gone since then.

A week later, my beloved father-in-law died unexpectedly.  Most of 2017 was spent in mourning.  In 2017, our cat almost died several times and then did die (we have new ones now!), and my beloved grandmother died just before Christmas (she was very old, and the heart of the family), and my other grandmother’s dementia got the best of her.  Her body is still walking around, but she’s away with the fairies.  There were a few months where our apartment seemed to have contagious depression.  My sister’s husband was laid off in a really dickish way in mid-December of 2017.  Friends were sad and anxious.  Far-away family struggled with finances, finding my grandmother a nursing home that would take her (achieved in 2018!), and my beloved aunt got very very sick in early to mid-2018 and perforated her bowel from the stress of it (surgery, months with an ostomy bag, weight down to less than 90 lbs.).  My cousin almost died and had to have emergency brain surgery the night of Christmas Eve 2017, causing his father my uncle to miss his own mother’s funeral.  In 2017 and 2018, my father got diagnosed with something potentially scary (he’s fine now, but has an occasional midnight panic attack), my sister struggled with infertility, my mother-in-law and her whole family grieved and mourned, I quit my job and got another (where I have a good boss), and so did my partner.

Going into 2019, I have just recently, like in the past few months, started to feel like I can even take a breath.  2018 was something of a dumpster fire, but it was also the year of the gradual, eventual turnaround for people I care about.  We might be ok now; I just need like another 6 months of nobody dying and I’ll be able to brain again.  Come on, just make it six more months!

It’s been a struggle, folks.

Finally Finding the Oxygen Mask in 2019:

I’m against New Year’s resolutions.  I suck at them.  I decided to try doing small but good things for myself each month in 2019.  (I got the idea for the first one from Lifehacker.)  Doing a big thing, or even a couple medium things, is totally outside my capacity for now.  I hope that by doing these small things, I will be substantially less cranky by the end of 2019.  I will also stay on my meds and in therapy.

January:  Don’t spend money except on food (or toilet paper).  I thought this was going to be easy but it turns out I already messed up in the second week of Jan., and barely noticed!  The point of this challenge is mainly to *notice*.  I’ll keep working on it.

February:  Go on Patreon and sign up to support at least 2 creators whose work I appreciate.

March:  Eat down the pantry and freezer.  Defrost those noms.

April:  Clean up my damn room.  Put stuff away and keep it clean-ish.

May:  Information/news break.  Absolutely no clicking on twitter links or links that look like they might be irritating; use facebook only for the one (closed) group I’m in.  [#2 will keep you all in links :)]

June:  Moar blogging! [#2 WOOOOO!!!!]

July:  Eat more delicious fruit & local veg.

August:  Eat more delicious fruit & local veg.

September:  Deeply Rest.  Still figuring out what this will mean, but I came up with this phrase that sounds appealing.

October:  Focus on reading for enjoyment.

November:  Absolutely no news exposure from any source. [#2 will keep you all in links :)]

December:  Focus on reading for enjoyment.  Don’t go anywhere.

#2 notes:  Those of us with oxygen masks can help carry the load for those who are finding theirs.  There will be important actions to do in 2019!

Do you plan to improve self-care in 2019?  How?  Or do you have a routine that’s working for you?