Thinking about habits

Something or other in my online reading (what? by whom? I don’t recall) has lately gotten me thinking a lot about habits, and led me to both Charles Duhigg’s The Power of Habit and Gretchen Rubin‘s Better Than Before. Both books are very good, but they work especially well as a pair: Duhigg tackles more of the brain-science of habit (like the cue-habit-reward cycle) and Rubin focuses more on the social/personal factors of habit formation and change (like her “four tendencies” of personality, which determine how we respond to both internal and external expectations). Together they paint a broad picture of how we form habits and how habits form us. I was intrigued by Duhigg’s more technical approach, but I appreciate Better Than Before‘s practicality, as well as the emphasis on knowing yourself — since people tend to respond to the making and breaking of habits in predictable but different ways.

For example, Rubin broadly divides people into four categories: Upholders, Questioners, Obligers, and Rebels. (Take the quiz here). I’m an Obliger; I find it much easier to live up to other people’s expectations than my own. It’s hard for me to form a habit without some sort of external accountability; I don’t like to let people down, but can (too) easily shirk a habit if I’m the only one who knows or cares. It doesn’t necessarily mean that I do everything for which I’m externally accountable ungrudgingly, of course — witness most of last semester’s homework — but I still do it. (In terms of school work, I think this is why I struggle with courses that use contract grading; I don’t feel driven to try the same way I would if I really had to earn a grade, rather than just meeting a minimum requirement of work done.) There are many other categories Rubin looks at; one that stuck out to me was the Opener/Finisher divide. I’m a Finisher; I get a bigger charge and sense of accomplishment over finishing something (a project, a jar of peanut butter, a blog post) than out of starting a new one. I like looking at something and being able to say “It’s done!”. By the same measure, I get stressed out when I have so many things on the go that I’m not finishing any of them, and it’s hard to stay motivated when I have a long-term project that won’t be finished any time soon.

This strikes me as really useful data. This summer I’ve started working on my thesis, which I’ll have to submit and defend next April. But since I don’t (have to) check in with my advisor particularly often, I’m not working with a lot of external accountability here — and the long deadline doesn’t help, because it will be many months before I can look at my thesis and say “It’s done!”. So how do I make sure that I keep working on it?

Right now, like this:

As it turns out, a sticker chart is pretty much ideal for me. Here’s why I think it works:

1. I do love stickers. That’s not enough on its own, but it surely helps.

2. The chart keeps me accountable. I’m not keeping track of whether I work on my thesis privately; I’m keeping track right there on my dining room wall, where my husband and friends can see it. Even though they’re not checking up on me, they still know what’s going on. Having my chart visible turns it into an external motivator.

3. I can easily see what I’ve accomplished. I put on a star sticker when I do thesis reading, and a happy face when I do writing. At the end of the week, if I have at least one sticker on at least six days, I get a big sticker. My Finisher tendencies motivate me to earn a sticker every day, and to keep the big sticker chain unbroken. Even though my thesis won’t be finished for a long time, every day I get to “finish” a small step.

4. It’s low-key: I don’t have minimums for earning stickers. If I read anything at all — even if it’s just one paragraph — I get a sticker for that day. If I write anything at all — even if it’s just one sentence — I get a sticker for that day. For some people this might not be helpful since it could be a tacit encouragement to make a minimal effort. But for me, it’s more important to establish the habit of working on my thesis every day (or nearly) than to worry about exactly how much work I’m doing. Some days I get quite a lot done; others, I don’t. But I’m working on it regularly and that’s what’s going to make the difference in the long run. Slow and steady, etc. etc. (And since starting my chart I’ve read upwards of 800 pages and written one complete chapter and smaller chunks of others, so clearly something is working.)

Rubin also tackles the convenience factor in habit formation: if we want to establish a good habit, we need to make it convenient. And if we want to kill a bad habit, we need to make it inconvenient for ourselves (which could be something as simple as, say, storing the cookies in a lidded opaque jar instead of a clear unlidded one). This rings true for me. What finally got me flossing every night was moving the floss from inside the bathroom cupboard to a spot on the counter — it’s visible, so I see it and am reminded to floss, and it’s right there so it’s totally convenient. And now I floss! Who knew it could be so easy? (Gretchen Rubin might have known.)

This all has intrigued me greatly. I’m pretty sure that I’ll be thinking about habits for many days to come.

The first third of 2015: what I read

One of the habits I’ve successfully integrated into my life is to keep a reading log. It’s extremely simple (as I find less data means more likelihood of keeping up with it): every month I write out a numbered list of what I’ve read, just the title and author(s). Once a year I gather up some statistics for my own interest, namely, number of books read, how many were fiction or non-fiction, how many were new reads or re-reads, and my monthly average. I keep a notebook in my dining room for this purpose, and have so far recorded every book* I’ve read since January 2013.

Back when I was blogging more-or-less exclusively about books, I’d try to do a reading round-up post about every month. That’s a little much for me now, though — so here’s what I read during the first third of this year.

January: My annually-in-December reading of The Lord of the Rings bled significantly into January this year, for I believe the first time ever. Well. I had a newborn, what do you want from me?

1. The Two Towers (J.R.R. Tolkein)
2. The Return of the King (J.R.R. Tolkein
3. A Voice in the Wind (Francine Rivers)
4. Echo in the Darkness (Francine Rivers)
5. As Sure as the Dawn (Francine Rivers)
6.The Tales of Beedle the Bard (J.K. Rowling)

February: Not a lot of reading in February — a lot of schoolwork was done instead, which is probably a good thing.

7. The Tower of Geburah (John White)
8. A Wizard of Earthsea (Ursula K. Le Guin)
9. Devices and Desires (P.D. James)
10. The Practice of the Presence of God (Brother Lawrence)

March: When I look at this list I’m a bit surprised that I read eight books, because in my memory I was reading Martin Chuzzlewit approximately forever. Apparently not. It helps, of course, that March is a long month.

11. Celebration of Discipline (Richard Foster)
12. Martin Chuzzlewit (Charles Dickens)
13. The Rebel Angels (Robertson Davies)
14. What’s Bred in the Bone (Robertson Davies)
15. The Lyre of Orpheus (Robertson Davies)
16. As You Wish (Cary Elwes)
17. The Princess Bride (William Goldman)
18. Decline and Fall (Evelyn Waugh)

April: The bulk of my reading in April was taken up, by far, by Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell — which is brilliant, and also huge. Devotional Classics is a textbook that I had been reading throughout the semester and finally finished.

19. Dad is Fat (Jim Gaffigan)
20. A Circle of Quiet (Madeleine L’Engle)
21. Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell (Susanna Clarke)
22. Devotional Classics (Richard Foster and James Bryan Smith)
23. These Strange Ashes (Elisabeth Elliot)

I’m pretty happy with these numbers, although I have to remind myself not to compare them too much with other times of my life. In undergrad I was averaging about 18 books/month, but I was also doing a literature degree and so my school reading contributed heavily. There was also one summer in highschool where I wasn’t working, so I was reading two novels a day: one in the morning and one in the afternoon. Two novels a day. Can you imagine?

Well, I’m not in the position to read two novels a day, any more, or even two novels a week (at least until summer!). But I feel like I’m reading at a good pace right now, which doesn’t take up too much of my [school/family/etc.] time but still gets me through enough books that I feel as if I’m making progress. We’ll see what the next few months bring. (My prediction: the numbers will go way up June-August, and then drop down again when the new semester starts. Really going out on a limb here…)

* Every book except for one in August 2014. There’s a number for it, I know I read something, but I had a pretty big case of pregnancy-brain at the time and I’m afraid it is lost forever.

On reading and not reading

I mentioned in a post the other day that the first book I chose from our town’s new little free library was The Thirteenth Tale, which I had read and reviewed some years ago but did not remember well (save that I enjoyed it). Not wanting to spoil things for myself I didn’t actually read my review — not that I tended to give spoilers away (much) but because I didn’t want to trigger any memories of the book’s plot at all. It’s rare that I forget a book’s contents so completely, and so I wanted to come at it fresh. A second first reading, if you will.

The verdict, this time around? 
I couldn’t even finish it.
In fact, I couldn’t even finish the first third. 
The writing, you guys. The writing is so bad. It’s got the most overblown, purple prose, and I just couldn’t do it this time around. A glance over my review from back in 2009 shows that I thought that the prose was bad then, too, but had been sufficiently captivated by the plot to declare, in effect, that I loved it and would read it over and over again forever. 
So much for that. 
This did get me thinking, though, about the nature of literary taste and how it changes (or doesn’t) over time. I think that one of the reasons that I decided to put down The Thirteenth Tale is that over the last six years I have learned to read with more discrimination. I have less patience for bad writing (whether objectively bad or simply not to my taste) and I am much more willing to simply stop reading something if I’m not enjoying it. Part of this is certainly related to how busy life is right now: I’m doing a master’s degree and I have an infant, and since my for-pleasure reading time is constrained, I want to make sure that I’m using it on things that are actually pleasurable. I think that I also have less stomach for the unpleasant. It’s not far into The Thirteenth Tale that we are into the region of incest, sadism, and sexual assault. I don’t think that I’m afraid or upset to read about such things, but again, I’d rather be reading things I’m more likely to enjoy. If the writing were better, perhaps I would have lasted it out; like love, good prose covers a multitude of sins. 
At the same time, I find that I apply these standards somewhat arbitrarily: I judge books that are new to me much more harshly than books I’ve read and enjoyed before. (At least as far as the books that I remember reading, that is!) If a book was a favourite in my childhood or adolescence, chances are that it will remain a favourite despite the very real flaws that it might have. Likewise, there are some books I own that do not have, perhaps, the most literary merit, but that are light enough that they get read and re-read when I need some brain candy. 
The issue of timing also comes into play. Sometimes we read, or try to read, books when it’s just not the right time for them. The first time I read Pride and Prejudice I thought it was boring and didn’t finish. A few years later I read it again, and it became and remains one of my all-time favourites. The first time I read Wuthering Heights I thought it was garbage. A few years later I had to read it for a class — and while I will never count it as a favourite, I did come to appreciate it in many ways. That year I think I read it three or four times, and I wrote two papers on it. Perhaps I would have had more patience with The Thirteenth Tale if it weren’t coming at the not-quite-end of a very stressful semester.

Of course, books can either suffer or shine depending on what books they’re following. A book that’s kind of run-of-the-mill will appear stellar if it follows a couple of flops, or like a pretty bad book if it follows a few that were brilliant. Some books are just tough acts to follow. 

Will I try reading The Thirteenth Tale again? I might. Evidently I loved it the first time around, and while I don’t always agree with my past self’s opinions, I’m still willing to hear them. What doesn’t work at the end of the school year might work a month later on vacation or at the pool. Time will tell.

Little library, big font

It was with great delight that I read an acquaintance’s facebook post last night, announcing that our little town now has its very own Little Free Library. She had driven past the unveiling ceremony on her way home; the library box is set up in the nearest park, in between the post office and a mechanic’s.

As much as I love the idea of little free libraries in and of themselves, I’m especially glad to see one in this town. We’re in the rust belt, the industry around which the town was built died off several decades ago, and things are both depressed and depressing. From a height of 20,000+, the population has fallen to about 7,000. There is a lot of negative thinking from long-term residents, and many attempts to open new businesses or otherwise improve things are met with gloomy prophecies of failure.

Now, I understand that I’m a newcomer — and transient — and that I can’t personally compare things now with the town’s heyday (c. 1960s-70s). But actually, things don’t seem that bad to me. We like it here. The town has some problems, but where doesn’t? We love that there is still a front-porch culture here. We love how friendly people are on the street. Overall this is a pleasant place to live and we’ve enjoyed seeing little hints of how it can become something more: a new ice cream shop, a fantastic hyper-local news site, a hotel, etc. Things are happening.

The little free library box, to me, is a sign of hope for this little town. It’s a sweet little something that says hey, we’re here, and we’re a community. Anselm and I went over to see it before lunch today; I picked up one book and dropped off two others, and I suspect that we will make many trips over the next year.

(What did I pick? The Thirteenth Tale, which I have read before but don’t remember at all except for the fact that I liked it. Unfortunately I did not notice that, annoyingly, this copy happens to be a large-print edition, so it will definitely be going back to the library box once finished, because I won’t own this sort of book until I have to.)

See? Isn’t that annoying? I don’t like reading large-print books because it’s hard to get a good flow going; the size of the print constantly draws my attention out of the story. On the other hand, I will admit that it’s hard not to feel like the Queen of Reading when you’re turning the page every 23 seconds. So, trade-offs.

At any rate, the thought of our new little library makes me quite cheerful, and I do hope that people embrace it. Onward and upward, little town, onward and upward.

I feel a lot of pressure to come up with interesting titles for these book posts

Somewhat overdue, here’s May’s reading account. It was a frustrating month for me — I wanted to try reading in French more often, so I read Langelot et le sous-marin jaune (a young adult spy novel), but had forgotten that I read painfully slowly in my second language. It just went on and on. And then I accidentally read what turned out to be the last in a series (Against the Odds)… probably my fault that I didn’t enjoy that one. And then A Night to Remember was too big to cart around, which slowed it down — all in all I felt throughout May that I was just slogging through things and not really finishing anything.

And then at the end of the month I realised that I still read seventeen books — so really, what do I know?

Books Read: May 2013

01. Stranger Shores (J. M. Coetzee)
02. Bike Snob Abroad (Eben Weiss)
03. Langelot et le sous-marin jaune (Vladimir Volkoff alias Lieutenant X)
04. Inside Job (Connie Willis)
05. Bellweather (Connie Willis)
06. The Lions of Al-Rassan (Guy Gavriel Kay)
07. Letters to Karen (Charlie W. Shedd)
08. Room (Emma Donoghue)
09. A Night to Remember (Walter Lord)
10. Harry Potter and the Natural 20 (Sir Poley)
11. A Light in the Window (Jan Karon)
12. A Civil Campaign (Lois McMaster Bujold)
13. Arrow of God (Chinua Achebe)
14. Against the Odds (Elizabeth Moon)
15. Mirror Dance (Lois McMaster Bujold)
16. Clouds of Witness (Dorothy L. Sayers)
17. Black White and Jewish (Rebecca Walker)

Cumulative Stats for 2013

Total books read: 92

Average number of books read per month: 18.4

Fiction: 73
Non-fiction: 19

Books by male authors: 49
Books by female authors: 42
Books with joint male/female authorship: 1

Distinct male authors: 27
Distinct female authors: 22

Books by living authors: 82
Books by dead authors: 10

Books read for the first time: 41
Books read at least once before: 51

I’m looking forward to cracking 100 in June!

April reading brings May posting

Books books books! I was a bit worried that my April reading was going to suffer due to my crippling Plants vs. Zombies addiction, but I somehow pulled off 21 — the same as last month, in one less day. Mind you, I did have to stay up past my bedtime in order to finish Passage before the deadline last night….

Books Read: April 2013

01. The Dark Tower V: Wolves of the Calla (Stephen King)
02. No Cheating, No Dying (Elizabeth Weil)
03. Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children (Ransom Riggs)
04. The Dark Towers VI: Song of Susannah (Stephen King)
05. The Dark Tower VII: The Dark Tower (Stephen King)
06. A Complicated Kindness (Miriam Toews)
07. Carry On, Warrior (Glennon Doyle Melton)
08. Is Everyone Hanging Out with Me? (And Other Concerns) (Mindy Kaling)
09. Mean Moms Rule (Denise Schipani)
10. WLT (Garrison Keillor)
11. Sailing to Sarantium (Guy Gavriel Kay)
12. Lord of Emperors (Guy Gavriel Kay)
13. Tears of the Giraffe (Alexander McCall Smith)
14. The Full Cupboard of Life (Alexander McCall Smith)
15. The Rite (Matt Baglio)
16. The Brides of Rollrock Island (Margo Lanagan)
17. Red Spikes (Margo Lanagan)
18. Escaping the Endless Adolescence (Joseph Allen & Claudia W. Allen)
19. At Home in Mitford (Jan Karon)
20. The Comforts of a Muddy Saturday (Alexander McCall Smith)
21. Passage (Connie Willis)

Cumulative Stats for 2013

Total books read: 75

Average number of books read per month: 18.75

Fiction: 61
Non-fiction: 14

Books by male authors: 41
Books by female authors: 33
Books with joint male/female authorship: 1

Distinct male authors: 21
Distinct female authors: 20

Books by living authors: 69
Books by dead authors: 6

Books read for the first time: 33
Books read at least once before: 42

About six of these are chunksters, which makes me wonder how many books I might get through in a month if I restricted it to books under, say, 400 pages. It might be worth an experiment!