A Tiny Writing Habit for the New Year

I’ve been thinking about the habit of writing, mostly because I have fallen out of it. With my work, studies, and children, it has been moved lower and lower down my priority list over the years, even though it was the passion that drove all my college and career choices. Every time I try to start again, I put impossible pressure on myself. I won’t move until I have written 500 words. I will create a new blog post every day. These big goals are coupled with a complete lack of a scheduled routine for writing.

When I am driven to start up a new writing challenge, I’m highly motivated and have a few good days. Within a week, though, I begin to miss days. Once I miss days, the streak is broken and I lose my motivation to continue. It’s a vicious cycle that has gotten me nowhere and has left me with no set writing identity to carry me through these pandemic times when my time and concentration have been further limited.

For the past five years, I have been teaching habit formation in my freshman composition classes. Oh, the irony! Through integrating the texts of others, I have learned some good useful things for my own life, which is why I continue to teach this theme. The most recent text I have integrated into my course curriculum is Tiny Habits by B.J. Fogg. It is the perfect text for me, as my goal pitfall is falling the euphoria of the big vision and then crashing when I fail to meet my own objectives. I need something to help me bridge the dream and the reality. Tiny Habits offers advice for manageably creating that connection.

The idea behind Tiny Habits is, as the title indicates, creating adding a small action to an existing routine that will move you toward a larger goal. For instance, I already have the ingrained habit of brushing my teeth. I can follow this routine by doing a short exercise, such as a 30-second plank. For writing, I need to think of something I do every day during a quiet time where I am not likely to be disturbed. For me, this would be my 6 a.m. coffee when everyone else in the household is still asleep. The habit would be to open up my laptop and type whatever comes to mind while I drink my coffee, as I’m doing right now.

According to Fogg, one final component is needed, and that is the reward. He suggests celebrating your accomplishment with a fist pump or internally playing a song like “Eye of the Tiger.” Thinking on this, I will be having my students add a “walk up song” to the 30-day challenges they design for themselves based on their research. I personally like and feel empowered by “So What?” by Pink. This celebration is important because it elicits positive feelings. This evocation is key as emotions contain stickiness for us. The stickiness of emotions help us remember, help shape our opinions and belief systems, and help wire our habits.

The only question that remains is whether a tiny habit will bring about a big change in our life. A 30-second exercise will not result in many burned calories. Nor will writing a paragraph a day necessarily result in a novel. However, the larger point of the tiny habit seems not to be in the results of the tiny habit itself, but in the way the tiny habit shapes our mindset. If we exercise every day, we become in our minds the type a person who works out. Though he doesn’t use these words, he is referencing narrative identity theory, which discusses the importance of the stories we tell about ourselves. If we believe ourselves to be a certain type of person, we will reinforce this belief through our actions. Hence, if my tiny habit makes me feel like a person who values my health and that becomes the story about myself I internalize, I will make more healthy choices.

While Fogg is not the first person to write about the cycle of habit formation, he is the first to sell in-depth the value of starting small. For another take on the cycle of habits, Charles Duhigg gives an in-depth exploration on cue, routine, and reward in the Power of Habit. His take, for me, was better on how to break bad habits, as you have to think about what is motivating your behavior. For instance, I want to snack when I am bored or procrastinating an unpleasant task. When I experience that cue (boredom, anxiety), I would then try to replace the snack with another healthier routine that satisfies the angst I am trying to balm through food. For more information, a more in-depth comparison of the two approaches, I suggest watching their TED Talks.

While I am still exploring the value of Tiny Habits, mulling on it has already helped me exceed the amount I planned to write today. I guess this calls for a celebration.

via GIPHY

Unexpected Lessons during a Pandemic Christmas

Merry Christmas! I remember when I was young, how a feeling of melancholy would descend upon me after the hype of Christmas. It’s different now that I am a mother. The end of Christmas means I can finally relax – no more shopping, baking, cleaning, decorating, and wrapping. No more constant anxiety about creating the perfect magical memories. It should have been easier this year, as the pandemic limited what Christmas could be. However, somehow it was worse in terms of my anxiety. Perhaps it was because my classes ended later than usual in December and I had at least one child at home since before Thanksgiving. I channeled all my anxiety into online shopping, which I did not really realize until the children sat among their mountain of presents this morning. It was too much.

Later this afternoon, as I folded laundry, I listened to Tim Ferriss’ podcast interview with Leo Baubata, the author of Zen Habits. I didn’t really consider the depth beyond the message behind the idea of “simplify your life” until he explained that it does no good to begin simplifying without identifying the root of the behavior – whether it be the accumulation of possessions or commitments. Most of it is driven by anxiety, which has been heightened by the pandemic. This really resonated with my Christmas splurges and my increased work commitments. Next semester I added another class and another administrative role to the same schedule I struggled with this fall. Somehow, I have not made the best choices because I feel best when I am “doing” and now I need to ride it out until May. Hopefully, I will learn some lessons along the way and find healthier ways to manage my anxiety. It’s not enough to hope 2020 will be better; we need to make it better.

The Unexpected Inspiration of Delight

For me, education, writing, and inspiration has required many hours with my butt in a seat – listening to lectures, staring at a computer screen, and reading page after page of text. Lately, this has not been enough for me. I realize it is because I am stuck at home recovering from a surgery and interacting less with the world outside these familiar walls. The sameness has resulted in a bland state of mind. In frustration yesterday, I left my writing station, put on a podcast, and began to make a lasagna.

The podcast I chose was “Tending to Joy and Practicing Delight,” an On Being interview with Ross Gay. When he turned 42 years old, Gay decided to write an essay a day on something that delighted him. It was an exercised that combined both the art of observation and the practice of gratitude. In an interview with The Common, Gay stated:

I think that sometimes I can neglect to attend to the things I love and adore and want to celebrate, want to preserve and share. I think the practice of writing these delights definitely gave me the opportunity to bring those things into focus. To be able to more precisely articulate, “Oh these are the things that I want to preserve: like public space, or common space, or the ways that people can be kind to each other.” These are the things that I want to exalt. I suspect that in realizing what the things are that I do want to exalt, that the whole time I was also realizing part of why I wanted to exalt them is because I’m aware of their absence. That’s part of the “theorizing”—I put that in quotation marks—I’m doing in the book: Why does that delight me, why is there a deficit of that in my life, or in anyone’s life? 

This lens delights me, the prioritizing of interactions and celebrations. The necessity of darkness to highlight the joy adds a deeper dimension, taking this from a simple self-help practice to a meaningful inquiry. His rumination made putting together the layers of a lasagna, a hearty meal on a brisk fall day, a meditation in caretaking. It was the meal my daughter had been requesting for the past week, but I put it off because it is time consuming. Her joy in receiving this dish I made for her was also a delight, for the food communicated, “I thought of you today. I heard you. I love you.” She took a picture of the meal and sent it to her grandma, my mother.

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While I do not foresee myself undertaking this as a year-long project, the mining for delight is something I will pin and return to, as needed. When a dull sheen falls on the ordinary days, I will return to this filter to revitalize my interactions and view.

To read the work of Ross Gay, visit here: https://www.rossgay.net/books

The Cost of Culinary Convenience

As I convalesce after a total hip replacement, I am a prime target for the convenience market. Because of my grocery shopping limitations, I decided to finally try a couple meal delivery services. Falling for the introductory deal pitches, I tried both Hello Fresh and Blue Apron. Quickly, though, Hello Fresh became more of a hassle than a convenience, as my promo code didn’t properly process and then I had to contact them for a refund. They promised a refund and gave me a credit, which subsequently led to another online chat session with customer support. Because I am off work at the moment, I was able to monitor and follow up on my account charges. If I was my normal working mom self, a huge demographic for these services, I may have not had the time or emotionally energy at the end of the day to communicate with customer service, which would have resulted in eating the extra costs along with my meal.

Financial Costs
It is not easy to see on either site/app how the promotional deal will shake out and what your weekly cost will be. There is a reason for this. Convenience is not cheap. Even with my “discount,” my second week of Hello Fresh would have been over ten dollars per serving. And this is for the “basic” offerings. More premium meals are offered at a higher cost.

Because of the costs, I quickly went down to one meal service. I dropped Hello Fresh first, as Blue Apron had the better meals and selections. At least better selections that did not come with additional charges. My Blue Apron meals were ones I would have not have likely made on my own: crispy curry chicken with mustard seed sautéed zucchini, cauliflower stromboli drizzled in hot honey, and a Beyond Burger topped with poblano peppers, Monterey cheese, and guacamole.

They were great meals to learn about cooking and new flavors. My 10-year-old son helped me make the crispy curry chicken, which was a fun family activity. Because of this, financially I could justify this as a fun occasional indulgence.

Environmental Costs
While I enjoyed putting together and eating these new dishes, I could not help but be horrified at all the packaging required to bring these meals to my door. My Beyond

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Burger meal ingredients were separated into seven packages, not counting the shipping box it came in. When I considered the travel fuel, ice packs, and packaging, ordering these meals stood out as my most wasteful environmental action for the week.

While studies point out that these meals reduce food waste, this was not the case for me. Some parts of the dishes I could not finish or eat, such as the pickled radishes. Also, it will only reduce food waste if this is an issue in your household. Ordering a meal kit could solve this, but so could better meal planning.

Final thoughts
Overall, meal kits can be great resource for the busy and homebound. They are a fun way to try new foods and expand one’s cooking repertoire. However, be aware that promotional pricing only lasts so long and may not be as cheap as you are led to believe. In addition, if possible, I would advise individuals to look for local kit providers to reduce the environmental impact of these services. Because of the convenience costs, now that  I am now four weeks post-op and able to push a cart, I’ll be returning to Pinterest and the grocery aisles to put together my meals.

Second Opinions and the Tenacity of Hope

A second opinion is really just a second chance to hope. Really, do we seek these out when have already heard what we want to? My much anticipated trip to the research hospital with the impressively credentialed surgeons did not go as expected. It went worse. There’s bad news and then there is you should get your children x-ray’ed bad news.

My hips did not properly form at birth, causing hip dysplasia, which also threatens my right hip and may be present in my children. The surgeon tried to make this condition relatable, and perhaps less scary, by discussing golden retrievers. Apparently, if I were a dog, I would not be the pick of the litter. The analogy was not the doctor’s finest moment during the appointment, but it was an amusing and slightly offensive distraction, which is exactly what I needed. The physician’s assistant had entirely too kind and sympathetic eyes. At one point I told her that I needed her to look at me with cold disinterest or a scowl to keep me from crying.

Though the news was bad, it was exactly what I needed to hear to proceed on this journey to wellness. Clearly, I am not going to Kegel my way out of this. My second opinion, while devastating, was extremely informative. The experience was much different than my first visit to the doctor. The PA and doctor actually sat down and explained my x-rays to me. Prior to this appointment, I did not even see the images of my hip. They also let me know that I had cysts that needed monitoring if I delayed surgery, as if they grow, I could experience bone loss. While I left my first doctor’s appointment scared to have a replacement due to problems 25 years down the road, I left this doctor’s appointment afraid to wait to much longer.

Both doctors agreed on one point, which is that I should schedule the surgery when it keeps me from doing the activities that I love and interferes with my well-being. I am at this point and am now facing the dilemma of scheduling. When can a working mom find six weeks to recover? Scheduling the time off is causing me more stress and worry than the surgery itself.

If anyone stumbles upon this blog post and is dealing with pain and being prescribed physical therapy, demand to see an orthopedic doctor. I went through three rounds of physical therapy and numerous trips to the chiropractor and nobody properly identified and treated the cause of my pain. Instead I was told that I was sitting too much, that my hormones were loosening my ligaments, and that I should avoid gluten and other inflammatory foods. All this was delivered by healthcare professionals with the utmost confidence. That unfounded confidence is costing me my hip.

The Polar Vortex and Other Broken Systems

Two years ago, I was doing aerial splits on the trampoline. Today, I cannot get through grocery shopping without limping and holding desperately onto the handle of the shopping cart. I’ll forever remember this winter as the season that made no sense. The weather has added to the surreal experience, the broken polar vortex offering a nice metaphorical symmetry to my own internal system break down. In the record-breaking wind chills, I ventured to the orthopedic doctor to be told I needed a new hip at age 41. My life has been frozen by unseasonable forces.

The winter howled, iced, and snowed us in for the past month. We have had record snow day cancellations. The symbiosis between the external and internal environments of my body has left me feeling a bit witchy, as if nature is mourning my broken system as well as its own. We are aging poorly, accumulating irreparable damage, but we can’t stop the world. After I returned from the doctor, my son asked if we could go to the bowling alley/arcade because snow days are supposed to be fun. My children, thankfully, have no concept of tragedy. Mom is always going to be alright because she is mom. So I went, limped around, buried the horror, and built a new plan for myself.

My new bright-eyed young physician therapist claims we won’t stop until I am back to 100%. Perhaps I will experience a physical therapy miracle once my hips are realigned and my muscles are stretched and strengthened. I don’t know and the fog of pain and uncertainty shadows my daily life. As much as I want to maintain the persona of the plucky heroine who faces adversity with grace and humor, I sometimes need to let the mask slip sometimes and pout at my aches.

The hardest part is all the ways my life has gotten smaller, how fear of pain has infused itself into my decision-making process. The circumstances create a sort of existential claustrophobia. My only recourse is to pedal the bike at the gym, to pull and push on the rowing machine, to regain the feeling of strength and control over my body. I try to remember that life is bigger than my problems and that my ability to contribute to it does not require physical perfection. But I do not like limitations.

Good Morning or At Least Trying

I am tired, deep down bone weary. My friend and I discussed yesterday how we do not write anymore. Our lives are consumed with the daily dramas and demands of work, and for me family. Last night, I became increasingly frustrated at my 7 year old who simply would not go to sleep. As she fussed with hunger, thirst, the urge to go to the bathroom, the need to be cuddled, etc., my golden hour of free time slowly dissipated. When she finally fell asleep, I remembered the grading I promised myself I would finish before the night ended.

To reward myself for the herculean tasks of getting my minimal family and work requirements done, I stayed up finishing a book and then cried at the end – for the characters, for the toxic political environment and victims of sexual assault, for my daughter who is still struggling with social issues at school, for all the crushing worries that are stealing my peace of mind. When I finally fell asleep, I was disturbed by one child and then another crawling into my bed. This rarely happens, but when it does happen, it is usually when I am already emotionally and physically drained. In slow increments I was pushed out of the bed by knees and elbows. I tried to find sleep elsewhere, but by 6 a.m. the children were awake and searching for me, alarmed that I was missing.

Because time does not stop, I tried first to rouse myself with coffee and then an energy aromatherapy bath. My eyes still feel swollen and abused, but I found a moment here upstairs with my words, and I will try to keep finding moments throughout the day – to create, to experience, to enjoy the moments that may come. Good morning.

Taming the Anxious Mind

This week I am learning the limitations of my cognitive powers and how anxiety is a full body experience. No amount of philosophy or mindfulness has been able to stop the stress dreams, the stomachaches, or the clenching of my jaw. I am on a steady diet of high fiber, probiotic foods and meditation, yet still I am struggling. Even when I have successfully shut down my rehashing of events and can recognize no reason for stress, a knot of nerves keeps emitting distress signals. All I can do is ride out the storm and do what seems to bring me the most relief: exercise, time outdoors, and creative expression.

Each day my attention has been divided in multiple directions: work, school volunteering, extracurricular activities, my daughter’s health issues, household management, etc. When I am in the grips of anxiety, it’s easy to get frantic with all that I could be doing, but I am currently not. This is when I need to really turn to my mindfulness and simplify my schedule. I have limitations and that is okay. I cannot fall into the trap of social comparison, measuring myself against those that *seem* to be doing it all flawlessly.

This past weekend, I mixed up the time for my daughter’s last soccer practice and showed up to the fields three hours late. When I realized my mistake, I could not help being swamped with agonizing regret and self-loathing. Who does this? I hate to fail others, and I hate to make mistakes, but no good comes from wallowing in negative feelings. All I will do is keep myself in this cycle of turmoil, bad outcomes, and recovery. Instead, I need to reflect on the cause and work towards a positive course of action to avoid further mix ups.

Writing about this makes me feel marginally better, as if I put medicine on a wound. This weekend I have made concerted efforts to speak my feelings, not hold them in and have them mutate into some other form, such as grumpiness. It’s the advice I give my children – give a name to it, so that we can deal with it. Negative emotions hold less power in the light.

Needs, Wants, Work, and the American Way

Without realizing exactly what I was signing up for, I volunteered to be a Junior Achievement Consultant for my daughter’s first grade classroom. I discovered I would be leading five different class sessions to show the role businesses play in our communities and to inspire future entrepreneurship. Last week, I ran the lesson of needs versus wants. What do we truly need in order to survive? The lesson was presented in a fairly black and white manner. Clothes, food, and shelter were labeled as needs. Luckily, I had a few critical thinkers in the group, in particular, a little boy who challenged the idea that shelter and clothing were “needs.” In truth, these needs may be defined by the weather and the culture of where one lives. Also, not all food, clothes, and shelter are necessities. You may need a home with a roof and heat, but you do not need one with a game room.

When my winter semester ended, I had the choice of whether or not to teach more classes, as I already fulfilled my yearly contract. If I were to work more, I would earn more money. And as my Junior Achievement Consultant Handbook explained, money is necessary to supply both one’s needs and wants. However, it did not explain the harm of pursuing more money to purchase more wants. If I were to work more, I would have less quality, stress-free time with my children; I would have less time to read and write for pleasure; I would not be able to exercise as much; I would not be able to cook as many healthy meals; I would spend more time sitting and less time outdoors, etc.

I make enough money for the necessities of life and some savings. If I work more, it would be for items I truly don’t need. I am fine driving an older model Equinox I found through Craigslist, even though I don’t really like the color. I could work harder and purchase a newer, more stylish vehicle, but for me, the cost of working overtime is not worth the benefits.

Yes, I realize I am lucky that I have the luxury to choose. But a number of people could work less and have less. I marvel at how the picture of middle-class life has changed since I grew up.

According to Bloomberg, “In the 1890s, Americans had an average of 400 square feet of residential space per person. But by the early twenty-first century, that figure had doubled to 800 square feet.” Not only do these large homes cost more to build, they cost more to heat and cool. My childhood home was a modest ranch modular home. It was cute and comfortable, but no more than what was necessary. We bought our current home, which is an older cape cod structure, because we liked the peaceful setting and school district. Yes, higher ceilings, a large master bathroom, and an open staircase would be nice. But I believe a mortgage payment of under $800 is nicer.

Another change I see is in the school parking lots. Instead of driving vans, families want to drive Suburbans, Yukons, and Expeditions. It is not surprising that people are complaining that they no longer can live on middle-class wages. You can’t if you want to have all these so-called “necessities.” What happened to living below one’s means? It seems we are all being expected to live at the ceiling.

The big takeaway in the Junior Achievement “needs versus wants” lesson was the idea that individuals need to budget and prioritize. This concept is applicable not only for money management, but for time management. We can get buried in busy without actually accomplishing the items that are most important for our well-being and personal success. Time, like money, is a finite resource. And sometimes, we need time more than money.

Right now, I am a bad cog in the capitalist machine, as I am choosing time over money. Still, I can’t help but feel a twinge at guilt when people ask, “Are you off for the summer?” And I am not really off. I run a department, which means meetings, scheduling, staff interviews, etc. I am also expected to professionally development and plan my fall classes. Still, I am not working as many hours as I can, which doesn’t does not seem like the American way.

In my composition classes, we analyze the following commercial: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xNzXze5Yza8.  The Cadillac commercial should be viewed as a satire. Instead, it is a realistic portrayal of American consumerism: “As for all the stuff, that’s the upside of taking only two weeks off in August.”

A New Year of Daily Intentions

Spending New Year’s Eve sick was the best dose of reality. New year’s day was not the day I would begin my marathon training; it was not the day I would sort through my closet and minimize; it was not the day I would begin writing ten pages a day. It was the day I took care of myself, so that I could heal faster.

The best advice I read for the new year was to set daily intentions instead of one overarching resolution. On a given day I may intend to create a new lecture, clean out the fridge, write a blog, or rest and drink lots of liquids. It means taking a moment to read the day, consider my obligations, and gauge my own personal needs. Some days I genuinely need to work out, not to meet a dictating resolution for the year, but to clear my head and balance my emotions.

In my field of composition and rhetoric, I have learned that timing is key. A writer crafts his response to fit a particular moment. The action is co-determined by the setting, the current conversation, and audience. Likewise, my everyday actions are also determined by multiple factors. Perhaps it would be different if my life did not involve children and a job that has varying demands day by day. All I can do is make the best decisions in the moment. This is what I can cook and eat with the available ingredients and the allotted time. I have had write this blog post in pieces because sometimes a six year old appears on my lap or the noise level in the house escalates beyond the point at which I can concentrate. In those moments, I move on to a different intention, which doesn’t require the same cognitive labor or better serves the needs of my household.

My goal is not to set myself up for disappointment or agitation but to still have expectations. I have discovered when I have set up unsustainable goals, such as I am going to write 500 words a day, when I fail, I quit. A daily intention is not about a streak of behaviors that can be broken. It’s not a diet you can fail. It’s about waking up each morning and planning what you have to do and what you want to do. Today is the last day of my children’s winter break. My intention is to remove the holiday decorations, visit with my parents, let my children dictate some fun activities, and prepare for a work day tomorrow.