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Looking at the Little Things

Looking at the Little Things

Looking at the Little Things

    This year has turned out to be a year of tremendous challenge for me. I realized that the career I’d spent my adult life cultivating was not quite as fulfilling as I’d hoped, and at the same time my relationship started buckling under pressures both from within and without.

    Change, it seems, was in order.

    If you listen to popular wisdom, especially as expressed in movies and TV shows, profound change comes from profound events. The alcoholic hits rock bottom, losing his family, his job, and his dignity before he can start to address his addiction. The surgeon loses a patient on the operating table before she can grapple with her insecurities. The playboy millionaire discovers he has a teenage daughter before he can learn to take responsibility for his life.

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    And on and on.

    The reality, though, is somewhat different. While some people face life-changing events, most of what defines and redefines us as people is not the stuff of big-budget epic movies, but rather the boring, mundane stuff of everyday life. For me, it wasn’t infidelity — mine or hers – or drug abuse or the death of a parent that turned my relationship towards rocky waters, it was… dishes. And it wasn’t a psychotic student dissatisfied with his grade stalking me across the quad or the loss of three years of research data that led me to realize I was spinning my wheels as an academic, it was… grading papers.

    I kept forgetting to do the dishes when it was my turn, and I started facing my students’ ungraded essays with dread, procrastinating as long as I could.

    Those little things – a household complaint heard in millions of homes around the world, and an educational chore despised in faculty lounges throughout the universe – said a lot more about me, and about the choices I had made and was making in my life, than any sexual fling, drinking binge, or expensive hobby could have.

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    How can we grab hold of those little things that say so much about who we are – and use them to move us closer to who we want to be? To do so, we first have to identify them, to pick them out of the flow of daily life for closer examination. Then, we have to figure out what they mean, what those actions and practices say about us, and how well they jibe with who we want to be. Finally, we have to commit to a course of action that changes or eliminates behaviors that don’t reflect our better selves, replacing them with more positive ones. In short, we have to go through an ongoing process of:

    1. Discovery,
    2. Analysis, and
    3. Intention.

    Discovery

    The key to change in your life – and really, the key to satisfaction as well – is self-knowledge. In our go-go-go society, there’s often little time for self-reflection, which can blind us to most of the little things that go into making our big lives. Not to mention that the things that are most a part of us become practically invisible.

    Hence, discovery. Whether it’s part of your weekly routine or a nightly ritual, take some time to go over and record the moments that reflect problems you’re dealing with, as well as the moments that are typically “you”. You might start keeping a “discovery journal”, someplace to record the problems that arise over the course of each day – and the little successes, too. Though I’m focusing on change here, it’s never a bad idea to recognize and embrace the positive, too.

    While some things will jump out at you, the point of the discovery process isn’t to delve into the deeper meanings of anything, not just yet. Rather the idea is to see patterns emerge. These patterns will be the grist for your analytical mill in the next stage.

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    Analysis

    Once you’ve given yourself a good looking-into, it’s time to figure out what to do about it. I’ve already mentioned patterns – are there mistakes you make over and over? Arguments you get into again and again? Recurring moments when you do that “laying out your excuse in your head even through nobody asked you to explain yourself” thing?

    Try to distance yourself from your actions a little. Look at your inventory of “totally you” moments – what do they say about who you are? Imagine someone you dislike doing the same things; what would you think about those behaviors then? Who do your actions suggest that you are?

    Now, who do you want to be? What’s meaningful for you, what values do you want to realize in your daily life? In my case, I consider myself a sensitive and committed partner who does his part in the home – and as a gender studies professor, it’s also important to me that I not fall into gender-stereotyped roles. By repeatedly forgetting about the dishes, I was making more work for my partner – and worse, it was work that men typically shun as “women’s work”. More than that, though, I was failing to do my part in the running of our household, which implied that maybe it wasn’t my first priority. Since I wasn’t doing more important stuff instead of the dishes, I had to face a real disjoint between the person I wanted to be and the person I was showing myself to be.

    Intention

    At this point, it’s time to think about change: what do you intend to do about all this? The trick here is to be positive, not negative. Not only do negative resolutions lack emotional power, the power that keeps us motivated, but they’re really hard to keep a strong hold on. “Not doing” leaves less of a trace, less evidence, than “doing”.

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    If you really want to put a positive shine on your new commitments, you can phrase them as affirmations. Not just “I will do the dishes every night, even when it’s not my turn, because that’s one way I participate in my family” but something like “I celebrate my responsibilities through which I express my love for my family.” That’s not really my style, so the first version was closer to the commitment I made – and for the next several months, I became a dish-doing machine, and you know what? It wasn’t a chore at all, it was a pleasure, because it was one way I made the lives of the people I care most about run smoothly.

    It’s important the you find the motivation and intention within yourself if you’re to make real change that sticks. Doing things because you know others think they’re what you should do, or worse, to “show them”, might get a short-term shift out of you, but over the long term isn’t likely to be very satisfying – or self-sustaining. In the end, you can’t make others the gauge by which you measure yourself.

    Personal change is hard, and harder still because there’s so much little stuff going on in our lives that all push and pull us in different directions. Which is precisely why it’s so important to pay attention to the little things, no matter how trivial they might seem – those are the things that throw us for a loop, the things that slip by invisibly until suddenly we find we’re not very happy with our lives. I’ve been at it for months now, and to be honest, the end isn’t in sight ( I am, after all, changing careers as well as trying to patch back together a relationship). But in the end, it’s worth it, because I’ve taken charge of so many parts of my life that I was content, once upon a time, to let slide.

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    Last Updated on January 13, 2020

    The Importance of Reminders (And How to Make a Reminder Work)

    The Importance of Reminders (And How to Make a Reminder Work)

    No matter how well you set up your todo list and calendar, you aren’t going to get things done unless you have a reliable way of reminding yourself to actually do them.

    Anyone who’s spent an hour writing up the perfect grocery list only to realize at the store that they forgot to bring the list understands the importance of reminders.

    Reminders of some sort or another are what turn a collection of paper goods or web services into what David Allen calls a “trusted system.”[1]

    A lot of people resist getting better organized. No matter what kind of chaotic mess, their lives are on a day-to-day basis because they know themselves well enough to know that there’s after all that work they’ll probably forget to take their lists with them when it matters most.

    Fortunately, there are ways to make sure we remember to check our lists — and to remember to do the things we need to do, whether they’re on a list or not.

    In most cases, we need a lot of pushing at first, for example by making a reminder, but eventually we build up enough momentum that doing what needs doing becomes a habit — not an exception.

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    From Creating Reminders to Building Habits

    A habit is any act we engage in automatically without thinking about it.

    For example, when you brush your teeth, you don’t have to think about every single step from start to finish; once you stagger up to the sink, habit takes over (and, really, habit got you to the sink in the first place) and you find yourself putting toothpaste on your toothbrush, putting the toothbrush in your mouth (and never your ear!), spitting, rinsing, and so on without any conscious effort at all.

    This is a good thing because if you’re anything like me, you’re not even capable of conscious thought when you’re brushing your teeth.

    The good news is you already have a whole set of productivity habits you’ve built up over the course of your life. The bad news is, a lot of them aren’t very good habits.

    That quick game Frogger to “loosen you up” before you get working, that always ends up being 6 hours of Frogger –– that’s a habit. And as you know, habits like that can be hard to break — which is one of the reasons why habits are so important in the first place.

    Once you’ve replaced an unproductive habit with a more productive one, the new habit will be just as hard to break as the old one was. Getting there, though, can be a chore!

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    The old saw about anything you do for 21 days becoming a habit has been pretty much discredited, but there is a kernel of truth there — anything you do long enough becomes an ingrained behavior, a habit. Some people pick up habits quickly, others over a longer time span, but eventually, the behaviors become automatic.

    Building productive habits, then, is a matter of repeating a desired behavior over a long enough period of time that you start doing it without thinking.

    But how do you remember to do that? And what about the things that don’t need to be habits — the one-off events, like taking your paycheck stubs to your mortgage banker or making a particular phone call?

    The trick to reminding yourself often enough for something to become a habit, or just that one time that you need to do something, is to interrupt yourself in some way in a way that triggers the desired behavior.

    The Wonderful Thing About Triggers — Reminders

    A trigger is anything that you put “in your way” to remind you to do something. The best triggers are related in some way to the behavior you want to produce.

    For instance, if you want to remember to take something to work that you wouldn’t normally take, you might place it in front of the door so you have to pick it up to get out of your house.

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    But anything that catches your attention and reminds you to do something can be a trigger. An alarm clock or kitchen timer is a perfect example — when the bell rings, you know to wake up or take the quiche out of the oven. (Hopefully you remember which trigger goes with which behavior!)

    If you want to instill a habit, the thing to do is to place a trigger in your path to remind you to do whatever it is you’re trying to make into a habit — and keep it there until you realize that you’ve already done the thing it’s supposed to remind you of.

    For instance, a post-it saying “count your calories” placed on the refrigerator door (or maybe on your favorite sugary snack itself)  can help you remember that you’re supposed to be cutting back — until one day you realize that you don’t need to be reminded anymore.

    These triggers all require a lot of forethought, though — you have to remember that you need to remember something in the first place.

    For a lot of tasks, the best reminder is one that’s completely automated — you set it up and then forget about it, trusting the trigger to pop up when you need it.

    How to Make a Reminder Works for You

    Computers and ubiquity of mobile Internet-connected devices make it possible to set up automatic triggers for just about anything.

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    Desktop software like Outlook will pop up reminders on your desktop screen, and most online services go an extra step and send reminders via email or SMS text message — just the thing to keep you on track. Sandy, for example, just does automatic reminders.

    Automated reminders can help you build habits — but it can also help you remember things that are too important to be trusted even to habit. Diabetics who need to take their insulin, HIV patients whose medication must be taken at an exact time in a precise order, phone calls that have to be made exactly on time, and other crucial events require triggers even when the habit is already in place.

    My advice is to set reminders for just about everything — have them sent to your mobile phone in some way (either through a built-in calendar or an online service that sends updates) so you never have to think about it — and never have to worry about forgetting.

    Your weekly review is a good time to enter new reminders for the coming weeks or months. I simply don’t want to think about what I’m supposed to be doing; I want to be reminded so I can think just about actually doing it.

    I tend to use my calendar for reminders, mostly, though I do like Sandy quite a bit.

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    Featured photo credit: Unsplash via unsplash.com

    Reference

    [1] Getting Things Done: Trusted System

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