Good habits work where will power fails: “novel” evidence

Working on this site has been a hobby of mine since 2017. I’ve achieved goals I set for working on it regularly for two long stretches, but I also gave myself permission to scale back the effort during one particularly stressful period.

Two years ago this month, my mother died. I’m no easy creature to silence, yet grief holds the power to still my usual ruckus.Torn black felt heart pinned to garment to signify grief and k'riah

Mom thought very highly of my writing. She was an extraordinarily competent individual herself, but in arenas such as powering through concrete tasks and meticulous calculation. Mom never pushed me to study “X” or pursue a career as “Y,” instead trusting my ability to forge my own path.

I recall a few instances, however, when Mom spoke of my creative skills with a tone of particular respect—once, almost in awe. Those moments stay with you.

During the most isolating months of the pandemic, one of my exercises in self-soothing was to imagine ways in which the world could be designed to make people safer from future outbreaks of airborne disease. I bored my family by going on about these thoughts, sketching out alternate forms of housing and transportation. If implemented, I envisioned sparing at least some of the population from the prolonged agony of isolation or the need to trade free movement for good health.

Toward the end of last month, I started incorporating* these notions into a novel.

I’ve started many novels before, and I even approached the roughly 2/3 completed mark with one in the early aughts. That was after I left my professional career in technology but before I dedicated myself to the home education of one of my children. Historically, though, writing fiction was my hobby, and I tended to pursue the work when I “felt like it.”

I would get as far as the first burst of enthusiasm took me, but rarely pick up again after leaving off to work, sleep, or tend to the kids.Hand written and self-bound documents

Intriguingly, this time is very, very different. I have to credit the habit of consistent effort cultivated through work on Really Wonderful Things. Twenty days have passed, and I’ve met or exceeded my writing targets for this novel on all but two.

Authoring a novel is one of my oldest, longest-term goals. I never doubted I would get around to it, but it always lived in “future willo’s” inbox. This summer, it has advanced to the top of my priorities assuming the health and safety of my family don’t require sudden, absolute attention.

Blogging has markedly improved my self-discipline as a writer. That’s not why I started the site, but I’m delighted by the development.

“Will power” as a concept for self-improvement fails us, especially in the short-term. Popular understanding of how it works is often wrong. We blame ourselves for problems largely beyond our control while failing to make the sorts of small adjustments that can help us, offering long-term success at living the lives we want.

Will power may desert us when we need it most, but gradual, incremental change geared toward improving the situation of one’s future self is possible for most. Crafting a life which intentionally reinforces positive habits can, over time, improve one’s ability to approach difficult yet meaningful tasks, or, conversely, to coax one away from harmful behaviors.

My novel isn’t done yet, so take my experience with whatever size grain of salt you believe it deserves. I do have over 24,000 words down on 108 pages, though, and every expectation that this time, I’m going to finish this particular book.

I’m still in love with my concept, and, most evenings, I find myself shooing away my family—whom I generally enjoy!—because I’m itching to get back to work.

If I were to write a dedication for this novel right now, it might be to “past willo” for putting in the time working on Really Wonderful Things. “Current willo” has a lot to thank her for.

* Careful readers may have noted these additions to my mid-year update to my personal goals:

  • Write 3 pages per day of novel, —and—
  • Complete first draft of same.

Ironically, though my novel occurs in a world where pandemic illness never recedes, I still view the project as utopian rather than dystopian, and I find the work to be a projection of my fundamental optimism about human nature in spite of our ubiquitous foibles.

Once, I had a headache which precluded interaction with a screen, and the other—weekend—night, I opted to watch a movie with my family because they are important to me, too. It turns out that I struggle mightily to produce creative work before late afternoon, though I’m better at most analytical tasks earlier in the day. Who knew?

Then again, taking one day per week off from an otherwise daily goal could be a reasonable, even helpful adjustment to a work schedule. God herself commanded a routine sabbath rest!

Novels tend to be works of fiction longer than 50,000 words

Remote school works best for YOUR child? You have the RIGHT to continue!

Late spring polls—and the blessed waning of the COVID-19 pandemic, in the USA, at leasthave prompted headlines like this one from the Boston Globe:

“After a difficult academic year, the majority of Mass. parents want in-person school this fall

Boston Globe article headline with "the majority" highlighted by this bloggerThat unambiguous headline hides the whopping 31% of parents who disagreed with the sentiment. Almost a third of the 1,619 parents polled by MassINC Polling Group are NOT eager for mandatory, full-time, in person education just a few short months from now.

That’s more than three out of every ten people. In my childhood classrooms that averaged around 30 kids, that would have meant nine or 10 were attending against their families’ best instincts. I don’t think numbers this significant can be dismissed as a “trivial” minority over whose preferences the majority can ride roughshod with impunity.

An earlier Gallup poll restricted to 14 to 18 year old high school students in the same state of Massachusetts showed similar dissonance with an equally head-scratching headline:

Few Massachusetts Students Prefer Remote Learning

The data in that case also shows that most people, shown a few narrow options, prefer to travel the path of least resistance and do what they’ve always done. Half (50%) of the kids polled, if given these three choices, would attend “in person full-time.” Only 16% would choose “remote school full-time.”

Then again, 34% in the Gallup poll selected the third option: a hybrid “in person/remote” approach. That third of the student body can’t necessarily be described as “preferring” in person education. A more accurate headline would have been: Half of Massachusetts Students Prefer Full-Time, In Person Learning.Backpack with textbooks and school supplies spilling out

Half of Massachusetts Students Prefer Full-Time, In Person Learning

Some of these students might’ve been reacting more to a lousy remote education experience—one they got stuck with during a worldwide crisis—rather than alternative learning in general. Even with widespread reports of low quality remote instruction in 2020, from this data, I see that half of the polled teens expressed an interest in at least some education outside of the traditional brick school building.

From yet another source, I offer a press release from National Parents Union including a third poll (poll data here) producing similar statistics. The NPU poll shows 56% of surveyed parents “value having a choice between in-person and remote” learning. Roughly half prefer in person classrooms, but 17-25% of parents depending upon geographic region would prefer a hybrid model.

As with the other polls, 20% of these respondents would prefer full-time remote learning in 2021-22.

The right to an education

Before I say anything more, let me be clear: I do believe that opening schools this fall looks likely to be safe enough for most. The decision to do so appears to be based upon a sound assessment of current conditions in the USA.

Families who want to send their children back to schools in person should absolutely have that option based upon currently available data.

American children have a right to an education. Maybe even a constitutional right to at least basic literacy. In no way am I looking to dictate the best way for other people’s children to learn.USA flag - 1

I grow frustrated by the outright dismissal of the reasonable preferences of a sizeable minority of parents and children who want continued access to remote learning options for those who prefer them.

If even “just” 16-20% of students would choose remote learning, that’s 4.8 to six students in my hypothetical classroom of 30. I find it interesting that 20% of respondents in the NPU poll (see question 14) also reported their pupils “learning more than they normally would” during remote classes than they felt they had attending school in person.

These are real outcomes from American students for whom remote education works well.

The 31% from the first poll of families who don’t want to send their kids back to traditional school buildings—for now, or perhaps forever—deserve to be heard and accommodated by the public system. They may not be the majority, but the group is large enough, and the stakes are high enough, that ignoring the needs of these families is a dereliction of a very reasonable duty of care.

Let’s face reality: it’s not as though our system has been offering an excellent education to every child who wants one up to this point. (An example: the fierce fighting over scarce seats at Boston’s best public schools.) We have a lot of room for innovation and improvement. The point at which 16-31% of participants in the system ask for an alternative seems like an ideal time to start.

Parents usually judge best what works for their own kids

Barring extreme dysfunction, parents know their own children best. While most moms and dads aren’t professional educators, they are experts on the subject of their offspring.

I have two kids, and only one of them was educated at home before the pandemic. 2020-21 was as much of a wild academic ride for us as it was for students everywhere!

I posted about my family’s educational choices here—Home education as a radical act—back in 2017. I was also grateful to take advantage of my son’s school’s outdoor classes during the pandemic.

I mention the different choices made on behalf of my two children because I’m not a rabid proponent of homeschooling at all costs. My sociable younger son is enrolled in school because he prefers learning in a group, and evidence suggests the system works… for him.

My other kid has definitely found his groove, but even my homeschooler didn’t love the shape of every part of learning through a pandemic. That child, too, is eager to return to some classrooms for some subjects; my kid can’t wait to have choices again.

Home education allows for remote learning

This rambling? preamble has served to get me to the following point:

Families who aren’t well-served by the public system are entitled to remove their kids from it. Aside from expensive private institutions, home education is a legal right in all 50 states. Remote classes—many taught by trained professional educators—can be a part of homeschooling.

The internet began offering amazing online opportunities to homeschooling families many years ago, and the pandemic actually increased and enhanced the quality of the choices found thereon.

  • You don’t have to be a trained teacher to do a fine job teaching your own child.
  • You can purchase ready-made curricula for a term or a year, by grade level, or for individual subjects.
  • If your kid excels in one area while struggling with another, you can tailor everything to his or her needs on your own, or with targeted help by hiring tutors or joining group classes.

Here’s a post about a particular online foreign language program that worked out well for my kids: YES! CLV’s Virtual Village is great remote language learning for kids. I’m also a fan of the affordable online courses offered by Royal Fireworks Press.

Roughly 2.5 million American students were learning from home before the pandemic; by March of 2021, that number doubled to 4.5 – 5 million. (Homeschool statistics from NHERI) Plenty of families rejected their schools’ responses to COVID-19 and took the plunge at the time; all of us can make that choice today based on what we’ve learned over the past year and a half of disruption.

If you know that returning full time to a classroom isn’t the best decision for your child, I encourage you to try home education… if you believe it might be a good fit. Making this choice now doesn’t commit you or your child to this course forever; many kids transition in and out of homeschooling every year.

The NHERI link I gave above offers more detail on the subject of the success of home educated students, but the short version I believe everyone deserves to know can be summarized thusly:

  • Homeschoolers as a group perform better on standardized tests than those educated in public schools— 65-80th percentile for the home educated vs. 50th percentile for public institutions (Ray, 2015)
  • Homeschoolers as a group “succeed and perform statistically significantly better than those who attended institutional schools (Ray, 2017)” as functioning adults
  • “87% of peer-reviewed studies on social, emotional, and psychological development show homeschool students perform statistically significantly better than those in conventional schools (Ray, 2017)”

Oh yes, and, add to those points: selective colleges are generally very accepting of well-prepared home educated applicants because they also tend to perform as well as institutionally-educated enrollees at the university level.

Beyond these general facts gathered prior to the ravages of the coronavirus over the 2020-21 school year, it is worth acknowledging that a child who doesn’t feel safe at school is less likely to learn well. A parent who fears for her offspring’s health and safety is likely to perform less well in her own work. These are not insignificant issues; these feelings deserve to be dealt with in a constructive way.

Where state governments or boards of education dismiss out of hand the wishes of 20-30% of their enrolled families, I offer the option of parent-led home education, not as a prescription, but as a valid choice available for those who want it.

Though I’m not a home education focused blogger, per se, I’m happy to answer any specific questions that I can, or to provide links to specific types of resources that have worked for my family, if asked. Ask away in the comments!

If one fifth of students learned more during the pandemic, it seems obvious to me that public schools have an obligation to understand why that happened, retain that advantage going forward, and incorporate remote options for that sizeable chunk of their constituents.

Goal check: Now’s the time to reflect on New Year’s resolutions

I wrote in January about one process I use to setand follow through withpersonal goals. I didn’t call them New Year’s Resolutions, so perhaps that’s why I haven’t given them up yet.

The internet says 80% of people drop New Year’s resolutions by February, and a 1988 article in the Journal of Substance Abuse showed 77% of resolution makers stuck it out for all of one full week while only 19% remained committed to their goals two years later.

2021 is approaching its halfway point as I write this. My not-too-ambitious printed list of goals for the year still hangs behind my computer screen. It’s been lightly annotated as I’ve gone along. I look at it—reminded of what I promised myself and why—every day.

So here’s an update on how well I’ve done at putting my energy into actions that affirm my values. I’ve printed out a clean new copy to hang for the second half of the year.2021 goals in a table, listing intellectual, financial, physical, relationship, and career objectives

Green lines blur personal financial goals; the pink line relates to a personal relationship goal.

Here’s a refresher of the New Year’s list for those who didn’t read the first post:

2021 goals in a table, listing intellectual, financial, physical, relationship, and career objectivesYou’ll notice that my list has grown since I penned it in January. This is intentional. I take care to craft a set of goals that serve my long-term interests without undermining my short-term sense of accomplishment.

I know myself! I can be overwhelmed by a large task that presents as monolithic.

On the other hand, almost every job can be dismantled into manageable component parts. I’m pretty good at methodically working my way through a list of concrete action items.

Can I regain all the strength I enjoyed due to regular vigorous exercise before I developed an autoimmune condition? The idea of trying makes me want to crawl back into bed. Maybe forever!

Moving every day in an intentional way, however? For just a few minutes? Yes, I can definitely do that. And, usually, I do, because the gentle suggestion on my list doesn’t feel like something that will decimate my limited stores of energy.

I’m sure I’m not the first person to emphasize that it isn’t so much the details of your personal goals that matter, but the fact that you assess them—then actively work toward what you want—that produces the efficacy of this technique.

My humble ambitions might easily be mocked by a high powered striver. That’s okay. I live comfortably with my choices because they are based upon my core values. The list I’ve shared helps me to recognize my own accomplishments for precisely that reason.

There aren’t many awards ceremonies—or any merit-based pay raises—for stay-at-home parents. One hears more often about Mommy Wars than Mommy Awards. But just because a parent opts to take on child-rearing as a full time role doesn’t mean personal growth and self-validation should be abandoned.

Self-improvement and self-care aren’t mutually exclusive. I see investing in myself, if only with time set aside for making and keeping short- to long-term goals—including those unrelated to my offspring!—as a vital part of staying sane and being prepared for the day when the last fledgling leaves the nest.

If you didn’t make New Year’s Resolutions, perhaps Mid-Year Resolutions will suit you better? There’s no better time to commit yourself to goals you care about than right now.

Why, yes, I did work in Quality Assurance. How did you guess?

Please donate blood soon if you’re able

The American Red Cross has issued an urgent plea: our hospitals are facing a severe blood shortage. Blood donors are desperately needed, not just today, but on an ongoing basis over the coming weeks.

“Right now, the supply of the sorely needed type O blood would last only a half-day.”

It takes time to process donated blood, the result is perishable, and the need never subsides. We have no artificial substitute for life-saving donated blood.

Per the Red Cross website, you can donate blood as often as every 56 days if you meet these criteria:

  • You must be in good health and feeling well
  • You must be at least 16 years old in most states
  • You must weigh at least 110 lbs

You can donate blood after any of the COVID-19 vaccinations currently approved in the United States, usually without delay. Expect to report exactly which vaccine you were given—Moderna, Pfizer, or Johnson & Johnson—and the date of your shot.

According to the Boston Globe:

“…[N]ormally the Red Cross nationwide has a five-day supply of all types of blood — meaning that if blood collections suddenly stopped altogether, there would be enough to last five days.

Right now, the supply of the sorely needed type O blood would last only a half-day.”American Red Cross logo

If you are healthy and able, please consider donating blood in the near future. Less than 38% of Americans are eligible to donate, and only about 3% of that group does so.

A single blood donation can save as many as three lives. It’s hard to imagine a more valuable use of one hour of one’s time.

Homebound senior wants COVID vaccine yet can’t get shot doctor prescribed

Here’s the story of one elderly American citizen who agreed to be vaccinated against COVID-19, yet hasn’t been able to receive a shot as of mid-June, 2021.

Someone I care about has a very complex medical situation. Her health is fragile, and her immune system is compromised.

My loved one is frail and almost completely housebound; it is a struggle even to get her to scheduled doctors’ appointments with ample notice. Sometimes, her body simply won’t conform to the constraints of sitting in a passenger vehicle. Hospital bed in dining room

She certainly would not be able to wait 30 minutes on a hard chair in a physician’s practice—let alone standing in an aisle at a local pharmacy—the way my kids and I did after our jabs. At the same time, due to a history of severe allergic reactions to drugs and vaccine components, the risk of an adverse reaction is higher than average for this patient.

Consultations with her various specialists resulted in a consensus that the Pfizer product is the only recommended COVID-19 vaccine for her.

Thus far, none of her providers has been able to offer access to a prescribed dose of COVID-19 vaccine during a routine visit. Internet-savvy family members continue searching for a solution that will accommodate her specific needs with no luck to date.

The patient’s state of residence now offers at-home vaccinations for those who are homebound. Unfortunately, the program sends its providers out with the Johnson & Johnson single dose vaccine only. According to the toll-free hotline, there are no exceptions unless the patient is under 17 years old.

This patient, though unable leave home for a shot, cannot take advantage of her state’s offering for housebound residents. According to the Journal of the American Medical Association, approximately 6% of U.S. seniors were completely or mostly homebound as of 2015.

Without a doubt, American wealth and power has provided a tremendous benefit to average citizens who’ve been amongst the earliest to access life-saving vaccines against the novel coronavirus. Public health, however, relies upon the breadth of its network to protect every resident. Many of our most vulnerable are still waiting as vaccines near expiration dates in medical center freezers.

Evidence of widespread vaccine hesitancy proves we must keep working to remove barriers to access for those willing, yet unable, to be vaccinated in currently available settings. Lives—and our loved ones—depend upon it.