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

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?

No resolutions, but I’ve defined goals for 2021

Making New Year’s Resolutions has never been a habit of mine. Nevertheless, I do have goals.

I schedule time to re-visit my values, asking myself whether the actions I’m taking in my life align with what matters to me the most. The most natural time for me to do this is at the beginning of the secular (January) and the Jewish (Nisan) year.

Here’s a redacted version* of some things I will doon purpose, and with intent—in 2021.2021 goals in a table, listing intellectual, financial, physical, relationship, and career objectives

Since I’m not a finance blogger, I’ll keep the details of my personal economic goals to myself redacted with green lines. The pink strikethrough covers a commitment to enhancing a particular relationship.

Really, what I’m trying to share here is an approach that I have found helpful for working toward what some might call my Life Plan. I aim to write down specific, achievable, list-tickable items that I know are within reach, but which will move me, inexorably, toward loftier ambitions.

I consider what I want from my life in a few key areas:

  • intellectual,
  • financial,
  • health,
  • personal relationships,
  • and career/vocation.

The bigger goals might be described as:

  • I will continue to exercise my mind until I’ve lost it.
  • I want financial security for myself and my family.
  • I will nurture my physical body.
  • Human relationships are fundamental to my enjoyment of life.
  • Though I’ve opted to stay at home, raising my children, I still have a role in the wider world which I’m expressing via this blog.

Resources abound with other, far more specific approaches to success. I’ve read books that will tell you how many “core values” you can/should have and how to cultivate them. I’ve seen Warren Buffet’s advice on narrowing your focus to just a couple of aims in an article about being a better leader.

I’m not a guru, and I can’t change your life. Only you can do that! Thanksgiving give thanks - 1

I am, however, a person who finds something to be grateful for every day. I believe that paying attention to what you want—and why—is key to happiness.

I could be happier; I could be more successful. I’m satisfied with who, what, and where I am, though, so I’m sharing my simple process in hopes of spreading some empowerment toward self-acceptance.

happy faceFor me, a short list of targets I know I can meet provides fuel for my willpower engine. If you feel you’ve “failed” at New Year’s Resolutions in the past, consider trying this method for yourself. Little victories may also prove to be your catalyst for bigger wins.

The head of the Jewish year also happens to align with the start of the academic calendar and all of its associated beginnings. As an inveterate nerd, I doubt that even the graduation of my children from school will break me of the habit of seeing autumn as the time to begin new projects.

* …just in case anyone is wondering just how much detail I, in particular, choose to include in this kind of longish term thinking. Because, sometimes, it is easier to try something new with a blueprint from a person who went there before you did.

DuoLingo rank in top 3% explains how I passed pandemic time

Perhaps because the pandemic gave me fewer distractions, I stuck with DuoLingo for most of 2020, primarily studying German and Spanish this time. I practiced there more than ever before, and I earned my longest continuing streaks.

I believe I created my DuoLingo account sometime during DS1‘s first year of home schooling, which would put that half a dozen years ago or so. My history with the platform is therefore fairly long, but my use has been sporadic. I come and go with all of my language studies, often in preparation for a trip, but I also use Pimsleur tapes and other resources, and I jump around between languages including those I started in school (Spanish, German, Japanese) but also occasionally French, Russian, or any other language I’ll be encountering in my travels.

Books foreign language learningI’ve tended to view DuoLingo as a game, a dabble, or a linguistic lark. I’m already on record on this point: I am a dilettante.

According to the 2020 Year in Review report Duo sent me this December, I ended up in this year’s top 3% of users. Who would’ve thought it? Yay, me!

DuoLingo 2020 Year in Review analysis

Whether these reports are a new feature, or if I’ve simply been “inactive” by winter in the past, this is the first time I remember receiving such a summary.

2597 minutes of language learning only averages out to about 7 minutes per day, roughly 50 minutes per week, so my minor obsession with the platform over the summer wasn’t too pathological. Nor is such a commitment sufficient, really, for anything except a nifty end-of-year ranking worthy of a self-congratulatory blog post.

Am I great at German now? Na ja, I’m afraid I still require subtitles to watch Nailed It! Germany or Dark on Netflix. Fluent, I ain’t!

Then again, the power of spaced repetition for retaining knowledge is undeniable. I’m hardly fluent in any language but my first, yet I have certainly cemented additional vocabulary in German and Spanish in 2020.

DuoLingo’s tag line is something like: “Learn a language in just 15 minutes per day.”

Analog wall clock showing 12:06The reality is that few will actually commit to the process, and almost no one can achieve fluency using any single tool. Even if you do commit 15 minutes per day to DuoLingo, you’ll be unlikely to be ready to address the United Nations without a whole lot of “something else” under your belt.

Also, the CEO is the person who invented CAPTCHAs, so there’s that working against DuoLingo’s place in my heart, too. I despise those stupid things.

Screen grab from DuoLingo showing 129-day streak achievementMany of us are susceptible to game-ification, however, so I encourage langauge learners to give DuoLingo a try. Extrinsic motivation isn’t such a bad thing for a necessary—yet repetitive—task like vocabulary study. I jealously guard my months’ long streak of continuous* days’ use of the platform. No stack of flash cards has ever kept me on track so continuously; not even the fear of low grades in college courses was as compelling as hoarding an imaginary currency called Lingots.

I’m 21 topics away from completing Level One of every available topic in German, the language I study most often on the platform. I’ll earn a completely meaningless Achievement dubbed “Conqueror” when I make it to that lofty(?) goal.

I’ve only topped out at Level Five on a single topic, Basics1 before the castle icon indicating Checkpoint One. It’s interesting, actually, recognizing from perusing the DuoLingo chat boards how some of us approach a language breadth-first, whilst others prefer a deeper dive, completing each topic up to its max in turn before moving on to the next.

I suppose the choice to do otherwise feels as obvious to other learners as mine does to me!

German has five Checkpoints or collections of topics, whereas Spanish has seven. Some languages are more popular than others, and the platform seems to offer more content for the languages users demand. Rational of them, I suppose.DuoLingo screen shot showing one more Topic to complete before Checkpoint 3 Castle is reached

I’m just shy of Checkpoint Three en español.

DuoLingo is free, so it is well worth its price. Ads are a significant annoyance when using the iOS app, but I don’t see any in the web version running on my desktop though I do employ multiple ad blockers.

The number of ads shown seemed to increase with total usage on the iOS app; I might not have kept up with it if I’d seen ads after every lesson from the beginning like I do now.

It’s worth noting that the ads in the app occur only at the end of each topic lesson, so I can and do cover my screen with my hand until the close button becomes available, and unwanted screeching video noise pollution can be silenced when it does occur. Moderately annoying still ads outnumber intensely annoying video ads on DuoLingo in my experience, but the ads to which you will be subjected are no doubt dictated by some algorithm outside my ability to predict on your behalf.Calculation of 41 weeks + 3 days times minutes per day = 417,600 minutes

I appreciate DuoLingo’s year end report for an accounting of how I spent 2597 minutes of pandemic isolation. Now if only I had such complete records for the other 415,003 minutes of it. I have some doubt that the balance was spent in so edifying a manner!

* Full disclosure: I have used a “Streak Freeze” save at least twice, so my current 129 day streak is somewhat less impressive than it looks.

FYI French has nine, Russian has five, and Hebrew has seven. You’ll have to do the resources yourself for any of the other 32 languages available to English speakers that are not in my DuoLingo queue.