Recently, I wrote abouthow I form my habits. In light of that post, I thought I’d write about my evening routine since it helps to reinforce the habits that I have been working to form. I wrote about my morning routine in an earlier post. That routine covers the first two and a half hours of my day.
From start to finish, my evening routine covers the last two and half hours of my day. Bold items are ones that I try to do every day regardless of circumstance.
Blog edits (30 min)
Mind dump (10 min)
Prepare tomorrow’s to-do list (10 min)
Journal (10 min)
Workout (50 min)
Update habit journal (10 min)
Shower (10 min)
Meditate, unguided (10 min)
Like my morning routine, my evening playbook doesn’t have fixed clock times associated with it. I usually try to get started by around 7:30 or 8:00p, but that can vary. I’m more focused on how long it takes to do the things, than when I actually do them.
Blog edits allow me to re-read the posts that I have coming out the following day, make tweaks, add finishing touches, and try to catch typos that I am famous for making. This is relatively new. In the past, I was willing to trade accuracy for speed in my posts, typing fast, but occasionally making mistakes that I didn’t worry too much about. But I’m trying to do better here, and so this gives me the time to review. I’m usually two or three days ahead in what I’ve written so I focus on the post coming out the following day. If I have time after that, I will review other posts, or continue to write ones that I started in my morning writing session.
In looking for ways to improve my sleep, one of the things that I’ve been doing is attempting to clear my head of anything that will keep me awake. The mind dump, journaling, and meditation all work toward this end. The mind dump is a very GTD-esque task. I take a sheet of paper and jot down everything that I’ve got on my mind. At first, I left work-related tasks out of this, but I found that I think about work when falling asleep so I’ve started to really try to dump everything I can. This gets it out of my head and onto paper, my simple manifestation of David Allen’s inbox. I don’t spent more than 10 minutes on this. I avoid looking at my to-do list or email or other things when doing this because if something isn’t on my mind, I don’t want to put it there by mistake.
I use that list to put together my to-do list for the following day. I pick the three things I want to get done at home, and the three things I want to get done at work and write them on an index card, which I keep in the back of my current Field Notes notebook. This sets up the next day for me and I don’t need to fall asleep wondering what I need to do.
Journaling at the end of the day allows me to get other thoughts out and provides a context for my overall day. The last thing I do is 10 minutes of unguided meditation as a final way of clearing my head, or being okay with whatever I can’t clear. I started with 20 minutes of unguided meditation, but that was too long for me so I scaled back.
I give myself 50 minutes for a workout to allow for stretching before and after. As I write this, I am focused only on stretching so that as I work my way toward cardio and light strength training, I don’t end up hurting myself. I alternate between a 30 minute stretch session one evening and a 15 minute the next.
In my post on how I form my habits, I mentioned my habit journal. I try to keep this updated throughout the day, noting when I wake up, what I eat, mistakes I made along the way, my exercise. I go to bed making sure it is up-to-date.
These playbooks are designed to be living documents. I tweak them as I make adjustments, figuring out what works and what doesn’t. So far, the playbook for my evening routine is working out pretty well.
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I am in the middle of a fairly significant lifestyle change. As part of my plan to retire in ten years, one of the things I wanted to do was get myself back into shape. When I retire, I want to be healthy and active. Being in good mental and physical shape are big part of this. It means changing habits that I’ve had for many years, and in some cases, for decades and changing habits, for me at least, is always difficult. There are two aspects to this. A new habit can be doing something new. It can also be to stop doing something that I had been doing. So I thought it might be useful to talk about how I form new habits.
Writing about habits abstractly is never helpful to me, so I want to start with specifics. What habits was I looking to form? Brace yourself. The list is a bit daunting, at least to me.
Give up sugared soft drinks
Give up caffeine
Start a daily meditation practice
Start a healthy diet that will help me stay lean and full of energy
Start exercising daily
Write every day
Mapping habits to goals
I usually begin with goals. Before I am ready to begin forming new habits, I need a reason to change. What are those reasons? In my case, my mission statement was along the lines of “Retire in ten years and be able to write full time.” That’s what I began with. From there I asked myself a lot of questions about what it meant to retire, to write full time. For me, writing requires stamina. It is not like my day job where I stop thinking about it (usually) at the end of the day. I am constantly writing in my head, constantly wondering about things, and constantly reading to pique my interest in things that I want to write about. All that work can be exhausting. Then, too, I didn’t want to be someone who retired and settled into a sedentary routine. My routine is more sedentary today than I am comfortable with. So I took that mission statement and came up with some fairly abstract goals:
Be in the best physical shape that I can manage so that I have the energy to do what I want to do.
Find a good mental balance: especially, reducing my anxiety, being more empathetic, and open to new ideas.
Be the best writer I can possibly be.
Now, these aren’t necessarily SMART goals, but they are good enough for my purposes for getting started. The next thing to do was figure out what I needed to do (or stop doing) to start down a road toward these goals. This is where the habits come in. Mapping them to the goals would look something like this:
Be in the best physical shape I can manage
Give up sugared soft drinks Give up caffeine Start a healthy diet Exercise daily
Find a good mental balance
Start a daily meditation practice
Be the best writer I can be
Write every day
Where to start: order of operations
I know from past experience that no matter how much I want to jump in and change everything at once, that is a recipe for failure. So I needed to pick a place to start. Having a long lead time helped me in this regard. After all, I’ve got ten years to retirement (3,755 days, if anyone besides me is counting). There is no need to rush things. Rather, I’d prefer to get this right and allow time for the inevitable adjustments. I ranked the habits I wanted to change from what I considered to be hardest to easiest. Here is the order I came up with:
Giving up sugared soft drinks.
Giving up caffeine.
Starting a daily meditation practice
Starting a healthy diet
Writing every day
Let me talk about my rationale for this order. I’ve given up caffeine before. At one point, between 2003 and 2010 or so, I’d given up caffeine for 7 years. It was only when we had kids that I began using it again to give me that boost I needed after some sleepless nights with the babies. So I knew I could do it. Knowing that is half the battle, so I didn’t think it would be the most difficult change.
On the other hand, I’d been drinking Coca Cola all my life. I loved it, and still do. I’d hated the diet versions of soft drinks, and wondered why anyone drank them if they tasted so badly. Even when I gave up caffeine, I still drank Caffeine-Free Coke, or Sprite, or other non-diet soft drinks. I figured giving up the sugared soft drinks would be the most difficult for me.
Meditation was another tough sell for me. I couldn’t imagine taking time out of my day, every day, to sit and do nothing. Where was the value in that? I figured getting into that habit would be difficult.
The next step was to pick a habit and get started. But my mind doesn’t quite work like that.
Warming up to a habit
Whenever I am thinking about starting a new habit, I never just start it cold. It takes warming up. It is often this way for a story, too. I’ll think about it and think about it, but not feel ready. With writing stories, the key I’ve learned over the years is not to get started until I feel ready, until there is a click in my head that says, yeah, now it’s time. The same it true with starting a habit. I could go months thinking about the change I want to make (and often feeling guilty about not making it) but if I start and I haven’t warmed up to it, then I know it won’t last. I have dozens of examples of this in my own experience.
One day last spring, however, at the outside of the Pandemic, when things were looking particularly bleak, something in my head clicked and I was ready to start a daily meditation practice.
A few months later, feeling desperate to lose some weight, I finally felt ready to give up diet soft drinks. These are actually two useful examples because they illustrate the paths that different habits can take. After some experimentation, for instance, I found that I could tolerate Cherry Coke Zero, and once I realized I could do that, I simply gave up sugared soft drinks and started drinking Cherry Coke Zero instead. Within two months I lost something like 18 pounds without changing anything else. It was eye-opening.
It wasn’t quite as dramatic with the meditation, however. I managed to build a daily practice, but after a few months, I felt like I wasn’t seeing any real progress on my part, and I gave it up for a time. Eventually, I came back to it, and it was then that I began to notice some of the changes it brought about in me. I was calmer during the day, less anxious, more open. It was slow and subtle, but I could feel the changes. Feedback like losing weight or feeling the anxiety start to slip away after meditating is self-reinforcing. What I to learn was that not every habit works at the same speed. Sometimes I really have to keep at it before you start to notice a change, and during that time, I just have to believe that it is going to help, even if I don’t see changes right away.
By mid spring of this year I’d been off sugared sodas for half a year, and I had a regular meditation practice. The next thing I began to think about was giving up caffeine.I knew this would be tough but I also knew I could do it. I just needed to warm up to it. And so over a period of weeks, I did that, telling myself it was time, but also telling myself that “this was my last caffeinated drink” quite a few times. (Looking back I see several journal entries from the day following such proclamations with things like, “Well, that didn’t work out too well.”) Finally, on April 16, I began to feel ready. I wrote this in my journal for that day:
On my walk today I began thinking that maybe I needed to give up caffeine again. I don’t know why I feel the need to give something up. Today I was thinking about it in terms of sleeping better. Maybe I’d sleep much better without the caffeine… if I do give it up it will have to be on Sunday because I feel like I am going to need caffeine to get through tomorrow.
This is typical for me in two ways. First, I’m usually ready when I write it down and give myself a deadline. I’d been thinking about giving up caffeine for some time, but it wasn’t until I wrote it down that I knew I was ready. Second, I always give myself a last hurrah, often hidden as an excuse to start the new habit at the beginning of the week. But on that Sunday, April 18, I started the day with orange juice instead of a caffeinated drink, and I haven’t had caffeine since.
So I’d tackled meditation, sugared soft drinks, and caffeine. I let those settle in for a while before I decided to tackle the next two items: a healthy diet and daily exercise. Typically, I need to make sure that a habit is set before moving onto the next. And I avoid trying to being more than one new habit at a time, but in this case, diet and exercise go hand in hand. I’d been warming up to both for some time and around the time I was writing my post on Project Sunrise, I knew I was ready. I’d done a bunch of research and decided to tackle the slow-carb diet. I started this a week ahead of exercise just to avoid too much at once.
There are two things I like about the slow-carb diet: first, I can be a few meals that I eat regularly and so in addition to losing weight and fat, and slimming down, I also have less decision fatigue. Second, cheat day! The first week went well, so on this past Sunday, I began to develop my exercise habit.
Habits themselves can be incremental. When I last worked out regularly, with a trainer, I was 15 years younger than I am today. What I did not want to do was injure myself at the outset. So I decided to be incremental about exercise. I would exercise 6 days a week (my cheat day would also be my day off). Rather than start with a mix of cardio and weights, I decided to begin exclusively with stretching. I researched videos I could watch and then on Sunday, I did my first 30 minute stretching workout. And wow, I felt as flexible as a steel bar when compared to the person leading the workout. But I kept reminding myself that it takes time, and for some habits, more time than others to see results. Every day makes a difference. And so I repeated my stretching exercise last night, and will do it again tonight.
My plan going forward is to continue the stretching routine 6 days away for the next two to three weeks. After that, I’ll layer in cardio 3 days a week, and after a few weeks of that, I’ll add in light strength training on the 3 days I’m not doing cardio.
What about writing? That’s a tricky one because it is so difficult to judge if I am improving. There are two things that I can do and that I have been doing pretty well at so far this year. First, I can write every day. I am writing this post on the 194th consecutive day that I have written this year, for instance. The second things I can do is get my writing in front of an audience and take what feedback I can manage to find. So far, in the first 194 days of 2021, I’ve published 213 posts totaling 128,000 words. I’d say that’s pretty good practice on both counts. I’m not sure there is more that I could do, except to keep it up.
One thing that helps me maintain my habits is tracking them. There is a benefit to this, as well as a cost for me. The benefit is in seeing the day-to-day progress, and patting myself on the back for a particular streak. An added benefit is looking closely at the data to see if there are things I can do to improve.
These days, I have a notebook that I use to log all of this. A typical page looks like this:
Along the way, I’ve been making little notes to myself about what works and what doesn’t. I’ve noted when I felt hungry or a craving, which workouts were tough and which too easy. I’m hoping that these notes will help me make informed adjustments along the way.
I used to track habits like this in a spreadsheet, so that I could see the unbroken streak (the Seinfeld method). But one thing I learned from my 825-day writing streak is that the streak itself becomes an end, and it weighs upon me. I’d rather focus on getting things right each day, and not worry so much about the streak or consecutive days. If I miss a day, it is a lot easier for me to recover when the streak doesn’t mean much, but the habit does.
Planning for the unexpected
I’ve found that habits work really well in regular, repeatable environments, but things can go sideways if something changes. What if I am traveling? What if we have plans one evening when I am supposed to do my workout? What if we go to a restaurant during the week? Or what if we go to a friend’s house for dinner and it isn’t my cheat day? In addition to settling into these new habits incrementally, I’ve also tried to think about these alternatives so that I don’t go into these situations cold. I have a plan, simple as it may be. One example of this is illustrated on my morning routine.
Then, too, as new situations arise, I made adjustments, note what works and what doesn’t and revise these plans. Just knowing that I have some idea of what to do in these common edge cases helps to take the edge off of them.
It has taken me nearly fifty years to get to the point where I understand how habits work for me. Maybe I am slow learner in this regard, and I certainly haven’t perfected this particular adventure. But I am trying to be honest about it this time. In my notebook I note my successes, but I also highlight my failures. For the latter, I try to learn from them and adjust.
The other thing I am constantly trying to keep in mind is that these habits build slowly. Some are faster than others (it took me about three weeks before I felt I no longer craved caffeine), but generally, the end goal comes slowly. Fortunately I’ve got time to improve and I’m hoping to use that time as best as I can.
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Being a creature of habit in these times has its advantages. Daily routines, regardless of how tedious they are, provide a measure of comfort amidst all of the uncertainty. Take lunch, for instance. One of my all-time favorite lunches is peanut butter and jelly. But after a few weeks of that for lunch, I needed a change. Kelly was making a run to the store so I asked her to pick up some turkey, cheese, and bologna. She raised an eyebrow at the latter, but she brought it home. And for the last several weeks, I have been enjoying a turkey, bologna and cheese sandwich for lunch everyday.
I have the construction procedure down a few simple steps. While making the sandwiches (I often have two), I found myself singing the Oscar Mayer song that I remember from when I was a little kid. I remember the song perfectly, although I forgot what the commercial was like–with the little kid singing as he fishes and eats his lunch.
My kids found it amusing that I’d sing this strange song while making my lunch. The girls, in particular, were intrigued by the song, and each time I set about making my sandwich, they’d ask me to sing the bologna song. They would then try to reproduce it, with mixed results. Over the weekend, however, I had apparently passed some threshold, having made something on the order of 50 of these sandwiches over the last 3 weeks or so. (I will admit to occasionally crawling out of bed in the middle of the night, feeling hungry, and unable to resist making a sandwich.) I started to sing, “My bologna has a first name…” at which point the girls took over the singing, and completed the entire tune perfectly, including the spelling of b-o-l-o-g-n-a at the end.
This impressed me, but something else occurred to me that impressed me even more. The commercial with “The Bologna Song” first appeared in the 1970s. The song was created by Jerry Ringlien, who died in 2007. It seemed remarkable to me that my kids would be singing a song from a commercial that aired more than 40 years ago. I wonder what Jerry Ringlien would think of that?
During an extended family video chat over the weekend, I mentioned by turkey and bologna sandwiches and was bologna-shamed. Apparently, bologna isn’t particularly good for you. It tastes like a hot dog to me. I imagine it is not the healthiest meat out there, but I also know that I’ll grow tired of it soon enough and switch back to peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for lunch. For now, at time when the world is under quarantine, and we can’t visit family and friends in person, the smallest pleasures help to boost morale. And that small pleasure for me? It has a first name, and it’s O-S-C-A-R…
I’m ready to start writing again. I’m bogged down in The Count of Monte Cristo but haven’t quite given up yet. I am not yet back at the gym regularly. My once good eating habits have mostly dwindled away. I haven’t ridden my bike into work yet.
I could say that I have an excuse for all of these things, but that’s just rationalization and laziness. What I need is to bring order back to some of the chaos. I’m not quite sure how to go about that, but the first step has to be to stop talking about it and start doing it. The writer’s workshop starts on Monday and that should help jump start the writing (I hope). I tried setting The Count of Monte Cristo aside for a while and instead read Charlie Stross’ new book, Saturn’s Children. We’ll see. I did get some exercise yesterday afternoon, bike-riding, but not yet back at the gym. We’ve got the fitness center at the new place which should help to take laziness out of the picture. As for eating, I just have to make sacrifices and do it.
Some amount of order is what I need. It’s what always works for me. The move has thrown things out of whack but we’re finally settling down (although there’s still lots of wedding stuff to do). But I’ll get there, eventually.
For the first time that I can remember (at least in the last give years) I came into work this morning without my backpack. I’m going to the Mets/Nationals game after work and didn’t want to lug a backpack to the stadium. It doesn’t sound like a big deal, but it makes the morning feel much different. I think it has a lot to do with muscle memory. When changing trains, for instance, I walked off the train feeling as though I was forgetting something. When walking up the escalator, something just didn’t feel quite right about the way I moved. It also meant that I didn’t bring a book with me to the office, which is an equally rare occasion. I passed the time on the train watching an episode of The Office on my iPhone.
I spent about 20 minutes this morning trying to book a room at the Westin Waterfront in Boston for President’s Day weekend 2008–where I will be attending Boskone 45–but for some reason, there are “temporary errors” on the Starwood website and I’m not able to book anything. (Hey, vickyandnorm, can you do something about that!) Once the site is back up and running, I’ll book my room.
I wore shorts to work today (another fairly unusual event) because I wasn’t going to bring a change of clothes with me (no backpack) and it’s going to be hot at the ballgame this evening.
What with Sunday being the first day of a new week, it’s as good a time as any to try and get my act together. I barely made it to the gym last week, which is not a good sign. Good habits like that are hard to form and easy to break. It takes an extra effort to stick with them and with 50 days to go before the cruise, I’m moving into the final stretch and really need to stick with it. I need to get back on my schedule of getting up at 4:25 AM, and getting to the gym before 6 AM and I need to stick with it.
I haven’t touch the Italian lessons in more than a month now, and again, with 50 days before vacation, I don’t have a lot of time to waste. I’m going to aim for two lessons per day between now and then and cram as much Italian into my system as I can.
I’ve done very little writing. I’ve been disjointed and confused, not sure whether to work on the expansion of “Graveyard Shift” or to work on something shorter. The shorter things are just not working out for me write now, so I’m sticking with the expansion. But that means I’ve got to stick with it. I’ve made myself a goal for this, but I’ve been doing nothing to achieve the goal. That changes today as well.
What it all amounts to is that I’ve grown lazy. I could blame it on the fact that I am busy and I have a lot of balls up in the air at once, but the truth of the matter, when you get down to it, is that I’m just plain lazy and need to get my act together. I’m hoping to get back into the swing of things beginning today.
I’ve been attempting an experiment this weekend to see if I can better sleep through the night, instead of waking up two or three times in the middle of the night as I usually do. For some reason, it occurred to me that I always seem to have to know what time it is when I wake up, and that if I didn’t worry about the time until I had to get up (or my alarm went off), that I might sleep through the night better.
So last night, and Saturday night, I covered up the green, glowing numerals of my alarm clock so that I couldn’t see them. I went to sleep each night telling myself not to worry about what time it was; that my internal body clock is a good one. Friday night, I slept through the night without worrying about the time, and slept very well, I might add. Last night I woke up once, but fell back to sleep almost instantly and, again, didn’t worry much about the time. It will be interesting to see how it works tonight.
Each night, for the last three nights, I have insisted to myself that I will be in bed at 8:30 PM, which is when I have to go to bed on a school night if I want to be able to get up at 4:20 AM to hit the gym in the morning. I got to bed late last night and when I woke up this morning, I insisted, nay, demanded that I would be in bed by 8:30 PM.
It’s now 9:50 PM.
Rumors of my extraordinary discipline have been greatly exaggerated.
I’ve been meaning to blog about this for months and keep forgetting, but I remembered this morning and so here it is. Every morning, I wake up with a song in my head. I don’t know how it gets there, but there it is. I usually don’t notice it until I’m driving to the train station because I find myself humming it in the car as I drive. I find this very interesting, and I thought from time to time, I’d mention the song that I found myself singing in the morning.
This morning it was Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody”.
The thing is, it’s not just some mornings. This happens to me every morning. Am I the only one? Are there others out there afflicted by this pernicious disorder?
A recent post by shunn got me thinking about my own writing habits and I thought I would discuss them here along with some of the problems I come across in trying to form these habits.
Let me start out by saying that for the first time in my life, I have four stories underway at once. In case you are wondering, the working titles are (in chronological order):
“If By Reason Of Strength”
“Stairway to Heaven”
“The Time Machine”
The last story in the list is likely the first one to be finished. I started it tonight based off an idea I got from a sentence within Isaac Asimov’s short story “Ideas Die Hard” and I wrote about 500 words this afternoon. I don’t expect the story to be much longer then 1,500 words total.
I think the fact that I have been eating smaller meals, regularly every 3 hours for the last 11 days is beginning to have an effect on me. I say this because something unusual has started to happen to me that has never happened to me before. Up until now, when I am not hungry, when I have, say, just consumed a meal, the last thing I can think about is what I want for my next meal. Unlike jkashlock who thinks about what his next meal will be while eating his present meal, the very thought of doing this gives me chills.
But today, I’ve noticed that as I eat a meal, I am eagerly looking forward to the next one. For instance, as I was finishing up my lunch (PB&J, and some orange slices for “dessert”) I was thinking about the turkey and cheese sandwich that awaited me for my afternoon snack. Having finished my afternoon snack about an hour ago, I am eagerly awaiting my dinner this evening. (I’ve even been thinking about–GASP!–how I might improve my breakfast tomorrow morning!)
One good thing about 5 smaller meals each day is that I am never hungry. It’s only a few hours to the next meal and come meal time, I feel neither starved nor stuffed. However, when I go past that three hours, I’ve started to notice that I get hungry pretty quickly. Normally I eat dinner at 6 PM; last night, because of the Comcast delivery, I had to wait until nearly 7:30 to eat and I was hungry by that point.
And now all of this talk of food has made me hungry…
The new routine I have during the week went pretty well for the most part. I had to make some adjustments, but I think I did pretty good overall. Since my schedule is different on Saturdays, I’ve discovered I have to be a little more flexible and be able to adjust and improvise when necessary. This morning is a case in point:
I woke up about 7:30, had my breakfast, and then spent half an hour or so preparing some stuff that I had to mail out today. One of the items included my science fiction poem, “Schrodinger’s Intersection”, which is now on its way to ASIMOV’S. I took these items to the post office around 9 AM, and then headed over to the gym in Greenbelt for my upper body (arms and shoulders) workout. I finished that workout around 10:30, and then headed over to the haircut place, which is in the same shopping center as the gym, in order to get a hair cut. Miraculously (for a Saturday morning), they were able to take me right away, without my having to wait.
Once my hair cut was done, it was close to 11 AM. Now, given that I ate breakfast at about 8 AM, my morning snack was due at about 11 AM. During the week, I pack my morning and afternoon snacks with my lunch, but here I was out running errands. Next on my list was to get my emissions test done on my car, so I ran into Subway and got a turkey and cheese deli sandwich and some water, and then headed off to the emissions inspection center. While waiting in line there, I ate my morning snack. It took half an hour to get my paperwork indicating that my car had passed its inspection and after that I headed home.
Where I am now.
The rest of my day will be a little off as far as meals go. Lunch at around 2 PM, afternoon snack at around 5 PM, dinner at around 8 PM. But the good news is that I’m sticking to the plan and it feels pretty good. (The workout went well this morning too, but more on that in a separate post.)