A Trip to the Hardware Store

Finding the remarkable in the unremarkable is like finding treasure hidden in plain sight.

loppers 53117                                             My new pair of bypass loppers*

Remarkably, I bought several things at the hardware store yesterday.

You may ask, what’s so remarkable about that? Why write an entire blog post about a trip to the hardware store?

There are several reasons I found it remarkable, and you might too.

Before the 1,000 things projects, buying a bunch of stuff at the hardware store was as unremarkable for me as it would be for most people, but doing the 1,000 things projects made me much more aware about buying stuff. It changed the default setting on my buying habits from “yes, if” (as in “yes, buy it if I want it”) to “no, unless” (as in “no need to buy something unless I really need it”). This zero-based budgeting approach to buying most consumer items has become habitual for me.

So I haven’t been buying much stuff, period. In fact, this is only the second time this calendar year that I went to a store and bought non-consumable items (that is, things other than groceries, restaurant meals, gas and car repairs, fitness classes, massages, and various miscellaneous items). In February, I bought several sets of bed sheets to replace ones which had worn out. This time, I bought stuff for yard work: work gloves, masks, yard waste bags, and a pair of “bypass loppers.” The main reason for buying this stuff was to make it easier to clear out the invasive bamboo in my back yard (and the reason for that is another, longer story for a future post) and to tackle the poison ivy and other vines that are stressing the black cherry tree in my vacant lot next door.

So it was remarkable that this trip to the hardware store was remarkable for me; it was out of the ordinary instead of being ordinary like it used to be. I noticed the difference and appreciated it.

The second reason this trip was remarkable was that I bought the pair of bypass loppers* even though I already owned a pair. The old pair was seizing up and difficult to use on the thicker bamboo stalks I’ve been cutting down. I could have taken the loppers to the hardware store and asked them to sharpen and fix them, but I didn’t want to wait that long. Still, I asked myself if I was being wasteful somehow or if buying a new pair was really necessary, and I surprised myself a little by deciding to buy them. I think this was because I’d been focused more on the “No” part of the “No, unless” formula; I’d been saying “no” to buying new stuff a lot more than I had in the past. When I bought the bed sheets, the “unless” part was a little clearer; there, the decision was basically “no, don’t buy these new bed sheets — unless you want to stop sleeping on bed sheets with holes in them.” Well, in that case…  For the bypass loopers, it was “no — unless you want to make the task of cutting down bamboo easier, faster, and less frustrating.” Sometimes, as in this case, “unless” makes more sense.

The third reason this trip to the hardware store was remarkable was that my decision to buy the new pair of loppers became easier once I decided I would give the old pair away; they still worked fine, and someone else could sharpen and fix them if they wanted. This  is another big change for me: being comfortable with simply giving stuff away when I didn’t want or need it anymore instead of saving it up Just in Case I might need it Some Day. So I noticed and appreciated this too, that my willingness and ability to generate gratitude by giving stuff away had notched up a level.

Buying stuff thoughtfully instead of being mindless about the process, taking the time to appreciate something when I do buy it, and making sure that stuff circulates through my house instead of simply accumulating there, is all pretty mundane stuff. But the real takeaway from my trip to the hardware store, besides the things I bought, is that finding the remarkable in the unremarkable is like finding treasure hidden in plain sight, right under my nose.

So, time to go cut some more bamboo and put that old pair of loppers on Freecycle. Anyone need some bamboo stalks?

*Of course, it was also remarkable that I was learning what these things were called for the first time in my life…


Ode to a Chocolate Croissant: On the Value of Thoughtlessness

plate 032417What, you were expecting to see a chocolate croissant? That puppy’s long gone…

This afternoon I’m sitting at Capital City Cheesecake, winding down my workday week by doing some writing and enjoying one of my favorite treats: a chocolate croissant. The chocolate croissants here are large and full of chocolate and yummy, and as I savored every bite of mine, I paid attention to its yumminess. I briefly thought about its flaky crust as I brushed the extra crumbs off my shirt and computer, but mostly my thoughts were limited to how yummy it was. Did I mention that it was yummy?

Now that I think about it, here are some of the things I didn’t think about when I ate my chocolate croissant: where it came from, what ingredients were in it, or how long it might have been sitting there. I don’t even know what bakery it came from. I didn’t think about what country the cacao beans came from, and I didn’t think about the farm workers who were involved in the harvesting process. I didn’t think about how the beans were fermented or dried. (In fact, I didn’t even know that cacao beans were fermented and dried until I did a web search on it.) I didn’t think about whether they used cacao or cocoa powder to make the croissant.

I didn’t think about any of those things because that is one of the blessings of modern life: the miracle of a system that affords the more fortunate among us to live a lifestyle abundant beyond the wildest dreams of medieval kings.

Why I am thinking about this at all at this moment? Because I’m trying to figure out how to rewrite the section in my book that describes my (re-)discovery of the value of thoughtlessness. I know — my 1,000 things projects were based on the value of being thoughtful about the process.  So it may sound like a total contradiction, but the time and effort I spent being thoughtful about getting rid of thousands of my things also renewed my appreciation for the value of being thoughtless.

In fact, being thoughtless is not just valuable in our society — it’s absolutely essential.

Imagine if I did have to think about where my chocolate croissant came from — if I had to think about the myriad of steps it took to bring that chocolate croissant to my mouth — er, into being. Imagine if I had to make my own chocolate croissant — well, that would never happen. But I didn’t have to think about any of that; in reality, being obliviously thoughtless about my chocolate croissant is what enables me to enjoy it, which is true for that matter for most everything else I consume.

Of course, on some level this is not anything new: the division of labor which brought my chocolate croissant to me has been a defining feature of human societies for centuries, millennia really.  So what’s different in our society?

I think it’s this: modern society has dangerously diminished — swamped, overwhelmed, overrun, you name it — our capacities to be thoughtful about our consumption and our lives.  I felt overwhelmed just listing a few of the ways I’m not thoughtful about a single chocolate croissant, and that’s just one little thing. (Big for a croissant, but small in the larger scheme of things.) Our lives are filled to overflowing with a myriad of things that are just as wondrously complex if we stopped to think about it; but fortunately we don’t have to, because if we did, it would be overwhelming.

How did this happen?  I think it’s the result of affluence and abundance, the complexity and sheer volume of it, along with a big boost from our long-standing love affair with labor-saving devices, which have captivated American life since the Industrial Revolution began over a half of a century ago. The key here is that these devices don’t just save us time and effort; they also reduce or eliminate the thought involved in using them — everything from home appliances to prepared foods to electronics to chocolate croissants, not to mention the computer I’m using to write this, perhaps the most significant labor-saving device ever invented.

This sheer abundance of things doesn’t just encourage thoughtlessness about acquiring things; it demands it. As a result, thoughtlessness becomes the mechanism which causes things to accumulate in our lives until we have far more than we need.  Meanwhile, our consumption patterns have remained driven by habits formed by scarcity. The result is that it’s all too easy for us to keep on accumulating things until excess gets in the way of how we want to live and what we want to be. In other words, thoughtlessness is valuable to a point, but we passed that point a long time. Now it’s a two-edged sword; we can’t do without it, but at the same time we have to do something about it.

Here’s what I’m doing about it:

1) Appreciate the value of thoughtlessness. I recognize that being thoughtless is essential, and I can’t do without it. So the question becomes, how can I be more thoughtful about what I consume and bring into my life? How can I recover and regain my atrophied capacities for thoughtfulness without wearing myself out in the process? For me, this inexorably leads to:

2) Remain calm and keep paring. Keep on removing unneeded things from my life, and remain very vigilant about what I bring into my life in both the material and non-material realms. I may reach a point where I don’t need to keep removing things, but I’m not there yet.

3) Appreciate what I do have in my life. Slowly but surely, I’m learning how to do this in practice with more and more things in my life. This afternoon, I focused my appreciation on a chocolate croissant. I could have a chocolate croissant every day if I wanted to; my budget, diet, and waistline can all afford it. But I wouldn’t appreciate these chocolate croissants if I treated them as routine entitlements. Instead, I treat my chocolate croissants as treats: something to be had once a week or so, something to look forward to, something made a little more precious by making them a little more rare. That way, I can enjoy them more for the miraculous treats that they are. And did I mention that they were yummy?

Cutting the Cable Cord: Three Weeks Later

It’s been three weeks now since I cut the cable cord (well, technically 20 days, but I’m not counting… ;-)), and the verdict: so far, soooo good…

        The DVD player has the shelf to itself now that the cable converter box (& its clock) are gone…

Do I miss cable TV? No, I don’t, with one odd exception.

The only thing I miss is the digital clock on the cable converter box. Turns out I looked at that clock a lot, probably because it was the only clock in the living room. Apparently I had looked at it a lot when I was leaving the house and when I first came into the house. This must have been a deeply ingrained habit because I’ve looked for it a couple dozen times at least since it’s been gone. Still, if having a clock in the living room was that important, I’d just put another one there, and  I haven’t done that yet.

The TV remains dark and silent most of the time, but it has not gone entirely unused. My son has hooked his computer up to the TV and watched various things now and then, and I’ve watched a couple of movies that my son played from his computer.

Other than that, I’ve barely glanced at the thing. I was a little surprised to learn that looking at the TV was not a big trigger for me.  Instead, as expected, my most common triggers are related to sports, most often from reading about a sports event online. Other common triggers happen around meal times, especially starting or finishing meal prep. Passing through the living room at the end of the work day or later in the evening has also been a trigger a few times.

Having said that, I have not followed my plan to track my triggers as rigorously as I did for my social media/news diet/habit reformation. The main reason it feels OK is that it doesn’t feel like tracking triggers is as necessary when there’s nothing to trigger.  There’s no TV to watch, so I don’t need to understand so well what triggers me to watch.

As I also expected, I really don’t miss watching soccer or other sports; they seem to be important when I’m watching them, but once they disappear, their importance fades as well. As for channel surfing and mindless aimless watching, I do not miss that at all, not in the slightest.  Nor do I miss anything enough that I have felt the urge to get a Roku or antenna or subscription of some service.

Instead, I’ve gone out to a couple of movies with my son (at his suggestion). This is a big deal in that I had gotten entirely out of the habit of going out to movies. It seemed like there was a long stretch where there just wasn’t anything worth watching, and they’ve gotten rather expensive if also more comfortable and amenable. But in the past three weeks I’ve seen Hidden Figures and Lion, both very well worth the price of admission.

And without the easy choice of watching TV to fall back on (literally, by plopping on the couch), I’ve been getting out and doing things much more often — Spanish conversation class, improv classes, exercise classes, lunches and dinners with friends, protest march. In the process, I’ve entirely avoided the toxic soup of cable news that has accompanied the dawning of the Chinese Century — oops, I mean the start of the new presidential Administration — which is quite possibly the most salutary benefit of all so far.  My (now more carefully managed) news consumption from online sources supplies me with more than enough information and sense of outrage; I even read a print newspaper on the Metro once last week.  So it definitely feels like I’ve replaced my cable TV viewing time with other, far healthier choices.

Still, I don’t feel quite like an advocate or acolyte of the cable-free lifestyle just yet — not so much because I have doubts about its value, but because I have doubts about the value of proselytizing others. I don’t want to be like that person who bends your ear about the benefits of giving up sugar or processed foods or animal products until all you want to do is find a grateful escape. I’d rather it be the case that this new habit (in conjunction with and supportive of other new habits as necessary) have such a positive effect on me that you start to notice. And then you might venture to say something about it — ‘You seem happier/livelier/calmer/more centered lately. What’s going on?’  And then I’ll happily bend your ear about how wonderful it’s been to be cable-free…

Social Media/News Holiday Diet: Final Results

Weeks 5, 6:  Taking hold of a new habit…

duolingo-achievements-010317                                                  My Duolingo achievements as of today…

Two weeks ago, I decided to focus on doing what I could to enable my new social media/news consuming habits to take hold.  And take hold they did!  Here’s the tally of views and resisted urges for weeks 5 and 6:

Week 5:
T 12/20 = 2/2 (= 2 looks, 2 ‘resisted urges’)
W 12/21 = 3/2
Th 12/15 = 3/4
F 12/16 = 3/1
Sa 12/17 = 4/2
Su 12/18 = 3/1
M 12/19 = 2/1
Total: 19/13

Week 6:
T 12/27 = 2/2 (= 2 looks, 2 ‘resisted urges’)
W 12/28 = 1/0
Th 12/29 = 0/2
F 12/30 = 1/2
Sa 12/31 = 0/2
Su 1/1 = 0/1
M 1/2 = 1/1
Total: 5/10

The Week 5 numbers dropped a little from Week 4, but they were very similar. The frequency of my habit in Weeks 4 and 5 could be labeled ‘meal mode,’ where I allow myself limited but more or less regular social media and news ‘meals’ each day.

Week 6 was a very different story. The main reason was that I decided to take a vacation from Facebook — no visits to Facebook since December 27th. Week 6 went beyond ‘meal mode’ (if I did this with meals, I would starve). It was more like giving up meat or sugar or some other major diet item, one that could be consumed sparingly or even not at all.

The result? I have to say, I didn’t miss FB that much. I don’t plan to give it up entirely (at least not for now), but I do plan to limit my future visits a lot, including at least a few days each week where I don’t visit at all.

The other big takeaway was that it’s time now for me to treat social media and news separately.  I lumped them together for this project for two reasons: one, they were both means for me to indulge in my worst habits of looking for news that fed my sense of outrage and righteous indignation; and two, I had allowed Facebook to become my primary source of news through its news feed feature.  Although I also looked at other sources, I had used the Facebook news feed feature first as a news source.  As a result, my social media and news habits had become joined.

Thanks to this project, I rediscovered how ‘Catching up with what’s happening in the larger world’ is different from ‘catching up with what’s happening with my FB friends.’ FB makes it convenient to do both at the same time — too easy to become too much of a compulsion. Using this project to reshape the frequency and purpose. As a result, my social media and news consumption have become different habits again. The easiest way to keep this is going is to stop using Facebook as a primary news source.  As a result, I am going to build my own news feed away from Facebook once I return to viewing news online on a more regular basis.

All in all, it feels like this new habit has taken hold. The urges are much less frequent, and I don’t feel any sense of loss. I’ll keep an eye out for slippage, but I’m going to declare this habit as officially reformed!

I also now have another new habit to maintain: language learning.  I’ve continue to practice on Duolingo every day, and my streak is now 42 days and counting. Just reached level 13 in Spanish (54% “fluent”) and am now at level 11 in French (46% “fluent”). I’ve amassed over 8,000 XPs (experience points) and have learned how to use timed practice to accelerate XP accumulation.

Not only that, I have a process now which I’m going to apply to reforming 10-12 habits in the new year (and yes, that is officially a New Year’s Resolution). Next habit on tap: email! I’m also going to see if I can reduce the formation time from six weeks to four weeks, and then maybe even less than that if I can. I’ll report on that once it’s underway…

Social Media/News Holiday Diet: Week 3 Results

Week 3: Going for quality by making proactively healthy social media and news choices…

duolingo-results-week-3                                         My Duolingo XP Results for Week 3…

Last week, I said I wanted to focus on how to make good quality “dietary” choices in my social media/news intake, and learning (more about) how to do that was my biggest takeaway of the week (more on that below). Here’s how Week 3 went:

The urge keeps shrinking as shown by my running tally of views and resisted urges:

T 12/6 = 3/3 (= 3 looks, 3 ‘resisted urges’)
W 12/7 = 6/2
Th 12/8 = 4/2
F 12/9 = 4/3
Sa 12/10 = 0/6
Su 12/11 = 4/1
M 12/12 = 2/5

The total number of views dropped another 20 percent this week, and the total number of times I resisted the urge to look dropped another 30 percent; there were 29 looks, 32 ‘resisted urges’ in week 2, and 23 looks, 22 ‘resisted urges’ in week 3. The total number of urges (both filled and resisted) dropped from around nine per day to around six and a half per day. I may have undercounted the number of resisted urges, but that’s mainly because they have become weaker to the point where I almost don’t notice them, which is good. I’m now wondering what would be a good number of total urges. Six-and-a-half per day still sounds a little high to me, but it’s also not entirely in my control, and I don’t have a strong basis for comparison since I haven’t kept comparable track of, say, the number of times a day I want to eat something.

The weekend numbers were good but not that different from the weekday ones. I did not spend a lot of time during the weekend doing engaging activities which took me away from my computer and other devices. Instead, my weekend days didn’t look that different from my weekday days, which is probably why the numbers don’t look that different.

The triggers keep weakening — Interestingly, I did not identify any new triggers in Week 3. Not that I lack for triggers, as I identified over 20 triggers (21 to be exact) in the first two weeks. This makes sense, I suppose; one could expect that just about every possible trigger would show itself over a two-week period, especially when some triggers were being consciously ignored, which presumably would bring the lesser-used ones out into the open.

As the triggers also continued being weaker in week 3, I started to notice what I think is a different mental layer in the habit process: triggering the thought of social media or news versus triggering the urge to look at social media or news. For instance, one morning I saw the looking at the Facebook icon on my iPhone screen triggered the thought of social media, but the mental message seemed different: ‘there’s social media’ instead of ‘there’s social media; go look at it!’ The difference may be subtle, but it seems important to me because it implies another level of clearing that could be useful: extinguishing not just the urge to look at social media or news, but extinguishing the thought itself. Could I get to the point where I ignore my Facebook icon as often as I ignore most of the other icons on my iPhone screen? Would it make sense (duh) to move the Facebook icon off the main screen so that it would require a proactive move on my part to look at it? (Duh….) So I did that, and it seems to be helping so far.

This morning it occurred to me that the key distinction might be whether or not I have to make a mental decision about a trigger, as distinct from simply observing the impulse and letting it float by without any additional regard. I’ll play with that idea some more and see how it works for me.

Putting the “diet” in social media/news diet — This week, my social media/news diet actually looked more like a food diet: three “meals” one day, three meals and a snack on three days, a skipped meal on one day, and a fast on one day. I think the main reason for this was that there was more planning involved. More on that in a moment.

How’s the food diet going? And the language learning?

Food diet is doing better. I got plenty of exercise, returned to a more balanced food intake level, and dropped a pound and a half. Still not yet back to where I was in August.

Language learning, quite well also.  I amassed 1,780 “experience points” (XPs) on Duolingo in the past week, almost double the number of last week. Progress continues — level 11 in Spanish (52% “fluent”) and level 9 in French (40% “fluent”).  The Spanish felt comfortable enough that I went to a conversation class and did fine. I have next to no experience conversing in French, though, so I’m still gathering the gumption to try a conversational event in French, maybe after the holidays.

Biggest takeaway of the week: learning to make healthy choices. I started paying attention to my reasons for looking at social media and news, trying to identify good choices and bad choices and how to distinguish between the two. At first, I tried to keep track of when I made a healthy choice and when I didn’t. That soon stopped working, though, because sometimes it usually was a mix of the two, and there were also things that were hard to distinguish as good or bad.  I did succeed in identifying mumerous examples of both healthy and less healthy social media/news choices.

Examples of healthy social media/news choices:

– Proactively deciding to do a brief news scan via FB news feed
– Proactively deciding to do a brief FB friends update via FB news feed
– Checking the business news briefly to see how key indicators are doing
– Reading another business-related article or two to keep up a bit with business news
– Posting beautiful, interesting, elucidating, humorous, or otherwise uplifting posts on my FB feed
– Reading other people’s beautiful, interesting, elucidating, humorous, or otherwise uplifting posts on my FB feed
– Engaging in worthwhile, elucidating, civil conversations online
– Researching related to client, collaborative, creative, or citizen activism
– Supporting other causes on their FB pages
– Client or cause-related FB Live show
– Promoting or engaging with my audiences via FB pages, Twitter feeds, and other social media means

Examples of less healthy social media/news choices:

– Looking for/at articles that I read mainly to feed my sense of outrage and righteous indignation
– Looking passively or aimlessly through my FB feed
– Looking passively or aimlessly through news web sites
– Using social media or news surfing as a passive form of taking a break
– Engaging in arguments with friends or strangers in FB conversation threads, Twitter feeds, or other social media means

The other big takeaway for me was building the habit of proactively choosing healthy social media. As the lists above imply, being passive about my choices usually does not serve me well.  Instead, I found it helpful to plan what I was going to do before I went on social media or looked at news. One time I wrote down a list of about a half dozen things I wanted to do. Other times I simply thought of one or two things I wanted to do, and also thought ahead of time whether or not I would indulge in more ‘junk food’-like activities like reading news articles or feeds (which these days, let’s face it, is unavoidably laced with junk).

These lists help me understand why going ‘cold turkey’ was not for me. There are too many good reasons for being on social media or looking at news for me to give it up altogether.  Both of these lists are probably longer, and maybe I’ll add to them in the coming week(s). My other focus for this week will be on consolidating these new habits and starting to write up a summary of what I’ve learned — not just about changing this habit, but about changing other habits as well…

Social Media/News Holiday Diet: Week 2 Results

 Week 2: starting to learn how to put the “diet” into my social media/news diet…
duolingo-progress-wk2-1216                    My Duolingo XP Results for Week 2 (see below for details)…

Last week, I said I couldn’t wait to see what Week 2 of my social media/news diet brought, and Week 2 did not disappoint. Here are the highlights:

Taming the urge — My running tally of views and resisted urges shows signs of improvement relative to the first week:

T 11/29 = 4/8 (= 4 looks, 8 ‘resisted urges’)
W 11/30 = 7/5
Th 12/1 = 4/2
F 12/2 = 5/5
Sa 12/3 = 1/6
Su 12/4 = 1/2
M 12/5 = 7/2

Both the total number of views and the total number of times I resisted the urge to look dropped a little over 25 percent each; there were 40 looks, 45 ‘resisted urges’ in week 1, and 29 looks, 32 ‘resisted urges’ in week 2. The total number of urges (both filled and resisted) dropped from around 12 per day to around nine per day.

The most striking numbers are the weekend ones, but I’m not sure yet what to make of them. They are low because I spent the weekend at a client retreat. Although such meetings are usually full of urges to do social media/news checks in reaction to boredom or other lulls in my attention level (more on those triggers in a moment), I exploited the room layout (several circular tables) so that I knew that someone behind me could see if I was straying off into social media, and that was enough to curb my impulses.

I see two ways to look at the weekend results: one is that this weekend activity artificially drove down the numbers, and I will be struggling to replicate these results on other weekends. The other way is that weekends offer opportunities to curb my social media and news intake by doing several engaging activities, preferably ones which take me away from my computer and other devices. How will that play out over the next few weeks? I’ll focus on finding that out.

Taming the triggers — Week two also added several new triggers to my list:

•    Twitter — looked reflexively at it; had to remind myself that it is also social media
•    Sitting down in a (DC) metro car
•    Being bored in an online meeting (Webex et al.)
•    Facebook notifications on my iPhone
•    Simply looking at my iPhone
•    Seeing a message alert on someone else’s computer
•    A lull in my attention level

A few of these were also eye-openers. I hadn’t appreciated how conditioned I was to look at my phone when I rode the Metro, but simply sitting down in the Metro car seat was all it took to have me reaching for my iPhone. Seeing a message alert on someone else’s computer (the presenter’s computer projected on screen during the retreat; his iMessage alert indicated two unanswered messages) made me want to check mine, but I resisted that one. The most disturbing one was discovering that simply looking at my iPhone could be a trigger; it was just sitting there, face down on a nearby table. But I resisted that one also.

I also noticed that triggers during an online meeting felt more like boredom, while those in an in-person meeting felt more like a lull in my attention level. This makes sense because there are more environmental cues in an in-person setting to keep one’s attention from wandering away from the environment. At the same time, it’s usually not humanly possible to maintain full attention during a day-long or even a multi-hour in-person meeting either. In both cases, the immediacy of the available devices (whether computer, smartphone, tablet, or something else) often makes them hair triggers which are all too easy to pull. If I’d been sitting somewhere with no one to my back who could see what I was doing, I’m not sure I would have done so well.

Although the number of triggers didn’t decrease much, there were signs of improvement here as well. It seemed that the triggers were often weaker in week 2; they happened in my mind but often didn’t trigger actual behavior — no physical movements or mental ideation of those movements. It felt like classic behavioral extinction was slowly taking place.

Putting the “diet” in social media/news diet — So how well did my meal plan go? On the surface, not so well. I didn’t check social media or news exactly three times on any day; I either had too many “meals”/“snacks” or too few, and a couple of days it appears that I “gorged” myself with seven views in one day.  What really happened, though, is that the social media/news diet actually became more like a real diet in these respects:

Frequency matters, but portion control matters more. I counted a single instance as one view whether it lasted a minute or an hour or anything in between. Doing this clearly distorts the process, so I think I need to pay more attention to duration as well as frequency.

Some choices are healthier than others.  One day, most of my views involved engaging in an interesting Facebook conversation on a topic of interest in my field (performance-based funding), which included doing some research to learn more about the topic. Another day, most of my views involved a conversation about how to respond to the Comet Pizza incident.  In my opinion, these are part of a healthy social media/news diet, to the point where I found myself wondering, is there such a thing as the social media equivalent of leafy greens or other veggies? As in, things you can eat as much as you want?

Overcoming the tendency to gorge is a learned behavior. I also found myself wondering if it’s human nature to feast at first when we find a new source of engorgement. If so, this is a useful insight for a) not being so hard on ourselves for not handling social media well, and b) recognizing up front that dealing with this requires conscious re-patterning to overcome our more animal tendencies. Although that may seem strange to think of such a digital and mental activity this way, our animal nature resides as much in our brains as in the rest of our bodies.

How’s the food diet going? And the language learning?

Food, not so well — no pie in Week 2, but I’m still gaining weight — retreats will do that (lots of food, relative captivity, disrupted schedule), as will relative lack of exercise.

Language learning, much better.  I amassed 947 “experience points” (XPs) on Duolingo in the past week. Each ‘lesson’ earns 10 XPs; although I also earned some XPs for testing out of some areas in Spanish, I still must have done at least 60 lessons. They’re short and can be done in a few minutes each, but that still means hours spent on learning languages instead of on social media or news. And I’m continuing to progress — level 9 in Spanish (50% “fluent”) and level 8 in French (26% “fluent”).  The Spanish is coming back to me, and the French is ever so slowly starting to make sense, so I’m very pleased with my progress this past week.

Spending time in relatively productive pursuits has dampened my desire to leave Facebook or other social media for now. Instead, this week I’ll have a different focus: how to make good quality “dietary” choices in my social media/news intake

Social Media/News Holiday Diet: Week 1 Results

One week into my social media/news diet, here’s how it’s gone so far: pretty well, and a bit eye-opening…

pattys-lemon-pie-tgiving-16A lemon pie my sister Patricia made for Thanksgiving —
one-and-a-half of the seven pieces I had this past weekend…

A week ago, I resolved to do a holiday diet — not a food and drink diet, but a social media/news diet — for reasons I explained here.  The main elements of the diet plan were these:

– Keep a running, daily tally of each time I look at social media or news;
– Keep a tally of each time I have the urge to look but resist that impulse;
Try to limit my number of social media/news “meals” to three per day, and no snacking if I can help it.
Keep a list of the social media/news triggers I encounter along the way.

Here’s how it went for the first week — first, the tally of views and resisted urges:

T 11/22 = 9/12 (= 9 looks, 12 ‘resisted urges’)
W 11/23 = 6/11
Th 11/24 = 4/1
F 11/25 = 8/2
Sa 11/26 = 4/3
Su 11/27 = 3/8
M 11/28 = 3/7 (as of mid-afternoon)

I didn’t try to limit myself too much the first day because I wanted to get a sense of what my everyday baseline had become. And that was an eye opener — the urge to look at social media and/or news struck me almost two dozen times in one day!  That is one ingrained habit. The first day’s number may be inflated a bit by my son’s arrival back in the States after 4 1/2 months abroad (which of course I had to report on Facebook, right?).  But even so: the second day was 17 times (six indulged, 11 resisted).  Thursday was probably artificially low because it was Thanksgiving Day; after that, the instances ranged from 7-11 times per day — a distinct improvement, but still a lot if you ask me.  Except for Friday, I was able to keep my views down to three or four per day, so that’s encouraging.

So what’s triggering this behavior in me? The list of my triggers is long, varied, and sobering. Here’s the list from the first day which I posted previously:

– Seeing a blank “New Tab” open in my browser window.
– Transition to a new task on my computer. (Task doesn’t matter, whether it’s work or creative or something else.)
– Reaching for the “F” key (hint: “F” doesn’t stand for “Ford Motor Company” anymore!) when opening a new browser window.
— Taking a break from a task (e.g., writing).
– Needing a break from a task (e.g., writing).
– Internal dialogue, e.g., some imaginary conversation with someone whom I disagree with (on Facebook or elsewhere).
– Seeing that red dot with a number in it on an app icon on my iPhone

Here are more triggers I’ve found during the first week:
•    While walking toward my home office
•    While doing yoga (I use my smartphone as a timer, but there’s that red dot again…)
•    While checking email
•    While on a Meetup web page
•    After leaving another web page
•    Seeing the web page thumbnails when I open a new tab in my web browser
•    Getting out of bed/waking up
•    As a ‘take a break’ signal (similar to transitioning to a new task, but not the same)
•    After having completed a task

There were also a couple of others I noticed but forgot (for now) before I could record them.

What patterns do there seem to be? Here’s what I saw during this first week:

The computer is a major trigger source. No real surprise there, but: I had no idea there were so many triggers embedded into my computer usage habits — changing pages, checking email, stopping or ending a task while on the computer. Deeply, deeply embedded triggers. An infestation of triggers. Some of them are downright unnerving in how deeply they are embedded.
Being around people and having things to do away from the computer helped.
Not taking my smartphone with me everywhere helped. I allowed myself to rely on other people’s phones for things like time, information, and the like.
Removing myself from trigger sources reduced the demand, but it didn’t completely eliminate it.

Now that I’m back home working in my home office, it’s harder to avoid the triggers because I spend so much of my time on the computer mostly out of necessity. Previous good habits like taking breaks and getting away from the computer only worked with conscious effort, rather than just taking a quick look at social media/news first (which, as you know, all too often “quick” becomes 10 minutes, or 20, or a half-hour or more).

Here was the big takeaway: what did I do instead?

I used the triggers to start a new habit: language learning on Duolingo. I’d started using their phone app a year ago to brush up on my Spanish, but I’d stopped doing it. So, using my computer instead (a useful and necessary strategy since so many of my triggers were computer-induced), I resumed the Spanish lessons and started French lessons as well. Whenever I was on my computer and felt the urge to check social media or news, I did Duolingo lessons instead. It helped that my sister Patricia also got involved in a little friendly competition to catch up with me in French. (She’s studied French in the past, so it didn’t take her long to catch up.)

I ended up doing a lot of lessons — so many that I’m now at Duolingo’s level 8 in Spanish (36% “fluent”) and level 7 in French (22% “fluent”). No, it’s not the best way to learn a language. But it’s a good way to develop some helpful language skills that could be integrated with other language learning activities. And it’s a great way to break the social media/news habit — or at least it’s a promising way so far, after one week. Imagine if I did this for a month, or six months, or even longer:  surely I would make some noticeable, tangible progress. Well, that’s what I’m imagining — and I actually think it could work if I use the trigger power of my social media/news viewing habits to fuel this new habit. But how well will it really work? I’ll keep you posted.

Oh yes, and I ate a lot of pie — eight pieces overall in four days (1 1/2 pieces of lemon; 2 1/2 pieces of pumpkin; 3 pieces of apple; one piece of shoo-fly).  I had two pieces for dessert Thanksgiving dinner; I had pie for breakfast Friday morning; I had pie for lunch Saturday afternoon. I did not hold back on the pie, in other words. I gained a pound and a half, but I’ll do my best to work it off this week; there’s no pie in the house, and fond memories remain of my Thanksgiving indulgence — that should tide me over through a week at least. It was well worth it to help support this new habit I’ve gained and resolve to sustain — call it an early New Year’s resolution.

One other curious thing started happening: when I did check Facebook, it seemed even more toxic than ever. Lots of wonderful stuff there too, but so much junk. I saw a posting from someone who’d I always appreciated and admired which insulted me — not directly or even intentionally, but it was unmistakably insulting. It used a word intended as a pejorative which is a word I use to self-identify. So I hid her postings. I also began to wonder if some of the postings from even my most trusted FB posters were from trolls. At the very least, I felt the urge to track them down to see if they were. What is that about? It started getting me thinking if I should leave Facebook altogether. All this after just one week of my social media/news diet; can’t wait to see what Week 2 brings!…