Getting Back into My Books

The past few years, while living up north, I made it a habit to read a lot. I was a voracious reader growing up, but, like most adults transitioning into working life, the habit fell by the wayside.

The north was a perfect place for reading. Lots of time, lots of silence, lots of solitude. And with my full time job as a high school teacher, it was helpful to have enough disposable income to afford an Audible.com membership. I found a lot of new books through this company and got into books by comedians (i.e. Tina Fey, Amy Poehler, Jim Gaffigan, Mindy Kaling). I consistently surpassed my goal of 15 books a year, and marked it on GoodReads.com:

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And then 2017 rolled around.

I struggled with reading. I couldn’t sit and get through a single book within 2 weeks. I kept seeing more books and would start them without finishing the others. Soon I had a giant stack of half-finished books and a wave of anxiety that there was no time to read them all. Needless to say, I felt frustrated.

I attributed it to bad habits. I had trouble focusing. Well, it’s probably because I’ve got so much going on this year – new job, moving out of the north, moving to Waterloo, adjusting to a new city, etc. etc. The excuses went on and on.

Deep down, I knew I had time. I always had time for a book because they so beautifully fill in the cracks to our days, but I blamed my lack of focus and left it at that.

And then I read this page out of Manoush Zamorodi’s Bored and Brilliant* and it – figuratively speaking – scared the poop out of me:

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So it wasn’t just me.

Even famous journalists, writers, literary artists, scientists, politicians and neuroscientists were suffering the same fate. I wasn’t the only one who was having issues with deep reading. I was not alone in this.

And a couple of weeks ago I vowed to dive back into reading.

Deep reading. Everywhere reading. Reading on a daily basis. Reading for short bursts. Carrying my books to read when I was waiting in a line. Reading when I was waiting to be addressed at a service desk. Reading during a meal. Reading in the morning. Reading before bed.

And magically, I felt my focus come back.

It was alarmingly fast and yet noticeable. It was shocking the difference I felt. Not only that, but the wave of anxiety was not replaced by a wave of great relief. Relief that that part of me didn’t die or disappear altogether. Relief that I still love reading. Relief that I learn so much from these books and that I get joy from it.

Well, I better damn well get my act together if I am going to get through Lena Dunham’s Not That Kinda Girl, Roxanne Gay’s Bad Feminist and Katherine Boo’s Behind the Beautiful Forevers before the end of November. 

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Gotta run, I have a book to read.

*The book is based off of a series of interviews from the WNYC podcast, Note to Self

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Places I’ve Traveled In the Past 5 Years

I love traveling, I won’t deny it. I was bitten with the travel bug early on and my parents took my sister and I traveling regularly as we were growing up. I remember that there were periods of our lives where we were going overseas every 2-3 years and taking car trips in between. It wasn’t until I went to university that I was grounded for 4 years … it sucked and I hated it.

Over the past 4 or 5 years, I’ve been grateful for being able to afford travel, since being fully employed. Here are the other places I’ve been to in the past 5 years:

2013

  • Portland, Oregon
  • Hawai’i, HI

2014

  • Turkey
  • Mumbai and Rajasthan, India
  • London, England (layover)

2015

  • Chicago, IL

 2016

  • Disneyworld, FL
  • Albany and New York City, NY
  • Jordan
  • Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, Israel
  • Palestinian Territories

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ABOVE:
Checking out one of the tombs in Petra, Jordan

Having said that, I know next year might be different. I might not be going oversea and due to the current political situation, going to the United States doesn’t even seem like such a good idea anymore (although that won’t stop me).

I’ve been happy that I can do trips without budgeting much (really, I don’t budget at all), but if I am going to save for a house, I will have to tighten the belt a bit more and figure out how to be a better budget traveler.

Yes, I might be downgrading a little, but I love my freedom and I love being able to see people, spend time with them and learn about the world. I’ll never give that up!

The Downside of Being Offline: Using a Bullet Journal

I had a scare today; I thought I had lost my bullet journal, which is my personal organizer. I used it during a school meeting last night, but had no recollection of tossing it into my backpack. Thankfully, it had made its way home. I found it accidentally tucked under a vintage copy of A Clockwork Orange, which I had rescued from a pile of discarded books.

Since September, I’ve been using a #bujo planner*. I mainly use it to keep track of personal goals – weekly, monthly and annual. It’s become popular, partly because it’s therapeutic to doodle and draw, but also because it’s nice to just be offline. Yes, I still use my paid Toodledo account as digital notepad when I don’t have a pen, but pretty much everything** is in my bullet journal.

While I’ve used a variety of tools, including apps like Coach.me (formally Lift.do), to track my habits, I just felt that I needed a change when it came to writing monthly goals. I’d found that I would start fudging and editing the goals I had initially written down and delete ones I’d ignored, just to make myself feel better. It’s been working well so far and I can say that my bullet journal isn’t just a fad I’m picking up; it’s likely a tool I will be using for at least a couple of years. I enjoy drawing and laying out my new “weeklies” while listening to podcasting.

Some things will always remain online though, including net worth tracking via NetWorthIQ and fitness tracking on CodyApp.

Yet the ultimate issue with the bullet planner is that I have no back-up system. To be clear, I don’t intend logging everything on Toodledo so that I can check it off later. In my panicked state earlier this morning, I did consider how much I would be losing if I really could not find my planner.

My life wouldn’t be over. I’d likely be able to rewrite 50-70% of the active task lists that I had going on. Once monthly goals are complete, I published them on my blog. As for weekly habits, I really couldn’t care less.

And is there anything that would be so important that I’d actually forget entirely I’d have to do it?

Likely not.

So even as I did hug my planner with a sigh of relief when I uncovered it, I realized that I still don’t intend on backing it up. And that’s okay. It’d be like a piece of lost art. I would have enjoyed all the time that I’d put up with it, but I’d be willing to let it go.

*If you’re unfamiliar with bullet journals, check out this article from the Toronto Star, Bullet Journaling Will Get You Organized.

**For work, I keep a separate teacher’s lesson planner which I’d purchased (and expensed to the school board) from Staples. Keeping my work and personal life separate definitely gave me less stress; I found that I could appropriately put my energy to focus on work when I need to and have some space from it when I just want to enjoy my down time.

How to Have Crucial Conversations – Part 2

In the last blog post about the book, Crucial Conversations: Tools for Talking When the Stakes Are High, I explained what makes a conversation crucial and also highlighted the main two “styles under stress”.

Chapter 6 describes the narrative that we often inaccurately tell ourselves in heated moments; these “clever stories” drive our emotions and subsequent actions. Often, we don’t even realize we are creating these stories, as they happen so fast. There are a few different types of stories that occur:

  1. Victim stories – We create ourselves as innocent victims. We are the good guys and the other person is the bad guy. Everything that they do is evil. The tales that we tell make us look weak; sometimes we might even omit important details to paint ourselves as a martyr. We want others to see ourselves as completely innocent.
  2. Villain stories – These stories make the other person look like an evil villain. We create motives and ill intentions; any possibility of neutral or good intentions may be omitted. Labeling the other person with insulting names devalues the other as a complex person.
  3. Helpless stories – This third form of “clever story” is a method of framing our situation as one where we have no options left. Ultimately, it creates justification for our actions. We create excuses that free us of guilt or responsibility of negative consequences.

Why do we tell ourselves “clever stories”?

Because they let us “off the hook” and allow us to create psychological distance from the situation. Therefore, it’s important to be able to analyze the stories and return to pure facts. Here are some of the suggested questions and frame of mind that can help us tell the reshape the story more accurately:

  • Am I pretending not to notice my role in the problem?
  • Why would a reasonable, rational, and decent person do this?
  • What do I really want?
  • What would I do right now if I really wanted these results?

How to Have Crucial Conversations – Part 1

I’ve been having issues with a couple of coworkers at work and for obvious reasons, will not disclose the details of the interactions publicly. The last two weeks were particularly stressful, but as I was speaking with a few friends, one of them suggested that I pick up Crucial Conversations: Tools for Talking When the Stakes Are High. Since I’m not near any bookstores, I purchased it on Audible.com instead.

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I started last Sunday and am already a halfway through. It reminds me very much of Olivia Fox Cabane’s The Charmisa Myth, but this book focuses specifically on the psychology of how to identify, approach and handle “crucial conversations”.  What makes a conversation “crucial”?

  • The stakes are high
  • Opinions on the topic vary greatly
  • Emotions run strong
  • The results can have a large impact on your life

We go through crucial conversations fairly often. We can either avoid them, handle them poorly or handle them well. Unfortunately, most of us are not skilled at handling delicate conversations; we often allow our ‘fight or flight’ response to take over. The result is that we may be shouting at each other and giving the silent treatment. In the end, we are now in a place worse off than we’ve started!

I know for myself I prefer the silent treatment. I believe that at least this buys me more processing time and is less damaging than shouting or hurling insults. It also seems, initially, a better path towards the yogic notion of ahimsa. However, evading conflict or brushing things under the table is still counter-productive in the long run. As I finished chapter 3 this morning, I took a survey to find out my “style under stress” to see if I really do lean towards silence rather than violence. The results probably are not a surprise.

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Sometimes I am able to speak out and explicitly identify an issue with my peers. However, when the level of discomfort increases, I tend to clam up. I feel that lately that has been happening. It is definitely something in my life that I need to work on. For now, just making note of this as I continue to finish my book.

Consolidating Apps: Switching from Coach.me

One of my favourite goal-tracking apps is Coach.me, formally known as Lift.do.  I’ve used this app for a couple of years now; the simplicity of the app and supportive online community are two features which have kept me on as a client. I’ve mainly used it to track – on a weekly and monthly basis – how often I’ve been lifting,doing barre work, taking my probiotics, calling my family* or reading a book.

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However, in an effort to minimize the number of productivity apps I’m using, I decided to switch over to Habits on Toodledo instead. Don’t get me wrong, I love Coach.me and I’ve tried to encourage friends to use it, but it’s easy to get distracted when you are constantly switching from one app to the next. And since becoming a paying Toodledo customer last year**, why not simply consolidate my task list and weekly habit checklist?

Habits hasn’t been around for very long, it was only unveiled just over a year ago. It functions similarly to the Coach.me interface, but you must assign which days of the week you complete your habit. The other motivator is to build “chains”***, long periods in which you successfully complete each habit. Unlike Coach.me, there is a strong visual reminder when you’ve missed a day or have been slacking off on a particular behaviour.

Screen Shot 2016-04-10 at 12.38.43 AMHere is a screenshot of the app interface. As you can see, it’s been a busy week and I didn’t manage to call my family during the weekdays:

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You can access your habits by logging in through a browser as well. It’s simple and easy to read. I like that you can see it in a monthly calendar. There is also the option to mark if you have failed your task and it is highlighted conspicuously in bright red.

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While I’ve only been using Habits for 2 weeks, I’m happy that I’ve transition over. I like seeing the “chains” and also seeing what I need to work on. While I’ve been doing yoga fairly regularly – I took a break for about 3 months – I didn’t manage to get on my mat because I was helping out with some night shifts at the local book fair.

Looking forward to going back to the gym through the whole week. As well, I’ll be getting back into barre work and using my standing desk more often!

Do you use any goal-tracking apps? Have you ever used Coach.me or Toodledo?

*As you can see, I’m not always good at calling my family. Of course, there’s no need to in the summer when I’m with them, or in December, when I’m home for the winter holidays.

**A Silver membership costs $15 USD/year.

***The only issue with this system is the inability to switch days. I normally go to the weight room Monday, Wednesday and Friday. However, if I switch over to another day, I can’t mark it on that specific calendar day without changing the settings and breaking my chain. The workaround is to just check off the habit on your last assigned day.

New Numbers: Squats and Deadlifts

Since I’ve started squatting with gym buddies, I have to say that my Friday afternoons always end awesome! It was a bonus that my hips were feeling open and that a pair of knee sleeves* came in the mail from Well.ca.

I filmed my back squats from a different angle and noticed a itty-bitty amount of “butt wink”. This is when – at the bottom of a squat – your butt looks like it’s tucking under. In another words, it looks like you’re tucking your tailbone:

I was upset to see this on the video feedback, but after according to Alan Thrall, it might just be hypermobility in my lumbar spine and that I’m not actually tucking my pelvis under. Anywhoooo, it won’t hurt to include some hamstring work in the warm-up. Will keep an eye out in future sets.

And my favourite – DEADLIFTS! Conventional deadlifts were fairly solid and I hit a new PR at 110 lbs, although I should run the barbell closer to the thighs. Pulling the barbell taunt***, which tricks the whole body into engaging, has definitely stopped me from putting the weight into my low back.

I have to say it’s been interesting since I started lifting regularly from November 2015. It’s become a regular part of my weekly routine and I realize I wouldn’t be this committed if it weren’t for my two gym partners, H. and K.

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However, I’ve been conservative with increasing the weights, ever since the minor setbacks I’d had in February**. I thought I’d have hit my bodyweight by now, but I’m not having any self pity. While I didn’t move up in numbers as fast as I hoped, I know it’s better to err on the side of caution. I’ve already seen one colleague go from working out three or four times at the gym to suddenly dropping out, all because he was moving too much weight, too fast and exacerbated pre-existing conditions, as well as injuring his back.

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My own minor injuries I had forced me to really dissect my squats, develop better cues and improve my overall form. And it’s a reminder that you can’t actually move up in weight if your form is full of kinks. So I am thankful that being forced to take a step back is an opportunity to help us move forward more purposefully and more safely, and helps us reevaluate what success really means.

*I stupidly lost the first set at the gym after I used them … once.

**Tight hips and a sensitive knee 

***Another tip I got from Alan Thrall

Social Media and Brain Health

It was my mom’s birthday earlier this week.

When I was chatting with her on the phone, she mentioned that she enjoyed the paperback copy of A Walk in the Woods I had left over the Christmas holidays; she had passed it onto my uncle, who is an avid reader, during a recent trip to California.

I love sharing good books, so out of curiosity, I texted my uncle, asking if he had enjoyed Bill Bryson. He replied that he wasn’t in the US, but traveling in Vietnam doing research for a book he is writing. As I was reminiscing of my own backpacking adventures around Southeast Asia, I recalled that I had a large hardcover photography book called Passage to Vietnam. I pulled it off the shelf and read half of it last night. I finished it this morning, and curious to learn more about the author, Rick Smolan, which the movie Tracks is based on, found this TED Talk he gave on the plight of Amerasians living in Asia.

This story just blows me away and brought me on the verge of tears. There aren’t many classic stories on TED these days, but this one is just amazing to watch. I ended up forwarding the story to an American-Korean friend who was adopted when she was younger, because I feel that the story would resonate with her.

Having said all that, it’s funny how a single incident can trigger a series of events. Of course, the details are fairly mundane. It wasn’t particularly necessary that I give the entire backstory of how I found this TED Talk.

So why am I telling you this?

Having listened to a lot of Note to Self podcasts recently, I’ve become more and more concerned on how my frequent use of social media is affecting my working memory.* I can tell you, although I still read a lot, I feel as if I can’t recall as much easily anymore. And as I recall the entire story of how I found that TED video, I am ashamed to say that the other 9 out of 10 times I am consuming online media, I have absolutely no clue how I got there. I simply don’t question it and don’t even think about it. Therefore, recalling the series of events publicly is an exercise for my brain and an attempt to be more purposeful in my social media use.

Try it yourself as homework: The next time you consumer a piece of online media, can you trace back how you go there? Or is it a struggle? Are you randomly clicking on a series of unrelated links or posts, or are you looking for information and going through related topics?  Do you tend to scroll through feeds (i.e. Twitter, Facebook) and use up your working memory a lot?

If you do, it might be worthwhile giving your working memory a break. This weekend might be a good time to turn off your cellphone for a few hours and dust off that old camera on your shelf. Take out your yarn and crochet hook for a while. Try doodling with coloured pencils and listening to music rather than watching YouTube. Or maybe start a new hobby that you were never particularly interested in in the first place, you might be surprised.

These are reminders for myself, as I considered myself to be a pretty digitally connected person at any time in the day. And I know I need to revamp my online habits.*** I am reminded of fellow friends who have kids and don’t even have the luxury of time to sit on their butts for extended periods of time playing on their iPads.

But this is definitely an interesting and necessary conversation we all need to be having. So take some time to reconnect with yourself. What will you do today that’s good for your brain?

 

*It also doesn’t help that there are fewer people around me to converse with, living in a small town. I often like to discuss, verbally and face-to-face, new information I’d learned recently because it helps me remember ideas better.

**Multitasking isn’t good for our brains

***While blogging is technically something I do digitally, it is great for me because it’s a time for me to quietly sit, reflect and stay single-tasking for 30 minutes. I don’t particularly like writing in journals anymore, although I did for quite a number of years as a child (and recently threw most of my pointless teenage-angst ridden notes out).

Making Information Overload Disappear: Infomagical Challenge

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It’s been a week since I started the Infomagical Challenge from the podcast from New York Public Radio, Note to Self. The purpose of the challenge?

I’m the perfect candidate for this. J. constantly chides me on trying to multitask. I’ll do it in the kitchen and even when I’m trying to do lesson planning. Sometimes we sit in front of the TV and while we are trying to watch a show, I am playing on my iPad and checking my phone. I know it must look ridiculous. And it is ridiculous, because I know, for a fact, that multitasking isn’t really good for our brains, but I just feel like I can’t stop myself.

So as I listened to the episode of Note to Self explaining why we need to find our focus, I decided … let’s do this. Here are the five challenges and my reflections on them.

  1. Magical Day – Single Task: Initially, this was initially hard to avoid. I had to consciously catch myself as I was doing it. I realized I had a bad habit of interrupting myself, so I tried really hard just to switch back to the first task when I realized I was trying to do more than one thing.
  2. Magical Phone – Clean up your phone, turn off the notifications: Probably the best self-help tip I’ve had all week. I already keep the number of apps I have to a minimum, but I turned off my notifications for Cody App, Facebook Messenger and Instagram. From my lock screen on my iPad and my smartphone, I did not see any updates because they were all disabled. I began to realize how distracting it was for my eyes to constantly flit to the next ‘pop-up’.
  3. Magical Brain – Avoid memes or the biggest trend of the day: Super Bowl? Not my cup of tea anyway. This was not hard.
  4. Magical Connection – Talk to someone face-to-face or on the phone for at least 7 minutes: Talked to my mum on the phone!
  5. Magical Life – Write an #Infomantra: I decided I wanted to be more creative, so this week I finally pulled out the ball of yarn and a 3.0 crochet hook that I borrowed from my mom over the holidays and got started! And no, I’m not trying to make a triangle … I did end up pulling out all the rows until I got back to the ones that were not missing any single crochets!

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I definitely felt much more clear-headed by the end of the week. I feel that I’m being bombarded with less information and that I need to set better boundaries when it comes to digital media use, and that FOMO* isn’t necessary and that you have to revel in JOMO*. It also helps to realize that when we are tired, we are most susceptible to wasting time by scrolling waaaay too long on Instagram or Twitter.

I also just want to say that – obviously – science research and public discourse about mental health is awesome!

If you’re interested in the challenge, definitely listen to the podcasts. I have probably listened to about 5-6 hours of it over the past week! Please share it with other people who you think might benefit.

*The two acronyms stand for ‘Fear of missing out’ and ‘Joy of missing out’. This comic from The Oatmeal explains it pretty succinctly.