Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Moving house

Not the writer, just the blog. This blog has moved to, and joined with The new blog looks much prettier, and I've just posted photos of the 60s wedding in Los Sauces. Carlos looked great in his costume!
A particularly elegant guest at the 60s wedding in Los Sauces
A particularly elegant wedding guest.

Saturday, February 21, 2015

"Making Habits, Breaking Habits" Chapter 9: Making Habits.

"Making Habits, Breaking Habits" by Jeremy Dean.
 Full disclosure: If you buy the book through the link, it won't cost you any more, but I'll get a few pennies. But my main motivation for doing this is to understand the book properly. What follows is my summary of the chapter.


Successful famous people often have a regular routine. Working steadily on your main goal is clearly an important part of success, but then it's clearly not the whole thing. A daily walk will help keep your brain and body in shape, but by itself it won't produce the theory of evolution by natural selection. As scientists say, the plural of anecdote is not data. What we need is studies of large numbers of people to find out what works and what doesn't. We need science.

One thing at a time
It's tempting to go for a complete makeover. Don't. Look at all the people who make ten New Year's resolutions and break them all by the end of January. Start small, and change one thing at a time. You can break a large habit down into smaller parts, and do them one at a time. Don't change your whole diet in one go. Maybe start by weaning yourself off the sugar in your coffee. Leave fruit for elevenses until the sugarless coffee is automatic.

If your motivation's weak, you’re unlikely to make a new habit stick. So have a think about why you want to do this. But don't daydream that you've done it. Surprisingly, that's counterproductive. Daydream about working on your goals. That way you'll work harder at it, and you're less likely to be blind-sided by problems. Best of all, imagine your future with the good habit, then without the good habit, and contrast the two. That works best, as long as you expect to succeed. People who don't think they can succeed tend to give up, which at least saves wasted effort. (This is another reason to start small – you'll have a more realistic idea of what you can achieve.)

The catch is that it's no fun thinking of the yawning gap between your goal and the status quo, and taking an inventory of everything that might go wrong. But oddly, once you realise that it's difficult but doable, you'll probably be motivated. And then you need a plan – the right sort of plan.

Most people have really vague plans, like “lose weight,” or “be kinder.” What you need is to plan a very precise (preferably small) action and a a very specific situation to trigger it. “Whenever I'm getting myself coffee, then I'll have 2 sugars instead of 3” or “If I see someone struggling with a buggy, then I'll offer to help.” Link the situation with the response, and there's a much better chance you'll form a habit. 94 studies show that this works.

You may have to tweak the plan. Say you want to exercise and you start with, “If I reach the lift at work, then I'll take the stairs.” That limits you to the stairs at work. OK, so “If I reach any lift, then I'll take the stairs.” But what if it's 25 floors, or you're in the middle of an important conversation with somebody who's taking the lift? Hmm. “If I reach any lift and I'm not mid-conversation, then I'll take the stairs for at least 2 floors.” Sometimes these things just won't work for you, and you'll need a different technique. “If I leave the car in a car park, then I'll park at the far end and walk across the car park.” It's not a lot of exercise, but it's better than nothing.

Don't plan using the time of day. If you plan to go for a run at 8pm you probably won't be looking at the clock at 8pm. Don't rely on your memory: use an event. Go for a run after Dr Who. The best cue for a new habit is something that happens every day at a regular time. People trying to eat more healthily found that arriving at work and lunchtime were good cues, because it links to an existing habit. A lot of your day is already chains of habits – add a new link. The best time to floss is right after you brush.

OK, that's the if. Now for the then. Make it specific, If you're trying to be nicer to your spouse, then “If it's my turn to cook, then I'll make something they like.” If you're trying to eat more healthily, “If I'm food shopping, then I'll remember to get low fat milk.” It's often good to include alternatives. “If there's time after breakfast, then I'll go for a run or ride my bicycle.”

You should also plan for when it starts to go wrong. “If I get a craving for a cigarette after meals, I'll distract myself by clearing the table and loading the dishwasher.” “If I can't be arsed to do yoga, I'll light some incense and put on soothing music to get me in the mood, then I'll get the mat out and just do two sun salutations” “If I'm too tired to do the de-cluttering I promised myself, I'll play some rock and roll.”

Every time you repeat your habit, it gets a little easier. But the number of repetitions varies depending on the person, the habit you're trying to form and how you go about it. It's a good idea to have a plan (or plans) for dissatisfaction. “If I feel I'm not making any progress, then I'll remind myself how far I've come.” “If I'm short of motivation, I'll remind myself why I'm doing this and put on some energising music and/or promise myself a small reward afterwards.”

Self monitoring helps. Both the traditional chart to record progress and noticing how it's going. You may want to tweak. Would it be easier at a different time of day?How about two short cleaning sessions instead of one long one? Of course once you've noticed a problem (“I'm bored with apples”) you have to do something about it (“I'll have a banana instead.”) You may need to tweak again. “Bananas don't keep very well. I shop on Wednesdays, so I'll have a banana on Thursday and Friday, a mango on Saturday when I tend to skip fruit, and then I'll have apples or oranges for the rest of the week.”)

Don't beat yourself up if you miss a session. A few misses won't hurt much. [Sheila sez: Specifically don't be like an ex-boyfriend of mine, and conclude that one miss means you've given up and you're useless and there's no point trying ever again.]

Be careful with rewards. What happens when you get bored with the reward? It works better if the reward is your own satisfaction.

It shouldn't be so very hard to acquire a new habit. You've acquired loads of habits without even trying! And once you've made your desired behaviour into a habit, you'll probably go on doing it even when the house burns down and the cat explodes.

Sunday, February 15, 2015

Making Habits, Breaking Habits" by Jeremy Dean, Chaper 8: Online all the time

"Making Habits, Breaking Habits" by Jeremy Dean.
 Full disclosure: If you buy the book through the link, it won't cost you any more, but I'll get a few pennies. But my main motivation for doing this is to understand the book properly. What follows is my summary of the chapter.

Facebook can get out of hand. Not just late-to-cook-dinner out of hand, but 5-hours-a-day,-sneaking-off-work-to-check-it-until-you're-fired,-then-sneaking-peeks-at-it-during-your-session-with-a-psychologist out of hand.

Some people set their email program to download every 5 minutes, even though there's usually nothing, and if there’s something, it's usually spam. 59% of people check their email in the loo. Of course it only takes a moment to check email, but it takes another minute or so to get back into whatever you were doing before. One minutes, every five minutes.

Email is what behavioural psychologists call a “variable-interval reinforcement schedule.” You never know when the next email will arrive, and you never know how interesting it will be when it does. So you put up with the frustration when you get nothing worth reading, and the habit is strengthened when you do get something. Like slot machines.

Checking email every 5 minutes at work reduces your productivity. Checking email every 5 minutes on holiday can lead to burnout and/or divorce.

Some people check email once or twice a day. Some people check it every 30 seconds and always respond immediately. Some people feel it's taking over, and some delete anything that doesn't look interesting. Jeremy Dean suggests that for most of us, checking once every 45 minutes or so would work better. Other mini breaks might consist of shutting your eyes for 5 seconds to rest them, or getting a drink. You're unlikely to do that every 30 seconds, it's less tiring, and you could think about your work while you do it.

Multitasking doesn't really work. You're actually switching rapidly between tasks, and probably forgetting stuff each time. And it stops you ever getting into a flow state.

Twitter takes multitasking a step further. You can hold multiple conversations at once, although 80% of users only talk about themselves, and 10% of users generate 90% of all tweets. In practice, it's not so much conversations as information spread. But while you're waiting for some juicy information, it's another “variable-interval reinforcement schedule.” So we tend to check Twitter at shorter and shorter intervals until we make a conscious decision to change.

Does checking email and twitter every 30 seconds count as an addiction? Sort of, but it's probably more useful to ask whether it's making you miserable. And it's often a symptom of depression or anxiety as much as a cause of it. The catch is that the more your life has been screwed up by overuse of the Internet, the more likely you are to distract yourself by using the Internet. And the internet is pretty much always available.

It's up to us how we use it.

Friday, February 13, 2015

The new website's up

Well the new website's up, although I'm sure there are broken links and missing images. I'll be adding more later, but meanwhile, feel free to go have a nosy around

Monday, February 09, 2015

"Making Habits, Breaking Habits" Chapter 7: When habits kill

"Making Habits, Breaking Habits" by Jeremy Dean.
 Full disclosure: If you buy the book through the link, it won't cost you any more, but I'll get a few pennies. But my main motivation for doing this is to understand the book properly. What follows is my summary of the chapter.

Habits can be lethal, but no, he doesn't mean smoking.

Pilots have to go through a long check-list before take-off. These check lists reduce accidents, but they get so routine that occasionally the pilots will say “Check” without really checking. The results can be tragic, so there's a lot of research on how to avoid this. For example, moving the check-list from paper to computer halved the error rate.

Humans have such a strong tendency to see what they expect or want to see, especially when stressed. Give musicians music with mistakes in it, and by and large, they'll play correct notes instead. Most people don't spot spelling mistakes, especially in the middle of a word. [Sheila sez: no wonder it's so hard to proof read your own writing!] This sort of slip offers a fascinating window into how habits work.

We also substitute one action for another, like going to the fridge for milk and fetching orange juice instead. [Sheila sez: Am I the only one who actually put the orange juice in my tea?] We think we asked for coffee when we only thought about it, then get annoyed when coffee doesn't appear. [Sheila sez: I used to do that with letters. I'd write them in my head, and then be convinced I'd written them on paper and posted them.]

Another favourite is repeating part of a habit. Boil kettle, pour water into mug. Boil kettle again, pour water into full mug so it overflows and you have to mop up.

We do these things mostly in very familiar places, like the kitchen and bedroom. It's partly because we spend quite a lot of time there, but also because they're so very full of environmental cues to our habits.

Health and Safety has a bad reputation, but they became more effective when they stopped merely educating people. I remember when they ran TV adverts showing how very easy it is to go through a car windscreen if you're not wearing a seatbelt, and how very, very horrible it is if that happens. That persuaded people that they ought to wear seatbelts, but it didn't make them wear seat belts. The habit of shutting the car door and driving off was too strong.

So the psychologists started looked at what else was going on. And they found that environmental cues play a huge role in habits. Like the tragic case of the train driver who unconsciously developed the habit of driving off when he heard the guard ring the bell twice – missing out the vital “CHECK THE SIGNAL IS AT GREEN” part.

Explaining to people that smoking kills didn't stop people smoking. Banning them from smoking in certain places did, because it disrupted the habit. Check-lists also help.

Jeremy Dean finishes the chapter by saying, “We think of ourselves as biology, psychology and behaviour and neglect [snip] how we are embedded in our environments, both physical and social. Our habits [snip] also grow out of these. [snip] The situation has more power to control our habits than we think.

Sunday, February 08, 2015

Do I dare?

Only three weeks ago I managed a quick and perfect installation of WordPress to get ready for my blog upgrades. Today I tried to do it for real, and it all went splat. Perhaps because this was on top of the old site instead of a nice new one.

I have a backup of the site. Maybe I just need to take a very deep breath, clean it all out, and start again. Scary, scary thought.

Meanwhile, I should mention that I haven't abandoned the read through of "Making Habits, Breaking Habits" by Jeremy Dean. I'm just busy with websites. And yeah, you could say that I've got out of the habit.

Thursday, February 05, 2015

A conference in Saudi Arabia

OK, so what do you think a conference on "Women in Society" in Saudi Arabia looks like?

I was guessing that it looked like laundry bags (and sounded very interesting). My son guessed that it would be an empty room.

It's all men.

Wednesday, February 04, 2015

Working on the website

I have too many blogs. There's this one, and the one about La Palma, and one about astronomy and one about El Hierro. Plus there's my main site (or at least it used to be my main site, but it's very neglected and old-fashioned.) And my bookshop. All this takes up far too much of my time and interferes with writing. So I'm combining them.

Stage 1: Move to (This goes first because the web hosting is up for renewal.) Coming along nicely.

Stage 2: Add articles from

Stage 3: Move combined blog to Leave redirects behind.

Stage 4: Add the other two blogs and the bookshop.

Stage 5: Finish the whodunnit.