Candles Always Cry

And Other Stories

Month: August, 2012

Two Six

She sat on the second floor patio in the faded deck chair, fading herself in the low hanging sunset. The beginning of evening blew around her and she pulled her cardigan a little tighter. She sat, leaning over, knees apart, hands clasped together. She dropped her head so that the sunset clouds disappeared and the peach tile of the patio floor rose up to meet her. Rocking softly, she shivered again at the touch of the wind.

She had only her thoughts and the view of the neighbor’s yard and the pool down below. A bird landed on the electric wires between their yard and the neighbor’s, calling to its mates. Was it slang? she wondered, the short, four letter sounds the bird made. It flew up and over the neighbor’s garage, flapping and nearly barking. The electric wire swung back into place, or was it her imagination? The weight of a bird shouldn’t be enough to move it.

She went inside and came out a moment later with a book and the last of a pack of frozen raspberries. She had left the raspberries out last night and now they had congealed into one block of tart raspberry ice and she sucked on it and opened the book to page 263. The words entered and started small electric explosions in her brain, one after another, sluggish at first and then taking over more and more of the neural pathways, until a shadow fell across the book just a page or two in. The bird was back, circling low above her, blacker now against the bluer sky. It dipped and then rose again and she noticed a strip of white in its black feathers. Maybe it was getting old.

Raspberry juice dripped onto the page in the book, kissing one word pink. The word was ‘one’, and then the pink bled a little onto the next word ‘shoulder’, and down a little, icing the top of the word ‘why’. It could have been any word, she mused. Which word would I have chosen? She examined every word on the page, each one an isolated unit, connected only to the word above it or below it. Only said, I am, dark box, every coffin, how, silly, who, whore, me, him, her. The words took turns on the runway and slunk away when she realized their nakedness.

She closed the book with a sigh now because the words were gone, and looked at the square patio tiles again, stained with rain and the time she ate chocolate ice cream out here. She looked up to the sky and it was the grainy color of a VHS film with unsuccessful stars beginning to show, like a man’s three day stubble. She looked again at the yard and the pool but nothing had changed.

She could still taste the sweetness of the raspberries and see the last of the sunset and breathe the crisp air and hear the sounds of a Friday night restaurant and the all of it – the beauty of it and the normalcy of it and the nearness of it and the loneliness of it – it hugged her and then left her.

The arriving night took all the words away, and left only the cricket to sing, and the bird that came even though she couldn’t see it, and left her with her hands clasped under her chin, holding it up.

A tied man cannot unbind himself, she whispered too quietly for the stars to hear.

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Habits and Goals

I wish I were smart enough to be an expert on something. That’s what all the promoters and marketers and social media hacks say, “Become an expert in you field.” I’ve been on Twitter long enough to know that the best and probably the only way to build an audience if you’re not already famous is to stick relentlessly to one topic. Because that’s how people know you. And trust you. And worship you. And buy from you.

Well, I’m sorry but I’m not an expert. I don’t do any one thing all the time. I read a lot and I ask a lot of questions and I breathe a lot.

So I’m not going to teach you anything. I’m just going to try and discover the answer to something, mostly for the journey of it, and probably just to find the real question. Answers are boring and final and usually restricted to certain conditions that never apply in your particular case.

Today, my question is about habits, and goals.

First of all, habits and goals are different. A habit is about consistency, and a goal is about progress.

So let’s say you want to exercise more, is it better to say “I will exercise 3 times a week for 30 minutes each time” or “By the end of this month I will be able to lift X pounds”?

Each requires a different kind of discipline, which requires its own kind of study.

Interestingly, often a goal is reached by building good habits, and habits, if tracked, can use count as goals. Such as counting mileage in running, or a streak of writing each day.

Both also require reinforcement and feedback – from friends, from visible progress, from tracking devices.

And it’s true for both that tools and techniques make them easier. The more you automate the process, or provide external motivation, or get it into routine, the less you have to work to get it done. So, a weekly class, working out with a partner, using a tracking device or app, can help make it easier to accomplish.

This brings me to a question that motivated this search. What about work? You have a paper to write, a client proposal to write up, research to do, and you’ve been procrastinating. Do you tell yourself “I will work for 3 hours” or do you tell yourself “I will finish the rough draft” “I will have a list of ten options for the client”?

Is this similar to habits vs. goals? Maybe.

I wonder if the difference is about being able to say, “I did what I had to do” and saying “It is done.”

If you want to win a race, it makes no difference if you can check off your practice schedule if your time isn’t getting better.

But then the question becomes “Is it done” or “Is it done well”?

And that has to do with whether or not it’s a quantifiable goal.

When you’re running. You either made the time or you didn’t.

When you’re writing a paper, there’s a finished A paper and a finished C paper. There’s an email that you believe has the best pitch you could have written, or it’s an email that you sent because you wanted it off your list?

In my life so far I’ve found that I’m more of a goal person than a consistency person. In fact, consistency kills me every time, and I get quickly depressed. This is especially true since on my motivated days I want to change everything in my life – do laundry on time, eat better, eat more, sleep more, write more blogposts, do spiritual stuff more often, volunteer, be kind, make time for others etc. etc.

Even with the best of intentions, it can get quite hard to habitize all those resolutions.

It works better for me to say “I will read 50 books this year” than “I will read one book a week.”

But one of my goals in life is to be less critical, and more optimistic, which is definitely unquantifiable. The best way (that I know) to accomplish a change like that is to write down one time each day that you actively banished an unkind thought about someone or something and replaced it with a positive one. (Writing it down is essential because it forces you to be conscious of what you’re thinking.)

This relies only on your consistency measure. You can only count on keeping track of the habit, not the progress, because how will if you’re actually a more positive person?

I think it boils down to this: any habit that you do has to be for some purpose. You don’t do push ups just to do push ups, you do them to be more fit. But then how do you know you’re more fit, just because you checked it off your list?

So there are two options:

Working towards a measurable goal by measuring progress, not consistency – so no habits, just build up to a goal.

Working towards a non-measurable goal by consistency because you don’t have another way to judge it.

When it comes to something like writing, or accomplishing creative work, habits can help you get better at what you do, but the final product doesn’t fall under this category. It’s not a defined destination (unlike a goal), but it does have to end somewhere (unlike a habit).

All this does not answer the question of how to get yourself to work – by time or by project – so that still has to be explored.

Some great stuff I found regarding habits:

  • Buster Benson. He’s created a bunch of tools around habit tracking and habit building. 750words.com is for writers who want to write every day, HealthMonth is a social and gamified way to build habits, Peabrain will help you keep track of anything from your phone via SMS, and the Hipster Habbit App is a non-digital, printable, 30 day habit-tracking calendar to carry around in your wallet.
  • He’s shared his very practical and very motivational thoughts on habits in The Habit Manifesto.
  • Seinfeld’s ‘Don’t Break the Chain‘ tip seems to work for some though it didn’t work for me. I was so excited when I first read about it because it involves calendars and markers but I fizzled out pretty quickly. I’ll try it again some day.