The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business by Charles Duhigg
This book explains the psychology of habit formation and habit change, using lots of stories and examples. The writing style reminded me of Malcolm Gladwell, especially in the way each chapter seemed to use two very different examples to prove the same point, switching between them in narration.
I wouldn’t categorize the book as self-help or how-to. Instead of explicitly telling readers what to do to change their habits, it describes the principles behind habit formation so that an intelligent reader could apply them to any situation. Generally, what I took away from it is this. For any bad habit you might want to change, first identify the craving driving it. Then identify the cue or trigger. Then, when that cue or trigger occurs next, try to substitute different things that might satisfy that craving instead of the bad habit. It might take some experimentation to find a suitable substitute. Reinforce it with a reward. This general pattern could apply to almost any habit.
After describing habit change on an individual level, the book goes a step further to discuss the habits of organizations and communities. The information on “keystone habits” seemed particularly powerful. These are habits that impact an entire lifestyle or cause a chain reaction or a shift of focus. The main example here was a CEO who focused first on making his aluminum processing company as safe as possible. His focus on safety led him to improve the company’s communicatons and culture, so that it actually became much more efficient while dramatically decreasing the number of accidents. These ideas apply pretty readily to schools, I think. A quick example might be the emphasis on beginning every class with a “bellringer” activity that ensures that students arrive on time and focus on work as soon as they walk in the door. It’s easy to see how a habit like that could lead to a more productive class.
Some of the stories are bound to be more interesting than others, based on the reader’s interests. There are tales about how an NFL coach, Alcoholics Anonymous, Starbucks, Target, and the civil rights movement all changed the habits of others, as well as case studies from medicine and law that make points about habit formation and the ethical questions raised by the power our habits have over us. The book was an interesting, engaging way to learn concepts that apply to everyone’s lives and have the power to improve them drastically.
I’m a writer in a writing rut. I’m feeling myself lose interest in my blog, in my journal. I’m having trouble focusing; I feel like I have nothing worthwhile to say. It’s not a new feeling. I’ve had it before. But this time I feel like I have something to blame it on: I’m pregnant.
I’m very largely pregnant. My house is cluttered with baby gifts that haven’t yet found a place to belong. My last month’s calendar was full with showers, midwife appointments, and family visits. The little person inside me makes sitting (or standing or lying down) for long periods uncomfortable and distracts me by kicking painfully at my ribs. If I went into labor today, the baby wouldn’t be considered premature.
So I kind of feel like I can let myself off the hook. It’s only natural that I turn inward and focus my attention on the life that’s growing inside me, on the ordeal I’ll soon endure giving birth. No need to wallow in non-writing-writer guilt like usual. This is one time it’s ok to be lazy. One thing that I think will help me to survive motherhood is being kind to myself, and I know I should start that now.
But I also want to resist that urge to slow down. My biggest fear in becoming a mother is losing my identity, losing the things that are most important to me. In order to avoid resenting my child, I know I’ll have to hang on to the things that make me who I am. So I need to keep writing. It’s more urgent now than ever.
One comforting thing that I’ve heard from other young mothers I trust who have an outlook similar to mine is that when you have a child, your priorities do shift, but you can still make time for the things that are truly important.
I’m making time for other things that aren’t writing. Easier things, less mentally draining things. I’m still going to the gym about five times a week, for example, though my pace on the elliptical machine has significantly slowed. The choice to prioritize gym time probably has more to do with my poor body image than with my love for exercise.
Part of it may be that I’m afraid of writing. Afraid of reflecting. Afraid of what I’ll discover if I think deeper about this transition and go beneath the surface of onesies and diaper bags. But I need to face that fear. It’s important for women to write about themselves and to make their struggles public if they can take the heat. Letting others in can make all of our struggles a little more bearable because they feel less solitary.
So I want to make writing a priority, while also being kind to myself when it doesn’t go well. That’s kind of hard when my main source of motivation in life has been the conviction that if I don’t accomplish X task then I’m worthless. I need to balance that motivating writer guilt with the need to be kind to myself. Balance–as elusive as that concept is–is the goal, and it begins not just with my actions, or how I spend my time, but with my thinking.
I guess this is my pep talk to myself as I face the biggest change in my life so far. To put this new focus into action, I feel like I need to inject some life into this blog. One thing I’d like to do in order to keep the blog going and make it fun, sustainable, and engaging, is expand somewhat beyond book reviews to repost articles that I read online. A good amount of the reading that I do is online, and I believe this is the case for many, many people I know too. I like it when facebook friends direct me to interesting articles, so hopefully my audience here will appreciate these links as well. These posts will be similar to the “internet roundup” posts that I’ve done a couple times and similar to what I’ve seen on blue milk, a feminist blog on parenting that I admire. I’ll offer a quote from an article I’ve read online, with or without commentary. I’ll keep using the internet roundup tag on these posts for organization and clarity.
So, since it’s the season, I wanted to make my first internet roundup post in about a year about Mother’s Day.
Mother’s Day celebrates a huge lie about the value of women: that mothers are superior beings, that they have done more with their lives and chosen a more difficult path. Ha! Every woman’s path is difficult, and many mothers were as equipped to raise children as wire monkey mothers. I say that without judgment: It is, sadly, true. …
I hate the way the holiday makes all non-mothers, and the daughters of dead mothers, and the mothers of dead or severely damaged children, feel the deepest kind of grief and failure. The non-mothers must sit in their churches, temples, mosques, recovery rooms and pretend to feel good about the day while they are excluded from a holiday that benefits no one but Hallmark and See’s. …
It should go without saying that I also hate Valentine’s Day.
Mothering has been the richest experience of my life, but I am still opposed to Mother’s Day. It perpetuates the dangerous idea that all parents are somehow superior to non-parents. …
Don’t get me wrong: There were times I could have literally died of love for my son, and I’ve felt stoned on his rich, desperate love for me. But I bristle at the whispered lie that you can know this level of love and self-sacrifice only if you are a parent. We talk about “loving one’s child” as if a child were a mystical unicorn. Ninety-eight percent of American parents secretly feel that if you have not had and raised a child, your capacity for love is somehow diminished. Ninety-eight percent of American parents secretly believe that non-parents cannot possibly know what it is to love unconditionally, to be selfless, to put yourself at risk for the gravest loss. But in my experience, it’s parents who are prone to exhibit terrible self-satisfaction and selfishness, who can raise children as adjuncts, like rooms added on in a remodel. Their children’s value and achievements in the world are reflected glory, necessary for these parents’ self-esteem, and sometimes, for the family’s survival. This is how children’s souls are destroyed.
I guess I’m about 96% done with my pregnancy, so I guess that gives me about 96% of a right to celebrate Mother’s Day as a mother and expect others to shower me with flowers and greeting cards. But Lamott’s article really makes some great points that I totally agree with. Mother’s Day celebrates the ideology of total motherhood that frightens me so much. It excludes childless women and men in the same way that Valentine’s Day excludes the uncoupled. It’s not an equal opportunity holiday. Lamott makes me want to boycott Mother’s Day forever.
The problem is that I would feel horrible explaining these objections to my mother, mother-in-law, and my husband’s grandmother when they wonder why I’m not giving or accepting gifts on Mother’s Day. I don’t want to insult them or the sacrifices they made to raise their kids. At the same time, though, I think I will make a point of honoring my husband’s childless aunt, who is like a second mother to him, and I might bring up Lamott’s main points if the opportunity arises. I will probably celebrate Mother’s Day the same way I celebrate Valentine’s Day: tongue-in-cheek, fully aware of its problematic exclusionary nature, with no sense of superiority, and most of all privately. I hated Valentine’s Day growing up, because I spent all of high school single, and that experience still colors my feelings about the day. The only reason I celebrate Valentine’s Day is because it happens to be the anniversary of the beginning of my relationship with my husband, but I still feel sympathy and solidarity with those who find the holiday annoying or depressing. Personally, I don’t have any similar baggage with Mother’s Day because I didn’t struggle with infertility and have/had good relationships with my mother and grandmothers, but in the abstract I definitely see how the two holidays are comparable in the way they enforce traditional gender roles through celebrating them.
I think social media makes holidays like these even more oppressive than they have to be through the relentless sharing of pictures of flower arrangements and the competition to have or be the best partner. The comparisons that these joyful status updates engender in those who are excluded from the holiday are what make the celebration’s exclusionary nature so oppressive and hurtful to them. Resisting the urge to show off how loved I am is the best I can do to keep my celebration from hurting anyone else.
Requiem by Lauren Oliver
This novel concludes the Delirium trilogy, a YA dystopia series about a society where love is considered a disease, and everyone gets a kind of lobotomy at 18 to prevent them from “catching” it. This volume alternates between the perspectives of Lena, the main character from the first two novels, who escaped her “procedure” and is now fighting with the resistance, and her friend Hana, who has been “cured” and is engaged to the town’s brutal new mayor. Most of the action of the book has to do with the resistance, Lena’s travels with her group of rebels, and preparations for Hana’s wedding and her discoveries about her fiance. The focus is on the cruelty of the society and how far its leaders go to oppress those they fear.
A love triangle emerges thanks to the great surprise ending of Pandemonium, the second volume, stirring up drama in Lena’s entire little tribe. However, the love story takes a bit of a backseat here, compared to in the other installments of the trilogy. Mostly it’s just a source of angst. The conclusion of this plotline was satisfying, if somewhat predictable. As always, Lauren Oliver’s prose sets her apart from most YA writers. The last page is particularly nice, universalizing the story. I enjoyed this book as much as I did the others in the series, and recommend it to anyone who likes dystopia stories that make you think and include a love story.
Under the Never Sky by Veronica Rossi
In this dystopia, some people live in enclosed pods and spend their time in a virtual reality called the Realms. Other people live a more desperate existence in tribes exposed to the hostile atmosphere of the Aether sky, but some of these Outsiders have special enhanced senses that give them advantages. Aria is one of the Dwellers; when she gets kicked out of her home, she encounters Peregrine, an Outsider with a sense of smell so keen he’s basically a mind-reader. Their interests align, so they travel together as their feelings for each other grow.
The story is told with alternating third person point of view, described in prose that’s well above average for the genre. The environment is otherworldly and beautiful in its wild chaos, and the people who live there fit well into its scenic strangeness. There are a couple well-plotted surprises at the end, the kind I like because they seem logical and appropriate, yet original and unexpected.
I like when the big thematic ideas and the actions driving the plot are strongly connected, especially in dystopia novels. In this world, the people who live almost exclusively inside the virtual reality risk a disorder called Degenerative Limbic Syndrome, because the brain’s limbic system, or animal mind, stops working, and people go nuts. The book makes an argument for the value of real life, physical sensation, and work over illusory worlds and their seductive, easy, instant gratification, and Aria’s sense of wonder as she travels with Peregrine are also consistent with this theme.
Aria and Peregrine fall in love despite knowing their relationship cannot last. Peregrine feels cultural pressure to perpetuate his gift through breeding with a woman with similar talents, and has seen the negative consequences of failure to do so in his own family. The realism and heartbreak that this situation causes, and the characters’ strength in facing it, make their coupling all the more poignant. Doomed relationships like this seem somewhat rare in YA, where you’re more likely to find couples who fully expect to be together until death, though they’re only teens. Even more rare is when a couple without hope for a future siezes the day and consumates the relationship despite knowing it won’t last. The decision to have sex also fits well with Aria’s discovery of the world of real sensation outside the virtual Realms.
This is the first story in a series or trilogy, so I’m looking forward to later books. At the end of this book, both Aria and Peregrine make discoveries about themselves and their world, and recieve new roles that they must now live up to. It will be interesting to see how their relationship develops as they complete their new duties and face the challenges ahead.
Unravel Me by Tahereh Mafi
This sequel to Shatter Me picks up with Juliette and Adam in Omega Point, the headquarters of the resistance movement. Most of the action of the book has to do with their training, plans to take down the oppressive regime, and, of course, relationship drama. Generally, the book fulfills the promise of the previous one, which I noted in my review, has some themes similar to Twilight, but is several steps above that series because it has healthier relationships, a more capable heroine, and better prose.
This volume develops the love triangle that began with the first one. Juliette and Adam break up because his resistance to her power is wearing off, and she might hurt him accidentally. So the way is open for Warner, the last book’s villain, the bad boy, the one who needs saving. Juliette finds herself unable to hate him despite all he’s done to hurt her and Adam. Once she learns about his rough childhood, she feels a kinship and sympathy with him that feeds her growing attraction to him. There’s a really steamy scene where Warner nearly seduces Juliette, described in erotic detail.
So often in teen romance novels like this, there’s this idea that it’s not love unless it’s all-consuming and co-dependent. So I enjoyed her strong, self-aware rejection of Warner, when she maturely recognized that the bad-boy characteristics that make him so appealing would make him a horrible partner. I also appreciated that Juliette became more independent of Adam in this book, understanding that her previous overreliance on him wasn’t healthy:
I can love him, but I can’t depend on him to be my backbone. I can’t be my own person if I constantly require someone else to hold me together.
There’s something about Juliette’s voice that seems to emphasize her fragility. She always seems on the edge of some kind of breakdown. It makes her appear weaker than she is, which was slightly annoying to me as a reader. (This aspect of her character might come out more in the audiobook I listened to than in the text.) However, toward the end of the novel she makes some concrete decisions and becomes determined to take down the evil Reconstruction government and its leader, Anderson. There’s a bad ass inside her that’s been hidden, and I just hope the next novel really lets her out.
Carnival of Souls by Melissa Marr
I enjoyed Melissa Marr’s Wicked Lovely series about fairies, so I was interested to learn about her new novel about witches and daimons and their violent rivalry spanning two worlds. As in the fairy novels, the imagined world is richly detailed, dark, and violent, full of power struggles between different factions. There are some good surprises and revelations in the plot as well. Marr’s sentences put her solidly among the better YA writers popular today. She goes for psychological complexity as well as fantastic spectacle.
The second and third chapters and the character of Aya were the things that really hooked me in to this novel. Aya is so ambitious that she’s fighting in a dangerous tournament for the right to rule the daimon world, even though it means facing her fiance. She and Belias do seem to love each other, but she refuses to ever have children. For some reason, I feel like a young character expressing not only a lack of desire but a downright antipathy toward motherhood is really subversive in a YA book. Children are so central to the typical happily-ever-after script that denying them from the outset seems to undermine the entire structure and the assumptions underlying it.
The other major plot thread is the love story between Kaleb, a low-caste daimon who’s also competing in the tournament, and Mallory, who grew up in the human world, believing a witch was her father. The two stories are intertwined well, and both relationships are a bit troubled and twisted, involving big lies and manipulation.
The ending implies a sequel, so I’ll be looking out for the next book. I’ll be looking forward to seeing how these messed-up couples develop.