Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Resolutions Part III: No Stumbling Block

In the past two posts, I've talked about tackling your new-years resolutions using the Floss-A-Tooth method, but not every resolution can be tackled by simply developing one new habit. What if you want to spend less money or become less dependent on your car? The Talmud interprets the commandment not to "place a stumbling block before the blind" (Leviticus 19:14) broadly, insisting that we not provide someone with the means to do wrong when we know that they cannot resist the temptation. I'd like to suggest we go even broader and include ourselves in this injunction as well.

If you want to create change in your life, you'll have to get good at identifying and removing your own stumbling blocks. In essence, you want to make it hard to do what you wish to avoid and easy to do what you want. Being carfree provides me with tons of examples of this in my own life. If exercise required me to go to the gym, it would never happen. Never. But lucky for me, it is hard for me to get through the day without at least a little exercise -- after all, I have to walk or bike anywhere I want to go.

Anything that you want more of in your life should be almost impossible to avoid. Anything you don't want in your life should be easy to avoid so that you are not tempted. Want to use your car less often? You could try parking it far away, loaning it to friends regularly, or keeping the tank at a quarter full (making your car easy to avoid). At the same time you can get your bike tuned (and keep oil on hand), research all the spots within easy walking distance where you can run your errands, and get a bus and/or subway pass (making walking and biking easy to do).

Want to spend less money? Don't go in stores except when absolutely necessary. They only want to sell you crap that you don't need. Consider carrying and spending only cash (which seems a lot less like "play money" than a credit or debit card). Discover your gazingus pins and then avoid gazingus pin stores like the plague. Don't watch TV or read mainstream advertising-driven magazines. Find a carfree route to work, practice it for a little while, and then sell your car. Trade in your cellphone for a prepaid (or get rid of it entirely). Cancel your broadband since the internet is both wasting your time and selling you things (hypocrisy alert: we are on the verge of getting non-dialup internet at home for the first time).

What do you want to change in the year to come? Once you know what you want, make a list of ways you can remove your stumbling blocks, making it easy to take positive steps and hard to backslide. Whatever you do, don't rely on willpower, which I'm pretty sure is just a myth.

Monday, December 29, 2008

Resolutions Part II: Expanding the Floss-A-Tooth Method

In part one, I confessed my poor oral hygiene and described how I finally started brushing my teeth daily using a method I call "Floss-A-Tooth." But the method didn't get its name until I used it a second time to start a tooth-flossing habit. Here's how it went:
  • Phase One: For a couple of weeks all I did was to pull of a length of floss out every evening. Sometimes this was hard because I felt wasteful, so I only pulled off a small bit.
  • Phase Two: I flossed just one tooth each evening. I had to stay at this phase for quite some time, about 3 or 4 weeks. 
  • Phase Three: I flossed a few teeth, a few more, and a few more, until I was doing the whole mouth.
  • Safety-Net: I floss in the evening. If it’s late and I’m tired I probably won’t floss much. In extreme circumstances I'll just do one tooth. But I still at least floss a tooth and the habit stays put.
In the last seven years, I’ve found the Floss-A-Tooth Method applicable in many other areas of my life. Its usefulness boils down to the fact that when we see a goal we want we tend to rush towards it too fast. For instance, Dorea used to have a thesis-writing support group. Each week, people would come in feeling guilty and demoralized. They’d think about all they needed to get done and how quickly it needed to be finished. They’d beat themselves up for all the time they’d wasted in the past week. So they’d set absurd goals for themselves. People who weren’t succeeding in writing anything would claim they were going to write for two hours each day, or get fifteen pages written in the next week. Dorea became quite an excellent counselor in the Floss-A-Tooth method, encouraging people to set their bar lower and lower until finally it was low enough that they couldn't avoid stepping over it.

The key to using Floss-A-Tooth successfully is to decide what you want to do and then find the smallest possible unit that represents progress but that you can't whine about. If you want to eat more vegetables, how about having one baby carrot with dinner? If you want to save money, do you think you could put a quarter in a piggy bank each day (or even just a dime)? And if you want to run the Boston marathon, you might start by just putting your jogging outfit.

Coming up next: the real key to making resolutions work -- stacking the deck in your own favor.

Sunday, December 28, 2008

Resolutions Part I: the “Floss-a-Tooth” Method

A few days ago, I was listening to a discussion on NPR about new year's resolutions. A psychologist was on the show talking about making and keeping resolutions; something like 40-50% of those of us who make resolutions are able to stick with them. The guest also gave tips about how to stick with resolutions, such as getting support from friends or family. His tips got me thinking about my own techniques for changing habits and solving problems. I have systems for everything, including cultivating or changing habits. The first method I’ll describe today works well for habits that you want to start. The second I’ll describe in a later post has some applicability to developing a greener lifestyle and reducing car usage.

True Oral Hygiene Confessions

Some time ago, it had been ten years since I had been to a dentist. I regularly went for weeks (yes, weeks) without brushing my teeth. My oral hygiene was pathetic and I have the cavities to show for it (although I managed to avoid a root canal by the skin of my teeth). I had been trying for some time to improve the situation. I had made resolutions, put notes on the mirror, and scolded myself. Intermittently, I seem to have become convinced that the reason for my failure was that my oral hygiene system wasn't complicated enough, so I would go out and purchase plaque rinses, tablets for detecting plaque, special toothpicks, and fancy toothbrushes. Each new thing was exciting. I loved opening the packages, reading the directions, and dreaming about getting a special tooth-brushing award from a dentist. But aside from providing fodder for my overactive imagination, each new gimmick or plan failed after my initial enthusiasm diminished.

About seven years ago I finally hit on a method that allowed me to become a regular brusher. I was able to apply the method to other areas of my life as well. Here’s how the method worked for tooth-brushing.
  • Phase One: For a week or two, I put toothpaste on my toothbrush and stuck it in my mouth every night. That was it. I started with just the evening and just with this small and, frankly, stupid task. This is the heart of the method: to make the goal small enough that I couldn’t put up any resistance. How hard is it to put toothpaste on a toothbrush? It only takes one second! I stayed in this phase until the routine was well established and I no longer felt any resistance.
  • Phase Two: In this phase I did just a little bit of brushing (perhaps 30 seconds) in the evenings only. With the groundwork from the first phase, this was fairly easy; I was already used to loading up the toothbrush and sticking it in my mouth. I did this for another couple of weeks. At some point I decided to add a morning brushing time as well, and I started back at phase one with that habit. The important thing is not pushing too hard, staying just under the threshold of resistance, and doing it every day.
  • Phase Three. During this phase I worked my way up to 2-3 minutes of brushing morning and evening. I made my increases small, and if I met resistance or skipped a night, I backed up to where I was more comfortable.
  • Safety-Net: One of the things that often derailed my oral hygiene efforts in the past was handling “falling off the wagon.” For instance, suppose you are trying to brush your teeth every night, but one night you come home late and just want to fall into bed. The trouble is that if you do that, you’ll be more likely to skip the next night and pretty soon you will have fallen right out of the habit. If you are sorely tempted to skip your good habit just this one time, instead fall back to phase one. If I am tempted to skip brushing, I instead just put toothpaste on my toothbrush and stick it in my mouth. Then I can keep up my commitment and momentum, even under extreme circumstances. If even doing that seems too much to bear, I just go and hold my toothbrush, anything so that I can tell myself the next day that I still have the habit.
You are probably curious about one thing -- why do I call this the "Floss-A-Tooth" Method? A professor of mine once told me that if you use a technique just once, then it is a trick, but if you use it twice, it’s a tool. The “Floss a Tooth Method” became a tool, and got its name, upon its second use. I'll describe that in the next post along with some ways to extend and expand the method.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008


So far, I can't really say pregnancy + being car-free + toddler + winter is my favorite combination ever. Here's my bullet point highlights (actually, mostly whines) so far:
  • If we owned a car right now, you'd better believe I would be driving it everywhere.
  • As a result, if we owned a car right now, I would be getting exactly zero exercise. Right now I walk at least 40 minutes a day in small chunks, even going out of my way to walk as little as possible on the days I feel really bad.
  • It is quite challenging to get around with H, especially with snow. Last year, our solution when sidewalks were impassible was to carry H in our back carrier and wear yak trax for the ice. This year, Angela can still do that, though not very quickly and not without tired shoulders, but it's good enough for getting to daycare. But my back is iffy enough already that I really can't carry H much anymore, so I'm restricted by her walking radius when home with her. She's a pretty good walker for 2 1/2, but that amounts to about a five block radius, if she's very motivated, and still she'll probably want a lift some of the way home. Fortunately we have friends in a 5 block radius, but still, I'm feeling a little trapped and already aching for spring.
  • I miss biking. I suppose walking is fine for exercise, but when I bike I feel free. Walking...I just feel slow.
  • Commuting by T, while perfect for a back-up option, is more troublesome when you do it every day. The red line has been plagued by delays lately. When I biked more, I could let the delays roll off much more easily, and sort of scoffed at people who constantly whined about the T. After all, we have decent transport and plenty of cities don't. But on my third hour plus long commute in less than a week, a commute that should take 30 minutes, I was definitely starting to feel the frustration.
Now that I've gotten some energy back just clearing first trimester, I'm hoping my attitude will turn around a bit. Obviously, we're thrilled to have number two on the way, and I'm committed to working through the logistics as needed, but pre-pregnancy I felt primarily pride and freedom about our car-free life. These days, I confess to sometimes feeling a little jealous of the dry drivers who can go wherever they want. Of course, they still have to wrestle their kid into the carseat and dig their car out of the snow, so maybe not that jealous.

Friday, December 19, 2008

No digging out

On days like today (with snow falling at a steady clip), I extra love not having a car. No car to shovel out or move to a rare legal parking space. Being carfree really lessens the pre-snow anxiety and the post-snow grief. Day care is closed today, so I just walked down to a local café and soon I’ll walk back home, no muss no commuting fuss. During last December’s storm, it was a pain to walk back home through the snow, but not that much of a pain, especially when I had friends and coworkers that were stuck in traffic for hours (I could have taken the T to Alewife, but I was worried that Russel Field might not be plowed).

I also love it that everyone becomes car free on a day with heavy snow. We all tend to stick close to home and chat with neighbors as we dig out. It's cosy. Happy snow, everyone!

Friday, December 12, 2008

Our slow recovery and a request of car drivers

Our household is slowly recovering from a terrible cold/sinus/cough thing. The toddler that brought this plague down upon us got over it a few weeks ago, but Dorea and I are still having some sinus trouble. Dorea is also showing some signs of getting over the first trimester blues. She's got a little more energy and does a little less puking.

The weather in Boston has been terrible over the last few days, which leads to my request of car drivers everywhere. If you are driving in the rain on a street with a sidewalk, please slow down when you go through puddles and lakes on the side of the road. When I'm out walking in the rain, the last thing I need is a huge wave of water coming up at me from under your wheels. I know that weather can be frustrating to drive it, but you are dry and warm in your car and I am cold and wet, and if you soak my pants and coat it's going to make me very crabby. Did I mention that I have a cold that could turn into pneumonia at any moment? Have a heart!

Also I find a new weblog today, Car Free Lifestyle, that even has a youtube video advertising being car free.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Car-free toddler development

Upon arrival home last night, Angela reported the following conversation with H earlier in the evening:

H: Where Mama?
A: Mama is taking the train home.
H: Mama on the train?
A: Yep.
H: Mama go to Alewife?
A: Yep.

It's not in any of the books, but I believe this is a major developmental milestone. Our two-year-old knows our subway stop. It warms a car-free mother's heart.