LRC Week 6 – 20 minutes/day, Creating Habits

children_5_smCongratulations! At this point you have hopefully completed one full month of daily reading in Latin! If you’ve been following along, you’re now reading for at least 20 minutes each day. This is definitely an amount, which over time will have a positive impact on your Latin proficiency. Let’s spend the week reinforcing our habit, without pushing ourselves too far.

Read Latin for 20 minutes each day.

We all fall down

It’s confession time. I’ve missed my reading the last couple of days. I’m even a day late on this week’s LRC post. And while I think it’s important that we not live by excuses, it’s equally important that we not beat ourselves up for our failures. If at some point you’ve missed day or two (or maybe you’ve fallen off the wagon entirely), don’t think too much about why you didn’t meet your reading goal. Just start again today. If you need to drop back and read a little less each day, do that. This isn’t a race to see who can finish the reading challenge; we’re all trying to create a practice which will improve our Latin over time.

So, if you’ve missed a day here or there, there’s no judgement. Just brush yourself off and make sure to read something in Latin today.

SMART Goals

As part of restarting my reading practice this morning, wanting to better understand how to create habits, I opened up The Power of Habit by Linda Siegmund. I had picked it up as part of Kindle bundle this summer, when a few of us were discussing how to help people develop their reading practice, but hadn’t yet looked at it. In the early chapters Siegmund puts forth two concepts that I think we can apply to the LRC immediately, and using myself as a case study, we can find ways to strengthen our practice. (As I go through the book, I’ll share any other insights I gain.)

The first key to making a habit stick is to make your target behavior SMART. This acronym was not new to me. I’ve encountered it before in the context of professional development and group project planning. SMART stands for: Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic, Time-bound. Let’s looks at these criteria in the context of extensive reading, and see where we are.

  • Specific – Many of us have probably had the thought “I’d like to read more.” The problem is that we don’t have a clear idea of what this actually looks like. Instead “I will read for 5 minutes each day,” puts clear edges around our behavior
  • Measurable – This ties in with the goal being specific. How exactly do you define “read more”? “Five minutes each day,” on the other hand is easy to measure – you either read, or you didn’t. This is why, especially at the beginning, I recommend reading with a timer.
  • Achievable – “I will run a marathon next month,” is a great goal, but does me no good if I can’t meet that goal. I would actually like to run a marathon some day, but I’m just not in shape right now to do it. Instead, I should break the goal down into more achievable goals – “I will run a 5k next month,” “I will run a 10k in three months,” and so forth. Reading Latin for 30 minutes in a single sitting may, in fact, not be an achievable goal. It’s possible that you just don’t have the discipline and mental endurance to pull that off every day. This is why we started the challenge with shorter goals.
  • Realistic – Similar to making goals achievable, making them realistic takes into account the realities of every day life. Thru-hiking the Appalachian trail may in fact be something that you could accomplish. The demands of family, work, etc., however, makes this goal unrealistic for most people. Deciding to read for 30 minutes in the morning might not be something that makes sense in the context of your family, job, or lifestyle.
  • Time Bound – Clearly defining our goal makes it more measurable, and adds to our motivation to actually do it. “Read more,” is something that could just as easily happen tomorrow, as today. “Read 20 minutes each day,” gives you a deadline.

So, if you’ve been with me for the past five weeks, it looks like we’re off to a pretty SMART start. Now let’s look at how to stay motivated until this practice actually sticks.

The Habit Loop

Siegmund breaks down the way behaviors are learned into three steps:

  1. Trigger or cue
  2. Behavior
  3. Reward or consequence

All animals, humans included, learn behaviors in order to either gain something desirable or avoid something undesirable. This sequence is explicitly familiar to anyone who has trained a dog, or raised small children, but it unconsciously drives all of our behaviors. When Spot hears the word “sit” (trigger), he sits (behavior) and gets a treat (reward). The alarm clock wakes you up early (trigger), you get ready and leave on time (behavior), and you avoid traffic on the way to work (reward).

How do we use this knowledge to improve our reading? In our case we’ve already clearly defined our behavior: “Read for 20 minutes each day.” Next, we need a trigger to remind us to do our reading. This could be an alarm that you set on your phone, but Siegmund suggests tying target behaviors to events that happen automatically. For example, do 10 sit-ups at each commercial break. For me, I make oatmeal each morning. While I’m waiting for it to cool, I do my reading. You may choose to read at a specific break time each day, or as a way to relax after getting home from work.

The piece which I think has been missing from my own habit loop is the reward. In my case, getting to eat breakfast after my reading is a reward, but what happens when something unexpected affects my schedule. Checking Twitter after my reading, to see what other people are reading helps keep me motivated, but while having a supportive group around you is beneficial for success, this reward isn’t always as potent as it needs to be. You might try giving yourself some kind of prize at the end of the week. This could be something like a special Starbucks drink, or a meal at a favorite restaurant each weekend, if you’ve read at least four days out of the week (setting a quota slightly under your target keeps your behavior achievable, and keeps motivation high).

One final thought – while you are in the Habit Loop, you’re still creating a habit. You’ll know a behavior has become a habit when it happens regularly and automatically, without the need for a trigger and/or reward. This could take two months, or even longer. Until then, don’t worry it so much, just stick with it, and let the habit form on its own.

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