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On learning to read again and creating systems for success

Amid the chaos of 2020 I rediscovered reading. At the time I couldn’t remember the last time I’d finished a book and it was embarrassing. By the end of the year I’d built up somewhat of a streak (according to my kindle app anyways) and realized that I’d found some newfound magic in the stillness of spending time with a good book.

Naturally, to read more became one of my 2021 one goals and I figured one book a month would be achievable number, especially given my previous track record of none. By the end of December I’d finished 42. I had no rules for what types, topics or lengths, it just had to be a book.

This early success of course made me feel incredibly confident and spurred me on to set a more ambitious goal, to read 50 books this year. “Go big or go home” they say, and just like that my reading ego was brought down to reality.

Books I read in 2022
The goal for 2022 was 50, I made it to 33.

While I won’t break 50 this year, what I have gained through this process is much more valuable. I’ve created a habit that’s become part of my identity. A habit that’s triggered almost subconsciously even before that thought of “hmm…I wonder what’s I’m missing on Twitter?”. And good thing, because the answer to that was always absolutely nothing.

No shortcuts

We’ve all done this in some form.

The real reason I wanted to start reading more is to become a better writer. Writing for me is probably on par with working on my resume or getting a root canal so this certainly wasn’t a “do what you love” endeavour. However, it’s always the things you don’t want to do that will help you the most and becoming a more effective communicator is always at the top of my list.

I tried to find evidence to the contrary but unfortunately, all of my research confirmed that better writing is not possible without voracious reading.

If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot. There’s no way around these two things that I’m aware of, no shortcut.

Stephen King, On Writing: A Memoir Of The Craft

Stephen King considers himself a slow reader but manages to read around seventy to eighty books a year. At least now had a benchmark. And nope, there are no shortcuts.

With the end of December approaching it’s prime time for reflection and thinking about the coming year. I think the internet has enough ‘top 10 books of 2022’ lists so I thought I’d take a different approach.

There were a few standout gems, three of which are particularly relevant at this time of year when we’re setting our intentions for the coming year. They are:

Rather than a book report, there are one or two points from each that while from different books, in context together became very effective for me. My context may not necessarily be the intended context the original authors had in mind but if any of this hits a note with you or prompts you to pickup any of these books yourself I’ll have achieved my goal with this post.

Goals are not enough

We’re told we need to have goals. Goals give us direction and once we know which way to go, all we need to do is stay focused. Right? Right.

These graphs below probably looks familiar. It broadly makes sense and it certainly makes us feel better that success isn’t a straight line. However, it’s too zoomed out to help us figure out what we need to do to keep us on the path of going in the right direction.

success vs success IRL
Instagram vs reality.

I found this to be a more helpful illustration…

The valley of disappointment
from Atomic Habits, by James Clear

In the process of working towards our goals, I don’t think we necessarily expect it to be easy but I don’t think we’re ever prepared for that first time when things start to get hard We’re feeling the high of the start, it’s January and you have a new gym membership.

Soon February rolls around, it’s miserable outside and oh, all those Valentine chocolates. We arrive at the aptly named ‘valley of disappointment’, where the going starts to get tough. It’s easy to be motivated in the beginning but when our enthusiasm and the effort we think we’re putting in isn’t reflected in our results, we give up.

We give up when the distance between where we think we are vs where we think we should be is the greatest.

The give up point

But if we keep going, we will get through the first valley and feeling good about how we’re persevering we continue, until we get to the next valley. But it’s inevitable that the more we cross the stronger we get. We also start to recognize and see them coming so we’re ready.

Many valleys of disappointment
Over time, may you

TAKEAWAY: There’s no way around the valley of disappointment but through. We know they will challenge us but they are temporary. The more valleys we cross the stronger we become.

Habits -> Systems

There was a time when all we heard about was morning routines. Did learning about the routines of other people result in you changing yours? Probably not so much, because why would it? You’re not them, you’re you.

Any talk about routines inevitably leads us to a conversation about ‘habits’. What’s the difference? Habits form with little or no conscious thought, whereas routines require a higher degree of intention and effort. Routines can turn into habits, but it’s not an unconscious process. In most cases the habits we talk about are ‘bad habits’, habits that are created around satisfying a craving of some kind.

The habit loop
The habit feedback loop (diagram via Atomic Habits by James Clear)

We’re usually not proud of our bad habits but we’re often not even aware we’re doing them. For me personally, when habits really manifest, they also become a great source for excuses.

The simple ways we sabotage our true potential.

Sometimes we even start to define ourselves around our bad habits.

We make them a part of us because it’s easier to make excuses than do the work to fix ourselves. We help perpetuate them and ingrain them into our identity but the good thing is that this is not inevitable, we can change! 🎉

If we analyze our habits (unconscious behaviours), we can begin to break them down and start figuring out what’s actually happening in these unconscious moments. We can then use the information to help us create systems (conscious behaviours) for ourselves to replace them.

We’re not failing because we’re failures, we fail because we haven’t created our systems.

We’re only as strong as our weakest system.

I always wanted to read more but never did much beyond just thinking about it. In order to get from just wanting to actually doing, I had to create a step-by-step system.

Tara’s AM Reading System:
  1. Wake up, turn-off alarm, AM bathroom routine, get dressed
  2. Go downstairs, boil water, make coffee
  3. Go to home office (with coffee), sit in the reading chair
  4. Disconnect phone from charging, open Kindle app only
  5. Start reading from page where left off

I did not set any minimum or maximum times to read. I knew that once I was in the reading chair with the coffee, the rest would be easy. I did, however, know that opening any other app would distract and immediately derail me so I had to be explicit in step four of my system.

While most days were relatively routine, some were not. There’s work travel, vacation travel, holidays etc., which all require some deviation from the system. There were some days that I wasn’t able to read first thing in the morning but because I followed the system more days that I did not, I was able get back to following my system without too much effort.

The best part about a system is that once you’re doing it, it does start to feel like a part of you and there’s a comfort you begin to develop that you don’t want to throw away.

Once this happened for me I was able to be more flexible in my system without feeling like I was going to fall off the wagon and be back at square one. I am so conditioned now that in any spare moment whether it’s waiting in line or for a ride, I unconsciously choose reading over checking what I could be missing on Twitter, which more often than not, is absolutely nothing.

TAKEAWAY: Remember that it’s not you that’s failing, it’s your system. Assess what’s happening and create a step-by-step you can follow. If it’s not working, it might be too complicated or not clear enough. Work it and rework it until it’s working for you.

Never hurts to make it fun (via Ellen Forney)

Meeting the resistance

Most of us have two lives. The life we live, and the unlived life within us. Between the two stands Resistance.

—Steven Pressfield, The War of Art

You’ve met her before. When you’re finally taking the steps to do something good for your future-self, she’s the one who shows up and turns on the Netflix, she’s the one who invites you down to the bar on a Tuesday. She also knows exactly which brand of ice cream you find irresistible. She’s a great friend, or is she? 🤔

All metaphors aside, the ‘resistance’ is the thing that steps in and gets in the way, the procrastination, self-doubt and excuses. My best excuse was being ‘too busy’ all the time, which while I wasn’t exactly sitting on my hands, a look at just my friend group revealed that other people were way more busy than I. It was excuse, and a good one no doubt, “I’m busy work-ing!”. We are great rationalizers and create illusions to make ourselves feel better – the illusion of ‘busy’ was my resistance.

The only way to combat the resistance explains Steven Pressfield in, The War of Art, is to ‘Turn Pro’. The majority of people can show up at their job everyday and collect a pay check. We need to pay the rent, we need to buy food, we need to pay the bills. Everyday isn’t exactly exhilarating but we do the work. Some days are good, some days maybe not so much but we do it because we’re professionals. We realize ‘it’s just work’ and that wrestling with the resistance is not helping anyone.

None of this is to say we don’t care about our work, it’s exactly the opposite. We care so much that we practice mastering our mindset because we have to. This the the mindset shift of ‘Turning Pro’. The amateur engages in something as a pastime rather than as a profession. Things we do as amateurs are the fun things, we don’t want to deal with ay of the hard parts, that would be work. But if we’re serious about doing something, we need change our thinking. Here’s a comparison of amateur vs pro mindsets…

AmateursPros
This design looks really good.This homepage design will produce results.
The client doesn’t get what I’m saying. How can I find a better way to communicate what I’m saying so my client understands me?
I hate working with that team.Why do I find working with that team difficult?
I’m never picked for the good projects?What can I do to be picked to work on the good projects?
That project was a complete disaster.What do we need to do differently next time to ensure success?
We’ll have to redo everything.Is there anything we can reuse? build on?
I’ve done enoughWhat more can I do?
In a world of amateurs, think like a pro.

I mentioned earlier that one of my goals was to write more. I tried but fell far short of my goal of writing one blog post a month. Ok that’s a lie, I did try for the early part of the year but I conveniently became “too busy” to follow through.

There’s a secret that real writers know that wannabe writers don’t, and the secret is this: It’s not the writing part that’s hard. What’s hard is sitting down to write.

Steven Pressfield, The War of Art

I know know that I had a goal did not have a system in place to help me get there.

TAKEAWAY: Your mindset is just as important if not the most important part making a system successful. With a ‘pro’ mindset we can move past the resistance – all the things that hold us back.

The TL;DR

  1. Goals help us with direction but we need to create systems for lasting progress.
  2. Practice systems deliberately and master them to make them a part of your identity.
  3. Expect to run into the valley of disappointment, there’s no way around it.
  4. Resistance will always exist, creating the systems of a pro is the way to move past it.

As always, I’d love to hear your feedback. And if you have any book recommendations I’d love to know what they are.

Happy 2023! 🎉



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