We all take hundreds of decisions every day and each decision taken differently could have led to a different life. In The Midnight Library by Matt Haig, Nora feels like all of the key decisions that she took were the wrong ones. She’s let everyone she cares about down. One night when things are particularly bad Nora ends up in the midnight library. The library contains all the books describing the lives she could have lived had she made different choices. And she gets to try them on too!
She has a little taster of several different lives she could have been living. It sounds like a glorious opportunity but it turns out that a different decision doesn’t just impact the part of your life that you hoped it would impact. A seemingly small thing can change your life in many different ways.
The premise of this book is brilliant and the writing is excellent. The Midnight Library is a very enjoyable read. It makes you think too. What would you do differently if you could turn back time? How would your life be different if you had made different decisions in the past? What exactly is needed to be able to live a happy or content life?
I notice that I can feel wildly different about my life on different days or even different hours of a single day, depending on where my head is at. And I think there are as many unhappy rich people and rich people unsatisfied with their lives as people who have a lot less, materialistically speaking. If your basic needs are taken care of and you’re healthy, the quality of your life can be vastly improved by changing your mindset.
That is not to say that it’s easy. Life can be a drag and people can be horrible and the world is falling to pieces and we’ve been deprived of many of the things and the people we love for almost 9 months now. It’s hard. It takes a conscious effort to stay positive. Even with a conscious effort to look for positives and focus on the things that we are in control of we sometimes (ok, regularly) stumble. But we get back up and we try again.
If life in this pandemic has taught me anything it’s to not deny myself the small pleasures like lighting the candles in the evening or spending a few minutes on my swing when the rain stays away long enough for the seat to dry. It’s to enjoy the books and the runs and the times I do get to spend with other people.
I’ve also learned to acknowledge and accept my frustration and to try and move past it. We only have one life. It’s unlikely we’ll ever end up in our own midnight library and even if we do the alternatives to our current life might not be as attractive as you think they might be. Let’s make the most out of this one life we have and fill it.
When I started reading Atomic Habits by James Clear I thought it couldn’t possibly contain a lot of new information. The concept overlaps with so many other books that I was sure most of the book would be repetition and I mostly read it to tick it off my list. What I underestimated is how useful the repetition of good ideas is and how much I needed to reframe and adjust my habits to being at home most of the time.
Behavior becomes a habit when you do it consistently. It often seems easier to create bad habits than it is to create good habits. The main reason for this is that bad habits often have an immediate reward attached to them, while with good habits the reward is delayed. If you’re a smoker, having a cigarette relieves stress and a craving immediately. If you’re a runner the endorphins take a while to kick in. Your habits should be aligned with the way you want to live and the person you want to be. A smoker, a runner, a reader, or a cheater. Your habits are often how people describe you and how you might describe yourself.
I started working from home full-time around mid-March. At first, I mostly noticed the positives. I became more productive because I didn’t have to commute and because there were no distractions. The structure and consistency of the days and the lack of work-related dinners and events in the evening meant that it was much easier to manage my irritable bowel syndrome. As spring had just begun and the weather was acknowledging that fact, it was lovely to be outside and I took daily lunch walks.
At some point during or just before the summer, work started to pile up again. And even my introvert, structure loving brain was getting bored with what felt like an endless repetition of the same day. I started to skip my lunch walks to get more work done. I felt like I was being disciplined by focusing on my todo list, but my motivation and productivity were starting to falter. When I started reading Atomic Habits I realized that it required more discipline and would be more sensible to take regular breaks. It turns out that taking regular breaks without an external trigger is surprisingly hard.
The book gave some clues. Habits that stick are obvious, attractive, easy, and satisfying. My number one job was to find a way to make taking breaks more obvious. When I had a few days off I decided that I would use part of my time hanging around the house not-working to come up with something to motivate myself to take more regular breaks while working from home. I’m pleased to report that mulling over a concrete problem in your mind while lying on the sofa can lead to tangible results. I came up with a surprisingly low-tech “solution”.
I bought 12 small cards with fun pictures on them
On all of the cards, I wrote one activity that can be completed in about 10 minutes. Examples are:
Take a walk
Make a smoothie
Do a 7-minute workout
Do laundry (it might surprise you to hear that this is the easiest one to step away from the screen for)
I stuck a small piece of string with 5 tiny pegs on it to the lamp behind my screen, right in front of me
The cards are laid out next to me each morning and the idea is that at the end of the day, I have at least 4 cards hanging on the string, representing 4 ten minute breaks
Most days I have 2 or 3 cards up at the end of the day. Having the cards lying next to me provides a very helpful reminder, but it still requires discipline to get up and take the break. Discipline requires energy and energy is often in short supplies when I most need a break. I have some more work to do to make taking regular breaks a habit and I suspect it will always require some discipline as continuing work will always be the most obvious and easy. A break is more satisfying once you are taking the break and after you’ve taken it. As with a lot of good habits, the gratification is delayed. And worth it so I’ll keep working on it.