Today I took a midmorning break to go down to the basement and do a live workout on the Hydrow rowing machine. I was getting close to 7 million lifetime meters, and when you’re about to reach a milestone on a live row, the instructor gives you a shout-out to recognize the accomplishment. My lifetime meters weren’t quite close enough, however, so I had to do a long warm-up first. I did a “virtual journey” with scenery going by on the screen, but even so, it still felt a bit tedious.

When I finished my warm-up and joined the live workout, the instructor, Aisyah, gave me a nice shout-out. She was rowing in a single scull on the Charles River, and she said that it was hot in Boston, but she wasn’t going to complain. She talked about the importance of getting a workout regularly, even when it starts to feel like a grind. Exercise routines and Monday mornings are good for you, she said.

The workout was 30 minutes at an easy pace, and I felt pretty good afterward. Several people who did the live row gave me nice comments in the Hydrow app, and a “7M” badge appeared on the right side of the screen. Hydrow has badges for milestones and for special-event workouts, such as holidays. Clicking on a badge starts animated confetti flying.

Screenshot from Hydrow rowing machine showing 7M badge.

Sometimes it can seem a bit silly, all the bells-and-whistles gadgets that the modern world uses to keep us interested in our daily grinds. Still, they are mostly good for us, as we need to stick with routines to make meaningful changes over time. Whatever keeps us going is helpful, even when it gets corny.

When I got a Fitbit four years ago, I started using the food-tracking feature in the app. I didn’t have any interest in counting calories precisely, but just thought it might be informative to see how much I was eating, on average. Even after the original device was replaced with a newer model, I kept using that feature.

Photo of Fitbit.

Because my preferred exercise is rowing, which does not have motions that Fitbit can recognize, the calories in vs. out calculation was never accurate. Fitbit sometimes would record my rowing as some other exercise, such as swimming or an elliptical machine, but more often it was left out of the calculation. As a result, the food tracker usually showed that I was eating more calories than the amount needed.

The incorrect calculation was somewhat annoying, but I kept using the food tracker anyway because I had gotten used to it. The small graph was not intrusive, and I wanted to track my water intake anyway, so entering calorie amounts (quickly estimated and rounded off) didn’t seem to take much more time.

Last week, I decided I’d had enough of it when an update changed the food-tracking display to show, in all caps, “OVER BUDGET” or “UNDER BUDGET” whenever the total calories consumed so far that day was not within 100 calories of the amount Fitbit’s calculation showed—which, of course, it almost never was. I asked myself, why was I still using that feature when, by now, I had a good idea of my usual calorie intake? The only answer was that it had become a mindless habit.

So, I removed food tracking from the features on the app, and I don’t miss it. In fact, my subconscious mind seems to have cheered on that decision, because twice this week I put down the Fitbit somewhere in the house and forgot to put it back on for several hours. I suspect that my subconscious is telling me I’ve let my life get too regimented, what with rowing schedules and everything. To some extent, schedules and tracking are useful, but it’s high time to start unwinding whatever unnecessary complexity I’ve added.

Last weekend I broke one of the nose pads on my glasses. My husband bought replacements for me when he put in an Amazon order, and they arrived quickly. In the meanwhile, I took the pads off some old glasses for spares, so it wasn’t a problem.

When the new nose pads arrived, I was very surprised at how different they were from the old ones. I last bought glasses in October of 2019, so it wasn’t like they were ancient. But the new pads were thick and soft, with some sort of gel cushioning, whereas the old pads were nothing but hard plastic. I stopped by an optical shop to get my glasses adjusted because the extra thickness pushed them higher, and it took me a little time to get used to the pads not being in the same place on my nose; but I feel much more comfortable now.

Eyeglasses with new nose pads.

Of course, I would’ve bought cushy nose pads long ago if I had known they existed—but I just assumed my glasses had to be equipped with bits of hard plastic digging into my nose because that was what I’d always had. As a general rule, I try not to make limiting assumptions or get stuck in unhelpful habits, but sometimes we just don’t know what we don’t know.

My routine in the morning doesn’t change much from one day to another. After waking up and getting dressed, I go into the kitchen, open the blinds, and unload the dishwasher. Then I make my breakfast, which usually consists of two slices of multigrain toast and some fruit or eggs.

To give myself a fresh view of the world every morning, I change the picture on my digital art display. It hangs midway up the dining room wall, positioned to look like a window from where I’m sitting on the couch in the living room. Usually I choose landscape scenes; and to make them feel more realistic, I try to match the sky in the image to the ambient light from my real windows. For example, on Sunday it was partly cloudy, and I displayed a beach image with some clouds.

Beach photo with clouds in the sky.

(Photo credit: Roberto Christen)

After changing the image, I get my breakfast plate and a cup of coffee from the kitchen. If it is a workday, I’ll eat at my desk. On a weekend morning, I’m likely to sit on the couch and do some reading on my Kindle while having my breakfast or, if an idea for a blog post comes to mind, I might start writing it on a notepad.

What got me thinking about all of this was a conversation with my daughter on Friday evening. She is the sort of person who always has multiple projects going on, while also planning for more. In contrast, I have been doing the same work at the same company for many years. Although I know that the modern world has many opportunities, I don’t yet have a clear sense of direction as to what comes next.

My daughter was of the opinion that with so many possibilities out there, it’s best to pick something and make plans accordingly, rather than waiting for intuition to show the way. As an example, she suggested that because I like writing, I could make good money turning my blog into a business.

Although I appreciate her efforts to be helpful and encouraging, I can’t see myself doing that. Whether or not blogging can work as a career plan in the abstract, it wouldn’t suit me in the here and now. As I see it, I gain something of value from having my blog available as a place to sort through random thoughts, without the constraints of a regular production schedule. That value doesn’t translate into money, and it is neither efficient nor measurable—but that is, to a large extent, the point.

When I started writing this post earlier in the week, I wrote the first few paragraphs and then set it aside for more reflection. Now, I’m not entirely sure what I was thinking about my morning routine and how it relates to work possibilities. It had something to do with peaceful routines, unhurried schedules, and taking time to refresh the mind. I suspect it was a bit different from what I actually ended up writing, though.

And that’s okay. Because my blog is not a business, I don’t have to plan every post in detail and have it complete, perfectly organized, and ready to be published the same day, without fail. If other things distract me, or if it takes a little longer to get my thoughts in order, it’s not a problem and doesn’t feel like a failure. Maybe the value of that can’t be calculated or added to my bank balance, but it is definitely worth something.

My kitchen has a bay window above the sink. I like the way it looks, but it’s a bit awkward because I am short enough that I can’t easily reach the middle section to open and close either the window or the blinds.

Bay window in dim light.

When we moved into the house, I got in the habit of standing on my tiptoes and stretching out to reach the window. Standing on a stepstool is much more comfortable, but now I often find myself closing the blinds without it at sunset just because I haven’t stopped to think about it.

I probably ought to break that habit by making a point of consciously going to get the stepstool whenever I do anything with that window. Of course, it doesn’t really matter much one way or the other; but in general, I see habit-busting as a good way to exercise mental flexibility.

Update, August 2020 — my husband fixed the issue this year by putting a thick mat on the floor. Much more comfortable, and it goes to show that there are always more possibilities, even when we haven’t thought of them at first.

My subconscious mind has been in a cranky mood for the past few weeks.

It all started out innocently enough. I was going out to get my hair done, and then a peculiar thought popped up out of nowhere. Wouldn’t it be interesting to go back to college and study biochemistry?

Well, no, that actually made no practical sense whatsoever, given the fact that I do not have a science background and it is a very difficult and time-consuming course of study. If I wanted to change careers, plenty of other options would be a much better fit.

But it would be so fascinating, the little inner voice persisted. So many amazing things to learn and discover!

I left that odd thought to settle for a few days, and it quieted down. Meanwhile, I was still writing a daily “kindness journal” as described in my New Year’s resolution post, keeping track of ways in which others were kind to me. It was meant to be a reminder that the world is full of kindness.

When March came to an end I’d been keeping that journal for three full months. My subconscious mind made clear it wasn’t happy about that accomplishment, though, because when I picked up a pen to make an entry, it snapped at me like a bad-tempered badger.

Badger showing its teeth.

(Creative Commons image via flickr)

“Quit! Right now!” it snarled. “This journal is just another chore draining your energy, and you’ve had too many of those already! You need to take better care of yourself and quit piling on random obligations.”

Well, okay. I hadn’t in fact done much over the winter, but it was true that I had been feeling low on energy, for whatever reason. So I decided to take my cranky inner badger’s advice and abandon the journal, which I figured had probably served its purpose well enough.

After two journal-less weeks, I had a dream that seemed like it was related in some way. In this dream, I asked my husband a question. Instead of answering it directly, he said “Remember,” in a tone that might have been used to lecture a forgetful child. Then he told me something tangential.

I felt annoyed for a moment, and then I started to wake up. As is the way of dreams, I promptly forgot whatever he had been telling me to remember. That seemed hilarious to my half-asleep brain, and I snickered, “Ha, guess what, I forgot already! Phooey to whatever you said!”

After that I woke up more fully and realized that I was being snarky and childish with someone who wasn’t even there. Still, it felt like there was some meaning to this nonexistent and totally silly conversation.

I gave it some thought for the next few days, along with the other weird messages I’d been getting from my subconscious recently, and decided that all of them had to do with saying “Phooey” to expectations. That is to say, I need to lighten up, be more flexible, and not let routines and assumptions get in the way of seeing the world’s possibilities.

I enjoy having a digital art display on an otherwise blank wall because I can imagine it as a window into many places. The company that made it is no longer in business, though, and I can’t always count on being able to log into the online art library to change the picture. Not enough bandwidth where it is now hosted, apparently. Of course, I’m lucky that it still functions at all, rather than ending up as just a dead screen.

It’s a bit of a disruption to my routine because I had gotten used to changing the picture every morning, so as to imagine myself starting the day in a new and different place. Now I can rarely log in that early and instead have to wait until the afternoon. Today I wanted to display this peaceful image of a garden path, but I had to try several times before it worked.

Flagstone path through a perennial garden.

(Photo credit: Jennifer Rafleyan)

I found myself thinking about how people create calming rituals and routines to make a busy, complicated world feel a little more manageable. When it works as intended, it’s all good; but when something doesn’t go quite right, it becomes another source of anxiety.

Looking at it in perspective, the time of day when I change the picture is so insignificant that I shouldn’t care at all. Most disruptions to everyday activities are just as small and unimportant, but people often find them hard to cope with anyway. That’s probably because in the modern world, there is always so much going on at once, the least little disruption can feel like it might all spin out of control.

That feeling is just an illusion, though, like the window on my wall that isn’t really a window. Those little disturbances and interruptions usually cause no problems at all. The more difficult part is simply to convince the subconscious mind that it’s all okay. Looking on the bright side, a nice, relaxing imaginary walk along the garden path should help with that…

Over the weekend I read the book Counterclockwise by Ellen Langer, a professor of psychology at Harvard who studies how people react to social cues. She is best known for a study in 1979 of elderly men who spent a week living as if they had gone back in time 20 years, in a building that was furnished entirely with items from that time period. They read books and magazines from 1959, listened to the radio shows that were popular then, and watched TV programs from that era on a tiny black-and-white set.

The participants in the control group were told to reminisce about life twenty years earlier in the past tense, while the instructions for the experimental group were to use the present tense and discuss events as if they actually were living in 1959. The men in both groups looked and acted younger by the end of the week, with significantly more of a difference for the experimental group. They stood taller, walked more easily, spoke more confidently, and showed some improvements in objective measures of health such as lower blood pressure readings.

That study, and others discussed in the book, illustrate the effects of our environment on what we believe about ourselves and how the body conforms to those beliefs on a subconscious level. Noticeable changes can happen even if we don’t rearrange our physical surroundings in great detail, but simply reframe the way we think about them. The key, according to the author, is to be mindfully aware of the possibilities. When we realize that our habitual assumptions are not necessarily the only way to look at things, we allow ourselves—whether consciously or subconsciously—to discover other ways of being.

I’ve noticed this effect when changing the images on my digital art display. Nature scenes leave me feeling rested, while photos of interesting places abroad make me feel adventurous; and I’m likely to feel younger and more creative when I choose fanciful scenes, like this seashell picture that I displayed on Sunday. Doesn’t it look like a fairy tale illustration from which a mythical creature might suddenly emerge?

Large seashell on beach.

As for all the things we don’t notice because we get so used to them, I found myself in one of those situations on Monday afternoon. I went into a jewelry store to get a watch battery, and one of their salespeople pointed out that the prongs holding the diamond in my ring had gotten very worn. Maybe he was exaggerating when he said that the diamond might fall out at any moment; however, once I looked closely at the prongs, there was no doubt that they really did need replacing, so I left the ring for repair.

Of course, if I had ever stopped to think about it, I would’ve realized that after being worn every day for the 32+ years since I got engaged, the ring would naturally show signs of wear. But it happened so gradually that the changes were not at all noticeable from one day to another, so my mental picture of the ring was that it had stayed the same as always. When I went back to get the repaired ring, the new prongs were much longer. It’s such a difference—I keep poking myself on them and getting surprised!

After I ran the Turkey Trot, my heels felt a bit achy, and I realized that it was time to get new running shoes again. I had bought the old ones in early 2016, and they didn’t look decrepit, but it’s not always noticeable right away when the cushioning starts to go.

I decided that was okay, though. This was a good time of year to replace them, both because of the Thanksgiving weekend sales and because the cheerful colors of new running shoes always help to make the short, dark afternoons a little brighter.

New pair of running shoes.

As with many things for which a regular routine works best, it’s a good idea to replace old running shoes on a schedule so that they don’t get too worn out and cause problems. So, from now on, I’m going to make a habit of buying a new pair on Black Friday. That’s very easy to remember, once a year seems like a reasonable interval, and I expect there will always be a good sale somewhere.

The division of labor for yard work around my house is that my husband mows the lawn and puts down mulch, while I plant and weed the flowers and prune the shrubs, and we pay a lawn service company to do the fertilizer. I mostly use small pruning shears and cut small branches, which hasn’t been a problem except that when we had an unusually cold winter a few years ago, some of the larger branches on the backyard willows started dying. I cut them off with my husband’s lumber saw from the tool chest in the garage, but it was kind of big and awkward.

My husband didn’t say anything about it for a while, but last weekend he took me along on a trip to the hardware store and pointed out that they make long, thin saws especially for pruning. I bought one that folds up neatly and is just the right size to fit in my basket of small garden tools. It is much easier to use and does a better job of cutting branches, too, since that is what it was designed to do.

Folding pruning saw on garage shelf.

I took two useful lessons away from that: (1) In the modern world, if something is an awkward chore, there is likely to be a better tool for it; and (2) even if I don’t know what that tool might be, it’s probably not that hard to find out what it is, either by doing research or by asking someone who knows more about it.

Finding useful new things isn’t the hard part—what takes a bit of mental effort is cultivating the mindset to look for them, rather than habitually using the same old stuff just because it’s what happens to be there.