2019 – Back to Reading and Blogging

It’s been a bit of a strange start to 2019 so far. The end of 2018 was fairly busy and stressful due to a combination of work and family commitments. And when we did finally stop for the festive season, it was an invitation to every possible illness doing the rounds to come and infect us. So plans and resolutions all got put on hold. Now it’s February, and it feels like I’m finally well enough to actually begin the year…

I’ve never found resolutions work particularly well, and I’ve seen enough psychological evidence suggesting that it’s more productive to start new habits in small and manageable ways. Rather than resolving to completely change my life, it’s been better to do things like just not buy junk food (so it isn’t available), go and buy a vape kit and start using it (no more smoking), and start exercising on a daily basis (my small routine of simple workouts was going well until illness interfered).

There’s always things I’d like to improve in my personal life, but generally I’m pretty happy with most of the improvements I’ve made. It’s taken time and a little effort, but I’m a bit healthier, happier and confident about continuing to get a little better at various aspects of daily life.

For example, it’s now more than 18 months since I smoked a cigarette. I’m spending quality time with my son every week, and I’m fortunate enough to be in a great relationship with someone I care about very much.

The One Habit That Got Away

There is one habit which I haven’t been fulfilling. And it’s surprising as during my childhood and teenage years, I was a voracious reader. Every night ended with me devouring page after page.

But somewhere in adulthood my reading dropped – probably because my days involve so much reading and writing online that I found myself putting off relaxing with a good book.

I wanted to change that – there’s been plenty written about why books offer a different experience than online articles, so I’m not going to rehash it. But somehow, I didn’t quite get back into reading as regularly as I’d have liked.

Getting some great books for Christmas should help develop my reading habit again

So now the focus is back on ramping up my reading. And having some great books helps. I’ve recently finished Sapiens by Yuval Noah Harari, which has definitely reminded me of the value you get from settling down with a good book rather than sitting at my work desk in front of a screen. Plus, I also got back into fiction with Ready Player One.

And thanks to some very kind people sending me some of my Amazon wishlist for Christmas, I now have the following to help my reading:

Getting Back to Blogging

Due to work, illness, the release of WordPress 5.0 changing how blog posts are written, the need to switch hosting providers and not having had a rest from writing for my various sites in years led to a bit of a hiatus for the past few months.

Initially I felt like I’d failed by just pausing from posting on all of my sites. But given that they’re primarily side projects for pleasure at the moment, I also felt like I’d burned out. Having taken on more work, and devoted more time to family life, I’d had less time to dig out inspiration, less time to sit and write without feeling like I’d finished enough client work, and feeling increasing unwell wasn’t helping…

But it’s turned out to be a good thing. Traffic to my sites hasn’t disappeared overnight. I’ve been able to rest and recuperate. And focusing on client work has kept my business and income at the level required for a reasonable standard of living.

And now I have the itch to make progress again, I’ve had time to think about how I can do it more effectively. My aim is to create more things worth sharing, and to build up my sites to become a more sustainable, productive collection of titles that people really enjoy and want to be part of.

Plus it’s obvious that the new Gutenberg WordPress editor is here to stay, so it’s time to really get to know it for my client work, and my own sites. I’ll be sure to share tips and guides on TheWayoftheWeb as I discover more.

So 2019 really starts here. And I can’t wait!


Changing My Habits and Finding Which Methods Worked

Looking for a list of quick and simple ways to adopt good habits in life which is guaranteed to work?

Sorry, me too.

But there are some methods for improving your habits and lifestyle which have been well researched. For instance, the famous Marshmallow test which is one example of how being able to delay gratification for a bigger reward tends to pay off.

Or how about tackling the biggest, hardest tasks at the start of the day, when you’ve got the biggest reserves of willpower. And doing what you can to avoid using your brain power on things which don’t matter? Examples include wearing similar outfits everyday to avoid expending though on choosing an outfit (e.g. Steve Jobs, Mark Zuckerberg, Barack Obama etc).

I’ve certainly found some success in adopting a simple rule for cutting down on junk food and snacks. I don’t buy them.

If it’s in the house, then it takes conscious effort to not eat it when I’m tempted. If it involves a trip to the shop, then the times I either allow myself to inhale a tub of Ben and Jerrys in one sitting, or I’m tired and fed up enough to drive to a KFC are a lot less often. And it also means that for most things, I can force myself to walk to the shop and at least get some exercise on the way.

But I wanted to introduce some more good habits, and had the opportunity to test three methods to see which were personally more effective. Obviously your results may differ depending on your personality, lifestyle and experiences.


Changing My Habits: Willpower Alone:

When I was younger, I’d read books voraciously. It’s a good habit I inherited from my parents and my maternal grandmother, and led to my love of language, writing, and career.

But it’s slipped a lot over the years. Spending all day reading on a variety of screens for work and pleasure, and having limited spare time would mean I’d find it hard to be enthusiastic about opening a printed book at the end of the day.

I don’t agree that the internet and social media have destroyed the ability to concentrate. I’m as likely to be distracted from work by a good 60 minute video or a lengthy article as a short one. But the odds are that it’s followed by sharing the article and jumping right back into another work task. Not taking any time to digest what I’ve watched or ridden.

So I wanted to reintroduce nightly reading, ordered some books, and tried to introduce 30 minutes or more of time spent enjoying the printed word.

Play Money by Julian Dibbell

So I recently ordered a few books from Amazon that I’d always meant to read. The advantage of older books is that most are pretty cheap now. I also rediscovered my copy of Cryptonomicon, and a cheap copy of The Dogs of Riga in a charity shop.

Mixed, to be honest. I’ve finished 2 of the books from the unread pile in around a month. And restarted Cryptonomicon this week.

But I haven’t seen any noticeable improvement in my ability to concentrate or my sleeping habits. Partly because my commitment has been patchy at best. Some nights I’m skipping reading because I finish work late, or I have other things to do. And when I do read, I occasionally get engrossed and go way over time, which then means I’m tired the next day.

But overall, I’m reasonably happy with progress. I’ve got almost 50% through my target list in a month, and I’m becoming more committed as time goes by. Plus I might not necessarily be able to concentrate harder (difficult to prove without testing), but I do feel like I’m starting to come up with more ideas and links between topics than I have for a while.

The caveat is that I’m someone who has always loved reading, so it’s not necessarily going to be as successful with something tougher. I think my willpower only attempts would struggle a lot more with cutting down on caffeine, or grouting the tiles in the bathroom. As the next example proves…

So I’d give this a 5 or 6 out of 10.


Changing My Habits: Public Validation:

I rarely join in viral Facebook memes. But when #22pushups was going around earlier this year and someone nominated me, I decided to give it a go. Partly because raising awareness of the struggles people face with PTSD and mental illness was a good cause. And also to see what happened when I not only made a public pledge to exercise every day, but had to also video myself and share it.


The video element was a big part. It’s too easy to fake data logging or a few photos. And it also meant I had to involve a 3rd party cameraman most of the time. And my son provided a particularly enthusiastic bit of encouragement, as well as turning every video into some kind of dating advert.


Well, I’m still single.

The actual challenge went well. I think I missed  1 or 2 days, which I made up for straight away the next day. And even kept the run going when I was traveling for work conferences. Including when slightly hung over the next day.

And I could feel the difference from barely managing 22 pushups, to being able to do more than double that. At the local park, I even started doing chin ups on the play equipment for probably the first time in my life. For fun.


I thought 22 days would be long enough to establish a good habit I could build on. But since the impetus to video my exercise ended and I don’t have family and friends prompting me, it pretty much went out the window. It’s too easy to blame work, or having other things to do.

The simple fact is that I wasn’t motivated enough to keep going without some kind of external impetus, and I reverted to being lazy.

So the end result is probably a 2/10 if I’m honest.

(But I do have a plan to counter this, as I’m registering a private Instagram account to start posting daily live videos of my fitness efforts. It’s private because I’m not intending to be a fitness guru, and my only having friends and family watch, I should be comfortable enough to look like an idiot on a regular basis without too much shame).


Changing My Habits: App Notifications:

The last habit I wanted to introduce was learning a language. Having some history of Alzheimer’s in my family and also seeing various research on the benefits of foreign languages, I had a quick look around for quick, free apps to try out.

Having downloaded Duolingo, I had to pick a language. Rather than refreshing my schoolboy French or German, I went with Swedish. Seeing as I spent 13 years in a relationship with a Swede, it seemed silly that I’d picked up random phrases and words over the years but never buckled down and acquired enough Svenska to have a proper conversation.

Duolingo Mobile App Swedish Screen

Jag måste lära mer svenska, I thought. So the mobile app takes you through some word matching with images and translations. You also have to transcribe audio clips or translate them yourself, or use a drag-and-drop approach with a selection of words.

There’s a desktop version as well, but the advantage of the mobile app is that my phone is always on and with me. So I can’t escape by powering down my laptop before I remember my daily lesson.

And I also get an email and notification reminder as a preset time. I’d originally set it for the end of the day, but now having it mid-evening so I still have some motivation reserves left.

Best of all, hitting my standard level target takes 5-10 minutes. So it’s something I can do quickly and easily without fearing a massive commitment.


I’ve missed a couple of days, but made it up in the next 24 hours. The rest of the time I’ve managed daily progress for about a month.

It’s a fairly low commitment, so I haven’t exactly mastered Swedish yet. But I’ve accumulated more than 220 words, passed the first checkpoint, and gone back and kept up my previous lesson strength (Each lesson prompts you with a reminder after a set amount of time to go back and refresh your weakest words/phrases).

But I’m definitely picking up and remembering more words and phrases (I still get Hon and Han confused occasionally), and I’ll be interested the next time I watch a subtitled Swedish film or crime drama to see whether it’s helped.

So I think the combo of easy use and notifications (plus a very tiny amount of gamification with scores etc), has definitely proved successful. So I’ll give it an 8/10 so far.

Changing Habits: My Conclusion:

So if you’re a person with strong willpower or have enough motivation, it’s easy to change a habit. Just do it.

In the case of reading, I do log my progress on Goodreads, but it involves an effort to visit the site etc, so I don’t really count it as motivation at the moment.

When it comes to public validation, it definitely works. Until you stop sharing.

The problem is that some of my friends were certainly uninterested in seeing me do pushups. But I think a private distribution list may work OK – will see how it goes.

And something which includes a bit of gamification with regular prompts and notifications definitely works for me.

Exercise takes more physical effort than the other two habits, but I tend to be mentally tired rather than physically due to my work and lifestyle. And having an encouraging/nagging email and prompt has stopped me skipping days I might have dodged.

The next step will be finding if there’s a solution for reading and fitness which will combine the things which worked best so far, and then seeing what else I can…


Taking an RSS Holiday…

There has been plenty of outcry over the decision by Google to retire Google Reader, which came as a sudden confirmation of something many people had suspected for some time.

I’m one of those affected, and I’ve read quite a few good articles on potential replacements, why it may have happened, and the positive and negative outcomes. I’m hoping that the positive predictions will come true and we’ll see great new products in the RSS space.

Dan's Google Reader Stats

My Google Reader Stats

But rather than rushing into importing my list of 270 feeds straight into a new service, I thought it was a good time to take an enforced break from reading RSS.

I was curious to see what effect it would have on my creativity and productivity – having spent probably an average of 30-60 minutes per day in Google Reader for about 5 years equates to around 900 hours of reading. That’s a little over 38 days of my life spent browsing headlines, hitting J for the next item, and reading through interesting articles before tagging and sharing them.

I’m around 1 week in, and at first I didn’t notice it much.

I was quite relieved to escape from a daily notice that I had 100s of unread items requesting my attention. I still received some interesting articles via email, and some via Twitter etc. I was also able to devote a bit more time to the equally imposing number of emails I’d set aside to respond or act on when I had time.

But after a few days, I started to miss certain feeds.

Not the mainstream tech publication feeds that churn out endless identikit stories on the latest Apple or Google news etc.

But the niche publishers and bloggers who are sometimes completely unrelated to work, but to which I subscribed because they’re just fascinating, or have a great writing style, or I met them somewhere and chatted.

And the feeds I’d set up via Google News Searches etc to feed me content suitable for some of my personal projects.


That’s why we need RSS Readers:

A few of the people I missed are connected to me via Facebook, Twitter or Google+, and some of their content still serviced. But real-time is fleeting, and their latest blog post may have appeared while I was working, sleeping, or in the toilet. By the time I came back, their link has been submerged under pictures of their family, the latest memes, or other updates from other friends.

Growing up, a regular ritual was the Sunday broadsheet with a relaxing breakfast as we’d exchange the sections we wanted to take a look at. And Reader replaced that by allowing me to schedule my blog reading for times when I wasn’t in the middle of work or family life, and could spend an hour or two relaxing and enjoying reading great articles.

Real-time updates are great for breaking news, or responding to customers etc.

They’re rubbish for being able to relax and enjoy lengthy meandering articles about the favourite passions of a writer. Or a complex debate over the merits of a particular issue. Or anything that requires you to stop multitasking.

Email updates are fine, and some work fairly well. Percolate does a reasonable job of highlighting some articles I find interesting, for example.

But I don’t want what’s popular on social networks today as my sole source of information.

I want the hidden niche gems I’ve somehow discovered and collected like a digital scrapbook. And if I’ve been away, I want to go through the last few posts to catch up, without having to run around 200 urls.

RSS obviously hasn’t worked for Google as a proposition to make enough money to justify continuing – hence the demise of Google Reader, Adwords for Feeds, and likely Feedburner sometime soon.

But after taking stock of my RSS holiday, trimming down the number of sites I really need, and getting used to the idea I don’t need RSS Feed Zero, I want my Reader back. I don’t want a flashy magazine style application, or other responsive, skeuomorphic mobile first bells and whistles.

I just want a clear, simple, and quick way to automatically collect the content I want in a place where I can visit when I want to be inspired.

I’ll let you know when I’ve settled into a new RSS home.