Bad habits and fortune cookies

Phil Ford

Here’s another dumb developmental essay. I realized the other day that this is pretty much all I ever write anymore — stuff about the place of education within broader issues of human development. This has given things a decidedly psychological tone, which is disturbing, since I am completely unqualified (and probably unfit) to tell anyone how to live his or her life. But what can I say, this stuff interests me. I write about my experiences, what is or has been important to me, and if should go without saying that your mileage may vary. Never take anything you read on a blog too seriously.


Anyway, to continue a thread I started the other day . . .

We think of bad habits as childish stuff, like putting our elbows on the table at dinner or failing to put the toilet seat down. But the more you think about it, the more you realize that you are really a tissue of bad habits, or at least a tissue of habits, many of them bad. We don’t notice them usually unless someone is sweating us to stop them (“for the thousandth goddam time, put the toilet seat down!”) or unless we are in a situation where our unconsidered and inconspicuous bad habits start messing with some particular thing we’re trying to accomplish. As a rule, the bigger and more demanding the task, the more conspicuous our bad habits become.

Writing a dissertation or (more generally) doing a Ph.D. program is about as big as task as most people ever undertake. It’s a huge accomplishment to finish a Ph.D., and (as I think I’ve said before) if you’re doing it right, it poses challenge a challenge not only to your intellectual faculties but to the totality of your being—mind, heart, and body. If you want to finish your dissertation, it’s not enough to get organized, write up lists of things to read, music to listen to, areas to study, topics to write up; it’s not even enough to actually read, listen, study, write all these things. You have to identify all the stupid little things you do that get in the way of all that stuff—the thousand and one things you do to waste time, put things off, get distracted, and feel bad about. Because if you’re not doing something about those little scripts you run in your brain—if you’re not intervening at the level of the “operating system” rather than on the level of content—you will almost certainly end up taking a lot more time and energy getting the results you want, the end product won’t satisfy you, and you won’t be very happy about the experience.

This is what I mean when I say that the challenge of a Ph.D. program is more than just intellectual. Identifying bad habits and doing something about them is something that pertains to the whole person.


An example: when I was working on by dissertation, I noticed that I procrastinated. OK, well, everyone does that. But I started getting really good at it. I developed great skills in what I came to call “the higher procrastination.” If I’m reading some piece of internet randomness I know I’m not working. But what if I’m making a run to Wilson library? That feels kind of productive. What about doing transcriptions of jazz solos? Totally relevant, and kind of fun as well. What about putting my transcriptions in Sibelius? The whole day whizzes by. But at the end of the day, I still haven’t written one word. That’s the key thing. Because one way or another, that dissertation isn’t going to exist without some words getting written down, and that really is the main and inescapable thing. It doesn’t matter how many books I checked out of the library, how I organized them on my shelf, how nice I got my syllabus to look, whatever, if I haven’t written something in the course of the day I simply haven’t eaten what was on my plate. This is the higher procrastination: it’s work, but it’s not the work you’re putting off.


So in a fury with myself one day I wrote down a simple instruction, which I put on a MSWord document which I then put in the startup folder, so it would launch every time I turned my computer on:


Just write, for fuck’s sake. 

This is actually a very simple version of the kind of “exercise” I wrote about in my last post. I started noticing other bad habits. Not all of them had to do with procrastination; some, for example, were bad writing habits. For example, I would start writing and before getting to the end of the first sentence would notice that one of the words was a little wrong for the shade of meaning I was after. So I would stop, think, try a different word out, and then notice that the mechanics of the sentence had to change to accommodate it, so I would work on that, and then I would think of something else that the sentence should say, and wonder if maybe I should write it in the next sentence or try to fold it into this one, and then I would try the latter option but now this sentence is 89 words long and I don’t even know what it means anymore or where I was going with it, and oh shit, I can’t do this! How am I ever going to finish this dissertation??!! . . . oh hey, I’ve got some books I need to get at the library, BRB.


So I realized I was habitually doing something I told my comp. 101 students not to do: conflating primary drafting and revising. Some people can do this well, but I can’t, so I wrote myself another instruction:


Write in one direction—forward. Revise in any direction you like.

In other words, drafting and revising are two different stages, and you decide, at the beginning of a writing session, that you’re doing one or the other. Be clear on your decision; be clear that this is a decision. Formalize your decision in some way, by saying it to yourself internally or even writing “Draft 1” in your document or something. It’s one thing to know something like this and another to act on it; to do the latter you need to remind yourself constantly, you need to practice it, so this one went onto my startup file. The list grew—I began to call these little notes-to-self my “fortune cookies.” Some of them are pretty personal and not worth sharing, but here’s one:


Don’t look down.

Did you notice the little spiral of madness at the end of my conflated sentence drafting/revision process? How I went from “this sentence sucks” to “I’ll never finish this dissertation! Never, never NEVER!“? I do that kind of thing a lot. Bad habit. Look: we’re all walking on a very shaky rope ladder above an abyss. Don’t look down! The possibility of failure is always there, and it will go from a possibility to a probability if you view every individual act from the vantage point of Possible Future Catastrophe. Just work on the limited problem you’re dealing with right now and leave the global what-am-I-doing-with-my-life stuff for another time. And a little global thinking goes a long way. Most of the time it’s useless.


Re. the various “exercises” I wrote about in my last post, commenter Jason suggested that “this kind of exercise has important applications not only for practice but also pedagogy. If a teacher can tap into their student’s awareness (by observation and familiarity) and help them increase it, the productivity and retention in lessons would skyrocket.” I actually tried to put this into action yesterday, in my Cultural Studies seminar. I had noticed myself getting into bad habits (talking way too much and not in a way that did much to launch conversations among my students), so I formalized one one-hour period of our seminar as a “game piece.” Here are the instructions:


Game piece no. 1 for seminar

At the beginning of play, a timekeeper will be appointed. The piece begins after the student presentation has concluded. The student presenter will ask questions for discussion, and the other students will begin to converse. The professor will remain silent but will take notes. The discussion will go on for half an hour.

If we think of a discussion by analogy with a basketball game, the point is to keep the “ball” (conversational initiative) in play; a student who wants the ball must take it, and the student who has the ball must pass it. If a student has the ball and no-one takes it, that student must call on someone they will pass it to. Students so chosen must then say something, though they may change the subject if they like. Once a student has been called on, he or she cannot be called on again until all the other students in the room have been called on. A period of twelve seconds may elapse after a student poses a question or comment; when twelve seconds are up, the timekeeper will tell the student to call on someone.

At the end of this first period, the professor will respond for ten minutes, bringing up and developing some of the general tendencies in the foregoing discussion.

During the first two periods, the professor must not interrupt the students, and vice versa, unless they need to hear a question or comment repeated.

After the professor’s ten-minute period, there will be another ten-minute period during which the professor and students may talk ad libitum. They may speak on any matter whatsoever, but the twelve-second rule will still apply.

If the timer bell for the end of a period sounds in the middle of a comment, the speaker may finish his or her thought. If the period ends on an as-yet answered question, that question may be addressed at the beginning of the next period.


This worked surprisingly well! All I was doing, really, was writing a simple description of one possible way an actual seminar might play out and then formalizing that description as a set of game rules. But treating a seminar as a “game piece” rather than just, you know, a class, brought a degree of self-consciousness to all the participants. It’s a way of formalizing your intentions, and in formalizing your intentions you intervene against habit. I suppose this is something that games and rituals have in common: you create a structure of action whereby a certain desire or intention is made manifest; the desire transforms from a vague wish (“I hope we have a good conversation today”) into the concrete thing itself (you have a good conversation). The game or ritual allows us to experience our intention as reality. Do this sort of thing often enough and you can really get something done.


About Phil Ford

Chairman of the Committee for the Memorial to the Victims of Modernism
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6 Responses to Bad habits and fortune cookies

  1. Jonathan says:

    Brilliant. Will respond/accuse/problematize.

  2. John H says:

    I like your concept of “higher procrastination,” as it’s been happening to me, but I haven’t understood it as a bad habit. I’ve found that, as I’ve been working on my thesis, I’ve spent a lot of time reading and listening and analyzing. Every time I go to write, I find something else I don’t know enough about, and then go on to study that instead of gutting into writing. I think I’ll post your first advice above my desk.
    As for your class suggestion, it sounds quite intriguing, but I’m wondering if you had any trouble with students who are typically quite vocal in discussion, and those are typically never talk. Did the “everyone must have a turn” rule work?

  3. Phil Ford says:

    Hi John H —
    Actually, the rule was only that the students who were called on (after a silence of 12 seconds had elapsed) had to be cycled through without repeating. And we only had three such silences over a period of 70+ minutes, so we didn’t even get halfway through the roster. (There are seven students in the seminar.) The conversation otherwise moved spontaneously from one student to the other — I didn’t want to write a rule for how that would happen, because I thought it would be too contrived. And as it happened, it would have been unnecessary anyway.

  4. Michael Ethen says:

    Thanks, Phil. It’s like you can see into my office or something.
    More internet randomness: (Random for you pleasure)
    If a writer has separated writing from revising, but still could use a friendly nudge now and again, I recommend Writing Down the Bones (Natalie Goldberg) and Bird By Bird (Anne Lamott). Goldberg’s mantra is “keep the pen moving”–let the process of writing become your meditation practice.
    So I think I’ll merge your two posts and create an event score for writing (based on my fortune cookies), perform that score for two weeks, then choose who I am.

  5. Heather says:

    can’t wait to try the seminar game piece. thanks!

  6. Pingback: That was a thing that happened | Dial M for Musicology

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