A Reading List

One of my main goals for Project Renaissance is to spend more time reading. I mentioned that I picked up a few books about reading to inspire me. I really like reading about other people’s views on readings – it always helps me remember why I like reading, and I need that inspiration to prioritise it with the limited amount of time I have available.

One of the books I picked up was Steve Leveen’s The Little Guide To Your Well-Read Life. This is a short little book packing a decent punch. It summarises various ways in which reading can play a bigger role in life, including tips for getting more out of reading and suggestions like using audiobooks and reading groups.

My favourite section was near the beginning, where Leveen talks about how to construct a personalised reading list. It can be a tricky business deciding what to read next – there are endless choices. Leveen has several suggestions, primarily focused around constructing a list of ‘candidates’ for reading, based on interests, recommendations, previous books you enjoyed, and other sources.

His suggestion is that by being more systematic about selecting possible books to read, we set ourselves up to always get more satisfaction from our reading choices, rather than leaving them to chance or whatever is sitting on the bookshelf at home. He says:

Having a living list of books to read is a critical part of getting the most from your reading life, and it must be your own list, one you create. This cannot be left to someone else. Not only will your list be far more likely to please you, but much benefit lies in making the list. That is where your adventure begins. (p.12)

This rather goes against the idea of reading lists like the one in Susan Wise Bauer’s The Well-Educated Mind, which prescribes a reading list in each of five genres. I can see, though, that a list like the latter is designed for a specific purpose – reading the classics – whereas Leveen’s ideas are broader, encouraging pursuit of reading in any area of interest.

Leveen suggests keeping lists under different headings corresponding to interests you have or develop. This lets you record books you hear about that sound interesting, pursue topics of fascination, and organise books into groups that follow on from each other. One of those lists could be the classics, or Victorian history, or stamp-collecting, or 19th century American fiction – anything, really.

It’s interesting to ponder what headings I could construct, so I had a look around on our bookshelves and a think about what topics currently interest me. I do want to read more of the classics, and I could see myself following a defined scheme, or just working my way through the shelf of classic fiction we have at home. As I mentioned above, my first trip to the library drew me towards books about books – I’m also currently reading The Woman Reader by Belinda Jack. I recently finished Bill Bryson’s A Short History of Nearly Everything, and was reminded how much I enjoy popular science books, so that would be a category. My fiancé brought lots of history books when he moved into the house, and I’d like to read some of those – they cover mostly British and Napoleonic history. I’m also interested in books about happiness, and want to follow up some suggestions in The Happiness Project and elsewhere on this topic.

It’s daunting, in a way, to start to plan out reading, but I can see how being more purposeful about it can produce more satisfaction. Having a plan is always good. I enjoyed Leveen’s little book, and will definitely bear in mind some of his ideas as I embark on getting more books into my life.

How do you keep track of the books you want to read?

Running on empty

I feel like a wuss for admitting it, but this is a hard season.

This is not a blog for complaining, but I do have some legitimately tough things going on at the moment. Or rather, things that, each on their own, would be a handful, but all at once, feel like a maelstrom. Let’s review:

  • I am a post-doc entering the last six months of my project.
  • I am about to go part-time (hello, 50% paycut.)
  • I have just returned from three days in Portugal, and am about to go to Edinburgh for a week, all work-related (entailing writing and giving presentations and lots of networking.)
  • I am a maximum of six months, and possibly only three months, away from being unemployed.
  • And I’m getting married in less than five weeks. It’s a big wedding.

The last thing is a happy thing. I want to be excited, and enjoying these last few weeks before our wedding. But it’s undeniable that planning an event for 150 guests involving two venues, numerous suppliers, and little introverted me being the centre of attention all day, is causing me some stress.

I always knew this was going to be a difficult season, but what I didn’t appreciate was how much the first four points would be taking their toll. An example: my three days in Portugal went well, but my sleep routine got almost entirely screwed up. The first night I barely slept because it was too warm, the second night was the conference dinner, and I didn’t get back to my hotel till 1.30 am, and my flight home didn’t get in till late, so I didn’t get to bed till 1 am either.

Normally, a couple of nights of less-than-average sleep would be annoying, but I’d recuperate pretty quickly. It’s Sunday now, and I am still totally exhausted, as in, can barely keep my eyes open. This feeling doesn’t help – the minute I start thinking about what’s coming in the next few weeks, I feel totally overwhelmed. Quite literally, I can feel my brain shutting down, unable to even form a coherent thought or plan as to what comes next.

I feel the effects. My temper control is shot to pieces. Normally, I’m able to take things reasonably well on the chin; now, even something as simple as a messy cupboard can send me into a sudden fit of rage. My emotions are bubbling right under the surface and it doesn’t take much to get a volcano. This is scary for someone who is normally mild-mannered. It’s also c**p for my relationship with A. He has the patience of a saint with me at the moment, but I know he hates it when I lose it over something tiny. My moods are all over the place, and I hate it.

I also seem incapable of switching my brain off properly. There always seems to be something to do, but due to the overwhelm, I more often than not end up paralysed and unable to do even the simplest things. Calling the insurance company, checking things over with bridesmaids, writing a shopping list – everything feels like more of a struggle than normal.

I’m running on empty. I’m reminded of a couple of posts from a blogger I’ve read for a long time, Jen Fulwiler. Our lives are very different – she has six small children, for starters – but her posts on Bare Minimum Mode and how to survive overwhelm have stuck with me. I’m going to have to ponder how I can ease my load, at present – there aren’t many things on that list that I can avoid right now – but I’m sure there are things I could be doing to help.

Top of my list over the next week is finding ways to help me recharge my batteries. We’ve joined a new gym, and I have a fitness programme ready which I am determined to follow. If I can accomplish that one goal, I may well feel better. (Our gym also has a great pool – and we all know how important exercise is for stress relief.)

More though, I need to find ways to mentally recharge. The paradox of this situation is that picking up the activities that would help – knitting, reading, watching a film, going for walks – make me feel guilty, because there is SO MUCH ELSE TO DO. I have to continually remind myself that keeping myself healthy and sane must be my top priority right now. In fact, that’s going to be my theme for this week. Healthy and sane.

What are your tips for getting through hard seasons, and recharging your batteries when times are tough?

Habits: Avoiding the snooze button

When I started thinking about how to improve my routines, one of the first issues I identified was how I started my day. I wrote:

Getting up: this has wildly fluctuated recently, but my alarm goes off at 6.50, and I am normally out of bed around 7.20. I would really like to reclaim this half hour from the snooze button to give me more time in the morning.

Snooze button: worst idea ever? Image by Cory Voglesonger via Flickr

Snooze button: worst idea ever? Image by Cory Voglesonger via Flickr

As I thought about it afterwards, this phrase really jumped out at me, and I decided it would be the first change I would tackle. It seems like a small thing, but hitting snooze never has the pay-off I think it will. Much as it’s nice to doze for a little while before getting up, it actually just made both me and my fiancé more stressed – we end up rushing our morning to try to make up for the indulgence. So my first move was to eliminate this half hour wasted in the morning, with the aim to be less rushed and still get into work nice and early.

It’s easier said than done to avoid being swayed by the snooze button when you’re only half awake. I used the trick I’ve used before to great success, though it feels pretty brutal the first few days – I put the alarm out of reach, on the other side of the room. My alarm (I use my iPhone) is irritating enough for me to want it off as quickly as possible, and so it forces me to get out of bed as soon as it goes off. Once I’m up, it’s easier to go straight to the bathroom and wake up in the shower.

We tried it all last week and, unsurprisingly, it worked. I was out of bed at 6.50 am every day, and we got into work much earlier than before, which is what we prefer. It worked for A. as well, as once I’m up, he’s much less inclined to stay in bed as well.

There were one or two unexpected side effects as well. Because I knew that I was going to actually get up at 6.50 am, I was rather more aware of bedtime, and I think we were better at heading to bed earlier. I think we both got a decent amount of rest all week. Secondly, and perhaps as a result, once I was up, I found I woke up fairly quickly. I definitely felt more alert on the mornings where I didn’t indulge in a lie-in. Which is a paradox: I’d have guessed that more time in bed would make me feel more rested, but in reality, unless it’s quality sleep time, it seems to make me more lethargic.

So, a great change to have made, and we’ll keep up with it. If any of you are struggling to get up in the mornings, I highly recommend the ‘put alarm out of reach’ strategy (though it needs a better name!)