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Deciding to be better…

… at crosswords. And other things

screen shot of the crossword icon. Under the icon there is a notification that says "You're on a 25 day streak! KEEP IT GOING."

Something weird happened to me on the way to the Forum.

The Forum in this case is the (infamous) NYT Crossword Puzzle. The NYT Crossword and 3 sudoku puzzles are part of my morning routine. My early-day brain likes to solve some problems before it tackles the day. It’s a habit of unknown origin.

Until around March or April 2019, I could reliably finish only the Monday (easiest) crossword sans help. As the rest of the week’s crosswords became increasingly harder, I would have extra browser tabs open to Wikipedia, IMDB Merriam-Webster, DuckDuckGo and Google.

Looking up the exact answer on crossword solver sites is verboten; my rule is the answer must be found online in its own context. Rivers are located on maps, team names are found on sports sites, etc. Wikipedia is a last resort. My crossword solving practice is as much about honing internet search skills as it is about waking up my brain. Hence, I don’t see looking up answers on non-crossword-solver sites as “cheating.” I use the tool to build better skills and I’m not competing with anyone.

But even with scouring the internet (which btw I’ve been quite good at for decades), after Wednesday I rarely completed a puzzle on my own; I’ve needed the NYT app to reveal the answer. One square would stump me on Thursday, or two on Friday, or maybe five or six on Saturday (the hardest puzzle). I never had longer than a two- or three-day streak.

Until one day, when everything changed.

Sometime in the beginning of 2019, I noticed I was becoming increasingly annoyed upon discovering the answers that stumped me. “Ugh,” I’d think. “I knew that.” I’d be figuratively kicking myself. This annoyance was a new thing, and it grew with each passing puzzle.

When I started on the NYT puzzles, I assumed I would not be able to finish them, as the puzzle is one of the most difficult in main stream newspapers. After a few years, the Monday puzzles became easier and I would be delighted to have solved them. I kept solving. I kept getting better. But I never noticed.

Back to early 2019. After kicking myself every day for several weeks, I decided to not give up so easily on the last square or two that stumped me. On April 7, 2019, I decided I was going to sit and think about hard clues before I turned to the “Reveal Puzzle” button. I would do what I had to do to crack the code. If I had to do some more internet sleuthing, if I had to sit and stare, if I had to pick through charts of sports stats from the last 100 years, I was going to find the dang answers.

Beginning on that day, I went on a 25-day streak of perfectly-solved puzzles.

It was an odd feeling. Suddenly I had to change my view of myself. I was a better internet/searcher-NYTcrossworder than I’d thought. Who was this person who could just decide to finish puzzles?

“Jeez,” I thought. “What else works like this? Could I just decide to not have anxiety? Could I just decide to be a better eater and exerciser?”

The terrifying answer was “Yes.” Sure, habits are ingrained pathways in the brain and etched memory in the muscles, but big parts of our identity are a choice. Seeing myself as a novice crossword solver was appropriate for when I first started. Over time, though, that image became incongruous with the facts. I had moved up intermediate level, but I clung to that novice identity.

a newspaper opened to the crossword on a wood table in a cafe

Let’s take a second to notice how my change worked. It went through common steps of identity shift:

  1. Start as a beginner
  2. Practice
  3. Get better
  4. Become more confident in your skills
  5. Take on increasingly difficult challenges

I got stuck between steps 3 & 4. I was in a holding pattern. I got better, and I did notice that I was filling in more and more squares as the week went on, but I still saw myself as “just learning.” Seeing myself as a beginner allowed me to give up easily on the puzzles. They were hard! Right?

When the annoyance set in, my habits got disrupted. Faced with new information, i.e., the revealed answers were not so esoteric that I couldn’t figure them out, my identity struggled. I couldn’t justify giving up so easily on the puzzles. It was laziness.

The wave of dissatisfaction was enough to topple the boat. I decided to work harder to solve the puzzles so as to stop kicking myself over missed clues. I passed step 4 and went on to step 5.

25 days later, I sat and stared at the notification. A 25-day streak. All solved. I took a screenshot and carried on. I kept the streak going for several days after that until I realized I didn’t need to spend so much time on the puzzles. My transformation was complete. No longer was I someone who would always be stumped by the NYT crossword. I was someone who could solve it if she wanted to. I casually and without concern broke the streak sometime in the 30s.

That, my friends, is what is called a “paradigm shift.” I went from believing one framework to another: I am not a solver -> I am a solver. But this wasn’t just a shift in nerd identity. It was also a shift in my thoughts on change.

I’m an avid reader of pop psych and self-help books. I regularly visit the subreddit r/DecidingtobeBetter. Finding ways to grow and live more freely has been a major pursuit of mine since I was a girl. I’d experienced sudden changes-of-heart before, but none were so consciously built. This little crossword decision and its resulting 25-day streak rocked my world. It changed how I think about change.

Listen. The whole Tony Robbins “change your life in a second!” stuff is crap. True, lasting change takes practice. I didn’t reach my “I’m an NYT puzzle solver” state until after many years of struggling with the puzzle, a few months of specific annoyance, then almost a month’s worth of practice in the new role. It’s easy to see the tip of the iceberg and not its massive base floating underneath.

What I’m saying is, change happens pretty much the same way every time: Status Quo -> Discomfort -> Response to Discomfort. Often we can’t influence the first two states. They happen without our input and/or conscious knowledge. But we have a LOT more sway over that last state. How we see ourselves will dictate how we respond. You are allowed to set your own rules. Those rules won’t always mix well with what society imposes, but there’s a whole world of wiggle room in there. You get to decide who you are to yourself.

Whether it’s a random day in May or the start of the New Year, take some stock in your current state. Probably somewhere you’ve built skills you have yet to acknowledge. Perhaps it’s time to dive in and claim that victory.

Coffee and Crossword by waffleboy on Flickr
Ocean scene by Alexandra Bellink on Flickr