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Habits

I’m writing a new nonfiction book, entitled Becoming Who We Need to Be, and though I don’t typically have any trouble spinning up into writing mode, I’ve found that being here in Wichita has altered that propensity a bit.

It’s not that I don’t want to write, or that I don’t fall into the process as soon as I sit down and do it. It’s more that I have gobs of other interesting things that I’m working on each day, many of which are also iterative processes, and I’ll sometimes realize late at night right before going to sleep that I never got around to working on the book that day.

This is not an unfamiliar problem to many writers, I think. But it is one that’s solvable, so long as you aren’t afraid to reorganize things to ensure that the time is available each day, and to ensure you use that time appropriately.

For me, this has meant setting aside my mornings for use in a very specific way.

I wake up whenever I wake up, usually around 7:30 or 8, and walk out to the living room. I set the timer on my phone and I sit, doing nothing but thinking, for ten minutes. This, I find, primes my brain for work, but also allows me to sort through what I want to accomplish that day, address anything I’ve been worrying about or any ideas that came to me the night before, and to essentially get mentally structured from the outset. I’ve done twenty minutes of this each day for many years, but generally later in the day. This is additional time that serves a similar, but slightly different purpose.

Next, I take about fifteen minute to check my email, respond to any pressing messages, rifle through my social networks for the same, and do a quick spot-check of the news.

Within a half-hour of waking, I’m writing. I’m currently moving at a pace of a chapter a day, which is something like 2-5,000 words, depending on the topic. I sit and work, sipping at coffee, my phone on the other side of the room, my usual browser windows closed, the internet used only when I need to look something up for the book. When I finish the chapter, I move on to other work-related tasks, and keep going like this until noon.

The only real difference between this routine and what I had already been doing is that it has front-loaded my work to the beginning of the day, which solved the aforementioned problem of not getting around to working on the book.

It also solved another problem I hadn’t been consciously aware of until it was solved. I would be a little stressed throughout the day, worrying that one task or another wasn’t yet taken care of, knowing that I would tackle it later, but still subconsciously worrying that something else would come up and keep me from doing so. When you travel a lot, you tend to assume anything can happen, and that your environment will change around you, and that you’ll likely be unable to rely on any schedule you put into place.

I don’t think that habits and rituals are the be-all, end-all of personal development. There are many different ways to grow, and being capable of not just existing, but flourishing, even without rigid structure, I would argue, is an immensely valuable skill that carries over to anything you might do.

That said, if you want to learn a new skill, finish a big project, or do something difficult, instigating new routines in your life is a relatively simple way to make it happen.

A few things to think about when inventing and installing new habits:

  1. You needn’t wait for a milestone to make a positive (or even experimental) change. Getting into the habit of not waiting for outside catalysts is a good idea, because it means you’ll be able to more rapidly make these changes when it makes sense to do so, and makes you less reliant on other people (or even just the calendar) as a whole. That said, if there is an impending milestone on the horizon (say, a birthday, or a new year), it doesn’t hurt to make use of it to suit your needs. In the case of holidays, everything around you will be changing for a time, and a lot of existing rituals will be upset by the abnormality. That’s an opening for you to install some new habits without your having to forcibly break the existing ones, first.
  2. Tethering new habits and rituals to old ones helps a whole lot, especially in the early days. I find that the biggest hurdle in, say, establishing a new routine of resetting things in my home so that I wake up to a full ice tray, no dirty dishes, and all the furniture where it belongs, is to attach my ‘home reset’ habit to my ‘brushing my teeth and taking out my contact lenses’ habit (which itself is attached to my ‘nightly workout routine’ habit). You may still have to force yourself to perform that new task if it’s something that seems cumbersome or unpleasant in the moment, but this tethering at least makes it less likely that you’ll just outright forget to do it. And until you’ve successfully done something a dozen times in a row, forgetting is likely.
  3. Set a date to check in and see if this habit you’ve established is worth continuing. This is a valuable thing to do for a few reasons. First, it makes the initial instigation of the habit a little easier, because it doesn’t feel mentally heavy, like a task you’re adding to your life forever. Second, it makes the whole effort an experiment, because you’ll be checking, at that pre-determined date, whether it’s actually worth your continued time and effort, or if it’s better swapped out for something new or removed completely. Third, it gives you a chance to upgrade the habit at a pre-set time, if it’s proving to be useful. I do this with my workout routine: each month, I check in and see what’s working well, what’s not, what I might add to better balance what I’m doing, what part of the routine regularly causes me to pull a muscle or doesn’t fit with my lifestyle, etc.
  4. Be realistic. What I mean by this is don’t tell yourself you’re going to write and edit a book in a month if you’ve never written and edited a book before. Don’t decide that you’re going to work out for an hour each day at the gym across town if you already only have a small amount of time for life outside of work. This isn’t to say you couldn’t accomplish either of those things if you wanted to, but it’s common for people to set their sights cripplingly high in a moment of ambition, only to feel crushed when they fail to live up to those unrealistic goals, which then causes them to set fewer goals, as they assume they won’t be able to reach them. Being realistic, then, means setting goals you know you can accomplish, and then increasingly them with time, iteratively, as it makes sense to do so. It also means aligning your goals with your lifestyle and situation: maybe don’t say you’ll do an hour at the gym across town, and instead say you’ll do fifteen minutes a night of body weight resistance exercises at home. And then maybe consider the full-on, longer gym experience if you find it worthwhile to adjust your schedule to suit such ambitions later on.
  5. Pursue ‘worthless’ things. A large number of the tasks I do for a living, today, at one time were just casual hobbies. A large number of the activities I do in my free time, today, are random skills I picked up on a whim, and which now are immensely valuable for the happiness I derive from them. Don’t relegate habit- and ritual-building to only money-making, productivity-enhancing facets of your life. Learn to play guitar or the djembe. Read more fiction and watch the Criterion Collection. Learn to cook, visit national monuments, set aside time to play board games each month. Ambition is wonderful: be sure to apply some of it to metrics of success and happiness and fulfillment beyond those that are directly business-related. Grow roundly, not in only one dimension.

This essay was originally published in my newsletter.

Blog

Revision

I’ve said before that going through the editing process for a book is like being beaten across the face with a hammer, only to realize afterward that you look better with a black eye and fewer teeth.

I still feel that way: cutting and culling and revamping and revising your own work, your precious words, can be painful, but it’s almost always a productive pain. The ache you feel the day after a long run, or the longing you feel for a familiar place left behind so that you can set off to pursue something new and vital to your happiness.

These past months have been rich in revision, for me. Not just in the writerly sense, but in the larger meaning of the word: to reshape and pivot, to change direction and action based on new evidence.

In practice, this has meant becoming more focused in how I spend my time, while also opening up more of my day for investigative, this-may-be-cool-but-maybe-not sorts of experiments. So you might say my focus has included some very intentional unfocused time.

It’s also meant revisiting a lot of my older work to assess the bigger picture.

I recently redesigned Exile Lifestyle, as part of a larger, structural, personal overhaul. As part of this update, I’m also systematically re-reading every single post I’ve written since 2009 (there are over 500), reformatting them so they have a more consistent, easy to read layout, and adding an update to each one; a message from current day Colin, containing new thoughts, notes about how my ideas have shifted in the years between, and in some cases poking fun at my younger self and his silly ideas.

This process has been a blast, and I’m still only partway through 2010, so there’s plenty left to go. It’s been educational to see where my ideas have changed, which have stayed the same (in some things I’ve been almost eerily consistent, even as everything else has shifted), and how my method of communication has evolved over the years. It feels good to see the growth that has occurred. It also feels good to put a new coat of paint on a project that has served me well since the very beginning of this strange lifestyle of mine.

These edits, though minor, have already substantially changed the way I approach my work and perceive where I’ve come from, and the feeling is the same for my other projects.

Stopping to take a look at the bigger picture, figuring out what’s worked and what hasn’t, what’s been valuable to you and what’s been a burden, making some tweaks to the formula, and then pushing forward with a new recipe — endeavoring to do even better next time while leaving yourself open to future adjustments — is like editing your book or going for a run. It’s uncomfortable. It can be painful at times. It’s overwhelming and cumbersome.

But it’s also one of the better ways to achieve clarity of direction, and can be immensely satisfying. It’s a means of intentionally creating a new milestone; a fresh jumping-off point from where you can move in any direction, utilizing all you’ve learned up till this point as additional buoyancy, adding inches to your take-off.

Some revisions are regular: a weekly deep-clean of your home, a daily clearing of the to-do list, a regular twenty-minutes of quiet contemplation to calm any lingering mental discord.

Taking the opportunity to do a larger check-in and assessment, to give yourself permission to trim and edit and rework and repurpose, even if it’s only every few years, can ensure you’re moving full-speed toward you-shaped goals. And if it turns out that very few changes are necessary, these revision moment can still be valuable as reaffirmation of the path you’re on.

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Ideal Speech Situation

I came across the term ideal speech situation the other day, while doing research for a podcast episode.

The core concept of this idea is that we’re most capable of benefitting from conversation when there are implied, mutually beneficial rules for the interaction.

These rules are that everyone capable of participating is allowed to do so, that any and every assertion made by anyone is open for questioning, that anyone involved can introduce new assertions (which can then be questioned), and that there should be nothing keeping anyone from fully expressing themselves while adhering to these implied rules — they shouldn’t feel socially or culturally pressured to not speak, or to not question, and they shouldn’t feel coerced by the threat of physical or psychological or social retribution for what they say.

I love this idea. Not because it’s perfect, as there are still numerous games you can play with these rules that would result in advantages for one participant or another, or that would nullify a lot of the potential positive effects. I love it because of what it’s attempting to accomplish, and how clearly it addresses some of the problems we’re struggling with as a diverse, interconnected species, today.

There are reasons we don’t speak as clearly as we might. There are reasons we don’t question certain authorities and refrain from rocking the boat, even when rocking might be just what we need.

There are social standards that set out what we can safely talk about and what is considered to be taboo. There are labels we apply to people who don’t follow these strictures, and labels we apply to people who follow them too assiduously.

We fail to include voices whose words might be relevant. We fail to question societal norms and traditional values. We fail to introduce all possible perspectives, even when those perspectives might better illuminate that which we’re trying to see more clearly.

Perhaps most confoundingly, we very often enter conversations in bad faith. We enter, not with the intent to learn or grow or come to the most ideal conclusion — we show up to win.

We plant semantic and logical traps. We attack the other person’s character or conflate their ideas on one subject with their ideas on another. We label them, brand them, define them from the outside.

We trip those with whom we’re speaking and claim that their stumbling means we won the race.

That’s not the point of a productive discussion. Or rather, it shouldn’t be.

Entering a discussion with the proper intent is a key part of actually accomplishing something, and that’s a standpoint that seems to be lacking in essentially all public discourse, not to mention dialogue at the interpersonal level.

As I said, this approach isn’t perfect. But it does seem like an idea worth remembering at the outset of future conversations. One of the more difficult struggles we’re going to face as a globe-spanning species in the coming decades is sorting out how to interact and coexist with people who believe differently than us. Coming up with a shared appreciation for civil and gainful discourse, and establishing guidelines for such discussions, would be a step toward that goal.