Blog

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.