The trouble with a daily writing practice is that it has to be daily and it has to be in spite of whatever resistance one is feeling to the idea of sitting down to write.
The purpose is to learn to circumnavigate that resistance.
It is very, very hard.
I’ve spent a good deal of time lately trying to understand the basics of planning, goal setting, and time management. I want to be able to get things done, and make sure that I show up on time and prepared for the variety of obligations that ultimately present themselves.
The first problem, of course, is that this is all an elaborate ruse to keep myself from getting the things I’m supposed to be doing, done. The second is that I have approached this research endeavor through the media of Youtube and Pinterest which are ultimately exercises in self-doubt and envy. Also probably misinformation.
Mostly, and I thank Alexis Giostra (aka MissTrenchcoat) of Strange & Charmed for the name and call-out of the habit, I suffer from shiny object syndrome (from this video). Also known as “commitment phobia,” “poor impulse control,” “perfectionist tendencies,” among others. In the past three months, I have designed a variety of different printable planner inserts, and multiple physical planner notebook objects. I’m proud of all of that work, and I do think it was informative, both personally and technically.
What that means in practice, however, is that I have not stuck with a given planner structure/system for longer than about 3 weeks. That’s not long enough for a person to build a habit, and certainly not long enough for me to build a habit.
Habits are, as any number of people will tell you, the cornerstone of daily life and successful individuals. It’s why men wear suits, why Steve Jobs wore the same all black outfit every day, and why you can remember to put milk in your coffee in the morning. Essentially, habits are tiny automated processes you kick start at certain times/with certain behaviors. Whether or not you know it, you likely do the exact same thing every time you shower, shampoo, conditioner, bodywash, arms, legs, back, etc. Or when you brush your teeth, you start on the same side of your mouth every time and go through the same order of tops/insides/outsides each time. Maybe you get up at the same time every day (or can’t sleep in later than a certain hour). This is habit.
In my life, I have had remarkably few habits develop. Most of them have to do with how I brush my teeth, and the order in which I do things in the shower. I managed to solidify, whilst in college, the evening tooth brushing routine, so that I would brush, floss, and put in my night guard, just by getting to the bathroom before bedtime. (I am probably overly proud of this fact, but I’m learning to take my victories where I find them.)
More importantly, however, is that automated processes don’t require thinking. I’m not a fan of the term “spoonie” or the spoonie movement/nomenclature, but they are founded in a very important basic principle: we all have a cognitive limit. The biggest suck of cognitive energy is decision making. The best reason to develop habits is that you’re removing decision making processes. If you can automate all the steps between “wake up” and “get on the bus”––turning off your alarm, getting out of bed, washing up, breakfast, getting dressed, gathering your stuff, leaving the house––you’ve conserved cognitive energy that can be better used to make tough decisions at work, come up with new ideas, etc.
Having a plan is not the same as having a habit, however. It isn’t enough to know that when your alarm goes off you should turn it off, get out of bed, wash up, eat breakfast, get dressed, etc etc. Should only means that you have to make the decision to do it. Here we can borrow from Freud briefly, and use the Ego, Superego, and Id to illustrate the point:
Should means that the Superego is telling you what the “proper” “moral” or “correct” course of action is, most of us hear the alarm in the morning and the Id starts screaming about how it wants more sleep, and how winter air is cold, and how the news in the paper will probably be depressing, etc etc. Now the Ego has to make a choice.
That’s the bad news. Nevertheless there is good news!
Provided you make the choice enough times, you can turn it into a habit. That means, effectively, training the Ego to ignore the Id, and ultimately, training the Id to not mind as much. Habits don’t make things more pleasant (you won’t suddenly develop a fondness for cold winter air on your feet first thing in the morning) but it makes things easier (you won’t have to psych yourself up to put your feet on the floor).
Now, that’s just one portion of the process of getting things done. That’s the stuff you can plan for/automate. The rest of it is learning the skills and supporting habits that will allow you to deal with the things that cannot be automated. Meetings, projects, parties, restaurant menus, et. al. I think a lot of people who don’t have very good habit forming skills in other arenas of their lives probably have a small arsenal of habits (both good and bad) for dealing with the unexpected, because they don’t have the kind of solid foundation that keeps the number of unexpected things to a minimum. For example, when ordering food or drinks off a menu that one has never seen before; some people will scan and look for dishes/ingredients they recognize/like and allow that to guide them in narrowing the list of choices, others look for the things they do not recognize or have never tried and use that to guide them. The goal of these tricks/habits is that they allow their practitioner to make fewer total number of choices. You don’t have to go through each item on the menu individually and accept or reject each of them (which would take a huge quantity of cognitive energy). You create a short list of at most three things you might order and then pick between them (which requires much less energy).
In the same way, people with good habits for the “unexpected” might have it as part of their planning process to add an extra ten minutes to their schedule in front of any meeting which they use to review their notes, or meditate, or develop an agenda, or whatever, which allows them to be focused and prepared for the meeting.
To be able to do this, however, you need to be able to keep track of when your meetings are. You can’t build the extra-10-minutes habit, if you never know when you’ll need to practice it. This is where these supportive habits come into play.
When I say supportive habits I mean things like: regularly planning your day/week/month, checking in with schedules and to-do lists, keeping track of notes, information, and actionable items. That’s the sort of thing that, ultimately, needs to be developed on two fronts.
The first one is in your scheduled habits. If you make it part of your “morning routine” and/or “evening routine” to review your schedule for the day and/or focus on the tasks you need to do that day or the following one, than you’re making it an automated process to know what you have to be doing, when, where, and with or for whom. This keeps things from sneaking up on you outside of total freak accidents and unpredictable phenomena.
The second is in reflecting on/reacting to your emotional or physical situation. If you finish something earlier than expected: go back to your schedule/to do list and reevaluate what you can do. If something takes longer than expected: go back to your schedule/to do list and reevaluate what you can do. If you are feeling stressed out, stop for 5 minutes and do some meditative/deep breathing until you are more clear headed … then go back to your schedule/to do list and determine what your next step should be.
This second set of habits is harder, in some ways, to develop, because it does require the capacity (not so much intellectual, as emotional) to stop and reflect on our own actions/emotions. Anyone who has ever been stressed, overwhelmed, angry, upset, depressed (so pretty much the entire world) can tell you that pulling yourself out of the emotional moment or situation and recognizing it as an emotion can be incredibly difficult, if not impossible.
Then again, that’s why you have the first set of habits: if you check your plan for the day every morning, and put one together every night before bed, you’re already half-way to being able to stop and evaluate what you’re feeling or thinking based on what you are (or aren’t) doing. The cognitive energy you save by not having to force yourself out of bed, or remembering to brush your teeth can be spent figuring out why that phone call you said you were going to make last week still hasn’t happened. And maybe after some deep breathing, or planning a little script, or writing down, step by step, what you need to do to make that call (get the number. dial it. ask about x and then about y. thank the person for their time. cross it off your list.) and then you can move through it an onward.
I need to remember that when it comes to writing daily; I always have too much to say. The joy of writing daily is that I’m not obligated to stick to any particular topic or style or even do research if I don’t want to. I just need to type one word after the other, and that’s the habit I’m trying to build. One word at a time.