“We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence then, is not an act, but a habit.” ~ Aristotle
When I was eighteen I had the terrifying experience of being attacked by a group of about fifteen young men while out with my boyfriend and another couple. It turned out ok in the end but I was left with the harsh realization lodged in the pit of my belly that I was completely unprepared for something like this. I had no way to defend myself, to protect myself, I didn’t even know how to throw a proper punch. I could not live with that reality so that week I enrolled in a Martial Arts program, hell bent on learning how to beat the shit out of anyone who put a finger on me or anyone I knew without permission.
The thing is though… being a gangly and uncoordinated eighteen year old in a class filled with uber-athletic and highly coordinated eight year olds was embarrassing. Humiliating, really. Parents would line up along the walls watching class while I flailed and slapped clumsily at the air around me in a ridiculous attempt at ‘throwing a punch’. Every time I caught a murmur of conversation or heard a laughter I was convinced they were laughing at me. As well they should, I looked ridiculous.
Starting something new is hard. It’s hard exactly because it is new. We are not that good at it. We feel stupid. We can’t do it right. We don’t know what we are doing. People laugh at us. In the beginning everything is hard.
Jeremy Dean, author of the book Making Habits, Breaking Habits found in a study on forming habits that it takes on average 66 days (yea, I said sixty six days!) for a new behavior to become a habit. He also found that the harder the activity is for a person to do the longer it seems to take to become a habit. Some behaviors in the study would have taken most of a year to form! Now, to be fair, you won’t feel like a complete idiot for that entire time, but you will for a good chunk of that time, so starting new takes some serious chops.
Habits are important because they are actions that we take without conscious thought. They are things we just do, like breathing or blinking. We don’t moan and groan and say we are not in the mood to do something we are in the habit of doing. It’s those things that are outside our habits that require so much effort to accomplish. Therefore, if you want to be successful as a writer (or at anything else for that matter) you need to create a new habit. Spending time writing has to be like breathing. Like putting butter on popcorn or ranch dressing on your green beans. It has to become something you do without conscious thought. It must become routine. It must become a habit.
“Oh great” You;re thinking. “I have to push myself into this thing for months, maybe even a YEAR before this just becomes a part of who I am?” Well, yea. You do. But it doesn’t have to be hard. Here are some things you can do to diminish the idiotic flailing, the rampant sobbing, and the minutes you spend shaking your finger at your reflection in the mirror admonishing yourself for your disappointing lack of progress.
Think Small. Nope. Smaller.
Strategy is all about the big picture. When playing a game of chess you must keep the entire board in mind when deciding on a move. If you focus in on only one section of the board, or only one game-piece, you are destined to lose the game. But when it comes to habit forming smaller is better. Telling yourself you are going to write everyday for an entire year when you’ve never written a thing outside of a university class or work is much too big. You might easily become overwhelmed with that ambitious task and end up shoving it all aside in favor of a bowl of ice cream and an hour on the couch with the crew of Serenity. Instead, think small, and commit to writing maybe 5 minutes a day for five days a week. Or even better, commit to writing for five minutes on Saturday morning. As your staying power with this task improves, as your writing muscles get stronger and that five minutes easier to fill, you can bump up the time commitment.
Stick to Your Routine
Fitting something small into your existing routine is the easiest way to start. It is far easier to begin writing for five minutes while you sip your normal cup of coffee on Saturday morning than is to decide you must write at that cool writing center you heard about from a friend of yours which is about a 30 minute drive from your house. Your habit is a quiet Saturday morning at the house with your dog snoozing on your toes, not a hurried shower, grown up clothes right when you get up, and a 30 minute drive. You are far more likely to meet with success when you anchor a new behavior into the comfortable groove of an existing habit.
Remember Your ABCs
Understanding motivation and desire is complex, but understanding behavior is pretty straightforward. Behavior can be distilled down to three basic components – Antecedent, Behavior, & Consequence. An antecedent is a trigger, something that makes you do something. A stop sign is an antecedent to your slowing down and stopping at an intersection. It triggers your stopping behavior. Hunger is an antecedent to eating. Work is an antecedent to drinking. (What? Are you saying it isn’t? Let’s be honest here!) Behavior is whatever it is you did, such as stopping the car at the intersection, eating a Twinkie, or mixing a cocktail. And consequence is what happens to you as a result of that behavior (you don’t get a ticket for not stopping at a stop sign, you are no longer hungry and enjoyed a tasty Twinkie, or you get your buzz on with a delicious cocktail
What this means for forming a new habit is that you want to tie the new behavior to a trigger of some kind. In the example above it is tied to your Saturday morning cup of coffee. When you sit down with your coffee cup you need to write for five minutes. Tying it to something specific like this helps you remember to do the new thing. It allows you to mentally prepare for it because you know when it is coming. Finally, it is a clear marker should you miss it for some reason.
Adding a consequence, something good that happens once you’ve done the new behavior, can make the habit form even more quickly and give it better staying power for the long run. You get a second cup of coffee once you’ve written for five minutes is one example, another might be that you get breakfast as soon as you’ve gotten your five minutes in. It can be anything, as long as it is something that is positive for you!
I stuck with the martial arts training for several years. I felt stupid and idiotic for months, but by the time I stopped attending that school I’d advanced considerably. I became strong, coordinated, I had incredible balance, and I knew how to throw a punch. Those moves became as natural to me as breathing, and I could do them without even an instant of consideration. Starting is hard… whether you are a new writer or a veteran starting on a new project. But don’t let it scare you. Swallow the intimidation, laugh about your complete incompetence and unskilled flailing, enjoy the the process of becoming by using the tools explored here. And always remember, there are many of us right there with you feeling just as idiotic. Reach out and say hi won’t you?
You can read more about these ideas here:
Performance Management: Changing Behavior That Drives Organizational Effectiveness by Aubrey Daniels & James Daniels.