As the last pages are plucked off the calendar, it’s time to feel the pleasure of accomplishment and the pressure of regret. Regret at the things one intended to do over the year past but lacked the stick-to-it-iveness to, well, stick to it.
The waning days of December are a time of familiar patterns. Chestnuts, figgy pudding, wrapping paper cuts, family squabbles, and vows to launch the New Year with fresh and transforming habits. Gym owners rub their hands with glee at all the self-deceivers stuffed with goose fat renewing their dusty memberships, full of the great and ephemeral intentions. Would-be artists line up at the art supply store, baskets loaded with sketchbooks and palettes and workshop catalogs. Blog keepers vow, once again, to truly stick to their publicly announced pledges to post five times weekly.
Let’s zoom down from the heights of generalization to survey this particular oath breaker. Why is it so hard for me to adhere to my own intentions? Why do I still steal the occasional late-night tablespoon of Ben and Jerry’s? Why do days, weeks even, pass without my cracking the cover of my sketchbook? Why do I still gnaw my cuticles in the darkness of the movie theatre?
Let’s get more specific still. Rather than a blanket condemnation of my many shortcomings, let’s focus on my blog keeping and try to extract some lessons from its intermittence that might apply to other habit breaking.
- Time and place. When I am successful at regular writing, it’s because I get up early, pee, then sit right down at my desk. Before breakfast, I am done and posted. I don’t allow myself time to question whether or not I should bother to write today. I just get up, pee and write. I’ve said this here before — habits are easier to establish by tying them to a ‘sparking event’. In my case, peeing.
- Inventory. To lubricate this dry start, I think about what I want to write days in advance, then jot down a word or two that might be the basis for a post. When I sit down, bleary eyed, I have a grain of sand to drop in the oyster.
Structure. I have a loose agenda for each weeks’ post. On Monday I write about things that have inspired me from the previous week, Tuesday and Thursday I freeform things like this, Wednesday I find or make a video, Friday is some sort of instruction. It’s not a rigid structure but it gives my ideas a trellis.
Temperance. Certainly not drinking too much is a good idea, but what I mean here is that if I temper my ambitions, I am more likely to keep producing. For instance, I had a vague notion about what to write here today, but soon my ambitions swelled and I imagined writing a really long posts with scores of ideas, research, quotes… and the thought of all that work made me want to just crawl back in bed. Instead I said to myself, just write a paragraph or two and try to encapsulate the idea. Even though now it appears I am writing much more than that, I couldn’t have started with such a hike in mind. Just planning a slow jog to the curb to pick up the paper is a more fruitful place to start. Underpromise, overdeliver.
(Incidentally, long bits of writing are not an indication of industry. I find it a lot easier to go on and on than take the time to go back and prune. By now, you’re probably feeling the consequences of my editorial laziness.)
Before I commit myself to any new regimes in early 2016, I will think about how to help myself stay true.
- What are the sparks that I can connect to the habit to reinforce it? For example, if I want to draw every day, I should put a sketchbook by the coffeepot and draw the view out the kitchen window each morning as it perks.
What sort of preparation can I make to make the new pattern easier to adhere to? If I want to avoid eating carbs, maybe I should start by clearing the pantry of cookies and the freezer of Chunky Monkey.
What sort of structure can I give my habit so it isn’t just open-ended? If I want to go to the gym several times weekly, I can put a recurring appointment in my calendar and make sure nothing else gets booked at that time. And I can add details to those appointments, thinking through what sorts of exercises I want to do on any given day.
How can I set realistic expectations? I can come up with reasonable goals that won’t be a barrier to my getting going — like drawing for ten minutes or walking for twenty minutes or not drinking caffeine after ten a.m. — goals that can then be inched forward over time as I adjust to the idea of the privation or activity.
In sum, I can be like a good parent. I can provide reasonable goals, set myself up with clear and achievable markers of success, be supportive and understanding without being either a wimp or a tyrant, and remind myself that failure is not catastrophic but just a detour from a path one I still return to.
Let’s do great things in 2016 but in a reasonable, supportive, human way. And let’s start by giving up regret.