Wednesday, January 7, 2009

On Habits, or, More of My Profound Wisdom

What with all the new year's resolutions that have been buzzing around, I've been thinking about habits, and how to form them. I am, of course, embarking on my own (previously unannounced) Program of Reform: namely, I am striving--for the eighth or ninth time--to start practicing yoga at home, regularly. There are too few yoga studios around here, offering too few classes and located too far away, for me to count on classes to get my yoga in (anyway, a year and a half of living here has proven that that is not feasible in this location). In the past, I've sort of half-thought that, since I figured I wouldn't be at Field for all that much longer, there was no real point in developing sustainable habits adapted to this location. Well, it's been a year and a half, and that kind of thinking isn't doing much for me. So the plan is this: 20 minutes of yoga--whatever I want to do--per day, unless I engage in some other fitness activity (swimming or soccer). So far, so good; in fact, I've been having a hard time sticking to only 20 minutes. But we'll see what happens when classes start next week.

Anyway, the point is that this has me thinking--not for the first time--about how to form habits. Unsurprisingly, I'm far from perfect on this score, but I'm a fairly willful person and I've had some success in getting myself to do new, potentially unpleasant things on a regular basis. My two major categories of examples on this score are yoga (going to classes, anyway) and fiction writing. I've written two novels, one when I was 23 and the other when I was 30; they're both quite likely bad and will probably never be published, but having written them makes me happy, and I'm proud of the accomplishment, as they really did require some pretty serious discipline and general unpleasantness. I also went, in my 20s, from a fairly lackadaisical exercise schedule to serious vinyasa yoga classes 3x/week, despite all the usual reluctance and malingering, and stuck to that schedule for several years (until I moved to Field. I still miss my studio so terribly!) Doing these things has led me to develop a pretty reliable set of rules for getting myself into gear when it comes to forming new habits. And so, while these may not be useful to anyone else, I offer my reflections--some of which are, I'm sure, obvious and hackneyed.

But what else is a blog for, other than to offer hackneyed and narcissistic reflections on topics of general interest?

Anyway. Here goes.

1. Make your goal reasonable. This is probably the most obvious and hackneyed of them all, but it's the one that I break the most. I seriously convince myself that I will make such changes to my life as, for example, starting to get up at 4:00 am for an hour of yoga followed by 45 minutes of meditation. Um. Yeah, I haven't done that once. So planning to spend two hours a day at the gym or write ten pages every morning before class are pretty much dooming yourself to failure. We all know this.

2. Focus on form, not content. It is better to do something lame than to do nothing at all. So, for example, when I wrote my second novel, I committed to writing 1000 words a day, but the words themselves could be totally stupid and it wouldn't matter. Knowing this was a help when I felt "uninspired," because I would tell myself that I could just describe a room for half a page or write a purely functional action sequence (this happened, then this happened, etc.). In practice, I usually got into the swing of things pretty quickly, but sometimes I did have to resort to a kind of "summary" paragraph. The point, though, isn't for every single day to be brilliant, but to get into the habit. If the habit is what matters, then the details of what you're producing don't. And the habit really is what matters, typically.

Similarly, when I committed to going to a particular yoga class every week, there were certainly days when I was "tired" or "out of sorts" (or just whiny). So I would tell myself that I would go, but I didn't have to try very hard or do much and I could sit out in child's pose for half the class if I wanted to. Invariably, once I was there, I worked as hard as I ever did, so all the whininess was just that--whininess.

The point, I think, is to get out of your own way. There are a billion content-related reasons for not doing something (I don't have any ideas, my leg hurts, I'm distracted and can't put my all into it today). But form-wise, there isn't much. Just show up and see what happens. If nothing happens, at least you showed up--and that's all you've asked of yourself, so good for you!

3. Make it non-negotiable. This is, for me, the most important thing.

When I started my first novel, I was 23, living in a new city. I was unemployed, running out of money, and plagued with great pretensions of being A Writer. (Someday. Not yet.) And one day I got thoroughly fed up with myself and said, OK, I'm unemployed, I have only one friend in this city and nothing to do all day, and I never write a goddamn thing. So here's the deal: four pages per day for 100 days, or I never get to pretend that I'm going to be A Writer again.

I was very stern with myself. It was quite intimidating.

So, I started. And then I got a (very boring) 9-5 job.

But I'd written about 20 pages, and I wasn't about to give this up; the idea I'd had for the novel interested me (although I was a bit embarrassed about it--it was genre fiction! So not what I wanted to be known for!). And I did the only thing I could: I started getting up at 6 am to write as much as I could of my 4 pages before work.

This was not in tune with my natural rhythms. But I reminded myself that it was just for a few months, and if I didn't get up early I'd have to write when I got home and was tired, so I got my ass up every frigging day, and I wrote the damn thing. In fact, I exceeded my limit and wrote more than 500 pages of melodramatic, self-indulgent, dearly beloved prose. (I really do love this novel. I do not think that it is particularly good, and I don't really like showing it to others. But I love it.)

And when I started going to yoga every Monday at 5:45 pm and Thursday at 6 and Saturday at 3, I did something similar. It was non-negotiable. I wasn't allowed to talk myself out of it. So I'd walk to class with a whole monologue about how I was tired and so forth and shouldn't I just stay home?, but my body had already left, and my mind could chatter away as much as it wanted--it wasn't running the show. I scheduled things around classes. It was a priority--an immovable fixture in my week. There was no "I'll go on Tuesday's class instead"; Tuesday's class was dead to me. It was Monday, period.

The thing is, once you introduce exceptions, every day becomes an exception. Be stern. No exceptions. (Unless, of course, something truly extraordinary happens. It's a little like your late-paper policy....)

4. Spend a lot of time thinking about how awesome you are. This is extremely important for me. Positive reinforcement is terrific. Again, focus on form, not content; if you're just developing the habit, it doesn't matter that you ran slowly and only for half a mile. You ran; therefore, you rock. It also helps me to have someone to whom I can brag routinely. Boyfriends are good for this; parents can work well, too. Or just a friend who has a high tolerance for your absurdities.

5. It might take a few tries for the habit to "take." As I said above, this is not the first time that I've tried to establish a regular home practice. But that's okay. As my old yoga teacher used to say, it's all practice--and the more you practice making a positive change in your life, the more likely you are to succeed down the line. If you can't stick to something, think about what didn't work and then try again. My problem with the home yoga practice in the past may have been trying to practice a certain way or for a certain length of time every day; an hour is too much, and a particular DVD gets boring after a while. Make it fluid. Find what works for you.

That's it for me, I think. I did a pretty soft yoga practice today--Womanly Issues and all that--but hey, I did it, and now I'm finishing up this post and a little glass of scotch because hell y'all, I spent all friggin' day on my comp syllabus. Damn.


undine said...

"Tuesday's class was dead to me."
"make it non-negotiable."
You did it, so you rock.

Okay, I'm getting off my couch right now. Thanks!

Good Enough Woman said...

If you really love that novel, someone else will love it, too. Your love for it makes me want to read it!

squadratomagico said...

I used to do a similar thing when I wrote my tenure book. I would psychically chain myself to the desk and tell myself I couldn't leave until I'd written 3 (later I upped it to 5) single-spaced pages. I'd check which line number I began with, then have to reach the same line number 3 pages later. (There were ways to cheat: lots of footnotes, for example, push you forward more swiftly.) Sometimes I'd sit at the desk with no ideas about what to write, but since the rule was that I couldn't leave, I'd eventually start writing through sheer boredom. And then, as you noted, I'd get into it, have ideas, and get it done.

heu mihi said...

I read something similar to that about writing recently. Some famous writerly type said that you should just set aside a block of time in which you couldn't do anything but write. You were free not to write, but then you wouldn't be doing anything at all, so the boredom would push you to do something.

Thanks, Good Enough! Although, if it's the novel's pure self-indulgence (= indulgence of MYself) that makes it so lovable to me, then that might not translate....

What Now? said...

Heu -- I've been rereading this great post since you published it, and I think it must have been at the back of my mind when I adopted my "suck less" mantra. I've bookmarked it for future reference!

heu mihi said...

Thanks! I love your "suck less" mantra; it got me to grade an incomplete this morning (which took all of 6 minutes, good lord). We must have mutually reinforcing ideologies here!