I’ve recently been reading a book that has had a strong impact on me. It’s The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg. Like most people, I want to advance my career and make more money. Being a self-employed, creative type means the way I go about it is a little different. Since I don’t have anyone else telling me what to do, or when, or where, I have to make all of those decisions myself, which makes self-discipline and positive habits extremely important to my well-being.
As I was growing up, I always felt that these were two of my greatest weaknesses. On some level that may have been true, though I was also a perfectionist, so probably over-exaggerated it in my mind.
Regardless of where we’re starting, few people would say they couldn’t benefit from more self-discipline and better habits. So the question is “How?” How do we develop more self-discipline and more useful habits?
One of the less-obvious tricks I’ve learned is to create a habit that is already in line with something I do naturally. For example, I’m naturally a procrastinator. Instead of fighting it, I figured out how to make it work for me. I actually function better under the pressure of deadlines. I’m lax if it’s too far off in the distance. I make excuses. But when the deadline draws near, I become super-focused and highly functional. The trick is to create deadlines that make the most of my natural tendency to procrastinate.
Finishing my latest novel, A Siren’s Lament, is a good example. If left on my own, who knows how long it would take? So I create deadlines by taking Advanced Novel Writing at Lighthouse Writers Workshop. It forces me to finish 25 pages every four weeks. When I say “finish” I mean at a standard that can withstand the review and criticism of 9 other extremely intelligent and excellent writers, some of whom are published authors. If I could figure out a way to create an even harsher deadline, I would.
There are other tricks I use to overcome my procrastination and what I see as my lack of self-discipline that don’t require force of will or other harsh tactics (because those harsh tactics don’t really work).
I love being in the community of other writers. So I look for opportunities to meet and write with others. On Sunday I’m attending a 12-hour Write-a-Thon at Lighthouse. I’ll report back later on how that went.
As it turns out, according to this book, modifying one’s current behaviors is the most successful way to change them. In other words, you don’t strong-arm yourself into changing. You simply modify one small element. I did that by finding ways to work with what was natural to my personality instead of trying to force myself not to procrastinate or be more self-disciplined.
Voila! I’ve suddenly been transformed into a more disciplined and productive person. This idea that we can change habits just by making slight modifications is in alignment with the concept of kaizen, which is the Japanese practice of consistently making tiny incremental improvements.
Reward and pleasure are also important to the process of changing habits. This makes sense because habits are formed out of an effort to get our needs met. Once they are ingrained, they may no longer meet our needs, but by then they are deep channels. So the reward and pleasure that comes from change has to be greater than that of staying the same.
According to the book, a habit loop is created when there is a cue (usually some problem), a routine (meant to solve the problem), and a reward. He makes it clear that focusing on the reward is very important, but the reward can be simple and intrinsic. For example, on Sunday, I’m attending Lighthouse’s 12-hour Write-a-Thon, which means showing up at 8:00am and writing for several hours straight.
This requires discipline. It could also be called will power or unbending intent. The reward is simple and intrinsic. I enjoy the company and I enjoy writing. But I don’t enjoy having to get up early and be somewhere at 8:00am. The trick to getting over this bump is in chapter 5 where he talks about a study that discovered how knee surgery patients were able to overcome the pain of physical therapy and exercise in order to properly recover. It has to do with preparing in advance so overcoming that bump is easy.
I’ll let you know how it goes.