If you list all your “bad” habits, you should discover an important element: they required little effort to take root and flourish—sort of like weeds. Trace the lineage of a bad habit to its roots, and you’ll likely fine it started when you took a course of least resistance on some action or topic, and, after being repeated over time, it became a habit. Once ingrained, a habit is very resistant to change or being uprooted.
The easier a decision—or action—the quicker it can become a habit. A habit is little more than the automaticity of a behavior or way of thinking. Our minds—lazy to a fault—are happiest when in the state of least resistance. We are geared to find the faster, easier way to do anything. Life is ever the search for the shortcut. Marketers prey on this trait.
So while many New Year Resolutions have something to do with breaking old habits, the better tack might be to focus on establishing new ones. They might just crowd out the old. As Aristotle noted, “We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence then, is not an act, but a habit.”
The problem is that building new habits can be as daunting a task as dismantling and discarding old ones. As a product of unconscious repetitive thoughts or actions, to change or replace a habit with a new-and-improved model requires conscious thought and effort.
Writers constantly struggle with old and new habits and, over time, with newer habits that need to be modified or replaced with still newer habits. I’m not saying that the goal for a writer is to make the effort a product of automaticity, but to bring some level of automaticity into play where it can do the most good. An example, and admittedly not necessarily a very good one, is learning your tenses. If you know your tenses, then you can spend time picking the better word (verb) to bring your action more effectively to life in the minds of your readers.
It’s not advisable to buy the latest edition of “Good Habits Writers Must Adopt,” but rather create a list of specific behaviors (techniques) YOU want to adopt or drop. The typical motivation behind the desire to adopt a new behavior is that it’s better than an old one you’ve become too accustomed to, or, for writers, it represents a better and more creative way of expression.
The trick is how to make a behavior sufficiently “sticky” so it can become a habit. What you want to do is make desired (good) habits “sticky” in a way you are drawn to rely on them. Reliance helps create habit. In fact, many of the habits already exist in your repertoire but are either underused or have been ignored or pushed aside by not as good ones. Bring them out into the open. According to
tech exec Gregory Ciotti, these are what you use to create positive oriented “behavior chains,” which essentially is taking a more positive approach. Time for an example. It relies on “if-then planning” built around what he calls “triggers” used to remind us it’s time to act. Let me quote:
“Also known as implementation intentions, this tactic involves picking a regular part of your schedule and then building another ‘link in the chain’ by adding a new habit (to it).
“For instance, instead of ‘I will keep a cleaner house,’ (an almost obvious goal set to fail by being forgotten) you could aim for, ‘When I come home, I’ll change my clothes and then clean my room/office/kitchen.” Ciotti writes that multiple studies show this to be a reliable method because it establishes “contextual clues over willpower.” Another example for clarity: Instead of a “goal” to eat healthier, try, “If it is lunch time, then I will only eat meat and vegetables.” It appears that he inserts a level of specificity over the typical generality in setting your goals.
But wait! There’s more!
Ciotti incudes three key elements:
1) The one in the preceding paragraph establishes what he calls “behavior chains.” That’s the if-then aspect—it links the conditions that drive action.
2) Don’t give yourself too many options. Having to make repeated choices depletes mental energy, according to Ciotti. “Identify the aspects of your life that you consider mundane—and then ‘routinize’ those aspects as much as possible. In short, make fewer decisions,” about fewer and more important things.
If you think about it, and I am certainly guilty of this, you can be drawn into a process that gives you the sense of forward movement, when in fact you’re wasting time by repeating mental processes that should not need repeating. Automate what you can automate. This frees up brainpower for investment in creativity. That’s the beauty of Ciotti’s advice. Although not written specifically for writers, his suggestions apply especially to them. Routinize what you can and you will then have more time for exercising creativity.
To help us do that, we need to call in the psychologists. And their first suggestion relevant to writers is to think in terms of “micro goals.” That means, break down the ultimate goal into reasonably achievable segments that you can complete with no more than two-days’ effort. That way you deal with molehills rather than mountains. An effort can be as simple as writing 100 words a day. (Hemingway set his daily goal at 500 words. Worked for him!) The important thing is that you write 100 words no matter what. It’s like doing push-ups. Initially you think you’re going to die but then you do a few more and few more and pretty soon your physique begins to change, and you’ll be writing 500 words a day.
You need to plan but avoid overly generalized fantasizing or visualizing the change(s) you want to achieve. Visualizing is not planning as such. It should serve as a motivator. Ciotti writes that over-fantasying about results (goals) is detrimental to the desired stickiness of a desired habit. He refers to a study that found that motivation to learn another language was enhanced when students visualized themselves practicing the language rather than enjoying an ultimate trip to Paris.
The ever-present risk is you shirk, then ultimately abandon your efforts. Ciotti describes new habits as “very fragile.” He calls this “What the Hell Effect”—to give up at the first slip-up. Instead, he suggests, that you examine your habit to identify exactly where things have started to break down. Modify your behavior to achieve your goals rather than modify your goals. So you find that fatigue is stopping you from learning to play—practice—the guitar, he uses as an example. “Set up a system of ‘If I’m feeling tired after work, then I will take a 20-minute nap and listen to music for five minutes to get myself motivated.’”
What I like about Ciotti’s approach is that he has stepped back from stereotypical directions that can drown New Year resolutions and instead presents a blueprint that anyone can modify and adopt to fit his or her particular needs. Rather than make a resolution about doing or not doing something in the New Year, he presses us to analyze what’s “wrong” or deficient in order to determine how to make it better.
The only thing he perhaps forgot to add is that the process may not be easy.