I have a habit. It’s a bad habit. I’m trying to break it. I do it every day. Every day at the same time. I have a ritual about it too. Things have to be just right with this habit. And so while I’ve been thinking about how to break this habit, it’s gotten me thinking about how a habit becomes a habit. After all, I didn’t start out doing this thing every day.
So that got me started wondering about my good habits. I have many. I brush my teeth every day, I take vitamins every day, I read every day, I exercise every day (no really, I do, even when I’m sick) I tell my husband I love him every day. I have a myriad of relatively benign habits too, I drink coffee when I get up every morning (black, three cups) I watch the same handful of television shows every week, I like to sit in the same spot on our family couch. These are all habits. They are things I do without thinking too much about them on a regular basis. But I still wonder, how did they become habits?
In The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do In Life And Business author Charles Duhigg says, “Habits are powerful, but delicate. They can emerge outside our consciousness, or can be deliberately designed. They can often occur without our permission, but can be reshaped by fiddling with their parts. They shape our lives far more than we realize–they are so strong, in fact, that they cause our brains to cling to them at the exclusion of all else, including common sense.”
Wow! I’m beginning to realize just how powerful habits are in our lives.
So this got me thinking. What habits do I want to create in my life? What do I want to do more of without thinking about it? I already work out, I already eat well, I already take vitamins every day, you know, all those things that most people have on their resolution list that they want to make habits in their lives in the new year. What’s mine? And then it hit me: WRITING.
While I read every day, just like I run, eat, or sleep every day, I only write, well, really write, once every few months. Yet like exercise, I know full well the benefits of writing. In fact I preach those benefits from the literacy mountaintop almost every day. I have conversations with teachers about the rewards they and their students will reap when they build in the daily habit of writing. So how do I stop preaching what I don’t do and build this habit for myself?
Habits revolve around routine and to some extent ritual. So then when I think about all my existing habits and ask myself what they have in common, the patterns are clear as crystal. First, it’s about time: I have set aside a specific time of day everyday for my habit.
Second, it has to do with ritual. I have to have things a “certain way” for my habits; in fact, so much so that it teeters on the line between particular and superstitious (or yes, crazy!). I recently read an interview with Donna Tartt, author of The Goldfinch. In the interview she spoke at length about her writing rituals. She can’t interact with others while she’s in the throes of a book and so she becomes somewhat reclusive. She’ll go hours without eating and even then when she does, it’s something small like cheese and crackers. She drinks gallons of hot tea and writes only by hand in very specific flower covered spiral notebooks. She’s got definite rituals!
Finally, I have to be committed, at least in the beginning, before it becomes a habit. I’m ready; I’m committed. That part is not hard. Once I set my mind on something, I’m like a freight train–just try and stop me.
So for the next month, I’m setting aside a time: just after dinner, and I’m creating a ritual, I’ve bought a special notebook and some special pens, I’ve downloaded some special music on my iPhone, and perhaps most importantly… I’ve committed. I’m going to write every day for thirty minutes (at least) for thirty days. I’m going to build a new habit. Writing.
To get myself jump-started I know I need a plan. When I began running I knew I couldn’t just go out and run every day without a training plan, some goals, a way to increase my stamina and speed. It’s not too different to think about writing. So like with running, before beginning building my writing habit, I’m turning to the experts for help. I know I need some strategies to collect in my writer’s notebook. I already have some favorites, strategies I share on a regular basis with teachers and students in my consulting work. Some of those include writing from a list of early memories, writing from a list of favorite people or places, writing from a list of strong emotions. I want to “freshen” up my writing a bit. So I’ve turned to some of my favorites in the writing world for advice.
I found Penny Kittle’s take on Georgia Heard’s heart mapping. Instead of mapping your heart in a general way, Kittle suggests we focus only on music. I agree with her that music can be strongly associated with specific moments in our lives, with specific people, and with strong feelings. Here’s my result of her strategy. I’m anxious to make some entries off these songs and memories.
I also turned to Judith Ortiz Cofer, in her new book, Lessons from a Writer’s Life. Cofer suggests finding a place where you can unobtrusively observe a large amount of people at one time. She says to record as much as we can of what we see and hear–imagining ourselves as video cameras–recording both the sights and the sounds. I wish I had known about this strategy a few days ago when I happened along the Collegiate National Championships (triathlon) in Tempe, Arizona. I can only imagine what I might have captured for kindling in my writer’s notebook listening in on these young, intense, nervous yet confident athletes! I can still see their sculpted bodies tightly clad in colorful and glistening suits, proudly bearing their numbers tattooed down the backs of their calves and hear their electric chatter in my brain while they paced the sidelines waiting for their turn to compete.
Here are the other books I’ve initially turned to in order to launch my thirty days of habit building. I’m super excited, as one always is when embarking on positive self improvement. As for my bad habit? Let’s just say it’s been 78 days now of “breaking” it and I have a sneaking hunch that building this new habit will only help that process!