A Tiny Writing Habit for the New Year

I’ve been thinking about the habit of writing, mostly because I have fallen out of it. With my work, studies, and children, it has been moved lower and lower down my priority list over the years, even though it was the passion that drove all my college and career choices. Every time I try to start again, I put impossible pressure on myself. I won’t move until I have written 500 words. I will create a new blog post every day. These big goals are coupled with a complete lack of a scheduled routine for writing.

When I am driven to start up a new writing challenge, I’m highly motivated and have a few good days. Within a week, though, I begin to miss days. Once I miss days, the streak is broken and I lose my motivation to continue. It’s a vicious cycle that has gotten me nowhere and has left me with no set writing identity to carry me through these pandemic times when my time and concentration have been further limited.

For the past five years, I have been teaching habit formation in my freshman composition classes. Oh, the irony! Through integrating the texts of others, I have learned some good useful things for my own life, which is why I continue to teach this theme. The most recent text I have integrated into my course curriculum is Tiny Habits by B.J. Fogg. It is the perfect text for me, as my goal pitfall is falling the euphoria of the big vision and then crashing when I fail to meet my own objectives. I need something to help me bridge the dream and the reality. Tiny Habits offers advice for manageably creating that connection.

The idea behind Tiny Habits is, as the title indicates, creating adding a small action to an existing routine that will move you toward a larger goal. For instance, I already have the ingrained habit of brushing my teeth. I can follow this routine by doing a short exercise, such as a 30-second plank. For writing, I need to think of something I do every day during a quiet time where I am not likely to be disturbed. For me, this would be my 6 a.m. coffee when everyone else in the household is still asleep. The habit would be to open up my laptop and type whatever comes to mind while I drink my coffee, as I’m doing right now.

According to Fogg, one final component is needed, and that is the reward. He suggests celebrating your accomplishment with a fist pump or internally playing a song like “Eye of the Tiger.” Thinking on this, I will be having my students add a “walk up song” to the 30-day challenges they design for themselves based on their research. I personally like and feel empowered by “So What?” by Pink. This celebration is important because it elicits positive feelings. This evocation is key as emotions contain stickiness for us. The stickiness of emotions help us remember, help shape our opinions and belief systems, and help wire our habits.

The only question that remains is whether a tiny habit will bring about a big change in our life. A 30-second exercise will not result in many burned calories. Nor will writing a paragraph a day necessarily result in a novel. However, the larger point of the tiny habit seems not to be in the results of the tiny habit itself, but in the way the tiny habit shapes our mindset. If we exercise every day, we become in our minds the type a person who works out. Though he doesn’t use these words, he is referencing narrative identity theory, which discusses the importance of the stories we tell about ourselves. If we believe ourselves to be a certain type of person, we will reinforce this belief through our actions. Hence, if my tiny habit makes me feel like a person who values my health and that becomes the story about myself I internalize, I will make more healthy choices.

While Fogg is not the first person to write about the cycle of habit formation, he is the first to sell in-depth the value of starting small. For another take on the cycle of habits, Charles Duhigg gives an in-depth exploration on cue, routine, and reward in the Power of Habit. His take, for me, was better on how to break bad habits, as you have to think about what is motivating your behavior. For instance, I want to snack when I am bored or procrastinating an unpleasant task. When I experience that cue (boredom, anxiety), I would then try to replace the snack with another healthier routine that satisfies the angst I am trying to balm through food. For more information, a more in-depth comparison of the two approaches, I suggest watching their TED Talks.

While I am still exploring the value of Tiny Habits, mulling on it has already helped me exceed the amount I planned to write today. I guess this calls for a celebration.

via GIPHY

The Unexpected Inspiration of Delight

For me, education, writing, and inspiration has required many hours with my butt in a seat – listening to lectures, staring at a computer screen, and reading page after page of text. Lately, this has not been enough for me. I realize it is because I am stuck at home recovering from a surgery and interacting less with the world outside these familiar walls. The sameness has resulted in a bland state of mind. In frustration yesterday, I left my writing station, put on a podcast, and began to make a lasagna.

The podcast I chose was “Tending to Joy and Practicing Delight,” an On Being interview with Ross Gay. When he turned 42 years old, Gay decided to write an essay a day on something that delighted him. It was an exercised that combined both the art of observation and the practice of gratitude. In an interview with The Common, Gay stated:

I think that sometimes I can neglect to attend to the things I love and adore and want to celebrate, want to preserve and share. I think the practice of writing these delights definitely gave me the opportunity to bring those things into focus. To be able to more precisely articulate, “Oh these are the things that I want to preserve: like public space, or common space, or the ways that people can be kind to each other.” These are the things that I want to exalt. I suspect that in realizing what the things are that I do want to exalt, that the whole time I was also realizing part of why I wanted to exalt them is because I’m aware of their absence. That’s part of the “theorizing”—I put that in quotation marks—I’m doing in the book: Why does that delight me, why is there a deficit of that in my life, or in anyone’s life? 

This lens delights me, the prioritizing of interactions and celebrations. The necessity of darkness to highlight the joy adds a deeper dimension, taking this from a simple self-help practice to a meaningful inquiry. His rumination made putting together the layers of a lasagna, a hearty meal on a brisk fall day, a meditation in caretaking. It was the meal my daughter had been requesting for the past week, but I put it off because it is time consuming. Her joy in receiving this dish I made for her was also a delight, for the food communicated, “I thought of you today. I heard you. I love you.” She took a picture of the meal and sent it to her grandma, my mother.

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While I do not foresee myself undertaking this as a year-long project, the mining for delight is something I will pin and return to, as needed. When a dull sheen falls on the ordinary days, I will return to this filter to revitalize my interactions and view.

To read the work of Ross Gay, visit here: https://www.rossgay.net/books

The New Challenge: 30 Minutes for 30 Days

If I were to ask myself, what is the biggest task I regretted not doing during a day, the answer would almost always be writing. For me, that is because I classify it as optional. Some may say this means I am not a true writer, for a true writer MUST write; it’s not optional. To those people, I say your hyperboles only serve to discourage those of us who, some days, only have the energy to dream.

For me, I cannot be present as a parent or as a teacher if my mind is on what I think I should be doing instead of coloring dinosaurs or grading essays. Time interacting with my children and mentoring developmental writers is valuable. Sitting on the couch watching television with my husband is sometimes a necessary bonding experience.

As of now, without money or a large audience, my writing is only for me. However, this does not mean I should abandon it. I just need to be practical about what I can do. Initially, I thought I would challenge myself to write 1,000 words a day. Based on my research, though, I have learned that small, achievable steps are the best place to begin a lifestyle change. I know I can complete 30 minutes of writing a day, and this firm belief is going to make me more likely to succeed.

Also, 30 minutes over a 1,000 words seems better because output is not a routine. The idea of a habit is that it breeds expectation. Most of us begin our days the same way — for me it is coffee and social media. Once a habit is established, it is much harder not to do something, than it is to do it. My plan is to add writing to my nighttime ritual, which always ends with reading. Even if I do not get to bed until 3 a.m., I have a hard time sleeping if I do not read first

When I was an adolescent, journaling was a habit for me. Reams and reams of hurt feelings, crushes, and pep talks took up the entire space beneath my bed. I had to write my feelings down; it felt like a must, essential. Hmmm… I seem to be rewriting my initial claim. Maybe the idea that “writing is a must” is not hyperbole for some because it is a habit.

Let’s see if I can turn a want into a must, an optional activity into a habit…