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.



Summer SAHM-ing

I envisioned my summer nights differently: bursts of creativity, late night typing, epiphanies, and professional growth. Instead, I find myself heavy-lidded and drained, searching for mindless entertainment. My summertime days of full-time parenting are relentless. I understand this time to be a privilege, both because I can do this and because I do not always have to do this. In a few short months, I will be back in my college office and immersed in my conversations on writing, education, and culture. But for now, I am the invisible architecture of my children’s existence, creating boundaries and direction, making the space in which they live.

However, it is difficult to shed what I have come to see as valuable and productive. I prefer enduring work, a piece of writing, a new learning experience, then the ephemeral household labors. Last night, I began reading Charles Duhigg’s new book, Better, Stronger, Faster, the Secrets of Being Productive. I completed the first chapter on motivation, which discusses how when faced with challenging circumstances, Marines-in-training were asked why they were completing a particular obstacle. If they could identify a larger goal, such as building a better future for their family, they were more motivated to keep going.

While the concept of “big picture motivation” is not new to me, I began last night to consider it in light of my summer at home. Why am I limiting screen time? Why do I need to vacuum? I am setting up standards of behavior that will shape how my children live their adulthood. This exercise was a good reminder that what I am doing is important, even though it does not require me using my Ph.D., even though it is considered ordinary and to some unambitious.