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.


A New Year of Daily Intentions

Spending New Year’s Eve sick was the best dose of reality. New year’s day was not the day I would begin my marathon training; it was not the day I would sort through my closet and minimize; it was not the day I would begin writing ten pages a day. It was the day I took care of myself, so that I could heal faster.

The best advice I read for the new year was to set daily intentions instead of one overarching resolution. On a given day I may intend to create a new lecture, clean out the fridge, write a blog, or rest and drink lots of liquids. It means taking a moment to read the day, consider my obligations, and gauge my own personal needs. Some days I genuinely need to work out, not to meet a dictating resolution for the year, but to clear my head and balance my emotions.

In my field of composition and rhetoric, I have learned that timing is key. A writer crafts his response to fit a particular moment. The action is co-determined by the setting, the current conversation, and audience. Likewise, my everyday actions are also determined by multiple factors. Perhaps it would be different if my life did not involve children and a job that has varying demands day by day. All I can do is make the best decisions in the moment. This is what I can cook and eat with the available ingredients and the allotted time. I have had write this blog post in pieces because sometimes a six year old appears on my lap or the noise level in the house escalates beyond the point at which I can concentrate. In those moments, I move on to a different intention, which doesn’t require the same cognitive labor or better serves the needs of my household.

My goal is not to set myself up for disappointment or agitation but to still have expectations. I have discovered when I have set up unsustainable goals, such as I am going to write 500 words a day, when I fail, I quit. A daily intention is not about a streak of behaviors that can be broken. It’s not a diet you can fail. It’s about waking up each morning and planning what you have to do and what you want to do. Today is the last day of my children’s winter break. My intention is to remove the holiday decorations, visit with my parents, let my children dictate some fun activities, and prepare for a work day tomorrow.