“Every day, in every way, I’m getting better and better.” So said Émile Coué, a famous French psychotherapist, who was strongly believed in the power of the unconscious thought for transforming our lives. This quote came to me this morning, as I was thinking about motivation and ways to create lasting, effective daily habits, particularly in relation to my writing. We’ve been told in the past by great minds such as the late Stephen Covey that it takes at least 21 days to create a true habit. In the scheme of things, 21 days doesn’t really seem that long. After all, it’s less than a month, and you can almost count it using both all of your hands and toes. (In the realm of kindergartners, this must make it very approachable.)
Yet when I think about my life and about the busy schedule that I build up for myself – work engagements, happy hours, birthdays for friends, dinner parties, music shows, travel, exercise, and the myriad of other things that fill the hours of each day – those 21 uninterrupted days seem much more daunting than previously thought. Especially when, as seems to be the case with my writing, it may mean having to cut back on something important, such as sleep or time with my partner. When you look at it that way, not only is the 21 days harder than initially expected, but on top of that, it requires some serious prioritization and tough decisions to actually implement.
Tony Schwartz has a number of thoughts on the subject. One of his biggest pieces of advice, which I first read in his excellent book The Way We’re Working Isn’t Working is that if you are truly committed to making a new habit, it is important to actually schedule it. It’s not enough to say, “I’m going to go swimming twice a week” or “I’m going to write 5000 words a week.” If you do this and only this, the likelihood of that commitment turning into concrete action is minimal at best. If you take that commitment, however, and make it more specific and time bound, say “I will go swimming every Tuesday and Thursday morning at 6am,” and then put it on your calendar, then you really might go through with it. Based on my personal experiences, I find this to be true.
On top of this, Tony Schwartz is also a big advocate for reducing the number of conscious decisions that we need to make on a daily basis, in order to better utilize our limited capacity for focus. In a HBR blog post titled “Why You Need to Make Your Life More Automatic,” Schwartz writes: “the sheer number of choices we must make each day — what foods to eat, what products to buy, what information merits our attention, what tasks to prioritize — can be overwhelming.” Feeling overwhelmed, it appears, it only one side effect of this multiplicity of choices. One of the most harmful effects, as I see it manifest in my own life, is that when I begin to feel overwhelmed, I simply do nothing or, sometimes even worse, fall back into a deep self-reflection mode that replaces all action with thinking, thinking, and more thinking until I’m effectively paralyzed. Schwartz’s advice in this scenario is to slow down, take stock of one’s emotional state, and then work towards automating the things that are most important to us in life. In my case, this would mean rather than waking up each morning and asking myself the question, “should I write today? or “what are my reasons for wanting to write today?,” I should just wake up every morning and just do it, simple as that.
But even with these important tips, I’ve still struggled with making writing a regular part of my life. First of all, my prioritization seems to sometimes change from week to week, which throws my carefully planned writing schedule out the door. Secondly, I am a chronic over-thinker. If something doesn’t seem to work at first, I’m more likely to retreat back into brainstorm mode than to continue implementation. Thirdly, I’ve finally come to terms with the fact that for me, it is not enough to say that I’ll do something only a few times a week, even if I’ve actually taken the time to schedule the activity. If I do that, the reality is that after a week or two, I’ll fade back into my old habits and whatever I was trying to achieve will fall to the wayside. It appears that I am not the only one in this respect. In a recent blog post, Gretchen Rubin, happiness guru extraordinaire, writes that “’It’s often easier to do something every day than to do it some days.’” She believes this so strongly, in fact, that it’s one of her basic Secrets to Adulthood. Here, Rubin’s point dovetails nicely with what Schwartz recommends. It boils down simply to this: if you really want to do something, then do it every day and make it as automatic/unconscious as possible.
When I look at this solution, I can also begin to see why I sometimes struggle with forming new habits, despite my good intentions. Habits, at their heart, are about unconscious action, which follows from a period of conscious self-reflection and decision-making. In my case, I tend to over-emphasize the self-reflection portion of this process. First, I reflect. Then I make a resolution. Then I self-reflect some more about why I made the resolution. Then I start to implement the process, but end up doing so very consciously, constantly questioning and self-reflecting along the way. Two or three weeks into the process, it’s no surprise that rather than forming a habit, I’ve only managed to fill the pages of my journal with all kinds of questions about my motivation or lack thereof. Eventually I give up, begin another period of self-reflection, and soon after, make a new resolution…and so the process starts itself all over again.
The good news to all of this is that now that I am conscious of my tendencies, I can now begin working to improve them. Over the next month, I’m going to put these pieces of advice to work. I will create a daily writing habit, at the same time every day, and I will do so automatically. No more giving myself the option to write or not, no more hitting the snooze button or pretending as if I will do it later. No more writing page after page in my journal about how I can’t seem to drum up the motivation to write. Thinking is great, up to a certain point. But this next month is all about action. My mantra will be simple: automatic is easy.