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This past April, I wrote about whether or not a disordered environment could have an impact on work
. A recent study suggested it could cause "reduced stamina on tasks that require advanced thinking skills." At that time I also wrote about my own disordered office environment and how the system I'd set up the year before for keeping filing done and order maintained had fallen apart.
Well, things haven't improved. They're, uh, actually somewhat worse. Back in April, I thought I needed to get some kind of cleaning routine back into my life. Now I'm wondering if routine is the problem.
My self-discipline goddess, Kelly McGonigal
, has voiced doubts about the value of habit
, saying that it's a nonthinking behavior that works best for small tasks. Managing my environment doesn't appear to be a small task. What advice does she have that I could somehow apply to this issue?Automatic Goal Pursuit
--Keep a goal in mind instead of relying on automatic habits. Remember
that I need to maintain order so I can have more time to work instead of relying on automatically and mindlessly doing it.Implementations
--Plan what to do in certain situations. In this case, planning to work on the office at certain times of day. This worked well when I was planning to work on the office every morning. When I started implementing work sprints
in the morning, the office cleaning got lost. Yikes.
Well, I know habit isn't working for me on this one. I'm going to try to combo automatic goal pursuit and an implementation. It's worth a try. My office, as it is, is definitely making me feel out of control and undermining my discipline.
My May Days Project got off to a really bad start.
You will recall that I was planning to generate work on a project that I'd set aside last year and, at the same time, work on increasing my word count as a way to do more with less time
. So I've been using 2,000 to 10,000: How to Write Faster, etc
. by Rachel Aaron to help me do this. Aaron writes that a key element in writing faster is knowing what you're going to write before you get started
. So in addition to bringing myself up to speed with this project by revising the few chapters I'd already written, I was going through my materials on characters, historical elements, timing, etc., to help me plan some scenes, which as far as this organic writer is concerned, would be knowing what I was going to write.
Last Tuesday, two days before the beginning of May, I took a look at the scene file I'd started last year. Yikes! It was a mess. I had made a list of scenes, but the beginning scenes didn't entirely match what I'd actually written (not a problem, it's the result that matters) and later scene plans weren't all that helpful, in part because of how the story now started. Well, I said, you will spend tomorrow, Wednesday, cleaning this stuff up and getting some scene plans in order.
What Could Go Wrong?
However, Tuesday evening I received a request for chapters and a synopsis for another manuscript that I had submitted to someone. Yikes again! This was good news, right? Of course, it was. Someone was interested in one of my projects. But I didn't have a synopsis ready to go. As I told you this past weekend
, I spent five days writing it. That included the Wednesday I was going to spend on scene planning and the Friday I was going to spend writing. (Thursday is family/runaround day at Chez Gauthier, and I've given up pretending I work on weekends.)
We have talked about these time management issues here before. That synopsis was what is known as reactive work
. I needed to drop the creative work I was doing to react to an incoming request. It was also an example of situational time management
. I had to adapt very rapidly to a new situation.
What The Hell, Right? No.
The synopsis went out Sunday, so my situation has changed again. What should I do now? I wasn't able to finish my planning and I wasn't able to get started with writing. What the Hell. I might as well do something else.
That is what's known in self-discipline circles as the What-the-Hell Effect.
It's a major reason for self-discipline failures. Instead of staying on task with a diet, people say what the hell at ten in the morning because they ate two doughnuts at nine and figure they might as well give up and start again tomorrow. In reality, they've got many hours left in the day during which they can stay with their program. The same is true with managing time, whether you're talking about a day or a week or a month. I have a lot of time left in this month that I can use for my planned project, even though I've lost some of it early on.
Fighting The What-the-Hell Effect Leads To Results You Can See
Last week was then, this is now, and now is an entirely different situation to work within. Additionally, I don't need to feel bad about myself for not working on my May Days project last week. (Feeling bad is the big reason for giving into the What-the-Hell Effect.) I was working and working on something significant, just not the significant something I planned to work on. Yesterday I continued with the last of the revising of the early chapters of my May Days manuscript, and I have the next few scenes planned. Since I'm an organic writer, just knowing what I'm going to be doing a few scenes ahead may be the best I can expect. We'll have to see how the rest of the month goes.
Oddly enough, I had What-the-Hell issues with last year's May Days project
, too. And, yet, the work I ended up doing that month
led to more work later in the year, and I'm back on the same manuscript now. That, lads and lasses, is an example of why fighting the What-the-Hell Effect is so important.
Kelly McGonigal tweeted a post on Activities for Practicing Self-Control. It's a kindergarten teacher's description of things he does to teach self-control to his students. He says, "I often hear teachers complain (including myself) about kids lack of self-control but what are we doing to help kids learn about it?" Good point. I would argue that self-control/self-discipline is a big part of managing time. It seems to be the kind of thing most of us pick up or we don't. It isn't specifically taught the way, say, addition is. Those of us who find ourselves undisciplined adults are going to have to muddle along on our own.
The Piece of Cake
Matt Gomez, the teacher who wrote the post on self-control activities for kindergarten students, writes about modeling self-control for his class. "I give examples often of adults that have to have self-control so they know we all have to make choices. For example: “guess what class, I saw a piece of chocolate cake in the staff refrigerator. I could have eaten it but I chose not to because it wasn’t mine.”" I found this interesting for several reasons.
- Gomez is interested in self-control in relation to people getting along with one another. He says he didn't eat the cake because it wasn't his, not because it wasn't good for him, a reason many people exercise self-control around food. I'm interested in self-control in relation to staying on task with my work and getting more done faster, not because it will improve my relations with others. However, according to Kelly McGonigal's book, The Willpower Instinct, working on improving willpower in one area of life often leads to improvement with other areas that require willpower. It doesn't appear to be a spot specific strength. Therefore, the children learning to control themselves so they can get along within a group, may find themselves better able to control themselves when needing to stay on a task. If I am able to improve my control with my work, I may find myself getting along better with others.
- Unless we've been receiving some kind of self-control instruction or are undergoing some kind of training in it, how often are we actually aware that we are practicing self-control or need to? For instance, take the example of seeing a piece of cake in the refrigerator. How often do we see something like that and consciously think, Time to exert a little control here and walk away from that thing? I think it's probably much more common for us to realize we've experienced a self-discipline success or failure after the fact (I knocked off a chapter today! I lost half the day to phone calls!) than while we're in a position to do something about it. Is this because that's the nature of humans or because we simply haven't learned a particular behavior or skill?
- Gomez's description of modeling self-control for his students raised this point for me--I would have to remember I was looking for self-control examples, particularly if I wanted to find any coming from me, before I would recognize that not eating that cake was a golden opportunity to create one. And that brought up the whole issue of memory and self-control.
Now you know what I'll be writing about next week.
Okay, the first thing we need to do here is remember what we were talking about last week, which was:
- When, in the course of our lives, are we actively taught self-control, which we need to practice self-discipline?
- Those of us who don't learn self-control when we're young have the additional issue of remembering that self-discipline is something we want to practice because the whole self-control/self-discipline business is not a natural part of our lives.
And why do we writers want to become self-disciplined? Because self-discipline relates directly to being able to stay on task and manage our time.
Yeah, I Really Want To Remember To Do That
Part of being self-disciplined involves remembering that you're going to do it. How so? Think of any new behavior you want to engage in. Say I want to look over the entire buffet for healthier choices before I start filling my plate. Or I decide to exercise before I have breakfast. I also want to write 20 minutes on weekends and holidays when the family is here. In any of these cases, willpower failure can be due to a number of things,
but I would like to add just plain forgetting what we'd planned to do to that list. We walk into a restaurant and truly just forget that we had a plan for dealing with the buffet because we'd never had a plan before, so it's not something we naturally do. We get up in the morning, eat breakfast, and go "oops" when we realize that we forgot the exercise plan.
Please, Gail, how about a writing-related example. Okay. Here's one. I didn't do my 20 minute writing sprint on Saturday. I could easily have done it in the morning, but I spent several hours cooking random things instead. In thinking about it afterward, I realized there was no reason in the world why I had to cook all those things. I could easily have squeezed 20 minutes of writing in, which would have kept me in the world of my WIP. I really just forgot that I had a plan. Maintaining self-discipline isn't something I'm accustomed to doing, at least, not with that particular task.
So Now We Have To Work On Improving Memory, Too?
Well, it certainly can't hurt anything, can it? So how are we going to do it?
- We can try creating habits, which are like self-discipline without any thinking. Muscle-memory for the memory. Presumably with a habit, we would simply do something we wanted to do. However, Kelly McGonigal, my personal self-discipline guru, isn't a fan of habit. She believes habits work best for small behaviors that don't require a lot of us, which explains why I'm now flossing my teeth regularly. It's not brain surgery. She talks about using things like automatic goal pursuit, implementations, and commitments instead of habit. But you have to remember the goal you're pursuing automatically, you have to remember the plan you're going to implement in certain situations, you have to remember your commitments.
- We can try meditating, because it appears to be a cure-all for what ails you. Now that we have ways to study the brain and the impact of various activities upon it, there is some science to back up its use. Again, my friend Kelly McGonigal says that meditating helps with self-control and attention because it develops the prefontal cortex, the portion of the brain that deals with impulse control. The effort to keep your mind from wandering actually develops the brain.
Memory, Gail, memory. Remember we're talking about memory. I do remember that. Maybe because I started a short meditation practice in June, one that I'm only able to keep up with 3 or 4 days a week. I didn't notice any revolutionary gains in concentration, but I did wonder if my memory was improving. It wasn't that I wasn't forgetting things. What I was noticing was that I "recovered" from the forgetfulness faster. Meaning I remembered where my cell phone was as soon as I realized I didn't have it. I remembered I hadn't turned the timer on while baking as I was leaving the kitchen. Sure enough, a little time on the Internet turned up a very recent article on a study that indicates that meditation does, indeed, improve memory
.What Will Memory Do For Us?
My theory is that improving memory will lead to improved self-discipline will lead to improved time management. Because absolutely everything is tied in with time.
The Best Time to Write and Get Ideas, According to Science by Kevan Lee at Buffer suggests that when considering managing time we might want to keep in mind when we do things. Some times are better than others for particular activities.
Creative vs. Analytical Work
We've discussed here that willpower can be depleted. Our biggest store of self-discipline is early in the day. We try to duplicate that morning boost of willpower experience by breaking our day into units, so that we keep starting over again. The Unit System
! Lee suggests that that early period of the day is best for creative work
because that's when the prefrontal cortex of the brain is most active. A "study looked at morning and evening MRI scans and observed that mornings showed more connections in the brain—a key element to the creative process." He says this study also indicated that "analytical parts of the brain (the editing and proofreading parts) become more active as the day goes on."
Conclusion? Writers who have a number of projects underway may want to work on the ones that involve generating new material earlier in the day and the ones that require revision-like activities later.
Don't Care For Mornings? Try A Routine During Another Part Of The Day.
What about those of us who don't see ourselves as morning people? Set your time and stick with it. "Routine," Lee says, "reinforces neural circuitry, and the more you work at the same routine, the stronger those connections become." So you can compensate for not using what scientists consider the best creative time by maintaining a routine.
As For Me
I like to do a sprint
in the morning before I actually get started working. Stopping after a short, intense burst of work gives my mind something to dwell on while I'm doing the less challenging activities involved with getting ready for the day. After reading The Best Time to Write and Get Ideas, According to Science
, I'm going to be sure that that sprint involves new writing and not editing, research, or formatting manuscripts. I can do that much later in the day.
Earth Day is coming up on April 22, and I'll be observing it off and on all month. Yeah. Earth Day Month. Today I'll begin by stretching the meaning of environment and pondering whether our immediate environment, and lack of order within it, can have an impact on how we use time.
First off, I'd argue that without a doubt lack of order in our immediate environment will be a time buster just because it makes it difficult for us to keep track of things. Time gets sucked up hunting for things in the office or even going out to buy more of what we can't find. That's a practical matter.
But last month in a Chicago Tribune article, Self-control, Smells, and Spending, Gregory Karp wrote about some recent studies that concluded that our immediate environment has a less obvious impact, as well. The studies, he says, indicate that a "disorganized environment can leave you feeling out of control, which drains your reserves for future self-control, leading to poor decisions including impulse spending." What does impulse spending have to do with time management? It's not the spending we should be concerned with, it's the draining self-control or discipline. If a disorganized environment makes people feel out of control enough to impulse shop, won't it make us feel out of control enough to shake up our work schedules? In fact, according to ScienceDaily, the researchers on one of the studies Karp refers to, Environmental Disorder Leads to Self-Regulatory Failure, were "looking for changes in behavior like impulse spending as well as poor mental performance or reduced stamina on tasks that require advanced thinking skills."
"Reduced stamina on tasks that require advanced thinking skills"--that's what we're concerned with.
Environmental Disorder (Boyoun (Grace) Chae of the University of British Columbia and Rui (Juliet) Zhu of the Cheung Kong Graduate School of Business in China) is quoted all over the Internet. A blog at The Harvard Business Review picked up this point in the study: "...people who sat by a messy desk that was scattered with papers felt more frustrated and weary and took nearly 10% longer to answer questions in a color-and-word-matching task, in comparison with those who were seated by a neatly arranged desk."
The irony here for those of us interested in managing time is that maintaining order takes time. I have set up a new work station for my new(ish) laptop without ever really organizing the spot where I put it. Doing that would eat into my work time. But things are closing in on me, as you can probably see from the pictures accompanying this article. At some point, the disorder will reach some kind of tipping point, and I'll have to do something about it in order to continue working. Last year I had a system set up by which I spent 15 minutes in the morning doing some filing and pick-up so this kind of thing wouldn't happen. That fell apart when I had a health issue earlier this year and wasn't working regularly. I need to get some kind of clean-up routine back into my life to address this kind of problem in an efficient, timely way. (You can bet that will become another Time Management Tuesday post.)
Another issue relating to disorder in our immediate environment is that many writers work in their homes. How "immediate" does "immediate work environment" mean in that case? Not many of us have someone coming in to do laundry or clean bathrooms or...Well, anyone who works at home in any way knows where I'm going with this. "...disorganized environment can leave you feeling out of control, which drains your reserves for future self-control." Everyone's tolerance for disorder is different, but I will admit that sometimes having to walk through my kitchen on my way to the office drains my reserves.
I'd also like to point out that over the last few decades the value of homemaking has taken a few hits. Letting housework go and not being a perfectionist about it are the center pieces of many articles on how to manage time and stress. How often is the traditional suburban housewife some kind of heavy/bad guy on TV shows or at least a laughable cliche? (Not Alison on Orphan Black, by the way. I love her.) And, yet, without the order they once maintained many of us find ourselves in a disorganized environment that often drains our reserves of self-control.
Well, I've used up a couple of units of time writing this blog post, and now I need to use my break to fold the towels I washed yesterday. They're up in my living room. Talk about disorder.
Week 1 of the Yoga Journal Boost Your Willpower program: choosing a focus/goal; Week 2: committing to the goal and choosing something to do that will remind you of the goal. Week 3: dealing with setbacks. Week 4 is about "transcending self-improvement," finding your place in the world, connecting with something bigger than yourself, etc. This is the first time with this program that I'm not finding the daily e-mails all that helpful with the week's theme. There's some good stuff in the e-mails, but except for one that advises that we use the self-reflection questions for Week 4 to help us take what we've gained in the program and help others, I'm not seeing a lot to assist with the connect with others thing. I must admit, though, I'm pretty sure I lost one of the e-mails before I read it, and there's one final one coming tomorrow.
Here's something we can use as individuals, though:
Mere desire/anticipation of the happiness we will get from something like, say, visiting our blog reader or Facebook right this minute, or, better yet, checking out Salon or Slate's (Salon AND Slate's) Monday morning recap of Downton Abbey creates a rush in the brain that can act like a stressor. ("Those recaps are fast reads. I just won't look at any of the comments.") We actually feel pressured by the anticipation of how great we're going to feel if we just give in right this minute.
What Yoga Journal calls the 10-minute Time-out can help us deal with that pressure. A 10-minute delay is supposed to be enough to undermine anticipation stress. (I've actually read this before in relation to eating.) If we can divert ourselves for 10 minutes, our minds may let us off the hook. If we can stick with writing that essay/chapter/letter for 10 minutes instead of giving in right away to whatever was threatening to distract us, we may become so involved with the job that we'll no longer be experiencing the stress and can just keep working.
If you know me at all, you know what I'm going to tell you now: What is 10 minutes? It's a unit of time! Once again, the unit system can come into play here. Say you've been working with the 45-minute units of time that the unit system traditionally deals with, but you cannot stick with work for the 30-minutes you have left. You must have your Facebook or Downton Abbey treat. Before giving in to that instant gratification, reset your timer for 10 minutes, leading your brain to think it will get what it wants very soon, and continue working. If the desire/anticipation has relaxed its grip on you when the timer goes off, it may be happy to let you continue working. If the desire to do something else is still there, try setting the timer for ten minutes again. And again. By then you will have worked the 30 minutes that was left in your original 45-minute unit of time.
Then go read the Downton Abbey recaps during your 15 minute break between work sessions. I believe this is what's called having your cake and eating it, too.
Next week I'll do a Boost Your Willpower wrap-up. Then it will be time to dwell on some other aspect of time management for a while.
I usually write about time management on Tuesdays and this is Thursday, so what's going on here? Well, I thought of something today that some of you might want to consider, and consider soon.
For those people whose faith/spiritual tradition involves observing the season of Lent, I'd just like to point out that Lent is a unit of time. Units of time are significant in time management because we can use them for planning tasks. At the beginning of units of time, our will power is often at its highest. Working with a unit of time that has a specific ending date is supposed to increase efficiency because people work harder when they know they're going to have to stop. Lent ends either on Holy Thursday or the evening before Easter. I didn't even realize Lent was here until today because Easter is a moveable feast, and someone moved it to the end of March this year. Easter is early. Lent is early. I didn't do any planning for it, but I'm itching to get my hands on this unit of time now.
Here's my thinking: Traditionally, people give something up during Lent as a form of penance. Would it be dreadful to give up something that damages our writing practice so that we're using our abstinence for something other than penance? Facebook before quitting time? Checking e-mail before lunch break? Yes? No? I'm also wondering about using the Lenten period to add something to our work lives instead of giving something up or to use it as an extended training period. I'm wondering about using it to develop discipline/willpower. Would it be so very bad to use Lent to try to improve ourselves?
I'm going to take a chance and use Lent as a training period for discipline. I've been noticing that the beginnings of weeks are better for me, at least psychologically. Wednesdays and Thursdays, when I rarely work because I'm doing elder care, have become very hard for me recently. The unending small family- and life-related tasks seem particularly overwhelming on those days. It's hard to recover on Friday, and then the weekends go primarily to family and personal work again. It's not just a matter of needing to find a way to overcome what's happening to me so I can make the best use of what work time I have. I have to find a way to overcome what's happening to me so I don't meltdown.
I came up with a plan yesterday to focus on those Mondays and Tuesdays in an up and cheery way instead of focusing on those Wednesdays and Thursdays in a doom and gloomy way. I could be far more selective about which telephone calls I take (I have the technology to do that), for instance. I could stick to checking e-mail after lunch and start holding off on replying to personal e-mail until evening. Yes, I could do those things. Usually plans like those fill me full of joy. (I think they had something to say about that in the Yoga Journal Boost Your Willpower program.) But this time I was having trouble cranking up any enthusiasm. I'm already up to my neck in managing time. How much more can I do?
Someone asked me today if I'd given up chocolate for Lent when I turned down an offer of some. I told her Lent had blown past me this year because Easter won't stay put. I hadn't been prepared for it. She insisted that it's never too late to take part in Lent. I don't know this woman. She attends a drop in yoga class I've only dropped in on twice. I wouldn't recognize her. Clearly she's more devout than I am, since she mentioned speaking to her priest last night, Ash Wednesday, and the last time I spoke to my minister it was because we were both at the bank. But...but...she may have been one of those yoga messengers you hear about in the Bible or some place. Ya think?
I realized she was right when she said, "It's never too late to take part in Lent," because it only started yesterday, one of my worst days of the week. My worst day of the week was the first day of Lent. Oh, yes. A sign. I can do Lent!
I now have a 40-day training period to work on developing some Monday and Tuesday discipline. Well, a 38-day training period, because 2 days are gone. I am psyched, though. And when that training period is over, the Easter Bunny will be coming. It's all good.
I know that woman said it's never too late to take part in Lent, but I wouldn't wait too long, if I were you.
Really? After four weeks, she has more to say about about the Yoga Journal Boost Your Willpower program? Yes, I do.
The program included several e-mails on the impact stress has on willpower, which I wasn't able to work into my four TMTuesday posts. But since it seems a significant factor when talking about willpower and self-discipline, which have a connection to time management, I wanted to mention it.
Stress, YJ claims, actually "drains willpower." It causes the ol' fight-or-flight response to kick in. We want to flee the workstation. Stress can also shove us into "a reward-seeking state by increasing the excitability of your dopamine neurons." (Science!) We want to feel better right away. The most obvious example of this is stress eating, but leaving the file we're working on to run to our "friends" on Facebook or to dive into any pleasurable reading experience would be others.
YJ's suggestions for relieving stress include yoga and meditation, of course, because it is Yoga Journal. Exercise, spiritual practices, and simply getting outside for a walk also make the list. My own thought is maintaining some kind of regular practice involving any of these activities could help contain stress in the first place.
When stress is upon us? The Ten-minute Timeout/unit system plans we discussed last week could help us delay the gratification we think we're going to get by stopping work. YJ also suggests training ourselves to slow our breathing. "When we slow the breath, studies show, we activate the prefrontal cortex and shift the body from stress to self-control mode." Slow breathing in front of the computer screen for a few minutes could calm the stress and keep us from moving away.
Boost Your Willpower conclusion: My takeaway from this program is using "I will" statements, using the unit system to keep me from giving in to the What the Hell Effect, and using the unit system to keep me from giving in to the desire to do something other than work right this minute. And I'll be paying even more attention to my breathing during yoga practice.
Next week we will be on to some other aspect of time management.
Last week I wrote about my confusion over how to form work habits that would support managing time. I understand the cue and routine that Charles Duhigg writes about in The Power Habit, but I don't know what reward writers get for working--just for working, itself--that will make us want to loop back to that cue that will send us to the routine that will lead us to...what reward?--and keep us working habitually.
Kelly McGonigal, who designed the Yoga Journal willpower program we all took part in this past January (We did all do that, right?), has reservations about habits. In a talk she gave to a habit formation group, she says that habitual, nonthinking behavior works best for small tasks like brushing your teeth or taking medication--tasks that don't require a whole lot of us in the first place. She doesn't believe forming habits works well for making what she calls "really freakin' hard changes," such as those necessary to overcome addiction or achieve weight loss.
Where managing time comes in here, I can't say. Is managing time more complex than remembering to brush and floss every morning? Is managing time a self-regulation/self-control issue and it's appropriate for me to be obsessing on how to better regulate it...or ourselves? Or is it merely a self-regulation/self-control issue for me?
In either case, here are some of McGonigal's thoughts on behavior that supports difficult change. Will it also support managing time?
"Want Power"--Remember what you actually want. (A goal? I understand goals!) Also, be mindful of your choices and whether or not they address your goal.
Automatic Goal Pursuit--This is different from habit. You're trying to keep goals in mind instead of relying on automatic habits. You are always focusing on the goal, instead of behavior.
Distress Tolerance--Work on becoming comfortable with uncomfortable situations, the distress of wanting. For time management for writers, this could mean becoming comfortable with working alone, which could go a long way to control the "craving" or desire to keep checking your e-mail/Facebook wall hoping for some human contact.
Implementatons--We've already talked about implementations in relation to procrastination. Essentially, you're planning what you will do in certain situations. When I want to go to Facebook, I will check my timer to see how much time is left in my 45-minute work unit and work until the unit is done. If I still want to go to Facebook, I can go then. That is an implementation intention, my little lads and lasses.
Commitments--When faced with a challenge to our goal, have a rule we can rely on rather than habit. I have been invited to hike tomorrow. Tomorrow is a work day. Hiking won't get me closer to my goal, working will. Personally, I can see where a commitment would work better in the case of a real challenge than a habit.
As I listened to McGonigal, I wondered if a lot of what she was talking about would relate to discipline, which was what I was interested in pursuing last year but couldn't find any information about--at least in relation to time management.
She describes mindfulness, which she teaches, as being the opposite of habit. My thinking now is that habit may not be as good a way of creating a disciplined writer as some of these mindfulness-related techniques that McGonigal talks about. Yes, now I've got to read her book.
Last year, I took part in The May Days, a Facebook group in which members encouraged each other to write two pages a day. On May 8th, 2012, I explained why writers might actually need a push to get them writing--a lot of the work writers do isn't actually writing. After I finished my month, I decided I liked what I called this set-aside time for specific projects, or binge writing.
What I liked about The May Days was the way it appealed to my own joy in obsessing on a project or topic. I don't have the endurance to obsess indefinitely, but a set-aside time--Oh, I'm there. Seriously, I once did one of those week-with-no-TV things. I made two kids do it with me. I love this stuff.
Since last May, though, I've been reading The Willpower Instinct by Kelly McConigal. She talks about willpower (and lack thereof) spreading through groups. I'll do more on that next week In the meantime, I will just say that there appears to be some support for group writing initiatives like The May Days helping writers stay disciplined.
Well, tomorrow is May 1st, and our group is starting another May Days project or binge. Last year I didn't even hear about this until the day before, so I had done no preparation at all. This year as part of my New Year's planning I actually had a May Days goal and objectives:
"Goal 6. Work on an outline for "mummy book" during May Days (I wasn't prepared for May Days last year. I hope to be this year.)Objectives:
- Finish reading Wired for Story because I think we organic writers often don't know what our story is prior to writing, which makes plotting difficult.
- At least skim The Plot Whisperer for same reason
- Go over old research for this project and continue with more."
I did finish Wired for Story
, though I've only read a few pages of The Plot Whisperer
. (This is not a comment on the quality of the book. I just haven't been able to get to it.) I didn't go over the old research I've collected over the years that I've been thinking about this book. What I did do:
- Visit UVM's Fleming Museum, because right now a college museum figures into the setting/story
- Read half of Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking for character development research
- Register for a 3-hour plot workshop this Sunday at the New England Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators Conference
- Realize I can use the find-the-story posts from OC's Weekend Writer series to help with early find-the-story work
- Make a few journal notes over the past year for this project
While it can be argued that I am better prepared for May Days
this year than last, I am still not in great shape. For one thing, I'm going to have a lot of trouble writing on May 2 through 4 because of family and conference commitments. That's really early on in the project to be veering from the program. The plotting workshop on May 5 seems like a great idea, particularly since it comes early in the set-aside period. However, the workshop description asks participants to bring a work-in-progress to which they can apply the information we'll be taking in. I am going to be scrambling the rest of today and in whatever time I can find tomorrow to scratch up enough material to be able to say I have a work-in-progress.
Hey, a work-in-progress is in the eye of the beholder, n'est-ce pas
Stay tuned to learn what Gail has to show for her May Days
experience at the end of the month.
In her book The Willpower Instinct: How Self-Control Works, Why It Matters, and What You Can Do to Get More of It, Kelly McGonigal (Cheers! My workshop participants will get that joke.) says, "Willpower failures may be contagious, but you can also catch self-control."
According to McGonigal, studies show that "behaviors we typically view as being under self-control are, in important ways, under social control as well." We are influenced by others in any particular group we are part of at any particular moment. Are you trying to control your eating or drinking? How does that work for you when you are out with a group of people who are really, really enjoying their food and drink? Trying to control your spending? You might want to be careful about whom you go shopping with. If you're with someone who either doesn't live with the same financial constraints you do, or just doesn't care, you can easily find yourself spending more than you wanted to because when you're with others who are doing it, it can seem like a great idea. But maybe not so much later when you're by yourself again.
This is one of the reasons obesity seems to "run" in families. In fact, McGonigal claims that a woman with an obese sister has a 67 percent increased risk of becoming obese herself. It's not so high for men with obese brothers--their risk is just 45 percent. (No, I do not know why.) Additionally, though, having a friend become obese increases an individual's risk of becoming obese, too. By a whopping 171 percent. Thus we're not just talking genetics here. It's the influence of a group. Willpower failure spreads among people.
We have mirror neurons in the brain that keep track of what others are doing. You can see why this would be a good survival mechanism for evolving humans who wanted to be part of a group to increase their chances of survival. Mirror neurons are part of the spread of willpower failure because they make us unintentionally mimic others who are not staying on task with their willpower goals, they mirror and spread emotion (poor moral in an office, for example--"Let's close up early and get out of this place."), and they mirror and spread temptation ("Everyone on Facebook is talking about that book. I should read that today to keep up instead of working.")
On the other hand, though, goals can spread from person to person, too. Yup, there's a term for this. "Goal Contagion." McGonigal says that research indicates that we can catch another person's goals and change our behavior by doing so. Some of this can come about just by reading or thinking about someone. Fortunately, goal contagion is limited to goals we already share somehow. We're unlikely to "catch" goals to invest heavily in stocks or throw over our workaday lives and take a couple of years to travel the globe unless those were things we'd wanted to do somewhere at the back of our minds, anyway.
What does this have to do with managing time, particularly managing time for writers? The May Days, people! National Novel Writing Month! Your writers' groups. All these group initiatives involve setting aside time (a month, a meeting every week or two) and pulling people together with the hope that we will "catch" initiative, work ethic, etc., from each other. That we will catch each others' goals.
When the groups don't work, it's because not enough individuals were able to stay on their goals, giving others something to mirror. Remember, willpower/discipline failure spreads. But when they do work, it's because a big enough percentage of the group stayed on task--to any extent--and contributed to the discussion, and those people were able to provide something for others to catch. Because, remember, goals are contagious.
Well, my May Days experience has not been all I'd hoped for.
The conference I attended at the beginning of the month didn't cut into my May Days project work time all that much, since I was home one day and worked on it during a three-hour workshop at the conference on Sunday as well. However, those five days I spent getting sicker and sicker last week were definitely not part of the plan. I did May Days work three of them, at least once with a laptop in bed, but then lost the rest of the week, any hope of squeezing some time in on the weekend, and yesterday, too. As our May Days leader pointed out yesterday at our Facebook page, we've reached the halfway point for this project. I think I have nearly four pages of intro and a number of pages of notes for characters and scenes.
Back in February, I wrote here about the What-the-Hell Effect. My understanding of the phenomena suggests that guilt over willpower/discipline setbacks is the big instigator in the "What-the-Hell Effect"--individuals feel guilt and frustration, a little self-hate, maybe, over what they see as their lack of ability to stay on task and figure, What's the point? What the Hell, this initiative is shot, I might as well give in.
I'm not feeling guilty over picking up a bacterium. However, losing time for any reason is always a frustrating setback. In this case, the loss isn't just related to The May Days, but to every other work and personal task I needed to do these past six days. This May did not work out the way it was supposed to. Things are not the way they were supposed to be. Since The May Days can't be what I'd planned, should I accept that they're a lost cause?
Well, that's a pointless question for me, because I'm too obsessive to give up on a short-term project like this. I said I was going to do this for a month, and I'll do it for a month, if I have to finish it on my knees. Or in bed, as I did last week. But for those readers who want to make a more rational decision, consider this:.
I still have a half a month.
Yes, we can do some rah-rah talk here, get a little Zenny about putting last week into the past (which, you know, is where it is), but the hard fact is that giving in to the "What-the-Hell Effect" in this case means losing half a month of work. When we're talking about time management, giving in to the "What-the-Hell Effect" always means losing the time we would have worked if we had picked ourselves up off the mat after our discipline slip and kept going.
To make a long story short, I'll be working for a while on my May Days project today.
Early on in my time management study I became interested in discipline, how becoming disciplined can help us manage time. (It probably would help us manage just about everything else in our lives, but I only discuss time management at this blog.) What I didn't do when I was mulling over discipline was carefully define it. That is always a mistake in my experience. Discipline, as it turns out, involves training and maintaining behavior through control. That is a disturbing idea if you're applying it to others. Personally, I love it when applying it to myself. I love the whole idea of training. I'm shakier on the control part, as in self-control, but, hey, that's something I can train for, right?
Which brings us to The Willpower Instinct: How Self-control Works, Why It Matters, and What You Can Do To Get More Of It by Kelly McGonigal. I mentioned McGonigal's name so frequently in the Situational Time Management Workshop I led earlier this month that I finally suggested we could use the name as the basis of a drinking game. The fact that I would even think of such a thing indicates that I need a whole lot more discipline and self-control.
McGonigal never actually writes about time management. She writes about goals of all kinds, especially those involving changing behavior, and using willpower to achieve them. Well, managing time is both goal and behavior. There are a number of things she has to say that can apply to managing time, particularly for writers.
A few examples:
- People who are distracted have poor impulse control and are less likely to be able to stay on long-term goals. Many writers work out of their homes and have trouble maintaining a strong barrier between their professional and personal lives. Personal life distractions undermine our ability to stay on task.
- Thinking in terms of being "good" or "bad" relating to a goal undermines willpower. For instance, having been "good" and accomplishing a great deal this morning can be used as justification for being "bad" and not working this afternoon.
- We tend to think of the future as a wonderful place where we will accomplish great things. Thus, believing we'll feel more like working tomorrow or will get a lot done tomorrow justifies taking today off.
- Willpower failures and successes are contagious. A strong argument for writers' groups and group writing projects like NaNoWriMo.
- Giving in to the What-the-Hell-Effect when experiencing setbacks. We actually lose valuable work time when that happens.
McGonigal even explains why meditating helps with self-control and attention, something I've been hearing about for years, though no one felt a need to explain why it would work. Meditating, it appears, develops the prefrontal cortex, the portion of the brain that deals with impulse control. Good impulse control helps people stay on task with goals. Find meditation difficult because your mind keeps wandering and you have to keep bringing it back to the breath? That's actually good, according to McGonigal. The effort to do that develops the brain just as physical effort develops muscles.
This book has masses of material that can be applied to managing writing time, even though it's not about managing writing time at all. It's a marvelous aid for those of us who are interested in training for self-control.
As a writer, don’t ever under-estimate the power of self-discipline. Talent, passion, and discipline are needed–but the greatest of these is discipline.
Best-selling author Elizabeth George speaks to this point on the first day she faces her students in her creative writing classes. Study this quote from her book, Write Away–and read through to the zinger at the end.
“You will be published if you possess three qualities–talent, passion, and discipline.
You will probably be published if you possess two of the three qualities in either combination–either talent and discipline, or passion and discipline.
You will likely be published if you possess neither talent nor passion, but still have discipline. Just go the bookstore and pick up a few ‘notable’ titles and you’ll see what I mean.
But if all you possess is talent or passion, if all you possess is talent and passion, you will not be published. The likelihood is you will never be published. And if by some miracle you are published, it will probably never happen again.”
This is great news for all writers, I believe. We worry sometimes that we don’t have enough talent, that we have nothing original to say, that our voices won’t attract today’s readers. But as Ms. George says above–and after writing and teaching for thirty years, I totally agree–discipline is what will make you or break you as a writer.
Why is this good news? Because self-discipline can be mastered, bit by bit, day by day, until it’s a habit. Talent is a gift over which we have no control, and passion comes and goes with our feelings and circumstances. But your necessary ingredient to success–discipline–can belong to anyone.
Do whatever you have to do to develop the writing habit. Let that be your focus, and see if the writing–and publishing–doesn’t take care of itself!
This week in the “Destressing the Writing Life” workshop, we talked about information overload–how much valuable information is available on the Internet–and the pressure we feel because there’s no time to read and absorb it all.
To that end, I hope my recommendations once a week help you sift through the wonderful (often free) material out there. To that end, here’s my Friday offering.
Take all weekend to read them, if you like. Do NOT stress over getting them all read right now!
Writers don’t need discipline, do they? Not according to one well known author.
In one of my favorite writing books (Escaping into the Open: The Art of Writing True by Elizabeth Berg), there’s a chapter on writing myths that the author says you should ignore.
I was reading the list and nodding and “Amen!”-ing my agreement all the way up to Myth #8. It said to ignore the warning that “you have to be disciplined to be a writer.” Really!
No Discipline? Shocking!
I recoiled. Such blasphemy! How could she claim that writers didn’t need self-discipline? “Everyone” knew you needed to discipline yourself to write every day, to study markets, to read in your field. How could she say that? It went against my deeply ingrained beliefs.
And yet…as I read on, her words resonated with me much more than I would have believed possible. If you don’t need to be disciplined, what do you need? She wrote:
“What you have to be is in love. With writing. Not with ideas about what to write; not with daydreams about what you’re going to do when you’re sucessful. You have to be in love with writing itself, with the solitary and satisfying act of sitting down and watching something you hold in your head and your heart quietly transform itself into words on a page.”
Major Paradigm Shift
Hmm…You don’t have to be disciplined–but instead, you have to be in love with the act of writing. For some reason, that rings true for me.
Of my 42 published books, I can only think of three that I had to “make myself” sit down and write. (They were a work-for-hire assignment on a subject that I had no interest in.) But I loved writing the others.
Yes, I ran into occasional rough spots. Yes, sometimes I felt physically or emotionally shot, so writing wasn’t as much fun on those days. But I didn’t have to discipline myself to write.
In each case, I had a story I was burning to tell, and I couldn’t wait for private, uninterrupted time when I could immerse myself in my fictional world–where I could make life turn out like I wanted, like it should be.
Fueled from Within
In the early years, the inner passion for writing fueled me–not discipline imposed from the outside. If I recall correctly, the need for discipline didn’t occur until I was juggling a full-time day job along with raising a family PLUS writing.
I think Ms. Berg is onto something here. Maybe on the days we can’t make ourselves write, we should check our passion quota about our current project.
Passion for writing versus self-discipline–I think I need to investigate this further! Is it one or the other–or both? And if we’ve fallen out of love with our writing, how can we get that back?
How about You?
What does “being in love with your writing” look like for you? Can you describe one of its attributes? If so, please leave a comment!
Everybody taking part in Week 2 of Yoga Journal's Boost Your Willpower? Yes? No?
Week 1, I'm sure you all recall, was about choosing a focus, as in choosing what aspect of your life you want to improve your willpower for, what you need the willpower to achieve. Think of it as a goal. I chose staying on task.
Week 2, was about making a commitment to that focus and choosing one small thing to do to do that will remind you of your focus/goal. In the daily e-mails, I found three things of particular interest.
1. Meditation. Again, we discussed using meditation for concentration a year ago. One of the Boost Your Willpower e-mails indicated that there is science to back up the use of meditation as a way to improve self-control skills such as "attention, focus, stress management, impulse control, and self-awareness." Meditation, it claims, is like exercise for the brain.
I am not successful at meditation and have so many "practice" type things I do each day that it's too stressful to try to add another one. However, one of those practices is yoga, and I have just recently started extending my home practice because I haven't been holding poses long enough to build up strength and endurance. Holding the poses longer requires me to be careful about counting breathing. The mindfulness I have to practice in order to maintain breathing may be as close to meditation as I'll be able to get.
2. Recognizing that we actually do use willpower regularly. Those of us who are interested in improving our willpower and self-discipline tend to believe we need to do that because we don't have much. However, we're making decisions each day that involve exerting our will. Doing a brief recapitulation at the end of the day (a unit of time!) can assure us that we are, indeed, exerting some willpower and lead us to build upon it.
3. "I will" instead of "I won't." As I've said before, a lot of willpower and discipline writing involves changing behavior we don't want to engage in (overeating, gambling, drinking, procrastinating, etc.) and not changing behavior we want to do more of or even just developing some vaguely defined thing called discipline. The Boost Your Willpower folks suggest that always thinking in terms of "I won't" keeps calling the behavior you don't want to do to mind, and dwelling on what you don't want to do can often lead to no good. They suggest looking for "I will" statements.
Writers who are trying to develop self-discipline are trying to do something, they're not trying to not do something. So "I will" statements are particularly useful for us because they tell us what we're trying to do. For example:
I will plan next week's work.
I will plan my day around the unit system.
I will use transitional time.
So there you have three ideas for improving willpower. Two more weeks to go on this program. I'm hoping that just persevering and sticking with it for a month will do something for my self-discipline.
Okay, so Week 1 of the Yoga Journal Boost Your Willpower program was about choosing a focus/goal. I chose staying on task while working. Week 2 was about making a commitment to that focus/goal and choosing one thing to do that will remind you of said focus/goal. I chose "I will" statements. Week 3 is about self-compassion.
Now, self-compassion is going to sound a little squishy and New Ageish to many people, but what Week 3 is really about is dealing with setbacks. In a Week 3 Yoga Journal Chat with Kelly McGonigal, who designed the Boost Your Willpower program for YJ, McGonigal says that success with using willpower to meet a goal has less to do with how enthusiastic people are when setting out ("I'm going to write 7 hours a day!") then it does with how they respond to the first setback. ("Oops. I talked on the phone for half an hour this morning.") And the second ("I spent forty-minutes analyzing last week's episode of Downtown Abby in an e-mail I sent my sister during work time.") And maybe the third or fourth.
Because I tend to think in metaphor a lot of the time, I often compare managing the time for my writing practice to managing eating. What happens when we've been trying to control our eating and we eat something we feel we shouldn't have? We give in to what Yoga Journal called in one of its Boost Your Willpower e-mails "The What-the-Hell Effect." What the Hell? We might as well eat some more because we've ruined the eating plan, anyway. In for a dime, in for a dollar. And the same is true while trying to stay on task with work. If we are diverted from the task for a while, we can feel that the morning, the afternoon, even a big chunk of a day is shot. What the Hell? We might as well give in and continue to wander mentally. "This cycle--of indulgence leading to regret leading to greater indulgence--is one of the most dangerous to willpower," the Boost Your Willpower people state.
Think of competitive ice skaters who fall during competition, get up, and continue with their programs. Writers who have wandered from the task have to come up with a way to pick themselves up off the metaphorical ice and continue with their writing practice. How? I, of course, have a couple of suggestions.
1. That was then, this is now. The Zenny business about not dwelling on the past--even the very recent past of this morning or an hour ago--could be helpful here. That moment of slipping away from the task at hand is over, and I'm living in another moment in which I have an opportunity to stay on task. So I will. (Oh, I just made another "I will" statement.)
2. The unit system. Yes, I know. I'm treating the unit system as a freaking cure-all, but that's because it has the potential to be one. If we are accustomed to thinking of a work day as a unit of time that's broken into more, smaller units of time, then we are used to starting over again, over and over, during the day. So, if we've blown off some time, and we're able to put that behind us, we can then see that we have X units of time left in our workday--just as we would have had if we hadn't wasted some of them just an hour or so ago. Something changed in our very, very recent past because we didn't work as we'd planned to. But nothing has changed in our immediate future. The time we had planned for working is still there.
I actually used the unit system to get me back on task yesterday afternoon. While posting a link to the NESCBWI spring conference schedule in a blog post, I became distracted and spent what seemed like a considerable amount of time perusing said schedule, trying to determine which days I wanted to go and whether or not my computer guy should go for a day, too. My indulgence led to regret, because I'd had a good work morning and I believed I'd destroyed the whole day in the afternoon by doing something I hadn't planned to do, something I could have done in the evening after my workday was over. I was teetering on the brink of succumbing to greater indulgence. But I happened to look at the clock and realized I could do another 45-minute unit on the specific writing project I'd planned for that day. Because I am now used to thinking of 45 minutes as a significant work period, I went ahead and used it to work.
From this experience--and this week's Boost Your Willpower material--I'm led to wonder if learning how to get back on task is as important as staying there in the first place.