On The Practice of Practicing

Back in 2013 I set myself a goal of writing 1000 words weekly. There were actually several goals that I had in mind, but an additional goal was to see if doing something weekly would result in a habit. This has not been the case.

My thinking was, and this was certainly aided by common beliefs, that anything one does as a habit will come more easily than something that requires discipline. However, my experience doesn’t align with that. The practice of writing regularly (removing the requirement to do it weekly) remains just that: something I practice.

In 2013, because I set the goal and executed it, I produced 52 postings of 1000 words or more for a total of 87 thousand works.

In 2014, with no discipline in place and no publicly stated goal, I only produced 14 thousand words roughly monthly.

In 2015, here late in the month of April, I’m only writing my fourth posting and this word: frabjous is the 4286th word that I’ve written here this year.

What to take away from this?

Well, the most obvious is that a good, publicly stated goal is easier to accomplish than a private one. I do think holding myself accountable and saying it out loud (relatively speaking, in this space) resulted in more discipline than I would have had otherwise.

I think it’s bunk to say “If you do a thing N times, it’ll become a habit”. This is no more true for brushing your teeth than it is for exercising or writing regularly. I have a habit of drinking a chai tea I make at home on Monday and Thursday mornings. That’s a habit. I shave on twice a week unless there’s a special event. That’s a habit.
I suspect I have more bad habits than good habits. I have things that I want to do more that I wish were habits, but are not. Flossing, for example. I should floss daily. Many dental professionals have told me this and I refuse to make it a daily habit. I have, in the past, made the effort to floss daily, often a month or so before a dental exam in hopes of avoiding the finger wagging when they poke at my gums. But as soon as that’s past, I fall right back in to my irregular flossings.

It seems to me that very often things that we call habits are things that we should do or wish we did more regularly, but often we don’t.

Like writing or practicing a musical instrument, habits seem like things we wish we did more, if we would only put in the work. We wish we would make it a practice that takes priority over the other bright and shiny objects that fill our lives and serve to suck up our time.

I imagine the goal is to figure out how to balance between the things we want to do, the fun things, the things that give us that burst of pleasure in the moment and those things we should do, often because those things that we should do are not about gratification now, rather they are about deferred gratification.

If I floss, if I work out, if I practice an instrument, if I prep the garden, if I write regularly, if I do any of this or a huge list of other things I could and probably should do, I often get little immediate gratification from those actions. But, I’m doing it to keep my teeth longer, I’ll live longer, I’ll eventually be able play a song, I’ll eat food that I’ve grown, I’ll not cringe at my writing. Not today, necessarily, but eventually.

I think our monkey brains which are often and largely faced with operating in the short term and are not particularly well evolved to do things for later, lacking immediate gratification, deferring the gratification till another day. Maybe it’s a consequence of evolution and where our hunter/gatherer brains have evolved to focus on not starving today rather than planning for not starving in the winter, maybe it’s the thin veil of modernity that sits atop our animal brains. I don’t know, but I know I struggle with it.

In the meantime, I’ll continue to try and fight the fight. I’ll continue the Practice of Practicing when I can and when the long terms benefits portion of my brain can overpower the monkey brain or the lizard brain that sits below and demands what it wants NOW, screw the consequences, screw the future. It’s a good fight, but I imagine it’s not one you win. It’s a holding action. Sometimes my brain will be more disciplined and other times I’m going to sit on the couch and watch Daredevil. That’s life!

Image courtesy of https://www.flickr.com/photos/thart2009/ and licensed via Creative Commons Public Domain Dedication. For more info, see http://creativecommons.org/publicdomain/zero/1.0/deed.en