Self-Discipline

This is the first year I can remember that I’ve made any clearly-articulated New Years resolutions. At the urging of several articles I’ve tried to make my resolutions manageable rather than wildly ambitious in order to make sure I can meet these goals on a daily basis.

And by goals I should really say that I’m trying to build habits. Habit I complete on a daily (or weekly) basis to improve my health, productivity, and emotional well-being. Habit I hope will become automatic. Effortless. Habits I hope will leave a void on the days I don’t complete them. These habits I’m hoping to form revolve around activities like exercise, drinking more water, journaling every day, writing a certain number of days a week, etc. And in order to build these habits, I’ve tried to subscribe to the Jerry Seinfeld productivity method, which says that the best way to build a daily habit is to complete some activity on a daily basis and record having done so in a clear visual manner (such as a red “X” on a wall calendar). Once you’ve completed this activity several days in a row, you will see a chain of those X’s you’ve established and your desire to not “break the chain” will motivate you to continue on with this activity every day.

Of course, in order to gain any momentum with this new habit it must be a habit you can actually accomplish on a daily basis–something manageable. When I first started journaling this Summer, I found myself trying to so “perfectly” capture my experience of the day (my Enneagram Type of 1 coming out) that the prospect of journaling became a daunting distraction from my other work. When I decided to recommit to journaling, my rule was that I would spend no more than one Pomodoro (25 minutes) journaling, and if I hadn’t recorded a particular detail in that 25 minutes, I wasn’t going to record it. The flood of vivid memories that came rushing back to me upon reading some of my old entries has inspired me to recommit to journaling. I want to  be able to read the journal entry from the year before whenever I write a new entry. My hope is that this practice will vastly improve both my working and emotional memories. But the only way I’ll be able to read those older entries every day is if I journal every single day. And the only way I can successfully form that daily habit is to limit my journaling to no more than twenty-five minutes.

I’ve also found that using different apps provides tremendous motivation in building these habits. You may roll your eyes at the thought of relying on an app for motivation, but I recently read a study that concluded motivational apps can be about as effective as human “buddies” at holding people accountable to their goals. For example, an exercise app giving you daily reminders can prove as effective at getting you to exercise as a gym buddy would. You’ll have to forgive me for not linking to the study, but I can’t find the link at the moment. And regardless of what some study says, I have found these apps quite effective. I use the app Balanced to record whether I have kept a daily habit, as well as Day One to journal. Both apps provide a visual representation of how often I either journal or keep up a habit (Balanced uses a visual chain and Day One a calendar) and that nagging visual desire to not “break the chain” has been a shockingly effective motivator.

In this spirit, I want to be even more specific about my weekly creative writing goals. I’ve decided to make them public (I will post my progress at the end of the year) so as to hold myself even more accountable. Up until this point my goal has been to merely “write” five days a week without stipulating what amount of work (in either time or output) I would consider satisfactory for completing my weekly goal.

To be sure, January was still a remarkably productive month, in large part due to my new self-motivation tactics. I generated close to 100 pages of material. But I still wasted a lot of time. I’m not talking about time spent reading or thinking about my writing or day-dreaming. All of these are essential to lively writing (and to staying sane). I’m talking about time where I was just procrastinating online. And I think I can eliminate this unnecessary time-wasting with a few tweaks to how I define (and track) my writing goals.

So here are my writing goals. . .

1) To write not less than ten hours a week (two hours a day five days a week) and not more than twenty hours a week (four hours a day five days a week). You may wonder why, as a McKnight Fellow at The Playwrights’ Center, I’m not setting the loftier goal of writing forty hours a week. The truth is I need to fill the well of my imagination by committing to consuming more of other peoples’ material. When I feel under pressure, I tend to myopically zero in on my own work and not feel like I can afford to spend time consuming anything else. But you can’t expect prodigious output without a fair amount of input. So I need to learn to cap my writing time at twenty hours a week so I can spend other time reading, watching TV, and movies, etc.

2) To maintain these weekly numbers even if I don’t have particular project I’m working on in a given week. Say I’ve just finished a draft of a play and I won’t go into rehearsal on it for another week (I consider rehearsal time writing time if I’m still doing substantive rewriting on a play. If I’m not making substantive revisions, I plan to write for ten hours weekly outside of rehearsal). In the week between finishing the draft and starting rehearsals I will free-write for ten hours across the week in the hopes that I might generate ideas for future projects or gain greater insight into current ones.

3) To record the exact number of minutes spent writing on a given day and the amount of output (as best as I can since it can be hard to tell what your exact output is when you’re revising). I got this idea from Playwrights’ Center Jerome Fellow Deborah Yarchun. She told me she best motivates herself to write by tracking her daily progress in a spreadsheet. I’ve only just started doing this today, but I found it sharpening my focus, and providing that extra incentive to block out distraction since I know I’ll have to see my lack of discipline reflected in a spreadsheet at the end of the day. At the end of the year I will post my total number of writing time in hours and minutes (I’ll try to guesstimate my January results as best I can) as well as my total yearly output in pages. Hopefully that will provide even greater incentive to stay focused and on-task.