That is, not heal me, but “heel!”
This is our habitual approach to self-discipline.
Unfortunately it’s based in a belief that to finish your writing you can and should force yourself to do it.
And there is something wrong with you if you can’t do that.
In the case of academic writers, you are supposed to always force yourself through resistance, always productive…
So that you can get and keep jobs…
and that makes it into high stakes if you can’t force yourself enough.
But maybe you keep getting side-tracked, and that makes it seem like you don’t whip yourself into line enough.
That’s what we can’t help thinking, but the truth is it doesn’t really work that way.
And there’s a good reason why whipping yourself into line doesn’t work in the long run:
who and what we think we are, when we’re trying to discipline our selves,
Is not in fact who and what we think we are.
It’s a trick of the mind.
Sure, there are times when we feel we have this ability to lord over ourselves and steer the ship.
Like we are the CEO of our lives.
We can choose pizza or pasta for lunch.
You can choose to write, or not, in any given 30 minutes that you are near your writing tools.
It’s a feeling of freewill and choice you experience, and you experience it many times a day with many different matters.
It’s a feeling that accompanies many choices you make, all kinds of choices.
But it’s just a feeling, and it’s only temporary.
The Paradoxes of Self-Discipline
I’m sure you’ve experienced one of those cursed-like days where you actually had some “free” time and feelings of “free choice” but watched yourself do email and news stories and putter about washing dishes three times that day, or whatever, little things that all added up to a big zero.
Like you could choose, but somehow the choices were not going the way you would choose if you had a choice!
But you had this feeling of choice, also, the whole time!
Now this might sound like a bunch of crazy talk to some.
If it sounds weird and crazy and incomprehensible then it might be that I’m not really writing clear words here.
But chances are, if you don’t know what I’m talking about, then you’re not an academic writer.
Because we writers all know this feeling of seeming to have free choice but having everything wash away into nothing, as though out of our control.
This is the paradox of self-discipline.
We feel like we have the free choice to make self-discipline decisions.
But the truth is the CEO decider of life is just a thought. It’s just a temporary belief and a temporary feeling. It’s not real.
But because we believe in it so strongly, we start to hate ourselves for our failures.
And it’s all based in a misunderstanding.
How and why you can, or cannot, do something, will or will not do something is due to many factors.
The presence of the feeling of being a free decider is one of those conditions. It’s useful but it’s not enough.
In fact in the best of writing times you don’t even have, or need this feeling, you’re just doing it!
But most of the time we continue to believe in this feeling. It feels like you can simply steer things and there is something wrong with you if you don’t do it right.
If you’ve tried meditation, then you know this well. At times it feels like you can decide to, say, pay attention to the breath. At that moment it seems so easy and simple and obvious. You can’t imagine how on earth this could ever end or how could turn into something else.
But it always does, because the one who feels and thinks that way is temporary. “Pay attention to the breath” is just a temporary thought.
And the pay-attentioner, created by that thought and intention to make sense, is also temporary.
In truth it’s all just causes and conditions manifesting this way and that.
So why can some people stick with their writing and be consistent and why are some people struggling with it?
Those that stick with it can do so because they have habits in place. The habits make the temporary choice moments activate something that is already fueled up and ready to go.
The CEO of life is not real, or has a very short life.
Habits have an afterlife.
Build a writing habit and you get deep and long lasting effects that make a writing life possible, that make a long-term writing project possible to finish.
What if instead of caught up in distractions you were addicted to writing, so that you can’t wait to get to your project the next day, forced to stop only when other commitments are unavoidable or because you already wrote too much for the day?
How to Get Un-Addicted to Distractions
Ever notice how easy it is to turn to email when you should be writing?
The reason for that is your addiction to email is not equal to your addiction to writing.
And there’s a reason for that too.
Email is a good fix.
There’s a task to do with an email. It’s bundled up in neat package, most often.
You click on it. Maybe you have to do a little something-something. You write a response…
And the brain shoots up a little dose of dopamine in your reward center. You finished!
And ooh, you get the good stuff.
Make another few clicks and keystrokes, and you get another shot of rewarding finishing.
Want to chase that dragon?
You’ve probably got some more in your inbox.
Now compare that, say, to the day I turned in my official dissertation to Princeton all bound up for like $45 or whatever it was.
I walked back to the parking lot and I was literally floating. There weren’t surveillance cameras back then like they have now. So I can’t prove it.
But I’m certain my feet were not touching the ground.
And about…. like… six years later maybe I got another hit of that.
And again maybe 8 years after that…
So you can see how it works now.
Why wait 2 or more years when you can get your groove on right now?
Just open your inbox and enjoy!
It might seem like email is tedious work, but actually we’re getting our fix.
And when we’re climbing the mountain of a chapter or article, or getting across a mountain range of a book or dissertation, it’s just natural that the attention will want to turn away from all that and go for something you can get done now.
“I will force myself to work every day for the next 9 months and finish this dissertation” has trouble competing against the temptation of easy-access dopamine.
But if your writing is rewarding now, and not only in the future, it can compete.
And that’s were habit vs. 9 months of self control kicks in.
If you are building a writing habit, small step by step, then you are creating instant rewards in the now that naturally compete against other short term “did it!” attractions that aren’t as important.
There are a couple ways this works.
Number one is starting to understand and have faith in habit itself.
This starts with understanding the logic of it, like we are talking about now, but then deepens with the doing of it. The more you build habit the more convinced you are, and the more convinced you are, the more you want to build it.
It’s a feedback loop that rolls on and on.
This is one of the most fundamental layers of it.
The other has to do with how you think about and frame what you are doing.
If your task is “Write Chapter Three” then that is something that might take a month or five to do.
You will only succeed once! On the last day when you finish. Every other time you sit down to “Write Chapter Three” you will fail.
But if your task is write a paragraph on a single point you want to make, then that is something you can do now. You can get that done feeling right now if you break down your writing tasks into small manageable chunks.
You will get rewarded every time you write if your task—every time you write—is something easy and doable.
If you break it down to a small action that you know you can do, and mentally focus that way both before and after you write, then you’ll start to get the idea that you are making progress and getting things done.
Of course, that won’t work if you are only doing that once a week or once a month.
Your mind won’t buy into that. It won’t feel you’ve really done anything if it thinks your wrote a paragraph in a week. But if you are writing a paragraph almost every day it will.
And it won’t be just a paragraph. It might at first, but the addiction will build and you’ll be writing more and more.
Once you get into this simple habit of succeeding in small writing tasks almost every day you’ll tap into that first feedback loop I spoke of.
The one where you have more and more and more faith in habit and less and less dependence on the CEO with the whip.
That’s the really, really good stuff!
I like the floating feeling in the parking lot, but that’s only like.
I love this other feeling.
It’s a lot harder to get distracted with this feeling in your writing. That’s what a writing addiction feels like and it makes everything easier.
Writing in a Bootcamp to Seal in the Habit
Now if you want to set the tracks of habit in place so that your project starts speeding up, running on the rails of a strong writing practice, then you might want to get the support of a coach and peer academic writers who are also setting down the same track.
Join a professor or graduate writing bootcamp group at Academic Muse. There is a new bootcamp starting very soon: Monday June 17 and Midnight is the deadline to enroll. Click Here to see if there are still spots available or not.