On Building Habits

I mentioned in my last post on PubCrawl that I had recently resigned my day job and was refilling my creative well. It’s been a few weeks now, and while my creative well has been replenishing nicely, I confess to feeling a bit adrift when it comes to, well, a schedule.

If there was one thing about having a day job I did like, it was that I had a routine. I’ve confessed here and elsewhere that I have bipolar disorder, and in addition to medication, things like routine and repetition are extremely helpful. Knowing I had to be up at a certain time, at my office at a certain time, take my lunch breaks at a certain time, etc. were all incredibly helpful in structuring my day. When I am at my best, scheduling my life makes me more productive, not less, but sometimes I can tip too far in the other direction, where my day is so rigidly scheduled that I don’t make time for my brain to be creative.

My entire life is one constant battle against my inherent laziness, which is a terrible thing for a professional author, especially one who has deadlines she needs to hit. The worse part is that I seem to be getting lazier the older I get. As a child and a student, I was incredibly productive. I was the sort of kid who did her entire week’s homework ahead of time so she could have the rest of the week off. I practiced an hour of piano every day. I had visual arts conservatory twice a week and creative writing conservatory on the weekends. I even did the occasional sport. What happened?

What happened was I didn’t have the opportunity to indulge in my laziness. Summer vacations, spring breaks, winter holidays, none of these things existed for me as an adult. I had to remember to schedule time off, and even then I never really did because I felt a tremendous amount of guilt.1 As a child, I had a set time to do my homework, and a set time I could play. I didn’t realize how enormously helpful it was to compartmentalize these things until now. As an adult, I lost that switch in my brain that goes from work to play and vice versa. The switch was stuck on work and over time, it got rusty. It made it hard to flip it to play, but once it did, it was even harder to flip it back.

Building habits is something I think about often. I am a creature of habit, yes, but even then, it’s hard to develop new ones or pick old ones back up after you haven’t used them in a while. So how to get back into them?

Ever since I quit my day job, I’ve tried to focus on one new thing per week. It makes it easier to focus on one small change every day than several enormous ones. For me, the first was returning to the gym.

I am currently in the worst shape of my life. I’ve always been athletic-ish, but age and lack of time have driven my fitness level to chthonic levels. It’s embarrassing and it’s especially embarrassing when I compare what I was able to do to back then to what I am able to do now. It’s not pretty. I used to be able to do 50 full-pushups without a break. Now I have to do them on my knees and take breaks after 10. Yet, if I keep comparing myself now to what I was then, I will succumb to despair. So I don’t. I let myself be kind to myself.

There is a difference between being kind to yourself and being self-indulgent. Being kind to yourself means allowing yourself to mess up, but to push past a mistake and get better. Being self-indulgent means making a mistake, and then allowing myself to quit because I’ll never get there anyway. Being kind to yourself allows yourself to build habits. One small change at a time.

It’s been four weeks and I’ve been at the gym 6 days every week, except for one week where I was self-indulgent. But you know what? That’s okay. I went back. I feel a growing confidence in my gym habit. I went to the gym this morning. I will go again tomorrow. I have confidence in myself.

This week, I’ve added a writing habit. One small change. Today I will read yesterday’s chapter, maybe fix a few words, maybe write some more. I will be kind to myself. If the words are terrible, it doesn’t matter, for tomorrow is another day.

All of our contributors, past and present, have Thoughts about productivity, so I encourage y’all to browse the tag, but here are two of my favorites:

  1. The Productivity Pyramid by Sooz
  2. Time Management and Planning by Amie

What about you? Do y’all have any tips or tricks for productivity?

  1. Corporate life does nothing to assuage this guilt, and in fact even compounds it, but that is a lecture for another time.

3 Responses to On Building Habits

  1. Julie Jun 7 2017 at 12:50 pm #

    Great post, JJ! I also sometimes struggle to find the right balance–that switch from work to play, as you say. This advice is so helpful–just what I need right now. 🙂

  2. Katie Jun 8 2017 at 9:56 am #

    JJ, I can’t express how much it means to me to read what you’ve been going through. The fact that you’re so open and honest about how difficult things have been is amazing, so thank you for sharing your experiences with us.

    I recently found out that I have ADHD that has persisted into adulthood, and have also been fighting my way out of dealing with depression. Because of this, I struggle a LOT with schedules, but have also found that when I am able to implement them, they help enormously.

    This idea struck me particularly hard: “The switch was stuck on work and over time, it got rusty. It made it hard to flip it to play, but once it did, it was even harder to flip it back.” It’s so true–trying to switch back into being productive sometimes seems overwhelmingly impossible. However, your “one habit a week” idea is something I might try to use for myself–it’s much less daunting to deal with only one thing rather than tackling EVERYTHING that has been thrown out of whack for so long now.

    Good luck on easing yourself back into a schedule! I’m so happy to hear that things have been going well for you, and that you’ve been able to forgive and get yourself back up when things don’t go according to plan.

  3. James Sheen Mar 23 2021 at 6:08 am #

    Interesting! I will definitely read the suggested articles.
    You know, I’ve always had trouble forming healthy habits. The routine I had before the pandemic – going to work, working out several times a week, and so on – has collapsed. And it took a while to create a new one.

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