An Electronic Newsletter for Scholarly Writers
3, no. 1
Happy new year!
It is traditional at the beginning of the new year to make
self-improvement resolutions. Some resolve to stop smoking,
others to eat less, still others to exercise more. Most
scholars think about committing to writing more or better
but wonder if any such resolution will stick. After all,
we have seen more resolutions fail than succeed. Indeed,
we tend to make resolutions in areas where we have persistently
failed. Is it all an exercise in futility?
Years ago, a study on smoking cessation found that anyone
who had ever quit smoking temporarily had a higher chance
of quitting smoking permanently than someone who had never
quit. In other words, smokers who had failed to quit smoking
did better than those who had never tried. This means that
our failures are part of our success. How many times would
you be willing to fail if you knew that eventually you would
succeed? When it comes to writing, perhaps we should be
trying to increase our failure rate. Maybe we need more
resolutions, not less.
So, if our goal is to write more, or more consistently,
or with greater rigor, what can we do to increase our chances
of success this time?
Make It Concrete
Vague statements like “finish my dissertation/book
by June” or “write more” don’t work
very well as resolutions. They are fine goals, but they
are not concrete resolutions. It is better to resolve to
write a certain number of paragraphs a day or at a certain
time every day. I know some students who have had success
simply resolving to be at their writing spot every day at
a certain time. If they didn’t want to write, they
didn’t have to, but they had to sit in that spot for
that fifteen or thirty minutes. They committed to creating
the conditions for attainment, without focusing on attainment.
This takes the pressure off.
Set Up Cues
Most resolutions don’t die, they simply fade away.
A week or two later we suddenly realize that our resolution
has fallen by the wayside and we give up in disgust. So,
how can you make your resolution stay present? Create cues
for yourself, whether it is a handwritten sign on the inside
of your front door or an email from a reminder service.
I have an email that arrives every other Friday in my Inbox
reminding me to contact a mentor and report on my recent
progress. It is crazy how often I don’t even recognize
the email until I open it and how many times I respond by
swearing and thinking “already?!” Reminders
help. Another excellent cue is letting others know about
your resolution. Supportive friends are best, although some
swear by 43
Things or Joe’s
Goals. (Procrastination prophylactics or aids? You decide).
It is more difficult to forget when others know.
Most of us respond better to rewards than punishments. But
coming up with rewards that don’t violate other resolutions
is difficult. I recently asked students to name rewards
they would give themselves for accomplishing writing goals
and the list included alcohol, chocolate, and massages.
Which is great, unless you are currently trying to drink
less, eat less, or spend less. I think the answer may lie
in a recent, much-cited Wired article on “The
Perfect Human,” an athlete named Dean Karnazes
who scarfs cheesecake, cinnamon buns, chocolate éclairs,
and large Hawaiian pizzas when he is running a marathon.
He carries a cell phone so that the pizza delivery guy is
ready with the box as Karnazes sprints by. As a result,
he looks forward to racing, since it is the only time he
eats processed sugars and fried foods. I am not sure why
I keep thinking about this example, but I think it is because
Karnazes has somehow been able to reframe what I would see
as a punishment (no pizza most of the time) into a reward
(lots of pizza some of the time). The plain fact is that
he doesn’t need 9,000 calories to get through a regular
day, but he does when he is racing. Getting the reward and
the benefit to align, that is the real trick. I try to think
about television like this. Television or other visual entertainment
can only be something one does after writing, never before.
It is a way of relaxing and therefore can only be done when
one is in need of relaxing, after working. What's your example?
Recognize the Problem
Whatever is most important to us is often the toughest thing
to get done. That’s because the costs of failure are
high. Important life goals take up a lot of time and energy
and involve making big decisions and enduring wrenching
changes. No wonder what’s important makes us feel
conflicted and afraid. But striving for what’s important
also make us feel most alive. So, don't feel guilty about
not attaining your goals--just focus on striving for them.
In 2007, I wish you risk and change, not safety and comfort.
And, oh yes, that you get lots of writing done!
WUT= k exp(TL):
“the warm-up time necessary to return to a problem
increases exponentially with the time that has lapsed since
you last worked on it.”