Are you determined to finish your book this year?
…Telling yourself you’re going to draw daily?
…Turning over a new leaf and finally going to start your podcast?
…Or to finish your app, course, film, website … ?
January is a great time to change your life. You know when else is great? Any day of any month when you’re prepared with a solid, backstopped plan.
Sound intimidating? It doesn’t have to be. What you don’t need is a BHAG and a will of iron. You don’t need a massive supply of “grit.” Instead, you need to set the bar LOW. Real low. Then vault over that bar with the wings of an angel.
The secret to hitting those big creative goals is not about waiting for inspiration, and then heroically throwing yourself at the work for days or weeks at a time, it’s actually taking much smaller steps, much more often.
The secret is building sustainable creative habits.
How? To build a sustainable habit that will lead to major changes down the road, you need to scale your steps to what’s possible, put safeguards in place to support your habit, and find a deep well of self-forgiveness. And that’s exactly what we’re going to do, together.
A “resolution” is worse than a wish when you don’t create a plan
“Resolving” is just firmly telling yourself, “Next time will be different.”
Then when your behavior and life doesn’t suddenly become different (because you haven’t decided how, in reality, you’ll do anything differently), you beat yourself up…which feels awful, and still won’t cause you to eat healthier, get more exercise, or save money, or finally finish that novel you’ve been sitting on (respectively the No. 1, 2, 3, and…??? New Year’s resolutions for Americans in 2018).
Making a resolution makes you feel like you’re making a real change, when most likely you’re doing little more than wishing harder. That’s what leads to the self-flagellation party.
The problem comes down to our expectation that we should have grit, willpower. We should be able to force our way through when things get tough.
If you wonder why you feel that way, it’s no big mystery. You’re told so, constantly. A Time Magazine article puts not-following-through on getting fit down to one reason: “Simple: people are lazy.”
In her book, Grit, Angela Duckworth defines grit as passion + perseverance, which sounds great in theory (and of course, there are obvious upsides to having these two qualities), but relying on your grit, or on trying to become more “gritty” is exactly the wrong way to go about making change, for three reasons.
No. 1, Willpower is a limited resource. Why deplete it when you don’t need to?
No. 2, Mindlessly pursuing a goal opens you to following your tunnel vision straight into a ditch.
No. 3, Habit is a much more powerful force than grit will ever be, even in the best of circumstances.
The willpower is weak
First of all, there’s the problem of willpower. Studies have shown that willpower can be depleted, and once it is, we start making very short-sighted decisions. As in, if you spend your morning resisting eating three bowls of cereal, by lunch, you’re more likely to order a giant hoagie with chips than a salad.
This depletion of willpower and accompanying bad decision making will happen faster (even before you’re aware of it) if you’re living with a scarcity mindset, according to the authors of Scarcity (aff link), Sendhil Mullainathan and Eldar Shafir. In fact, calorie-scarcity might well be the organizing principle in the scenario just above.
Standing on its own, the word “scarcity” evokes money, but financial scarcity is not the only kind. If you’re reading this article, it’s a good bet you live with time scarcity, and another kind creatives tend to carry around that I’m having trouble pinning down to a name, but comes out to something like “career path scarcity.”
The tunnel to nowhere
If you read my last article, about how I ground through one publishing project over 12 years, you know that I have some mixed feelings about the value of pushing through. When you live with scarcity mindset, powering through is not the answer…because you’re probably asking the wrong questions.
I feel a lot of shame about choosing work—and in some cases the wrong work—over everything else. I have a hard time stopping myself, and now I realize I’m living inside the scarcity-trap tunnel.
More about scarcity next time, but keep your eye on this concept. The more I learn about it, the more it’s turning into a kind of grand unifying theory for me.
I got a Grit Score of 5, and I have mixed feelings
Reading up on the idea of grit, I felt envy for journalists who report they got low scores on Duckworth’s Grit Scale. To me, a lower score shows an admirable ability to change gears when the situation calls for it, and to remain interested in things that fall outside a transactional relationship with work.
I was rewarded for my grit research when I read an Alfie Kohn article that tipped me off to the awesome proverbial Law of Holes: When you’re in one, stop digging. That’s the problem with too much grit: knowing when to pull the plug (and being brave enough to do so) is as important as knowing when to power through.
I am a super-gritty person…and I’ve used that grit to dig myself deep into way too many holes.
Grit is not enough.
The core problem with grit is that, at a basic level, claiming that grit is what sets successful people apart disregards cultural and individual factors and throws blame on structurally-disadvantaged people (poor kids, people of color, women in science, etc.), telling them that it’s just their own mindset that stands in their way.
That’s why creating change based on habits and semi-automatic behavior, not in-the-moment decisions, is the way to make an end-run around the need for grit.
We are creatures of habit
Problem number three with grit: Grit won’t do the job. Habit is the most powerful force in our lives. The fact that you can occasionally overcome habitual behavior by force of will doesn’t change the fact that habit will come roaring back as soon as you stop struggling.
If you think that you need to just pull up your socks and face the music, let me assure you: Even I, gritty as I am, rely utterly on habit to make my life function and work happen.
Mindset issues are real. But changing your mindset comes from changing the way you act. The key to true, lasting, sustainable change is to avoid “heroic” struggle.
I’ve heard “studies” quoted that up to 95% of human behavior is habitual. (“Fully 95 percent of our behaviors are habitual, or occur in response to a strong external stimulus.”)
So your job, if you want to change your life, is to change your habits.
New habits are hard to create precisely because they take the place of old habits. Making that happen takes some creative thinking, but it’s completely within reach…as long as you set the bar ridiculously low.
What it took for me to start going to the gym
When I moved to Philadelphia, I hadn’t gone to the gym since well before we left Brooklyn, four years earlier. I’d managed to join a fairly gentle Pilates class my last year in France, but it was pretty tame. I like to be strong. I needed to make a change.
Now, I normally take a class three times a week. Overall, the current version of my fitness habit took over a year to solidify.
I felt some urgency, but forcing myself played little part in making it happen. I took it piece by piece, and made each step as easy as possible.
The beginning was the hardest. It took me over three months to go through the various steps of figuring out what the benefits of my new job offered as far as gym membership.
Then I located a gym on the plan that was almost literally on my walk home. Crucial. If I had to make a long detour, wouldn’t happen.
The gym had a lot of classes, which was great for figuring out what I wanted to do. But more importantly, I needed to negotiate the time for them with Matt, so that I would disrupt our family life as little as possible.
Finally, I had to put the times in my calendar. At first, I put just the time for the class in, and would frequently conveniently “forget” to leave on time, and then decide that it wasn’t worth going.
So the last piece of the puzzle was to put an extra half an hour before the class starts into my calendar, so nothing else can get scheduled at that time, and I’d get an alert from my phone when it’s time to leave.
A year later, this habit firmly in place, I decided to try a semi-serious dance class (meaning, at a dance studio, not at a gym). That meant starting the cycle all over again.
- Start research on dance studios within walking distance.
- Test out a class.
- See if the time works out.
- Face the embarrassment of being crappy at something (This is where grit comes in).
- Buy a prepaid 10-class card and put the class on the calendar, with alarms to remind me to leave.
Now, I’m the most regular of the regulars in my Sunday class.
It took time to set up a routine, and much more to get used to it. Now, it’s what I do. It’s on my calendar, my family expects it. It’s having some effect. It’s not a miracle change, but it’s human and sustainable.
Ready to make big changes?
Let’s get to the how, shall we?
1. Identify the desired outcome
The first step is to figure out what the heck you’re actually trying to do. So we need to start with a bit of disambiguation:
- Habit – An action or series of actions triggered by a cue, that takes place on a regular (often daily) basis.
- Goal – An accomplishment with a finish line that requires organized, directed actions over a period of time.
- Bucket list – A list of a bunch of things you want to have done, including both large goals and smaller projects.
Why am I disambiguating? Because your focus, when you’re making a resolution, is frequently on a goal, often a goal that’s on a bucket list. “Finish my book.” “Build an audience for my podcast.” “Run a marathon.” But focus on a goal can undermine the kind of overall life/identity change that’s likely to be the underlying motivator.
You must identify what motivates you to make this something that sticks.
A few weeks ago, I co-hosted a training on habits with Sarah Von Bargen, and Sarah told us that it’s incredibly common for people who run a marathon to then quit running.
“Many of us pursue goals, but we don’t pursue habits,” she said, “And habits are what make the goals possible. But when we focus on finishing the marathon, the we finish the marathon, then we’re done.”
So the question is: do you want to run a marathon (goal, or bucket list item), or be a runner?
Don’t confuse goals with identity-forming habits.
What’s the outcome you want, the book (goal)? Or to take on a new identity as a writer?
Do you want to see the Eiffel Tower (bucket list) or be someone who has the time and financial wherewithal to travel?
Building habits keeps you going once the project is over. It takes care of the “I finished X…and now what?”
Action: Define the outcome you want in terms of what identity it will help you take on.
2. Break the outcome down to phases, tasks, and habits
As I demonstrated in my post about framing art that had been in my flat file for up to 26 years, it’s common to make the mistake of confusing a project with a mere task. And the goals you set for yourself will be no exception to this.
The outcome you seek may indeed be to take on the identity of “working artist,” but that may definitionally include “hold an exhibition” as a concrete goal.
That exhibition is a project, and getting it done without burning out and with a creative habit that will carry you to the next show (and the next) will mean clarifying the phases of the project, identifying the individual tasks, AND building two habits: Creating the work in a sustainable way, as well as regularly making time for the admin and marketing side of your career (which is where you’ll slot most of those project-oriented tasks).
Some careful work on thinking that through will help.
Action: List out the phases, tasks, and habits associated with the outcome you seek.
3. Identify the habit associated with the outcome
As I discussed above, some outcomes will entail building one or two habits.
Some outcomes will require a whole series of habits (like “build the audience for my work” might mean developing email and social media marketing, networking, live events). As with my fitness habits, where I started with the gym and a year later added dance, you have to pick what’s the most important to start with, and focus on one at a time.
Start with a version of that habit that you can easily do in under 30 minutes. 10 minutes is even better. Make it simple so you start with winning. James Clear, in his book Atomic Habits (aff link), lays out the argument for the power of the 1% improvement very simply: it’s the principle of compound interest. At first, change is almost imperceptible, but little by little, small improvements will cause exponential change.
Action: Pick the habit you want to build first.
4. Determine your trigger
What will tell you it’s time to do your habit?
Sarah Von Bargen says that habits you do daily are more likely to stick. There may be exceptions to this, like you’ve got weekday and weekend habits, or habits that you do on days when your small children are in daycare. But all of those frameworks have one thing in common: there’s an external structure, a sign that it’s time to do your habitual behavior.
On a more granular level, you should decide exactly what time you’ll perform your new habit. Pick a time that’s triggered by something else: when you finish washing your face in the morning, you grab your sketchbook and draw. When you’re waiting for the water to boil for tea, you open your laptop to your writing software. When you drop your kid at pre-K, you walk to the corner cafe and work on your script for an hour.
Action: Define the trigger for your habit.
5. Put the habit on the calendar
When you decide what you’re going to focus on, you also need to do the really hard part: decide what you’re not going to do.
You’re already filling all your time with something. If you plan to do something new, or more often, you will have to not do something else.
Your calendar is a portrait of how all the pieces of your life play together (or fight like spoiled children). Work and family and your creative project sit cheek-by-jowl. If you ever suspected that there was no Ivory Tower, this is proof. There are no walls between the parts.
If you decide to spend the hour after pre-k drop-off every morning working on your script, what did you previously use this slot for? Facebook? Email? Going to the gym? Whatever it has been, you need to consciously decide what you’re going to do with that activity.
Drop it? Reschedule it?
Action: Put the time slot for the habit on your calendar, and decide what you’ll do with what it will replace.
6. Build a contingency plan
Building a “bookmark habit” is perhaps the most important element of backstopping your habit-building. I got this idea, too, from Sarah Von Bargen, and she taught the concept in our co-hosted workshop.
In every life, there are likely to be days or weeks where you’re in “crisis mode” and really have to just put everything else aside and focus on whatever it is, whether that’s a work project, a family illness, or a major holiday.
But “everything” doesn’t mean literally everything is put aside. Think about it: you’re still brushing your teeth, eating (something), sleeping (I hope), getting dressed…there are all kinds of habits you hold onto even when everything else goes weird.
Your creative work can be one of those habits you keep, as long as you’re a bit flexible about what that looks like.
The “bookmark habit” is a tiny, mini version of your usual habit that you can manage to do every day, regardless of how busy you are.
So if your usual habit is “work on the draft of my novel from 8 – 9:30 every morning”, a bookmark habit might be “freewrite for 10 minutes in a small journal on thoughts related to my novel.” You could do that while commuting, or as you get set up in your office in the morning, or in bed before you get up.
It shouldn’t involve a lot of brain power, and should almost be easier to do than not to do. Is 10 minutes too much? How about five? Two? Make it doable, but make sure you do it.
Remember, this is a contingency plan. This is where the “self-forgiveness” part comes in. If you waste your energy beating yourself up for missing a day (or week, or…), it’s less likely you’ll return to your habit.
Instead, just maintain the “habit of the habit,” as Sarah calls it. Don’t try to punish yourself by making it hard! The point is to make it feel like an old shoe you slip on.
Action: Determine your “bookmark habit”, the 10, or two-minute version of the habit you’re building. Make it “lite”, portable, and flexible.
 Big Hairy Audacious Goal