IN SEARCH OF SELF-DISCIPLINE

Despite rejecting the concept of New Years Resolutions, I did start out 2017 with a renewed sense of urgency, a renewed sense of purpose, and the absolute determination to climb my way out of whatever hole I buried myself into in 2016. We can call it depression or exhaustion or . . . I don’t know, and to be honest I don’t care as long as I just stop doing it.

So now here it is the first week in April and I’m doing pretty well, actually. I’m climbing on top of a lot of stuff, but today let’s talk about writing.

I more or less stopped writing fiction by around the end of the second third of 2016 and there’s absolutely no reason for that. I just kinda . . . forgot to do it? That’s terrible. That’s not even a little okay.

So I started trying new things, taking a lot of my own advice for breaking through writer’s block, and by the end of 2016 it was really working, and has continued into 2017—until the past few weeks. I’ve stopped writing again. Why?

Margaret Atwood, in a Paris Review interview, said:

But everyone “writes” in a way; that is, each person has a “story”—a personal narrative—which is constantly being replayed, revised, taken apart, and put together again. The significant points in this narrative change as a person ages—what may have been tragedy at twenty is seen as comedy or nostalgia at forty. All children “write.” (And paint, and sing.) I suppose the real question is why do so many people give it up. Intimidation, I suppose. Fear of not being good. Lack of time.

Going back to taking my own advice I feel entirely okay with the “short, bad book” concept so I’m honestly not concerned with anything being “good,” which is a hopelessly subjective term anyway. I honestly don’t feel intimidated by it. I’ve finished enough books, novels, and short stories to know with clarity that I can finish one.

So that leaves “lack of time.”

But I still have the same twenty-four hours in every day that everyone else does, so how is it possible that my “day job” is editing novels that other people with “day jobs” have written but I’m not able to finish a novel because of lack of time?

I’ve also started reading personal and professional development books as part of my self-therapy for 2017 and this really struck me in Brian Tracy’s No Excuses: The Power of Self-Discipline:

Setting priorities requires setting posteriorities as well. A priority is something that you do more of and sooner, whereas a posteriority is something you do less of or later. You are probably already overwhelmed with too much to do and too little time. Because of this, for you to embark on a new task, you must discontinue an old task. Getting into something new requires getting out of another activity. Before you commit to a new undertaking, ask yourself, “What am I going to stop doing so that I have enough time to work on this new task?”

Go through your life regularly and practice “creative abandonment”: Consciously determine the activities that you are going to discontinue so that you have more time to spend on those tasks that can really make a difference to your future.

I’m back to letting editing and other work take the number one priority every day, and that’s fine. First of all, it’s work I love, so it doesn’t feel like any kind of compromise. So if that’s my “day job” then as far as work and my career goes, writing surely must come next, right?

But without even realizing it, I gave the number two spot to watching TV.

What the hell?

Though I have advised keeping yourself open to a variety of media to help feed your intellectual curiosity and I absolutely stand by that—I’ve got a podcast playing in the background even as I write this—it’s inarguable (at least to myself, in my own head) that I watch way, way, way too much TV. And I could have added another dozen ways to that. I sit in front of the tube (remember when they used to be tubes?) far too much.

Here’s, I think, a good way to tell you’re watching too much TV: if at any point you flip through the menu a second time hoping that you missed something interesting the first time through. Now you’re just trying to watch TV, you aren’t watching something that you’ve heard is great from friends who’s opinions you value, or have read about or saw a trailer or commercial that piqued your interest . . . you’re just staring.

I spend hours just starting at the damn TV.

At least, though, I’ve applied a new rule to myself for 2017, which is this:

Never watch any movie or TV show you’ve already seen.

And with a very few exceptions I’ve actually managed to stick to this rule, and I’ve seen a bunch of great stuff—but I’ve also blankly stared at some bad stuff. And who says I have to see all the “good stuff” immediately?

Of course I don’t.

So then following Brian Tracy’s advice, and keeping in mind similar advice from Tony Robbins, who said, “Genius is nothing but focusing your action in a consistent way to get a result that you’re committed to.” Or even Dean Wesley Smith’s dismissive snark from Heinlein’s Rules: Five Simple Business Rules for Writing: “As long as you are working on something, you can call yourself a writer.” And then trying to answer Kent Sayre’s question from his book Unstoppable Confidence! “Are you moving toward your goals or are you moving away from your problems?” It’s time for me to move away from TV and to writing.

But how do I get started?

The best advice I’ve seen so far comes from Kristen Lamb in her post “Self-Discipline—the Key to Success”:

We Must Be Mindful To Progress

Just like curling the same dumbbell eventually can cause a plateau, self-discipline is the same way. Make sure your goals get progressively more difficult as time goes on.

Start with small goals and progress from there. Small successes inspire us to try harder, bigger, better tasks. Too many writers start out with some stupid word count goal that is destined to fail long-term:

I am going to write 5000 words a day.

What happens is they burn out and hate their writing (been there, done that got the T-shirt). Start with 250 words (one page) six days a week and go from there. If 250 was way too easy (like curling a 1 pound weight) then adjust until it is slightly beyond comfortable. Once that word count becomes easy, increase by 15%… just like weightlifting.

This works for any self-discipline. Don’t go on a diet and cut every last unhealthy thing out at one time. Start with lowering the number of sodas and increasing water intake. Then no soda. Then onto no fast food. Easing into these life changes helps make them life-long habits. Just like writing 5000 words a day cannot sustain a career, eating nothing but celery and protein shakes is no way to eat for life.

She’s right—5000 words a day, every day, is more than a little “optimistic,” so I’m going to follow her advice and just write a little bit every day then add more and more until I feel I’m in a good place, and producing a decent number of readable words. In fact, I’m following precisely this advice in other aspects of my life, especially in personal finance, which, honestly, took a big hit in 2016 along with everything else.

But most of all, please keep in mind that I’m getting up in years. I’m 52, but not only can this old dog learn a new trick, this dog is actively searching for new tricks, trying and failing or succeeding or some combination of both and keeping what works and replacing what doesn’t with a different new trick. This, to me at least, is called “being alive.”

 

—Philip Athans

 

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About Philip Athans

Philip Athans is the New York Times best-selling author of Annihilation and a dozen other books including The Guide to Writing Fantasy and Science Fiction, and Writing Monsters. His blog, Fantasy Author’s Handbook, (https://fantasyhandbook.wordpress.com/) is updated every Tuesday, and you can follow him on Twitter @PhilAthans.
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4 Responses to IN SEARCH OF SELF-DISCIPLINE

  1. Adam says:

    It is quite a challenge, and I think one of the great misunderstandings is that “continuing” has just as much merit as “starting”. We tend to glorify the moment when we first set out to tackle a difficult and protracted task, and we extol completion, but it’s easy to dismiss all those middle days. After a few months continuing to chip away at my writing quota starts to feel insignificant, but the reality is it can be just as hard on the 100th day.
    I also think your point about choosing what to give up is well said. I believe in using lists to keep track of what I need to do, but sometimes I notice that the number of things going on the list in a given week is greater than the number I can manage to complete, and that’s not sustainable. Part of the problem is there is so much good advice out there, so many worthwhile endeavors that might lead to progress, and a fair number of supportive people who deserve support in return…
    It’s enough to make one’s head spin.
    Sometimes it’s good to step back, disentangle, and reflect on the why behind it all.

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  3. I started writing my first book 20 years ago and both my style and my inclination to write has changed over time. I write every day in one format or another. Mainly blog posts but also on the various projects I have on the go. I move between three books currently as all are very different and I find that I come back to the others refreshed. There are days when I schedule my posts and get out of Dodge for some fresh air and a change of scenery. Everybody is different and there is no ideal formula and sometimes going with the flow is about as good as it gets.

  4. Pingback: AS HENRY MILLER COMMANDS | Fantasy Author's Handbook

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