On Monday morning, I shot out of bed panic stricken that I’d missed my alarm and I was late for work. As it happened the night before I’d made the decision to not set an alarm for my first day as a ‘writer’. I intend to have the structure of set hours for writing but as I haven’t had a full week off work since last April, I thought a sleep in wouldn’t be undeserved. It turns out that my body is so in the habit of getting up at 5:50am that I’d woken up at 6am anyway. Nice sleep in.
And so, for my first day as a writer, I sat at my computer from 7am and stared at the screen.
I’ve been so excited about being off work to write, and I’ve spent weeks regretting wasting time when I could have been putting pen to paper to start [insert ingenious idea here]. So I naively thought I’d hit Monday morning, and my keyboard, with 1,000+ words an hour. But it hasn’t happened. Why?
It hasn’t happened because I haven’t developed a habit of writing. My mind isn’t used to churning out page after page. It’s used to small bursts, fitted in between living, the dots rarely joined together because there is very little time to dedicate to an end to end review.
The complex brain is surprising in its simplicity when it comes to this. Everything we do is essentially a habit. Your parents nagged you every day as a child to brush your teeth and now you get up and you don’t even think about it, you brush your teeth. Anything we do in repetition, even for a short burst, can start a habit forming. But how does knowing this help you?
Because it means the brain responds really well to routine. The brain, in its simplicity, just wants to be reassured that nothing unusual is happening that might put us in danger, or be difficult. Since the time of cavemen the brain has wired itself to find you a long and uneventful life. So, whilst establishing a habit in the first few days or weeks might need a push, before long the brain recognises that the habit hasn’t killed you and allows the habit to form. The brain no longer resists your attempts. In my case my brain will relax and I will be able to think more clearly as a ‘writer’, allowing longer bursts of productive writing time.
I’ll give you an example of where I’ve applied this idea in the past. I had a long-standing shoulder problem and after an operation to fix it, I found it really difficult to get back into a routine of exercising. So I tried to establish the easiest new habit I could.
Every morning I would literally roll out of bed onto the floor, and before I could even engage my brain, I would do 20 mountain climbers, 20 plank dances and a 30 second plank. That was all. It took me less than 5 minutes and if I could do that, I was already doing considerably more than I had been doing for several years. And guess what, the habit started to stick. It was like the alarm clock was the trigger and as soon as I heard it I was on the floor doing those mountain climbers.
By the end of the first month I’d added squats and lunges to the routine and I was doing 3 sets of each when I got up. Not because that was ever the goal but because, once the habit was formed it was easy to tweak it a little bit each time. This then set me up for a better day and I would find myself opting to go to the gym or on my exercise bike some evenings as a feel-good bonus.
If not now, then when?
I’ve found habits are easier to form when you first get up. You can utilise that initial tiredness to trick your brain. Don’t think about what you’re about to do, as Nike would say, ‘Just Do It.’ In the morning our brains are sparking slightly differently. Studies have shown that you’re at your most productive in the first few hours after waking up. Your brain is at its sharpest. It might not feel like it as you slide out of bed and onto the cold floor but by the time you’ve brushed your teeth and got out of the shower, I promise you it’s true.
In the evening, it’s a lot harder. You’ve had a day of other people pushing their agenda over your own. A partner, kids, work, friends; they don’t mean to be selfish but they need you, and you will put those needs above your own. By the end of the day your brain is tired and it becomes harder to convince it that putting on those running shoes or sitting at that keyboard is what you want to do. You’re more likely to miss days and therefore, less likely to establish a habit. Without the habit you’re dead in the water.
For you? It may be that you have to fit writing, or any other dream, into a small window at the start of the day. You may have to develop a habit of getting up an hour earlier each day and sitting at your laptop, or putting on your running shoes in order to get closer to the dream. But you have to do it if you want to see progress.
So tomorrow I will wake up early again, sit at my keyboard, and write. I will likely write a load of twaddle but the point is, I’m writing. Eventually it will become a habit and that habit will take me closer to my dream.
How about you? What tiny change could you make that will get you closer to your dream?