Good habits work where will power fails: “novel” evidence

Working on this site has been a hobby of mine since 2017. I’ve achieved goals I set for working on it regularly for two long stretches, but I also gave myself permission to scale back the effort during one particularly stressful period.

Two years ago this month, my mother died. I’m no easy creature to silence, yet grief holds the power to still my usual ruckus.Torn black felt heart pinned to garment to signify grief and k'riah

Mom thought very highly of my writing. She was an extraordinarily competent individual herself, but in arenas such as powering through concrete tasks and meticulous calculation. Mom never pushed me to study “X” or pursue a career as “Y,” instead trusting my ability to forge my own path.

I recall a few instances, however, when Mom spoke of my creative skills with a tone of particular respect—once, almost in awe. Those moments stay with you.

During the most isolating months of the pandemic, one of my exercises in self-soothing was to imagine ways in which the world could be designed to make people safer from future outbreaks of airborne disease. I bored my family by going on about these thoughts, sketching out alternate forms of housing and transportation. If implemented, I envisioned sparing at least some of the population from the prolonged agony of isolation or the need to trade free movement for good health.

Toward the end of last month, I started incorporating* these notions into a novel.

I’ve started many novels before, and I even approached the roughly 2/3 completed mark with one in the early aughts. That was after I left my professional career in technology but before I dedicated myself to the home education of one of my children. Historically, though, writing fiction was my hobby, and I tended to pursue the work when I “felt like it.”

I would get as far as the first burst of enthusiasm took me, but rarely pick up again after leaving off to work, sleep, or tend to the kids.Hand written and self-bound documents

Intriguingly, this time is very, very different. I have to credit the habit of consistent effort cultivated through work on Really Wonderful Things. Twenty days have passed, and I’ve met or exceeded my writing targets for this novel on all but two.

Authoring a novel is one of my oldest, longest-term goals. I never doubted I would get around to it, but it always lived in “future willo’s” inbox. This summer, it has advanced to the top of my priorities assuming the health and safety of my family don’t require sudden, absolute attention.

Blogging has markedly improved my self-discipline as a writer. That’s not why I started the site, but I’m delighted by the development.

“Will power” as a concept for self-improvement fails us, especially in the short-term. Popular understanding of how it works is often wrong. We blame ourselves for problems largely beyond our control while failing to make the sorts of small adjustments that can help us, offering long-term success at living the lives we want.

Will power may desert us when we need it most, but gradual, incremental change geared toward improving the situation of one’s future self is possible for most. Crafting a life which intentionally reinforces positive habits can, over time, improve one’s ability to approach difficult yet meaningful tasks, or, conversely, to coax one away from harmful behaviors.

My novel isn’t done yet, so take my experience with whatever size grain of salt you believe it deserves. I do have over 24,000 words down on 108 pages, though, and every expectation that this time, I’m going to finish this particular book.

I’m still in love with my concept, and, most evenings, I find myself shooing away my family—whom I generally enjoy!—because I’m itching to get back to work.

If I were to write a dedication for this novel right now, it might be to “past willo” for putting in the time working on Really Wonderful Things. “Current willo” has a lot to thank her for.

* Careful readers may have noted these additions to my mid-year update to my personal goals:

  • Write 3 pages per day of novel, —and—
  • Complete first draft of same.

Ironically, though my novel occurs in a world where pandemic illness never recedes, I still view the project as utopian rather than dystopian, and I find the work to be a projection of my fundamental optimism about human nature in spite of our ubiquitous foibles.

Once, I had a headache which precluded interaction with a screen, and the other—weekend—night, I opted to watch a movie with my family because they are important to me, too. It turns out that I struggle mightily to produce creative work before late afternoon, though I’m better at most analytical tasks earlier in the day. Who knew?

Then again, taking one day per week off from an otherwise daily goal could be a reasonable, even helpful adjustment to a work schedule. God herself commanded a routine sabbath rest!

Novels tend to be works of fiction longer than 50,000 words

Goal check: Now’s the time to reflect on New Year’s resolutions

I wrote in January about one process I use to setand follow through withpersonal goals. I didn’t call them New Year’s Resolutions, so perhaps that’s why I haven’t given them up yet.

The internet says 80% of people drop New Year’s resolutions by February, and a 1988 article in the Journal of Substance Abuse showed 77% of resolution makers stuck it out for all of one full week while only 19% remained committed to their goals two years later.

2021 is approaching its halfway point as I write this. My not-too-ambitious printed list of goals for the year still hangs behind my computer screen. It’s been lightly annotated as I’ve gone along. I look at it—reminded of what I promised myself and why—every day.

So here’s an update on how well I’ve done at putting my energy into actions that affirm my values. I’ve printed out a clean new copy to hang for the second half of the year.2021 goals in a table, listing intellectual, financial, physical, relationship, and career objectives

Green lines blur personal financial goals; the pink line relates to a personal relationship goal.

Here’s a refresher of the New Year’s list for those who didn’t read the first post:

2021 goals in a table, listing intellectual, financial, physical, relationship, and career objectivesYou’ll notice that my list has grown since I penned it in January. This is intentional. I take care to craft a set of goals that serve my long-term interests without undermining my short-term sense of accomplishment.

I know myself! I can be overwhelmed by a large task that presents as monolithic.

On the other hand, almost every job can be dismantled into manageable component parts. I’m pretty good at methodically working my way through a list of concrete action items.

Can I regain all the strength I enjoyed due to regular vigorous exercise before I developed an autoimmune condition? The idea of trying makes me want to crawl back into bed. Maybe forever!

Moving every day in an intentional way, however? For just a few minutes? Yes, I can definitely do that. And, usually, I do, because the gentle suggestion on my list doesn’t feel like something that will decimate my limited stores of energy.

I’m sure I’m not the first person to emphasize that it isn’t so much the details of your personal goals that matter, but the fact that you assess them—then actively work toward what you want—that produces the efficacy of this technique.

My humble ambitions might easily be mocked by a high powered striver. That’s okay. I live comfortably with my choices because they are based upon my core values. The list I’ve shared helps me to recognize my own accomplishments for precisely that reason.

There aren’t many awards ceremonies—or any merit-based pay raises—for stay-at-home parents. One hears more often about Mommy Wars than Mommy Awards. But just because a parent opts to take on child-rearing as a full time role doesn’t mean personal growth and self-validation should be abandoned.

Self-improvement and self-care aren’t mutually exclusive. I see investing in myself, if only with time set aside for making and keeping short- to long-term goals—including those unrelated to my offspring!—as a vital part of staying sane and being prepared for the day when the last fledgling leaves the nest.

If you didn’t make New Year’s Resolutions, perhaps Mid-Year Resolutions will suit you better? There’s no better time to commit yourself to goals you care about than right now.

Why, yes, I did work in Quality Assurance. How did you guess?