Kona’s column 3: Here’s to Habit

December 10, 2009

Recently, I received a frustrated email from a writing-minded friend of mine. After a change in circumstances, he’d suddenly found himself with a lot of unaccustomed free time.   As often happens in such situations, he was finding it very hard to seize the opportunity and make some progress with his writing.  My friend chastised himself for all the time he was frittering away on irrelevant activities, and wondered if he might be better off heading out to a cafe every day, to get some writing done far from the distractions of home.  Perhaps that would help him –  but if there’s one thing that can be said for procrastination, it’s that its highly portable.  You can do it just about anywhere.

We often use pejorative language when we refer to habitual behaviours: “stuck in a rut”, “hidebound”, “enslaved by routine”.  Certainly, shambling through your life on autopilot, without pause for reflection, is not a recipe for fulfillment;  Socrates went so far as to say that “the unexamined life is not worth living”.  For already-thoughtful people, however, and particularly for creative individuals, habit can be a useful defence against the confounding forces of procrastination and avoidance, because it reduces the burden of trivial decision-making.

There are all kinds of arbitrary axes for dividing people into two distinct groups (my favourite being, “people who believe that people can be divided into two distinct groups, and people who don’t”).  How people feel about decision-making is one of these axes;  some people are generally happier before the decision is made (keeping their options open), while others are more at ease afterwards (having things done and dusted).  This difference has even been used as one of four key distinguishing characteristics in a well-known personality test, the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator, where it’s described as “Perceiving vs Judging”.  Whichever state of decidedness you prefer, the actual act of making a decision seems to cost something: it’s an investment of mental and emotional energy, however small, in the process of weighing up and choosing.

When we lived in England, we had a deep-discounting Aldi supermarket nearby and did much of our grocery shopping there.  I liked Aldi precisely because of its restrictive, own-label-only ethos:  one brand of flour or apple juice, one type of dishwasher tablet, one variety of cheddar.  I don’t want to be offered 13 varieties of toilet paper or 24 different kinds of shampoo;  how can I possibly make an informed comparison between them?  That much choice – with its resultant demand for decision-making, however superficial – is simply a burden. Now that I have to shop at ordinary supermarkets again, I generally end up screening out all that spurious choice by sticking to the same narrow selection of products each week and ignoring the rest. The cost of constantly having to choose far outweighs any possible benefit I might get from some marginally-different, competing-branded alternative, so I let habit take away the work of trivial decision-making.

When applied consciously and judiciously, habit and routine can act as creativity’s unexpected allies.  Creative activity is a bit like deliberate exercise: it’s enjoyable, but also effortful, and sometimes it takes a bit of self-discipline to get started and keep going until you’re warmed up.  This costs energy, so the last thing you want to do is waste any of that precious energy on the peripheral task of deciding when (or whether) to sit down and get stuck in.  If you can set aside a regular slot in the day or the week for your creative activity, keep it sacrosanct and always turn up, then you start to reap the benefit of habit:  you don’t have to waste energy on choosing when to do it, or on wrestling the twin demons of procrastination and talking-yourself-out-of-it.  You turn up and do your thing as a matter of course;  it becomes a no-brainer.

There’s an enjoyable blog called “Daily Routines” (subtitled “How writers, artists, and other interesting people organize their days”), with descriptions “culled from books, newspapers, magazines, and Web sites.”. It’s interesting to look through the entries and notice just how many highly creative people have relied on a very regular daily routine to support their productivity.  Habitual routine is a natural form of energy conservation, allowing you to hoard your fortitude for the creative choices required by the artistic or inventive work, rather than squandering it on banal, procrastination-inducing decisions about today’s schedule.

As you might by now suspect, I’m a habit zealot because I myself am a recent convert to the cause.  I used to be an “inspiration-driven” writer, waiting to be struck by the right mood, the irresistible creative impulse, the  “rare, random descent”.   As a result, I was also a self-described “slow writer”, and eventually became a stopped one;  with a family and two non-writing jobs on the go, it was all too easy to decide that I had “no time to write”, instead of acknowledging the fear of failure that was causing me to avoid writing.  Things only turned around once I set aside a regular time and place – the very early morning before the kids were up, in bed or on the sofa in my bedroom – and fired up my laptop to write, whether I felt like it or not.  Now I wake, drink my coffee and reach for that computer as a matter of course, without thinking, without deciding.  My productivity has never been higher  – in fact, it’s never even been close to this before.

Of course, you may be one of those blessed individuals who never has trouble getting started, never procrastinates, and feels spontaneously and overwhelmingly inspired to be creative whenever the opportunity presents itself in your life.  If so, then buy your muse a very large drink and be grateful every day for your extreme good fortune.  If you’re like the rest of us, however, constantly facing a battle to get out of your own way and get on with it, then why not see if a few new, good habits can be added to your armoury?

Kona Macphee is a UK-born, Australian-bred poet now living and working in Scotland. This column is the start of a monthly feature. She is facilitating the Poetry Society Poetry Surgeries. There will be a second batch of sessions here in the library on Wednesday 27 January 2010. You can now hear Kona on the SPL podcast ‘Witching Hour’ and  follow her on Twitter.

3 Responses to “Kona’s column 3: Here’s to Habit”

  1. Rob Says:

    Really good post, Kona. I used to have a routine, but it’s been eroded this year, for reasons outwith my control. I’ve written less poetry as a result. I can’t go back to the old routine but I’m certainly going to try next year to create a new one that works for me.

    Sometimes, when I force myself to write, the poetry isn’t much good and it’s all too easy to convince myself that there’s no point in writing until inspiration strikes. But I know that some of my best work has emerged from times when I’ve sat down and unwillingly slaved away at an idea that seemed initially to have no potential at all. Often writers need to create their own ‘inspiration’.

  2. Kona Macphee Says:

    My favourite quotation on this subject is from Somerset Maugham:

    “I write only when inspiration strikes. Fortunately it strikes every morning at nine o’clock sharp.”


  3. sunnydunny Says:

    Interesting thoughts there, Kona. When I was in senior management decision-making was a major part of my day. I learned to be decisive, and it’s been good for me in other parts of my life. However, you have to be in the right state of mind to make decisions, and you have to learn when to take decisions. You have to be quick and responsive, but you shouldn’t be too hasty when you don’t have to be. Sometimes situations have to be left to brew a little before you must act. It’s a delicate balance.

    As to writing routines, I’ve tried, I really have, especially since retirement, to set aside fixed times for writing, but it never worked for me. I tend to rise early, and to do any business I have to do as early as I can, but the writing squeezes itself in whenever it can.

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