With time and space to write, you can turn to the second component of discipline: Make a commitment to write on a regular basis. Get yourself accustomed to the idea that you can write even if you don’t feel in the mood. Sometimes every day is ideal. Even three times a week would probably get you on track. And as I’ve already noted, we’re not talking huge chunks of time – just twenty to thirty minutes at least three times a week. Can you manage that?
Recently a psychologist compared two groups of business writers. The first group worked on their proposals and reports regularly, making slow but steady progress. The second group waited to get started until they were able to free up large chunks of time, like weekends or holidays. Which group do you suppose was more likely to finish their projects? Exactly – the first group. Some people in the second group were never able to find free blocks of time and never even got started!
Another psychologist was trying to help the members of a sports team maintain their individual practice schedules. It didn’t work to ask the team members to commit themselves to run three miles a day, every day. It sounded like a big deal and provoked a lot of anticipatory anxiety and guilt. So instead the psychologist asked team members to commit themselves simply to put on their running clothes every day. “Can you do that?” Sure, that sounded easy, and nearly everyone on the team was able to keep the commitment to suit up in their running gear every day.
More often than not, once they had their running shoes and socks and shorts and sweatshirts on, they said to themselves, “Well, here I am. Why not go for a run?” And then they ran three miles, easily, willingly, and very naturally.
Similarly, what you most need to do is make and keep a commitment to get yourself regularly to your writing desk. Then you’re ready to repeat the experience of short story writer Flannery O’Connor, who said, “I never know when inspiration is going to strike, but I do know that if it comes between the hours of 9 o’clock in the morning and noon, I’ll be there at my desk ready to receive it.”
As the athletes found and as O’Connor implies, taking the physical steps necessary to be running or writing often by itself gets you in the mood to run or write. It’s also helpful to know some warmup exercises that can get your fingers moving and the words flowing almost right away. We’ll get to that in the third part of this course.
When you write regularly or even when you simply put your attention regularly on your writing project without necessarily putting down sentences or paragraphs, you set up an ongoing context for your work. In turn, that enlists the aid of your subconscious mind in addition to the work of your conscious mind. Consciously you’re only working on your writing project for half an hour a day, let’s say, but when you do this regularly, although you leave your desk after half an hour, your subconscious mind continues clicking away on your topic or characters or plot, working on solutions, bringing connections with other activities to your attention and sometimes offering you inspired insights when you thought you were shooting baskets or reading the newspaper, or washing dishes. Researchers call this process incubation, and I’ll have more to say about it when we get to the elements of inspiration.
Are you willing to commit yourself to write on a regular basis? Think about that, then join me in the next lesson, about focus.