I have been thinking a lot about habits recently. The unconscious, unthinking ones which, as Sylvia Plath said about words, can govern a life. Coming into the kitchen and hitting the radio switch to On. Coming into the kitchen and putting on my iPod or a CD. Cooking whilst listening to any old football rubbish (game or discussion, it doesn’t matter: insert team here). It seems that I don’t have a lot of choice in these matters. These habits have taken me a lifetime to perfect. But after nearly a whole week without the news or mindlessly scrolling the paper, it turns out I do.
There are those other ones, at the beginning and ending of days. Wake up, run a bath, bath, dress, make coffee and a sandwich for Tatty’s lunch, coffee, Pray as You Go podcast, teeth, then out, or in, depending, to start the working day. I have always wanted my writing to be as automatic as that, that no matter what, I would wake up knowing where and when I would get some writing done each day. Non-writer friends always ask: ‘Where do you do it, when do you have the time?’ And my answer has always been: ‘in the cracks between other things.’
Over the last couple of years I have found the writer James Clear a sane voice on these matters. He argues that the best way to make good new habits is to attach them to the habits you already unthinkingly perform, i.e. to make them as unavoidable as brushing your teeth or running a bath. There is a bit more to it than that, about motivation, success, backsliding and so on, and I paraphrase, but that is the essence of what he is saying. For a free pdf guide on this, go to the link here.
This is what lies behind my recent attempt to restart a habit (for about the 53rd time) of writing morning pages. (I have done four in a row, now, since you ask.) When do I do them? The only slot I could think of is that dreamy ten minutes or so while I run the bath. I hate it. The Teasmade buzzer goes, I get out of bed, switch it off, head to the bathroom, and run the taps. What I am inserting into this somnambulant shuffle is the decision to grab my hoodie, glasses, my journal and pen before I make it to the bathroom. That is a lot of extra things to remember. But if I can can perform those tiny tasks, I know that morning pages will happen.
It helps that I have been reading The Creative Habit: Learn it and use it for life, Twyla Tharp’s wonderful meditation on building creative routines while trying to kickstart this new habit. Here is what she has to say about how she starts her day:
I begin each day of my life with a ritual: I wake up at 5.30 A.M., put on my workout clothes, my leg warmers, my sweatshirts, and my hat. I walk outside my Manhattan home, hail a taxi, and tell the driver to take me to the Pumping Iron gym at 91st Street and First Avenue, where I work out for two hours. The ritual is not the stretching and weight training I put my body through each morning at the gym; the ritual is the cab. The moment I tell the driver where to go I have completed the ritual.
Part of me thought: it’s all right for you, Twyla, a world-famous choreographer with time, money and resources at your disposal. I was quite pleased with that thought, so I let it sink in for a second. And then it struck me, that I, too, live an unbelievably privileged life, with incredible resources at my disposal. It’s just that I do not choose to see my circumstances in that way. I moan, I fidget, I complain about X winning a prize or getting shortlisted when it really should have been me. What tosh, Twyla says. Even Mozart worked like a Trojan.
It’s a simple act, but doing it the same way each morning habitualizes it − makes it repeatable, easy to do. It reduces the chance that I would skip it or do it differently. It is one more item in my arsenal of routines, and one less thing to think about.
Some people might say that simply stumbling out of bed and getting a taxicab hardly rates the honorific “ritual”. It glorifies a mundane act that anyone can perform.
I disagree. First steps are hard; it’s no one’s idea of fun to wake up in the dark every day and haul one’s tired body to the gym. Like everyone, I have days when I wake up, stare at the ceiling, and ask myself, Gee, do I feel like working out today? But the quasi-religious power I attach to this ritual keeps me from rolling over and going back to sleep.
It’s vital to establish some rituals − automatic but decisive patterns of behaviour − at the beginning of the creative process, when you are most at peril of turning back, chickening out, giving up, or going the wrong way.
What I love about this is that there is no magic involved. It turns out what I need is not magic but ‘automatic [and] decisive patterns of behaviour’. Any one of us can achieve this. Magic, such as it is, seems to occur in the hailing of the taxi. Same thing as grabbing my hoodie and heading to the bathroom to write rubbish morning pages.