22 September 2011

Old Habits Die Hard

Many of us are creatures of habit. I certainly think this is true of me. For instance, if my daily routine is disturbed for some reason, even if it’s just a tiny thing, there’s a good chance I’m going to be annoyed or cranky. This doesn’t mean I am incapable of changing. But it does mean that changing takes a good deal of effort on my part. And if I’m to break one of my poor habits, it’s likely going to be through forming a new, more productive one. Knowing what I know about myself as far as habit formation goes, I want to blog about how I’ve changed my writing routine and how this has been affecting me over the last few days.

When I first changed my writing routine, I decided that I would start by writing three times a day. I can always add another writing session later if I think I need to, but I don't want to subtract any. The first session would be devoted to free writing about process. The second covers dissertation writing. Finally, I write a blog entry, like I’m doing right now. I don’t do these writing sessions back to back. It’s not an optimal way for me to write, for one thing. For another, I have other obligations each day: working on projects for my Assistantship; walking my dog Jersey; running errands as they come up; exercising; preparing meals (and I mean really preparing them and not throwing something in the microwave); and so on. I also block out time each day to read material related to my dissertation (there is always more to read and reread, despite that I have already read more than I can possibly write about in a dissertation). Lately I have been devoting this time to going back through one of my primary sources to work through questions I am forming about how colonial subjects are constructed ‘in translation’.

This new routine in which I break up my writing into discrete sessions has been very effective so far. However, I’ve been noticing an unexpected side effect over the last few days. I’m usually done with the first writing session by 8 AM. After I walk the dog and have breakfast, I will head to a nearby coffee shop. I’m usually there by no later than 9:30 and will leave anywhere between 11 AM and noon, depending on how long it takes me to reach my page count or to realize I've written all I'm going to write for the time being. This means that I’ve finished the bulk of my writing before lunch time each day. What I hadn’t counted on was how much ‘free’ time this leaves me over the course of the rest of the day. Even though I spend time reading and writing when I get home and taking care of the other things I need to think about, I feel as though I have too much time on my hands. And this perception of my time is leaving me feeling rather anxious. So much so, in fact, that I’m pretty sure it’s affecting my sleeping pattern. I have slept poorly all this week. I have laid down to sleep between 10 and 11 PM each night, but I have not fallen asleep until around one in the morning. And despite that, I am generally waking up by 5 or 6 AM and spending some fitful time trying to relax so that I can have a good first writing session.

The reason I bring these feelings of anxiety up is not because I do not think my new routine is not working. As I’ve already written, I think it has been very effective. Also, even though I feel like I have lot of free time on my hands, I'm generally busy until at least 5 PM (and often later), which would make for an eight hour work day if I was working a regular 40-hour a week desk job. Rather, I think the issue I am having is that, despite having tried to shift the way I write each day onto a paradigm that is goal oriented (i.e., I write so many pages in each session, regardless of how long it takes), I have been unable to think of my accomplishments in non‑temporal terms. What I mean by this is that I think I have had the mindset that I should be spending so many hours each day on writing. And I don’t think this is a very easy habit to break. I’ll also add that writing isn’t always going to come as easy as it has been coming to me lately. There are going to be days when it definitely takes me longer to accomplish my writing tasks than it is taking at the moment. But in the short term, I feel guilty about the surplus of time I have had each day to relax. I feel like, if I have accomplished so much in such a short time, why can’t I accomplish double that amount each day? But I know that this would not be good for me in the long run. I have noticed, for instance, that although I have exceeded my goals each day since I started my new writing routine, I reach a point in each session where I lose a lot of steam. I might write for a little while after I hit that critical point, but this is usually a signal to me that I need a break.

I don’t think getting rid of the guilty feelings I’ve been having is going to be easy for me. I’m not even sure working through the reasons why I think that I’m feeling this way will make much difference. Certainly not in the short term. But I think it’s important for me to stick to this routine rather than change it up so quickly or, worse still, go back to my old routine. And I’m sure when I start shaping some of my free writing sessions into more polished dissertation pages that I will be spending more time in front of the computer than I am at the moment. And it will be equally important then to not panic or think about how much more time it takes me to accomplish those tasks each day.

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