So, you can imagine how easy it has been to avoid doing what I set my mind to do. I wanted to post one analytic essay a month. But this year, I got to the end of February with no essay, and although I had planned to post twice in March, it's now the end of April. What I have done during this time has been to essentially reinforce myself, nearly every day, to avoid writing something creative for my blog. I developed a habit of not-doing.
I have been doing other things that are far easier for me such as writing more scientific articles and editing students' papers. Also, because I am mid-way through the process of moving 500 miles away, I have had the pleasant distraction of packing. This happens a lot, for all of us, when we try to manage our health habits. We decide one day to not take prescribed medication; we pass up a trip to the gym. We sit down in front of the TV and skip the evening walk (although I have a Schnauzer who usually does not allow this). We "fail to enact our goal behavior" and if we keep doing that it starts to become a habit.
This morning, as I was trying to avoid writing, I turned to a perceptive book by Charles Duhigg called "The Power of Habit." I decided to be my own lab rat and try to understand how I developed my habit of not-doing my blog. In his book, Duhigg summarizes the basic behavioral psychology principles of classical and operant conditioning and, with lots of compelling examples, he offers a simple framework for understanding how habits form and ideas for how to change them. He is careful to point out that some habits are complex and require considerable analysis to understand and change. For me right now, though, and for many of us trying to change our behavior, some elements are pretty straightforward.
My behavioral goal is to sit down and do focused writing for my blog for 30 minutes. (This could just as easily be 30 minutes of meditation, back exercises. or preparing fresh veggies to keep in the fridge so I am less likely to grab a cookie when I'm hungry.) Often, instead, I do something else --something easier. I check email and pack some boxes (... easier than writing, believe me). Duhigg calls this the ROUTINE. As a result, another box of books gets packed and I get to look at a home decorating website link that my daughter sent me by email. This is the REWARD. According to Duhigg, I got this whole process started in the first place because of a CUE, and I need to identify that cue in order to change my pattern. This morning, I did what I often do; I attended to cues unrelated to the target activity of writing for 30 minutes, I looked at a section of the room and imagined packing it up. I allowed my hands (!) to type in my email password. That started the CUE-ROUTINE-REWARD progression, and the rest is history.
If I were developing the habit of NOT taking medication, the process would be similar: see the pill bottle, think "later", and instead turn attention to other things (CUE); do some activity other than take the medication (ROUTINE), derive some benefit from that other activity (REWARD). Note that since we usually choose that "other activity," it is likely to be pretty rewarding to us.
Are there deeper reasons for not taking medication, and for not writing? Sure...People often worry about medicine; they are concerned it might do more harm than good. Or they feel that they are people who "do not take medication." The medication might be expensive, cause distressing side effects, or threaten long-term consequences. So, it's pretty easy to "forget" to take it, and to be "distracted" by other things. Are there deeper reasons for not writing? You bet. (I wish I had a dollar for every essay I have read by a writer who discusses how hard it is to write and why.) Deeper reasons definitely drive our behavior; but conditioned responses and habits do too.
One of my favorite authors, Dani Shapiro, has inspired me yet again to keep trying to write. Her book: "Still Writing: The Perils and Pleasures of a Creative Life" and her blog danishapiro.com are filled with honest, solid advice. Writing requires us to put out something we are thinking, pulled up from within and begging for structure; we need to connect that something to the experiences, emotions, thoughts of our readers. As Shapiro points out, it is often the case that others nod in recognition ("Been there..."), but we don't know that when we are writing. It's just us and the page (or the gym, or the pill bottle). We have to structure our own goals and focus our behavior toward them.
I remember reading a newspaper headline once: "Father loses 103 pounds to Donate Kidney to Young Daughter." A man who once struggled, unsuccessfully, to lose weight was finally able to do so because he had a very good reason. His habit of not-doing got turned around and he steadily changed his diet and exercised regularly until he achieved his goal. Sometimes we get shaken up to change because of our child's needs, or a health scare, or a friend's diagnosis. The old cue-routine-reward gets shaken up too, because the cues, and the routines, and the rewards suddenly look very different.
Most often, however, our lives are simply filled with small habit patterns that persist day after day, just as they are. Unless we do something to shake them up, the days and the weeks and the months pass by, and we strengthen our habits of not-doing, and we look back on lost opportunities to achieve something we have our heart set on achieving.