Recently I was listening to a book about artists and the routines and rituals they used every day to create the bodies of work now recognized as genius. As I listened to the story of Trollope, who rose every morning at 5:30 to write for three hours and then got ready for work, who if he came to the end of one book before the end of his session simply added a new sheet of paper and began the next one, I had that familiar sinking feeling of shame. As writers we are told all the time, write every day. And study after study confirms that people who can take consistent action are much more likely to succeed at whatever it is they are pursuing.
For example, I was listening to Tim Ferris the other day. He cited a study by the folks who created the Nike+ app, which tracks your workouts. The magic number they came up with for whether or not someone stuck with their work out routine was 5. Work out 5 times and you were much more likely to continue to work out. As I heard this, I was suddenly shuttled back to bygone days of my life in San Francisco. I had signed up for a bootcamp that met five days a week at six am in the morning at Chrissy Field. I made it through about three weeks of the bootcamp pretty successfully. Got there on time, ran with everyone around the grassy square between a parking lot and some bathrooms, and then did my best in the work out.
I made it to about 20 workouts before things started to fall apart.
You see, I’m the kind of person who has a brain that doesn’t simply get bored by repetition, but experiences it as emotional torture. Knowing what I’m supposed to do over and over will at some point make me cry. And I only cry at movies, funerals, weddings, some commercials and my children’s school performances.
So hearing this magic number five brought back all the decades of shame I had experienced since school. I was that kid who wasn’t living up to her potential; I was that kid whose friends would say, You could do better if you just tried. I spent years in therapy trying to understand my fear of success. That magic number five sent me right back to my bootcamp and the day it began to fall apart.
Each morning, we would arrive and do our laps around the grassy square. The coach did a great job varying the work out, but the warm up was always the same. And because I did not know then what I know now, it did not occur to me what it meant when I started rebelling in week 4. Because I could not stand running in the same direction, I began to run against the flow of the other workerouters. (We weren’t really athletes, what is someone working out called??) And for two brief mornings, that saved me. But after that, I couldn’t stand the idea of going and I didn’t know why.
So, Nike+, five session might be enough for most people to change a behavior, but it’s not for me.
If I’m an artist who can’t write every day or an athlete that gets bored with the same workouts, will I ever succeed? Absolutely.
As I reconsidered this bootcamp in light of what I now know about myself and have learned to forgive myself for, I have a new take on my shame about not getting things done. I’d failed, not because I was incapable, or lacked drive, or because I wasn’t smart enough. I had failed, when I failed, because I had been trying to force someone else’s ideals into my way of being. Efficiency, inbox zero, fifteen minutes a day and most crazy of all, doing it on my own are all ideas that will kill the hopes and ambitions of some one like me. I love social interaction, I need variation and I also need to know that I am making progress.
In looking back on this bootcamp, certain things are clear to me. I do well with projects that last about a month if I’m going to do them everyday. My limit is not 5 to cement the habit, but 24 to burn out on it. Now, I can design my projects, films, novels, short stories, by looking at the parts that draw my enthusiasm and literally delegate the rest. Now, if I break my tasks into sessions, I have a better chance of succeeding. Those sessions might stretch over more than a month, but I know that there is a countdown clock, a finite number of times when I will have to sit down and do this thing. That makes it all the easier to bear when boredom inevitably sets in. Now, I can look at my work process and see where bringing in social interaction will make all the difference as to whether or not I show up.
I can’t give myself this insight if I don’t forgive myself my failures, and get honest with myself about when I was successful how I was successful.
Take a minute now and think about a big project you took on and failed. Can you pinpoint the moment it fell apart? Now think about a big project where you succeeded — what made the difference? Forget writing every day. Write your way and give yourself the gift of succeeding the way you were meant to.