I’ve hesitated to talk about this, in case I jinxed it, but … well, here goes:
I’ve kept a promise to myself for the last 128 days.
For the first time in many, many years I seem to have a daily creative practice.
Let me say that again:
A Daily. Creative. Practice.
Not, to take an example entirely at random, “Make a big plan! Leap in on Day 1 like a creative WARRIOR, slay ALL the dragons! Coast on this incredible success until … well, until you notice you haven’t done any work in a month, and your brain’s gone all floppy and sad…”
No – daily, in fact.
For 128 days.
This is good, because if there’s one thing the Official Creativity Wonks agree about, it’s the importance of a daily practice. (I assume they teach them this at Wonk School.)
The benefits of a daily practice are fairly obvious – they include steady progress, increased skill, and plenty of that sweet, crunchy brain-fodder that can only be got by making stuff.
The principle that helped me to establish my daily practice is counterintuitive to the point of absurdity, and I want to share it today in case it helps you too.
It all started far, far away from here…
Last year, the one and only Ramit Sethi shared an interview he’d done with a Stanford professor specialising in behavioural change, BJ Fogg.
[Ramit Sethi, for the uninitiated, is the deeply provoking doyen of IWillTeachYouToBeRich.com, which is in general far more substantial than the name suggests. I’ve been a happy reader and customer of his for years. BJ Fogg was one of his mentors at university.]
The interview was fascinating, but what really stuck with me was one tiny story that Fogg told, which managed, as such things sometimes startlingly do, to unlock one of the head-cages I’d been crouching in for most of my life.
It was a story about teeth – Fogg’s teeth, and specifically the flossing thereof.
Yes, flossing. Bear with me.
Fogg wanted to develop the habit of flossing his teeth regularly.
So he makes a commitment – a promise to himself. He will floss, he declares, one tooth per day.
If he flosses one tooth, he succeeds in keeping his promise.
You can imagine what happens, of course: pretty much every day, he ends up going on to floss more than one tooth. Often even the whole lot.
But every tooth beyond the first is a bonus.
You might be thinking this sounds familiar…
On the surface, it seems quite like “baby steps” – a phrase beloved of motivational types everywhere, from FlyLady to Lao-Tzu. Somewhat similar is Barbara Sher’s excellent notion of the Complete Willingness Unit – a chunk of work sufficiently small that it doesn’t trigger resistance.
But the One Tooth Doctrine (as BJ Fogg to my knowledge has never called it) feels different to me. There’s just … something about it. It’s stubborn. It’s defiant.
Declaring that flossing one tooth is good enough to be called “success” is … absurd. It’s outrageous.
So much so that it feels like a radical redrawing of boundaries. God, even thinking about it stirs my indignation. It’s like something an angry toddler would do to show just how much they are not doing what you want them to.
How can you say one tooth is enough?
How can you?!
And yet, if you do, it seems that the neuroscience works in your favour: you floss that tooth, and because that’s the commitment you made, your brain goes, “Yay! We did it! We succeeded!” Good feelings ensue, which reinforce your motivation to continue, and to floss another tooth tomorrow.
And suddenly, it’s liberating!
So I took this and ran with it…
Here is the promise I made to myself: each day, says I to me, I will complete one stretch (yoga), one spiral (Shiva Nata), one word (novel, blog post, journal…), and one stitch (sewing, knitting, crochet…).
And I’ve done it – 128 times in a row so far.
Yes, there have been a few days when I’ve done literally one stretch, one spiral, one word, and one stitch. Migraine days. Fever days. Travel days. The day I finished up in Accident & Emergency with a kidney stone. That sort of thing.
But the point is that even on those days, I’ve still succeeded. I’m still feeding the happy chemicals to my brain.
I’ve kept my promise to myself.
And it’s working.
The monumental, dazzling benefit of this initiative is that it puts my creative work – and the support practices that enable it to happen – firmly at the top of my priority list (a position that has traditionally been rather precarious).
To get my fix of Yay! I must find a way to stretch, to spiral, to write, and to stitch, each and every day.
In the past 128 days:
- I’ve rewritten my novel one-and-a-half times (I’m working with a literary agent at the moment to prepare it for submission to publishers) – contrast this with almost seven years to grind out the first complete draft;
- I’ve quilted and embroidered and crocheted and knit probably more than in all of 2011;
- I’ve broached Levels 5 and 6 of Shiva Nata;
- I’ve significantly improved my lower back flexibility, and my Downward Dog has never been so right-angular.
In short, with this one technique, I’ve completely changed my behaviour in relation to my creative work, and it’s having dramatic effects.
It’s fantastic. I can’t wait to see what I’ll get done in the next 128 days…
What’s your One Tooth?
So, does this idea appeal to you? What ludicrously tiny actions would you choose, if you were going to give it a try? Comment and tell me.