On Discipline

I had shoulder surgery back in 2010. I detached my labrum, got misdiagnosed, and then spent a full year doing the wrong kind of physical therapy which made my injury worse. When I finally was diagnosed properly, my shoulder was so messed up that the surgeon who fixed it told me I’d never be able to do a push-up again.

At the time, sports was a big part of life. I was doing martial arts three times a week, playing and coaching basketball, and going to the gym regularly. Needless to say, I was extremely frustrated by the way the injury was restricting me. One day, I expressed these frustrations to my chiropractor, who, in response, gave me some of the best advice I’ve ever received: If you can’t do the best thing, it doesn’t mean you have to do the worst thing. If you can’t do the best thing, do the second best thing.

I might not be able to do certain exercises, but there were others I could do. Working on the chest press machine might not be great for my shoulder, but it wasn’t as harmful as push-ups; I might not be able to train in the style of martial arts I had been training in, but that didn’t mean I had to quit martial arts: I might not be able to rest as much as the doctors would have liked, but I didn’t have to push myself to the level I had pre-injury.

I think about that advice a lot.

There is a tendency among writers to have an all-or-nothing mindset. Write every day. Hit your word count, or else. Post x amount of times a day on social media. update your blog on weekly, on the same day, at the same time. Finish a full novel during nanowrimo. Aim for 100 rejections a year.

There is tendency to give up if we don’t achieve our goals. If we miss our word count one day, it tends to snowball. If we don’t write one day, we might not write for a few day (weeks?) as we wallow in shame and self doubt. If we don’t finish that novel in November, we put the project aside as a failure and to add it our ever-increasing pile of unfinished manuscripts.

It doesn’t have to be that way. Some days life happens. Some days, writers block happens. Can’t write your 750 words today, maybe only write 400, or 150, or 50. Can’t write at all today? Send out a submission or two. Do some research. Even read a book with a writer’s eye.

Only write 23000 words during nano? That’s 23000 words you didn’t have before. There’s no law that says you have to finish your novel by The end of November, or December, or the following November, or, if you’re George RR Martin, 10 years from now. Just don’t throw it away. Make incremental progress over time. Write many words some days, fewer words others.

That is what true discipline is. It’s not always doing the best thing, or even the second best thing. It’s about not doing the worst thing; not doing nothing. Will there be days you cheat on your diet? Yes. Will there be days you can’t train? Of course. Will there be days when you don’t write? That will happen too. The most important thing is to keep going, to make incremental progress over time. If you take two steps forward for every step back, you’ll reach your destination eventually.

Keeping Up With Your New Year’s Resolutions, Part 2—On Discipline

As I detailed in last week’s blog, by now, about 80 percent of people have given up on their new year’s resolutions. One of the most common reasons people site for this is a lack of discipline. While it is true that one needs discipline to stay on track with one’s goals, the way that most people look at discipline—as an all or nothing proposition—makes it difficult for most people to achieve this virtue. I would like to present an alternate approach.

One of the best pieces of advice I’ve received was given to me by my chiropractor, Dr. Stephen Howard Cooper, when I was recovering from a martial arts injury. My orthopedist had suggested that I restrict my physical activity and exercise following the injury to an extent that I knew I couldn’t follow, and I asked the chiropractor, who is a martial artist himself, for advice about how I could modify my activity in a manner that would allow me to keep practicing kung fu.

  “If you can’t do the best thing, do the second-best thing, not the worst thing,” he said.

The specifics of what that statement meant relative to my injury and kung fu practice are a bit “inside baseball” for this forum, but the advice, which I’ve applied in a myriad of other situations is powerful, nonetheless. To illustrate its import, I would like to look at a common new year’s resolution that has nothing to do with writing.

Let’s say you’ve resolved to lose weight and to eat better in the new year. As part of your plan, you’ve decided to cut out snacking throughout the day. Three o’clock rolls around, and you’re really feeling sluggish. The afternoon malaise is setting in, and you know that you are going to have to eat something or risk falling asleep at your desk and not get your work done. Losing weight is an admirable long-term goal, but staying employed is higher on your immediate hierarchy of needs. There goes the resolution, right? Wrong!

Many people, when faced with this situation would completely abandon their goal, consider the resolution a failure, and opt for an unhealthy snack, like a doughnut or a candy bar. After experiencing this situation a few more times, they would give up on their resolution altogether.

Now, let’s say that instead of eating that doughnut, you opted for a healthier snack, say a banana or an apple. Is that ideal? Of course not. Your goal was to eliminate snacking, and you have not done that, obviously. But, is it better than eating a doughnut or a candy bar? It most definitely is. You’ve made a healthy choice, which is something of which you can be proud, and which is something that might help you achieve your larger goal of losing weight and living a healthier lifestyle.

You didn’t do the best thing, but that didn’t lead you to do the worst thing either. You have made progress, which, hopefully, will keep you focused on toward your ultimate goal.

It’s easy to see how this advice applies to writing goals. You come home from a tough day at work, cook dinner for the family, and struggle to put your kids to bed. You’ve resolved to write 500 words tonight, but you just don’t have the energy or focus. It’s late; you’re tired, and you just want to relax a bit before conking out yourself. Your daily word count goal is gone. Your resolution has failed—and it’s not even the end of January. Might as well give up, right? Wrong!

Maybe you could bring yourself to write 250 words, 100 words, or even a 50-word paragraph. Perhaps, if you feel you’re not in the frame of mind to add to your primary work in progress, you could do a writing exercise (there are many books and websites that offer these; I like this one) or a journal entry, which is a lower-pressure way to work on your writing because the stakes aren’t as high.

Maybe you’re too tired–or your creativity is too drained–to write at all. Maybe tonight’s the night to send submit a short story or two to a literary magazine. Maybe you could do some research. Instead of watching that dumb sitcom, maybe read a book (which is an essential, and often neglected part of the writing process). Have to watch that tv show? Fine. But keep some notes on the decisions the writers make regarding, characterization, dialogue, storytelling, plotting, etc.

There is a wide variety of activities that will make you feel like you’re making progress toward your writing goals instead of giving up because you missed out on one mile-marker.

Do the second (or third, or even fourth) best thing rather than the worst thing, and you will feel like you’re making progress. You will come back stronger the next day, ready to tackle your next challenge as you proceed to achieve your larger goals.

Discipline is not about being perfect. It’s about staying consistent with your principles to achieve your goals and not giving up. Sometimes that involves doing the second-best thing instead of the worst thing. Making good choice—even if they’re not the best choices—can help you achieve the kind of consistent progress you will need to move forward on your journey, both with writing and in life.

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