You probably don’t have a time-management problem.

Are you a procrastinator? I am. I’m not as bad as I used to be, but I’m bad enough. I recently read an article from the BBC titled Why procrastination is about managing emotions, not time. As author Christian Jarrett points out, we have traditionally thought of procrastination in terms of bad time management: if procrastinators were just better at prioritizing their time, if they better understood how much time tasks are going to take, if they paid better attention to how much time they’re wasting, they would stop procrastinating and get productive. 

But the truth is, any procrastinator worth his salt is fully aware of how much time he’s wasting. He may or may not fully understand how long a task is going to take but that’s not why he hasn’t started yet. And nobody’s priorities are so confused that he actually values cat videos over productivity.

The issue for the procrastinator is not time management, but mood management. The task in front of you makes you feel bad. It’s boring or hard. It stirs up fears of failure. It arouses self-pity.

John Prine Loved Meatloaf.

As you have probably heard, songwriter John Prine died last week, of COVID-19. He was a Nashville treasure–the kind of songwriters whom other songwriters revere. 

I was listening to John Prine’s Tiny Desk concert a few days ago, and he said something that revealed a lot about his approach to writing and to the world. Speaking of his frequent songwriting partner Pat McLaughlin, he said,

We usually write on Tuesdays in Nashville, because that’s the day they make meatloaf. And I love meatloaf. So it’s kind of our carrot on the end of the stick. We get together early in the morning, try to write a song before they start serving the meatloaf. Then, after lunch, we come back and record the song.

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In Praise of Limits

At the Rogers house we’ve been working on a big thousand-piece puzzle. If you’ve done a big puzzle, you know how this goes: you round up all the edge pieces, and put them together, and then you have a frame to work in. You go from “This is altogether bewildering” to “Okay–maybe we can do this after all.”

I have heard it said that the most important part of a picture is the frame. The frame says, “Yes, there’s a whole world out there. It’s more than you or I can handle. So let’s handle this right here.” The edges of the canvas allow the artist to focus, to tend to his business. Artists have a reputation for dreaminess, expansiveness. But art starts with limitation. Art (like every other tangible good in the world) starts when you leave limitless potentiality behind and say, “I could do a billion different things. But right now, I’m going to do this one thing.”

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Don’t Waste Your Quarantine!

In this time of social distancing, I am exceedingly grateful for social media and videoconferencing and other online technologies that allow us to have some human contact without, you know, human contact. Nevertheless, I hope you’re using this time to root down, to connect more fully with the life you actually live in the flesh (and not just on the computer).

I have loved looking out my front window and seeing families and couples and individuals walking and biking and scootering up and down our quiet street. These people have been here all along, but they’ve always had more pressing things to do. Those kids, I imagine, were running from school to sports to chess lessons to violin lessons. Now they’re riding their bikes and scooters.

My wife and I went for a walk a few days ago with our neighbors (we in the left lane, they in the right lane). We’ve lived three houses apart for ten years, and it was the first time we had ever taken a walk together. We found a walking path none of us even knew about. It’s one street over! We saw bluebirds and an American redstart, just back from Mexico. I’ve been saying for a while now that I need to get more serious about my “local life,” since my paying work doesn’t require much in the way of locality. Things have gotten a little more local than I was imagining, but this limiting of scope has been doing good work in me. 

Over at The Habit Membership forums, I asked folks what they were doing to redeem the time during their quarantine, and I got some great answers. People are going outside more, writing letters by hand, journaling, home-improving (you should see our closets!), praying, going out on the porch to sing the Doxology with neighbors (who are on their own porches), reading “someday books,” doing crafts and puzzles with their kids. 

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“You don’t have to monetize your joy.”

Have you given any thought to the possibility of turning your love of writing (or some other creative pursuit) into a source of income? Of course you have. It’s the spirit of the age. The Internet makes it easy (supposedly) to monetize your talents and interests and creative output. But more than that, somehow it has become an expectation that you will turn your avocations into money-making schemes. 

I recently ran across an article by Molly Conway titled “The Modern Trap of Turning Hobbies into Hustles.” She tells about a time she discovered that an acquaintance had actually made the beautiful dress she was wearing:

“Wow!” I said. “It’s gorgeous. Do you have an Etsy shop or…?” And suddenly, it was like all the light went out of the room. She looked down despairingly. “No,” she sighed. “Everyone keeps telling me I should, but I just wouldn’t know where to start.” I recognized the look of a woman suddenly overwhelmed by people’s expectations of her.

Isn’t that the way? “I like what you’ve done” becomes “So you should sell it.” “I loved your Christmas letter” becomes “You should write a book.” For that matter, “You’ve had some interesting experiences” becomes “You should write a book.”

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Here’s to Failed Resolutions

It’s the last day of 2019. Are you thinking about your goals and resolutions for 2020? This time last year I wrote about the importance of focusing more on habits than on goals in our New Year’s resolutions–that is to say, focusing on process rather than results (or, to borrow from T.S. Eliot, “take no thought of the harvest/ But only of proper sowing.”) There’s nothing wrong with goals, of course. I’m just suggesting that if you do have writing goals for 2020 (completing a manuscript, for instance, or getting an essay published), think about the daily habits that will move you toward that goal, and make those habits the focus of any resolutions you make.

For many years I gave up on New Year’s resolutions altogether. One can only fail so many years in a row before one starts to feel like a fool for making grand declarations. I can very much relate to these remarks from Kathleen Norris in Acedia and Me (she’s talking about spiritual disciplines, but her insights apply just as well to writing):

I may be struck with a vigorous desire to do things differently from now on. How easy it will be, I think, to change my habits, to be more attentive and prayerful. Yet if I am not careful, this little surge of vanity will dissipate into nothingness in the daily grind.

A “little surge of vanity.” Yow! It’s painful but also helpful to acknowledge that there is real vanity in the idea that I will suddenly become a different kind of person simply because the calendar has flipped from one year to another. 

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The Habit Weekly Turns 100. Thanks to You.

Last Tuesday marked the hundredth issue of The Habit Weekly. This is the hundred-first Tuesday in a row that I’ve sent one of these letters out. This one is a thank-you note to you, the readers of The Habit Weekly. If you hadn’t been here to read these letters, I wouldn’t have written them.

When I started the Tuesday letter in January 2018, I was afraid I was biting off more than I could chew. I’ve been writing for a living, one way or another, since 2002; I have missed many, many deadlines in those seventeen years. To take on a weekly deadline that nobody was asking me to take seemed possibly crazy. Or, as they say in caper movies, perhaps it was so crazy that it just might work.

I have often heard people say, “I can’t NOT write.” I’m not one of those people. In fact, I’m an expert at not-writing. Not-writing is my main hobby. Writing is hard. I realize that it’s not as hard for me as it is for some people. But it’s hard enough. And sometimes painful. I need a good reason if I’m going to do it.

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On the Physical Facts of Writing: Habits, Spaces, Tools

Where does writing happen? Ten or fifteen years ago, I would have said that writing happens—really happens—between the writer’s ears. I wasn’t especially interested in the physical process by which ideas get out of a writer’s head and onto a sheet of paper or onto a computer screen. 

There is a tinge of gnosticism in this view of writing as a disembodied act—and maybe more than a tinge. Of course writing is brain work. But we are more than brains on a  stick, to borrow a phrase from James K.A. Smith. Our brains exist in bodies, which exist in a temporal world, where habits shape us, inside and out. So it is exceedingly important to recruit our whole bodies to the cause of brain work. 

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Mordor, Then Mowing

A couple of weeks ago my friend John Hendrix posted this excerpt from JRR Tolkien’s journal:

Friday 14 April: I managed to get an hour or two’s writing and have brought Frodo nearly to the gates of Mordor. Afternoon mowing.

Books like The Lord of the Rings, take us to other worlds. But they aren’t written in other worlds. They’re written in this world, where grass still has to be mowed.

The next entry is just as good:

Tuesday 18 April: I hope to see C.S.L. [C.S. Lewis] and Charles W. [Charles Williams] tomorrow morning and read my next chapter — on the passage of the Dead Marshes and the approach to the Gates of Mordor, which I have now practically finished. Term has almost begun: I tutored Miss Salu for an hour. The afternoon was squandered on plumbing (stopping overflow) and cleaning out fowls. The are laying generously (9 again yesterday). Leaves are out: the white-grey of the quince, the grey-green of young apples, the full green of hawthorn, the tassels of flower even on the sluggard poplars.

We remember Tolkien the writer, but he was also Tolkien the friend, the teacher, the amateur plumber, the poultry-keeper. He was also Tolkien the observer of the actual world around him–the world God made, not just the one in his head. 

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The Desk in the Corner

Over at The Habit Book Club we’ve been discussing Stephen King’s On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft. In the more autobiographical first section of the book, before he gets to the writing advice, he discusses (among other things) his addictions and other counterproductive attitudes and behaviors. And he ends with this remarkable reflection on his writing desks:

The last thing I want to tell you in this part is about my desk. For years I dreamed of having the sort of massive oak slab that would dominate a room–no more child’s desk in a trailer laundry-closet, no more cramped kneehole in a rented house. In 1981 I got the one I wanted and placed it in the middle of a spacious, skylighted study… For six years I sat behind that desk either drunk or wrecked out of my mind, like a ship’s captain in charge of a voyage to nowhere.

A year or two after I sobered up, I got rid of that monstrosity and put in a living-room suite where it had been… In the early nineties, before they moved on to their own lives, my kids sometimes came up in the evening to watch a basketball game or a movie and eat pizza. They usually left a boxful of crusts behind when they moved on, but I didn’t care. They came, they seemed to enjoy being with me, and I know I enjoyed being with them. I got another desk–it’s handmade, beautiful, and half the size of the T. Rex desk. I put it at the far west end of the office, in a corner under the eave…I’m sitting under it now, a fifty-three-year-old man with bad eyes, a gimp leg, and no hangover. I’m doing what I know how to do, and as well as I know how to do it. I came through all the stuff I told you about (and plenty more that I didn’t), and now I’m going to tell you as much as I can about the job…

It starts with this: put your desk in the corner, and every time you sit down there to write, remind yourself why it isn’t in the middle of the room. Life isn’t a support-system for art. It’s the other way around.

My desk, as it happens, is right in the middle of things, but I take Stephen King’s point: if writing is the center around which one organizes a life, the writing will inevitably collapse on itself. Your writing has to be aboutsomething. It’s the rest of your life–the non-writing part–that gives you something to write about. 

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