Ugh, discipline

Discipline is choosing between what you want now and what you want most.

– Often attributed to Abraham Lincoln, but there doesn’t appear to be evidence he ever said this.

I do a good impression of a disciplined person, but more often than not, I lapse into slug mode. Inertia is no joke when I try to kickstart myself into action from a dead stop.

I’m at a dead stop often. I’ll have a burst of productivity for a day or two or a week and then nothing. Burst, stop, burst, stop. Interval training works for exercise, but in other areas of my life, I prefer consistency.

It doesn’t help that the things I want most feel so far away. Mastering anything takes decades of sustained effort. Getting over the initial “I suck” hump alone can take years. I’ve taken classical guitar lessons for a year, and while I’ve improved a lot, I still struggle with chord changes and knowing what notes are where on the fretboard. And writing? Oh jeez, I’ve been writing all my life, sold my first short story in 2006, and I still consider myself a newbie–I have so much to learn.

Sitting down to practice writing or guitar is difficult even though I love both. Perhaps that love is what makes it tough. I’m feel like I’m climbing a mountain and have made it only 3 feet up, or like I’ve hit a plateau thinking I’ve made good progress and see that the mountain is even taller than expected. Some people find big goals motivating, but I find them demoralizing.

No wonder I’d rather read or surf the web or snuggle the cat or take a nap than practice. Practice takes effort. It might be why there are people who spend more time shopping for guitars than playing them. (This is so common it has its own acronym: GAS, for Guitar Acquisition Syndrome.)

But yeah, I’m dealing with an old-fashioned discipline problem, and I suspect it’s because I’m thinking too long-term about where I want to be. I need to force myself to put my head back down and focus on daily processes and systems for my practicing instead of distant end results. My brain can wrap itself around a single day. Any longer than that, not so much. I have to trust that if I stick to a solid daily system, good results will happen as a byproduct.

And I have to remember that checking the internet yet again is simply what I want now, NOT what I want most.

Failing upward

Shoot for the moon. Even if you miss, you’ll land among the stars.

– Norman Vincent Peale

Norman Vincent Peale has a questionable grasp on astronomy, but he raises a good point–you can fail on a goal and still make progress.

Which is what happened to me on Camp NaNoWriMo last month. I failed miserably in my writing time goal, but I still finished a short story, my first new piece of fiction in over a year. It’s another Everyday Thieves short story, this one inspired by a scenario I read in Financial Serial Killers by Tom Ajamie and Bruce Kelly. If you’re in the metro Detroit area, you may recognize the inspiration for some of the locations.

One short story isn’t much, but after calling it quits on fiction writing a year ago, it feels great to be telling stories again.

Have you failed reaching a big goal? If so, how did you fail upward?

Rules? What rules? Making Camp NaNoWriMo work for me

A baby writer tries NaNo

My first NaNoWriMo attempt was back in 2001 (that’s not a typo). NaNoWriMo was only three years old at the time and I was in my first year of trying to write for publication. I hadn’t written fiction since high school and I’d never attempted a novel. They were huge, intimidating beasts to me and I figured I needed a big push to even try writing one.

I technically “won” that year by writing 50,000 words in November, but the words I wrote were definitely not a novel. It didn’t even have a noticeable plot. I tried again a few more times over the years, but by 2012 I was over the whole thing.

Lessons learned from more writing experience

I’ve learned two important things about my own writing process since then: (1) word count goals don’t work for me because I spend more time focusing on the word count than what the story needed and (2) I hate writing sloppy first drafts. Both of those things fly in the face of conventional NaNo advice, which encourages you to write as much and as fast as you can and fix it later. For me, later never came. I never got around to revising those drafts because I really hate rewriting. I’d rather edit as I go, write the cleanest draft I can, then move on to the next project.

But I still like the energy and the camaraderie of NaNoWriMo, and I’ve learned to take what works for me and leave the rest. That gave me the confidence to revisit their website after ten years of avoiding it.

Trying NaNo again, but on my own terms

This month, I’m doing Camp NaNoWriMo (their off-season NaNo event, which is more relaxed than the annual November frenzy), but I’m tracking my writing minutes instead of the word count. That way, I can take advantage of the things that motivate me on their site and ignore the rest.

Many writers and other creative people look for “rules” to guide them, especially at the beginning. I was no exception, but after a while we need to view those “rules” as mere suggestions instead, especially when it comes to the creative process. Every person is different, and that means we each have to cobble together something that works specifically for us.

I think I’ve found the way I work best, at least when it comes to NaNo. I have two projects (a novella and a short story) that I want to finish this month, and I hope participating in Camp NaNo will help me get there.

A year of guitar and the magic of small, consistent actions

I picked up a guitar for the first time a year ago. Because my hands are small, I followed the online advice to buy a smaller instrument and ordered a Taylor GS Mini. Even though it’s a 7/8-sized guitar, it felt like holding a coffee table in my lap.

The first few months were a struggle. Stringed instruments have always intimidated me, and the guitar was no different. It took me a few weeks just to figure out which tuning pegs went with which string and what direction to turn each peg to make the string go sharp or flat. I memorized “Eddie Ate Dynamite. Good Bye, Eddie” to tune each string, then couldn’t remember which string was the top string and which one was the bottom string.

Then came the actual playing, or “playing.” I buzzed every note, and each chord shape brought a new finger contortion. I took some online group lessons, and stretching my index and pinky fingers across four frets for the exercises was a no-go, even on the higher frets (which are closer together). I even gave myself tennis elbow from squeezing too hard on the neck. Chord changes were (and often still are) a mad scramble to get my fingers from one position to another.

Then three months later, as if I wasn’t challenged enough, I decided to focus on classical guitar. I found a local teacher and, on his recommendation, bought a full-sized classical guitar (an even bigger coffee table on my lap). I was such a newbie to all things guitar that I couldn’t start on Book 1 of the workbooks he uses–I had to start on the PRE Book 1, and even that was a struggle. Although I can read music, I had no idea where the corresponding notes are on the fretboard, so every single note required a few seconds of mental buffering. My tone was so bad my teacher joked it sounded like a trombone.

So if you told me a year ago that I would be working on this Book 3 piece a year later, I would’ve suggested maybe backing off your dispensary purchases.

Can I play it perfectly yet? No, but that’s not the point. The fact I’m working on this at all is a miracle to me. I didn’t think I’d be near this kind of music for years. My classical guitar now feels comfortable and my GS Mini feels tiny. Who knew?

I don’t practice every day, although I’m getting closer. If I take missed days into account, I average about 45 minutes of practice a day. I’m now at the point where incremental improvements are harder and require more practice time, but I’m thrilled that I got over the initial hump. Most people who attempt guitar quit within the first year, and I can understand why. Learning anything new is incredibly frustrating, and when people say you have to practice 10 hours a day to get better, it’s discouraging as well.

But improvement doesn’t require heroics, especially not at first. Even if you set lofty goals and fail, you’ll fail upward. Want to practice 2 hours and get only 15 minutes? That’s 15 minutes you didn’t have before, and my teacher tells me that even 15 minutes of practice, when done with concentrated focus, can make a big difference. Want to write 1000 words but get only 500? That’s 500 words you didn’t have before. And so on.

The key is consistency. You’ll improve faster with 30 minutes of daily practice than 3.5 hours once a week. What I’ve also found is that doing a small amount of guitar practice or writing each day makes me want to do more. A win all around.

New Year’s resolutions tend to fall apart this time of year, so I hope you go easy on yourself, reassess, and get back on the horse. Small, consistent habits aren’t glamorous, or even noteworthy, but they’re incredibly powerful.

If you want more information about building habits, James Clear has a great book called Atomic Habits and an excellent weekly newsletter (he’s much less wordy than I am, in case you’re concerned). Good luck and have fun!