Sunday, February 9, 2014

Character Design

And now we get to the crisis point.  Today, I celebrate one solid week of daily writing, which is a great feeling.  I've accomplished something, yay!

On the other hand it's going on lunchtime on a lazy Saturday and I really want to chuck this work stuff and go play Skyrim and drink tea.  What to do, what to do...

Obviously the answer is writing, as you can see.  It's not like it takes a long time or anything, like I said in my second entry this past week.  It's only 25 minutes at minimum, although I've only limited it to one 25-minute segment once since I started.  And I know that's how it'll turn out in the end today too, I'll end up doing two or three.  But in the grand scheme of things, that doesn't really cut into my gaming time terribly much.  I've already done my wall sits, plank pose and meditation practice after all, so the only thing left after this is one time segment's worth of drawing.

Today's entry in the Develop a Writing Habit course includes the quote "Watch your thoughts, they become words. Watch your words, they become actions. Watch your actions, they become HABITS. Watch your HABITS, they become your character. Watch your character, it becomes your destiny."  Now the course didn't credit that quote so let me fill it in, it's Lao Tse.  The funny thing about this quote is that it seems to be focusing on something different than whoever added emphasis to the word habit.  To me, it's saying not to think incorrectly and to watch yourself so that things you don't like take over your life.

However what the unknown editor seems to be emphasizing is that habits are important and can be very valuable.  Of course this is underlined by the context, since today's focus is on building character as a result of creating a daily habit.  Not that I disagree or anything, otherwise I wouldn't be doing any of this.  But the discrepancy is interesting since even though the focus is different the quote still applies.

After all, when we develop habits in the usual, passive sense, they tend to be pretty haphazard. We brush our teeth in the same way each day.  We always use our keys with the same hand.  We have various physical things we do when nervous.  And so forth.  Most of these are pretty inconsequential, and in fact most habits are neutral.  But we also have negative habits that come about in that passive way too, such as needing a drink to get to sleep, or eating too much/too little when in emotional distress.  Or even, dare I say it, playing Skyrim when you should be writing.

Not that I necessarily think taking a day off to play games or crochet or hang out at a coffee shop is wrong, by no means.  Even taking a drink isn't really a bad thing.  The idea is that these are things that, when they become habitual, can be negative to varying degrees. Especially when they get in the way of the positive things you want to do and will feel bad if you don't do them.

Which of course is why when you consciously, rather than passively, want to develop a habit you will tend to want to create positive habits.  Neutral and negative habits are already covered after all, so why on earth would you want to make more of them instead of something that would be to your benefit?  But of course as we all know, developing a habit consciously is much harder than doing it passively, because the former actually takes some effort.

Which is why the whole idea of being vigilant about your thoughts, actions, etc. really applies here.  Because while the "habit" bit is important, the qualifier of "positive" is even more important, and that's where the concept of building character becomes really relevant.  If you're at the point where you actually want to change your life in the sense of building positive habits, then you're also at a point where you have some direction you want to move in, and the sort of person you want to be when you've managed to ingrain whatever habits you've chosen to focus on.  That's building character.

I think most of us have some sort of ideal we hold ourselves to, whether we live up to it or not.  Sometimes that ideal might not be all that far away.  Things like "I want to be the sort of person who can appreciate a quiet moment" isn't really that different from a person who doesn't pay much attention to quiet moments, even if those people think they're the type who do.  It's simply a matter of changing focus a little, turning the ship of character's course only a half degree or so, and you find you're already there. Living up to your self-described ideals in a case like that doesn't take much, at least on paper.  But actually doing, even the simplest things, those can be pretty tough.

Which I suppose is where the modern wave of positive motivation apps and techniques comes into play.  Because there is absolutely no shame in getting a bit of external help when you want to do something as significant as changing the sort of person you are.  Even if it's a subtle change like the one above, and you're only trying to course correct by a fraction of a degree, you've got a lifetime of mass and momentum you've got to shift and it can be hard to find the strength to push that hard all by yourself.  

And don't even try to go from a standing start to an entirely new course in one jump.  I've tried it and it simply doesn't work. Sure, I can fantasize about sitting down and writing for 7 hours a day in the same way I'd go to work for that long.  But in practice it simply doesn't work that way.  In fact, I'd guess that's so rare that you might as well say it doesn't happen with anyone.  So a more gradual approach is called for, and for me at least that requires tools.

Even with tools though, you're still doing all the work yourself though.  The ones I'm using, namely Lift and Habit RPG which I'm giving a shot at, mostly just keep track of what you've done before.  The older "Don't Break the Chain" method, where you mark off successes on a cheap desk calendar, is exactly the same.  It's simply tracking with a few added geegaws tossed in for flavour.  Most of the habits I'm working on via the Lift app are pretty much just that, reminders of how much I need to do on a given day and the positive reinforcement of knowing how many days I've made it without skipping.  Not the most invasive tool, and it's not a sign of weakness when I admit that I probably wouldn't have gotten to this point (well over 14k words in a week and a better blog to boot) without that assistance.  But then, I haven't got a lot of ego invested in trying to be 100% self-reliant either.

Thinking about it, I wonder if that's not a barrier for a lot of people.  Especially men, who are trained in most cultures to be utterly self-contained and not needing to rely on others for help.  Not exclusively men, of course, but I think they probably get the worst of the cultural conditioning for this sort of thing.  I can easily think of a lot of common phrases that have to do with simply picking yourself up and improving or doing things right starting immediately, that make accepting a gradualist, habit-forming approach really hard to accept.  

I suppose that really gets to the heart of the initial quote about habits and watching thoughts and so forth.  Yes, habits are important, but there are things you have to be aware of that lie underneath even those, and if you really want to develop the sort of character that you want to have, you need to dig down and find that level.  At least recognize that it exists, if nothing else.

In a way, the Lao Tse quote suggests that it's okay to start in the middle, building habits in order to develop them into character and eventually destiny.  But you must also expand your knowledge in the other direction and recognize that habits are made up of actions, actions are determined by words or conscious intent, and below that are the thoughts that drive the whole engine.  But I'd go a step further and suggest recognizing that those thoughts are pushed in certain directions by conditioning, which surrounds you all your life and has formed a lot of habits already without you noticing.

And knowing that, you can learn how free you are to change your character by not being a slave to that conditioning.  

2 time segments

1505 words

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