I’ve made concerted efforts over the last couple of years to cut out various things that I thought I would be better off without. Simple things like food, football, news and social contact. This year I also made a conscious and structured effort to start some things.
There were things I actively wished I was doing on a regular basis. The sort of things that are easy to think about doing more of, and even easier to push to one side during each busy day. The sort of cans lots of us tend to kick down the road, instead of picking them up and dealing with them.
I was prompted to think carefully about whether I could motivate myself to develop the sort of daily habits I wanted by this Lifehacker post which I read last December.
I confess that the unexpected offer of organisational advice from Jerry Seinfeld was what drew me in, but immediately the foundation of the idea seemed sound, and also a good fit for my stubborn nature. With the New Year just a couple of weeks away, I resolved to give it a try.
The method couldn’t be simpler: Print out a calendar, do whatever it is you want to do every day and when you do, cross out that day. In doing so you start to build up a chain of crosses that becomes harder and harder to break the longer it gets.
When I considered what I wanted to achieve ‘more writing’ was an easy choice but, perhaps swayed by the author of the post, I realised that dedicating some time each day to chip away at household and admin chores would also be beneficial in many ways and that a little exercise, often, might also be a good upgrade.
And it’s worked. On each of the last 365 consecutive days I have done at least 15 minutes of exercise, at least 15 minutes of writing and at least 15 minutes of chores, or thereabouts.
The process is as simple as it sounds and I’ve found it relatively easy to build into my time. Or, put another way, I’ve found the sense of commitment this approach engenders in me sufficiently strong that it has made me make this stuff happen. You may fare differently if you try, but this particular method feels almost precision-tooled to force me into new and seemingly unshakeable habits. Previously, just vaguely hoping I would become more organised and motivated to do constructive things at some point, well, that’s never really cut it.
So, how has it been?
It took a while for this one to settle into a manageable set of options. I don’t have a huge amount of spare time, or a gym membership, or an ergometer in my spare room. There are a couple of fixed points in my week that help to break the back of the requirement: I play Ultimate on a Monday lunchtime, and football on a Thursday evening. Weekends are better for finding time to run or ride my bike which mostly left three or four days per week as gaps to fill.
What made this one achievable for me was the Hundred Push-Ups Program. It’s a 6-week program which builds up sets of press-ups, which I’d seen recommended by a friend on social media. Accepting that this is the one place where my timing definitions have slipped – the daily sessions often take less than 15 minutes to complete – these programs were too good not to use as gap-fillers. So, I worked my way through the 100 Push Ups program – I’ve done that four times now this year – and followed it with related regimes for lunges, squats, sit-ups and pull-ups. I doubt that these programs will turn me into Charles Atlas, but I do know that they are fine and perfectly portable ways to meet this commitment wherever you find yourself.
With the exception of this latter exercise (it’s surprising how few places there are in the general environment to do pull-ups, although I did complete one session in a tree outside a party) these are perfect because you can do them anywhere at all. And that’s my major tip for any of these activities. If you are setting out to create a daily habit, then choose something you can do every day, otherwise you’re doomed. Unless you spend every day of your life in exactly the same place, then you are going to need to choose things you can take with you and do more or less wherever you are.
Doing this has been easy enough. Wondering whether I’m doing the right sort of writing, whatever that is, has been a constant and perhaps integral part of the process. If you’ve ever spent any time reading tips for writers, you’ll be familiar with the advice that you just need to write every day. If you’ve ever tried to write something that needs a lot of time and work, like a novel, then you’ll know in your heart of hearts that the likelihood that the perfect time and space to do this will somehow arrive in your life as if by magic is vanishingly small. So, write a little bit every day, they say. You’ll make progress and you’ll develop a writing habit.
They’re right, and it works. I’ve written (just writing for me, not work, not email, not social media updates) for at least 15 minutes every day for the last year. And for me, that’s great. I’ve produced a huge amount of work, by my standards, which is also great. For me. If you’ve had to read any of it, you may think this has not been such a wonderful development. You may be right.
What I haven’t done is written a novel. In the grand scheme of things, that’s probably an extremely good thing. However, the nagging irritation at the end of the year is that, I basically could have done. I have a long piece of writing which is around 8,000 words. It’s no good, but that’s fine for me. I know that if I’d worked excuisively on this it would have been at least 50,000 no-good words by now. That’s as long as the Great Gatsby.
Instead, my approach has been to sit down and write whatever takes my fancy, and I’ve been surprised by what that has turned out to be. For instance, I’ve written more than 40 poems, because I’ve sat down to write and the shape of the words that come into my head, or from my notebook, have lent themselves to poetry. Without an obligation to write a little something each day I never would have developed these lines into anything at all. And I’m glad I did. I’ve barely ever written poetry before and I’ve gained a lot from doing it this year.
Alongside these I have a file stuffed with more than 100 notes, some are lines captured from everyday and developed, others are 500 word scenes or spurges or jeu d’esprits. Writing them quite often helped me to figure something out. Most of them kept me occupied and engaged for at least 15 minutes, and that’s something in itself, believe me.
Some of the writing has been from duty. Last year my posts for Devon Record Club tended to lag behind, usually being bashed out at the last moment, two or three weeks after the meetings they covered. This year, when sitting down to write once each day, if there’s something I have to write, I write it. As a result I often have my posts ready two weeks before each meeting, usually with a further two or three written in reserve.
Add to this another few dozen general blog posts and that’s a reasonable amount of stuff. Very little of it is of any consequence at all, but spending some time putting one word after another gives me pleasure and a sense of wellbeing, as much as any exercise programme.
Writing, of course, is one of the most adaptable of pursuits, and I’ve been able to do it anywhere. There have been days when the only 15 minutes I could carve out meant I had to write something, anything, on the back of an envelope in my car. So I did.
This started well, and I’m happy with what I’ve done, but over the year the definition of a chore has been pushed and stretched close to breaking point. I’ve ended up allowing any job that genuinely needs doing but which I could, if I wish, just put off until another day. Proper daily or weekly chores like doing the washing up, taking rubbish out, making beds etc, don’t count. Those things have to be done, and so giving myself a cross for doing them is letting myself off the hook. I’d be doing them anyway, and the point of this chain is to accomplish things I otherwise wouldn’t. Some close compadres do make it onto the list though. Hoovering, for instance, should be done but doesn’t HAVE to be done. So, running the hoover round the house for 15 minutes is perfect and, as such, our house has been opportunistically cleaned way more than in any previous year.
At the start of the year I stuck fairly closely to doing additional housework or maintenance. Surfaces were cleared and cleaned. Shelves were dusted. Bathrooms were scoured, all 15 minutes at a time, but building up pretty quickly. Some spots in our wonky house are hard to reach unless you’re a bluebottle looking for a place to die. The ladders came out and these were swept. For a couple of months it looked like our house was going to be in a state of perpetual spring cleanliness. And then my definitions began to warp.
First up, I started to include admin. I’m happy that paying bills or balancing accounts absolutely fits my definition above as we are terrible at letting jobs like this drift for weeks at a time. Getting them done on time has made a detectable difference to our background levels of nagging micro-stress and, from the other end of the process, having a few of these jobs stored up to do offers an easy out when I just need something easy to chug through for 15 minutes.
Second up, I started to tackle bigger admin projects. In the Spring I finally started cataloguing my vinyl records, something I’d been meaning to do for a couple of years, and which has needed doing, strictly speaking, for decades. This kept me busy for weeks, filling dozens of 15 minute slots while the kitchen went neglected and the windows un-wiped. I wondered throughout whether this was some sort of displacement activity (if you’re reading this and thinking ‘who else does he think is actually making up the rules here?’ then you’re well ahead of me) but ultimately it was a reasonably important job I’d made no sort of start on, and it’s now been done.
In between all these I set up new phones, backed up photos, upgraded software, connected up stereos, built furniture, hung pictures. All things I should have been doing as I went, but I wasn’t.
In theory this is a pretty portable habit, although it might sound like just the opposite. Look around you now. Unless you’re in solitary confinement or an airlock, there’s probably something in the room that you could be sorting out one way or another. In practice, two things are really helpful in making this one work every single day: a sense of altruism and a smartphone. The first helps you find things to do in other people’s spaces. I’ve cleaned cooker hobs at my Mum’s house, fixed computers for friends and built flat-pack furniture for family. The second means that you can do chores even if the only spare time you have is on a bus, or even at a bus stop, assuming, like me, you never normally get around to deleting rubbish photos, sorting out your contacts or calling that guy you were supposed to call about that thing.
So, these three are doable, with organisation and a little leeway. I know what you’re thinking: ‘Wow! Doing chores, exercise and pointless writing every day? This guy is living the dream!’ Well, let me tell you, it’s not all as good as I make it sound.
I often find myself working towards a 15 minute limit and then stopping, the obligation met, when of course I could and maybe should have gone on, or at least taken what I was doing to a more natural break point. My writing from this year is littered with pieces that stop when the clock has been satisfied, leaving ideas half-developed and threads dangling that I then find it almost impossible to pick up the next day. Numerous times I’ve been working well and have forced myself to stop and save the next push for tomorrow so I won’t have to look for something else to tackle. When tomorrow comes, the momentum has been left behind. If I’ve already done my chore for the day and I see something else that needs sorting out, I’ll often walk on by, happy that I have a job lined up for tomorrow. And the average length of my exercise sessions is tending towards 15 minutes pretty sharply.
I guess I’d also have to say that quantity and regularity is not the same as quality. I’ve mostly dealt with this through some self-imposed thresholds and standards, but there have still been a few times, and probably only a few, when I’ve been filling one of my 15 minute slots fully aware that what I was doing really was just filler. I’m setting against this the knowledge that each of my three chosen habits can still be productive when you’re going through the motions. Jogging may not be as good for you as running, but it’s okay. Writing dreck is still writing, and you never know when something good will come along. Cleaning down those kitchen surfaces even through they’re pretty clean already still leaves them cleaner than when you started.
If you’ve read this far and think you might tick the way I do, then this can work for you. Here’s the thing though. Use it thoughtfully to form habits you genuinely need, or at least really, really want. Because in order to develop and maintain those habits you will be introducing a constantly ticking, never stopping, low-level stress clock into every single day of your life.
For the record, I’m going to carry on. I either shouldn’t or don’t want to quit any of the three habits I’ve developed. Instead, next year I think I’m going to introduce a couple more and also add in a new musical-wild-card rule.
First up, my reading has collapsed over the last couple of years, so I’m going to have 15 minutes of a book, either in hard copy or audio, every day.
Secondly, I really don’t drink enough water. I know there are differing views as to how much, if any, additional water we should drink each day, but I just don’t drink any, basically, and whole days can go by where I’ve played sport, dashed about doing all sorts of stuff and only drunk two cups of coffee. If I drank more, more regularly, I might feel better, so i’m going to drink a litre of water every day.
Finally, I’d love to set aside some time to practice playing the guitar, but it’s not at all practical as a daily commitment, so I’m going to allow myself to substitute 15 minutes of guitar practice for any one of the above if I feel like it. It makes me feel a little cheaty to do that but, as I think I’m beginning to realise, I’m doing this for my own benefit and I make up the rules, okay?