Life Isn’t All or Nothing

In 2016, I finished my PhD.  The research had its challenges, but the writing process was the most difficult.  No one would argue this; understanding your ideas and presenting them cogently is hard work that takes consistent practice and discipline.  I took a one-week workshop designed to help people write their thesis.  It changed my writing process entirely; not because of grammar or syntax, but because it emphasised the importance of consistent, incremental writing, within a structured framework.  They taught me the importance of habit – setting the stage for writing work, regardless of the amount of time available.  In fact, they taught the value of consistency over momentum.  This was significant for me as I tend to embody “all or nothing” thinking; the pursuit of “done.”

The start of a new year frequently symbolizes fresh beginnings, a chance to start again, develop new habits, and frequently making resolutions to embrace change, sometimes radical change.  2021, in particular, has been a beacon of hope for many, shedding the baggage of 2020.  Realistically, this year will be filled with just as many challenges, possibly more, than we faced last year.  So, I have been thinking about what it means to live consistently – recognizing that life isn’t all or nothing, but rather the process of facing what is in front of us, step by step; and building endurance and strength by developing consistent habits that help us to be well.  To help me with this, I refer back to that thesis workshop and think about what kind of structured framework might help me to live well; accomplishing my goals without succumbing to the wild ride of “all or nothing” thinking.

The first element of the structured framework is setting the stage well – having a consistent place and consistent tasks to start the process.  With several big goals for the year, I have had to reconsider how I start my day – do I slump into it, in front of a screen, or do I nourish my mind and spirit with reflection and creativity?  I am no stranger to slumping and am transitioning away from screens first thing when I wake up.  I am also in the process of developing separation between the various projects and goals on which I am working.  This helps to create patterns for approaching each project, and ultimately for achieving my goals.  Consistency and habit are important with respect to incremental progress.

The second element of the structured framework is to reflect on where you left off the day before – getting your mind back into its last thought.  One of my goals for this year involves research and writing.  One of the best tools I got from the workshop was a writing journal.  Each work day you read what you worked on in the last session and then set your goal for the current session. In the last minutes before you wrap up, you write a short summary of what you have done that day and what you would do next, noting the next ideas on which to work.  This process was transformative for my thesis writing; it created manageable chunks for the project and provided continuity throughout the process.

I once had a professor who frequently declared “practice does not make perfect; practice makes permanent.”  His point was that what you practiced become solidified in your mind – whether or not it was “perfect” wasn’t a factor.  Any kind of creative process requires practice – sometimes stumbling, sometimes flying.  At its core, practice is creating neural connections, which eventually become pathways.  This is not an “all or nothing” proposition, but rather one that requires regular engagement.  It reminds us that “success doesn’t come from what you do occasionally, it comes from what you do consistently” (Marie Forleo).  To be consistent is to frequently, routinely, and regularly engage in the things we want to accomplish or master.  It means we need to embrace process, to accept that some days will founder and some days will soar, and to know that in time, we will become more of what we hope to be.

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