How A Mars Bar Gave Me Discipline
“We are what we repeatedly do.
Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.”
At one point during my teen years, I became obsessed with self-discipline. I’d stand in a line for hours, with my legs aching, when I could easily sit down. I’d hang around in the freezing rain in spite of nearby shelter. I’d walk home for miles when I could just get on a bus and be back in minutes. I kept testing the limits of what I could withstand, both mentally and physically. I was training myself to be a strong-minded person. Up until then, I’d always been riddled with anxiety.
At the time, Mars was my favourite chocolate. I was addicted to it. Almost every day I’d buy a Mars and devour it in two or three bites. Sometimes I’d melt it in milk or mash it up into some ice cream. I couldn’t get enough of them. Then one day my mum mentioned diabetes, which shook me — at such a young age, diabetes seemed just as horrifying to me as cancer or AIDS or a broken spine. I realised I had to do something about it. So I bought a king-sized Mars, nibbled at the corner, and left it on the side.
The next day I nibbled the corner again, just the tiniest bite, and put it back in its spot. Day after day I repeated this action. This went on for weeks and eventually I nibbled the Mars down to a nub, then to nothing. I can’t remember the exact period, but it was at least a month, no more than two. For a teenager addicted to chocolate, it took a lot of self-discipline to withhold my urges.
But I was determined to not let that fucking Mars get the best of me.
And weirdly enough, I don’t even like or buy them anymore.
You might be wondering how this is relevant to writing.
I’ll tell you.
“If a man can control his mind he can find the way to Enlightenment,
and all wisdom and virtue will naturally come to him.” — Buddha
Self-discipline is one of the key components of a professional writer, and a lot of the time it’s the sole difference between the pro and the amateur — not talent (although that’s important too, if somewhat hard to measure), but discipline. Being a genius or naturally gifted with words means little if you rarely hone those skills. Travelling the world and being infused with life experience and different cultures is equally meaningless if you never empty your mind to the page.
Self-discipline is what sits you down and makes you type, even when you feel like shit. Even when the words are coming thick and slow and it seems like everything you write is trash. You need to treat writing like a full-time job. Dedicating only half an hour a week to your future is like building your dream house by laying one brick a year.
Plus writing requires so much more than completing just a single project (although, having said that, any completion of a project is to be celebrated). The true requirement is consistency. You must be consistently learning, growing, and experimenting with words. But most importantly, you must be writing. It doesn’t matter what: novels, blogs, stories, poems, whatever. That creative muscle in your brain should be worked — it should be the Arnold Schwarzenegger of writing brains; if your mind is turned into a human body, people should accuse you of taking steroids because it’s so fucking pumped up.
And all of that requires self-discipline . . . which can be taught.
You just need a little discipline to learn how to adapt to it.
So you need discipline to learn discipline.
Some Catch 22 paradox type shit.
I’ll explain how.
“A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.” — Lao Tzu
Take it one day at a time like a recovering drug addict. Every morning sit down at your desk (or stand at it, or lean on it — what do I care?) and load up your computer. That’s the first part. Even before you’ve told yourself you can’t write, or you won’t write, or you don’t want to write, you need to perch up in front of your laptop and flip it open.
Now load up a blank writing document. At first, if you don’t feel like doing anything else, that’s okay. Just sit there in front of it and stare at the blinking cursor. You can take the time to think of ideas, or meditate, or cry, or whistle, but make sure you don’t answer your phone or talk to people during this time. And keep doing that for a while. A week, a month, however long until you’re in the habit of going to your computer first thing, flipping it open and sitting down for a period of time in front of a blank writing document.
What you’ll be doing is forming a mini-habit. Your brain will train itself to a mode of working. It’ll know that every morning (or every evening, if that’s easier — but try to make the time specific so it can anchor in your brain), you’ll sit down in front of your computer and open a writing document. Your next step after that will be to write something, but at first it doesn’t need to be anything important.
If it’ll free up your mind, you can write any nonsense on the screen. For instance, if you’re planning to go shopping later that day, talk about it. Today I’m going shopping, after that I’m going home, then I’m going to have a bath, then I’ll eat, I don’t know, I’m just writing words blah blah oranges. Don’t worry about grammar or spelling. All you’re doing for now is creating a habit.
Before long, your brain will be used to you sitting and writing, which is usually the hardest part for most people: actually parking in front of the screen and typing. To anchor that habit even deeper, whenever you sit at the computer and type, put on the same playlist of music. Overtime these songs will become writing triggers. Your brain will know you’re ready to work as soon as it hears the playlist begin its cycle. But don’t listen to the same songs when you’re NOT writing or you’ll corrupt the habit-forming process.
If you set aside an hour a day to do all of this, you’ll soon cement a writing habit into your daily routine. And the greatest part is that it won’t cause you any strain — you’re under no pressure to produce anything of value.
But now comes the hard part . . .
“A disciplined mind leads to happiness;
an undisciplined mind leads to suffering.” — Dalai Lama
You’re at the screen and expected to write something valid; not just stream-of-conscious bullshit, but a story or blog post. If that fills you with fear and dread, that’s okay. For some people, even the thought of attempting to write can cripple them. Partly it’s anxiety (fear of failure or low self-esteem), but the other reason is a lack of discipline. You’re not used to sitting down and writing a masterpiece. You haven’t done it before. What makes you think you can do it now?
Fuck that. Throw that all away. Take all that negative thinking, fold it into a box, and set it on fire.
Then take a moment to think about what you intend to write. Some writers can go in cold and produce blockbusters; others need to have an outline or a plan. It’s up to you which process works better, but for now, take a second to think about what you want to write. Do you already know? Have you already got the idea for your novel? Then break it down. You don’t have to start writing before it’s ready. Break it down until you know what your first chapter is going to be. Now give yourself a small target: write one scene.
What can debilitate a lot of writers is the sheer size and breadth of a novel. Thinking about writing so many pages and keeping it all coherent and interesting is like asking someone to imagine themselves building a pyramid with a spoon. It can seem impossible. But by breaking it into smaller, more digestible pieces, you only have to concentrate on the one scene ahead — just a few pages, no more than ten. You can do that, right? Or not?
Then break it down even further. Set yourself the task of one page.
If that’s still terrifying, tell yourself you just want to write a paragraph today. Anyone can write four or five lines. They don’t need to be good lines — they just need to be.
Then the next day you can write another paragraph, and keep going like that.
Eventually, with the building of your habit, and with some extra self-discipline, you should get into a routine. That paragraph will grow into two, then four, then six, then five pages. Before long, you’ll be tapping away at the keys for hours a day.
And if you’re not, and you’re still slacking and finding ways not to write?
Then pull your head out of the mud and slap yourself awake.
Writers write — wannabes talk. Are you a writer or a wannabe?
Make that decision now, and then proceed to your corner.
“Discipline is the bridge between goals and accomplishment.” — Jim Rohn
Writing is hard for everyone. It’s no easier for the professionals than it is for the amateurs. The only difference is the comfort of a cheque at the end of their work. But they’re crying and sweating and swearing at their keyboards just like the rest of us.
They’re also working hard, day after day, to continue their success.
So take note: get your self into gear and work that brain muscle.
You can do it. You just gotta trick your brain into believing it.
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