A Matter of Habit   15 comments

I am very good at avoiding work.

I think many of us are. I don’t say that to absolve myself, because this is one of my key challenges and I don’t intend to avoid the responsibility of it. Further, I know people who are very good at diving into work and busting their ass. I currently live with just such a person and she impresses the hell out of me. Yet, many of us—even those who do insane amounts of work—are also quite good at avoiding work. For me, it’s very tempting to fire up the laptop and get on the internet rather than study something challenging. It’s easy to settle into a good book when I should be accomplishing some other task, working my body in some way.

It’s also easy for me to not write. I’ve loved to write since the third grade, when my fantastic teacher, Mrs. Edwards, implemented a mandatory half hour of daily writing after completing a workshop on building students’ writing skills. We could write whatever we wanted and, during those sessions, I quickly fell in love with the art of storytelling, beginning a long story about the luckiest kid in the world. It wasn’t a brilliant story, but it helped me figure out the art of narrative and started me on the path of a life of sporadic writing.

Up to that point, I had imagined being a veterinarian when I grew up. Over the next couple years, that dream morphed into becoming a published writer. As I became enamored with the young adult horror genre (and obsessed with Christopher Pike) I started to write similar stories. I wrote a short novel in sixth grade titled Revenge and soon after that began my next project, Nightmares. I convinced myself I would become a bestselling author, and suspected it would happen before I was done with high school. It was an ambitious plan and became derailed by only one small oversight: I largely stopped writing.

Granted, even if I had continued to write, I imagine I wouldn’t have become a bestselling young adult horror writer by the age of, say, seventeen. However, I didn’t even give myself the chance. I never finished Nightmares and after that, I would often think of ideas for new stories and novels but rarely actually write them, and generally only when a deadline for school prompted my necessary completion of the story. What I discovered during that period of my life was that, as much as I loved to write, it was work. Sometimes it flowed effortlessly, but even more often it would be a struggle to get going. Often, the words came out wrong or I didn’t know where to take a story next. Sometimes I would write something that seemed brilliant; more often I would write something mundane and disjointed. It became easier to watch TV or read a book than write—and so that was what I did.

Of course, the more I failed to write, the harder it became. The longer I waited, the more the urgency of whatever idea I had come up with faded and the more challenging it became to string together effective sentences. As work, writing requires practice, and I had stopped practicing. That made it harder, creating a negative feedback loop that reduced the frequency of my writing to the point that, eventually, I started to mirthlessly refer to myself as a writer who didn’t write. Ever that was a lie, of course. I wasn’t a writer at all.

This process has played itself out in my life multiple times, though the details vary. As I said at the beginning, I’m good at avoiding work. It’s a terrible skill to have, especially in a world full of tempting distractions. I’ve come to believe that the many distractions our society and culture provides—the internet, television, movies, reality shows, celebrity culture, sports, gambling, so much more (and understand, I’m not saying all of these things are devoid of usefulness, though some of them arguably are)—serve at least partly the function of distracting us from the murderous outcomes of the way we live our lives. Our levels of affluence and consumption are devastating the world we live in, enslaving other humans and non-human creatures, ripping apart ecosystems, destroying traditional cultures and risking the future of all living beings (except probably rats and cockroaches.) To go on with this way of life, which is simultaneously stripped of much of its meaning and fulfillment, is to be necessarily distracted from its realities and consequences. In turn, we then are distracted from good work and shielded from the idea of what good work even is. This means that we often fail to do such work and instead spend our time engulfed in meaningless distraction.

For the last few days, I’ve felt this intensely. I’ve been trying to write a new blog post since Friday, to an obvious lack of success. I have instead spent a good chunk of the last few days poking around on the internet—wasting, for many intents and purposes, my very life. I’ve not been doing what I idealistically want to do. I’ve wasted hours absorbing largely useless information and distraction when I could have been writing, studying or doing. I’m good at this wasting of time. I wish I wasn’t.

The future we face is one in which we are going to have to ruthlessly cut out such distractions so that we get done the work that desperately needs doing. Hell, it’s the present we face, as well. Enumerating and breaking down that work is part of this blog’s point. But so is going over the process of getting there, which is a process I’m very much in. I think there are many people out there who, like me, are good at avoiding work. Hopefully, they are less good at it, but I imagine the skill is there, for it’s one of the more common skills in our current society. Yet it’s one that we need to abandon and we need to do it as fast as possible. There is too much good work that needs doing—that desperately needs doing. I can’t emphasize this enough. We would be very smart to avoid the consequences of not getting that work done, no matter how much the dominant culture provides us with easily-accessible distractions (and more importantly, no matter how easy it is for us to allow ourselves those distractions.)

The blog post I’ve been attempting to write for the last two days is, theoretically, about working with animals. I have some thoughts on that, based both in recent and years past experiences. I think they’re good thoughts to share. But I’ve failed in writing that post and, in fact, never even started it. Last night, long after the sunlight had faded, as I grew too tired to even fool myself into thinking I might yet write the long-delayed post, I felt a certain disgust at what I had done. I had spent hours on the internet, reading some good things but basically avoiding the work I needed to do. I had lost another day and I very much felt the reality that it was gone forever—that I was poorer now for having lost that time. I had impoverished myself, and not in the smart and effective way that I will be advocating on this blog over the course of this year. I had impoverished myself spiritually and mentally, and I had impoverished myself in habit. I had, over the previous day, avoided the work I knew I needed to do and, in so doing, had made it harder to get back to that necessary work.

For work, ultimately, is about habit. Good work can be a real joy to do. It can also be a great challenge. But it’s very satisfying and I never regret doing it. My avoidance of good work is not about avoiding pain, misery or drudgery so much as it is a weakness of habit. I fall easily into distraction and its instant pleasures. However, I gain far more from good work than I do from those instant pleasures. The tendency toward the easy escape, I think, is as much in the habit as anything else. It all in that initial moment of deciding what I’m going to do next. It’s very easy, in that moment, to start engaging in distraction. It’s much harder to start engaging in good work. But once good work has been engaged, it’s far more satisfying.

A focus of mine this year, then, is to work on building the habit of engaging in good work rather than distraction. These habits, after all, or going to have to be my own doing. If I want to have an excellent garden this year, which is most surely the plan, then I’m going to have to get myself started on the work of gardening. If I want to regularize a series of homesteading activities, which is also the plan, then I have to do that via my own motivation. The same for regularly writing this blog, doing non-blog writing, studying, meditating and building my salvage skills. All of these are goals I’ve set for myself this year, and all of these will happen only if I motivate myself to do it. They aren’t paid work, I don’t have a boss, and there’s no one who’s going to scold or fire me if I don’t follow through (aside from, I might hope, the readers of this blog.) It’s up to me to build my own habits of work, upon which I’ll better be able to build the life I want.

This post right here, then, is one of the small successes of that habit, though it’s a qualified one. I eventually set aside the post I planned to write on working with animals and instead started the introductory post to my How To Be Poor series. I worked on that for much of today, alternating between it and occasionally the internet—a small failure, each time, of habit. But then I realized at a certain point that that post wasn’t coming together, either, so I decided it made sense to start again on something new, something that felt like maybe it would come together. And that is this post, which is today’s small success.

The last two days I largely wasted. Today was a partial success. Tomorrow will be better. This is the task at hand: a slow building of the habit of good work. It’s just as important as understanding the work that needs to be done. Later tonight or tomorrow I’ll return to the post I began today but did not finish and I’ll finish it. Beyond that, I’ll perhaps write some more, and I’ll continue to read Steve Solomon’s Gardening When it Counts and planning my garden. There will be more good work, as well, and minimal instant pleasures. That’s the goal, and the more I tend to that goal, the more I’ll habituate myself to good work and the easier it will be to accomplish the tasks at hand. For there are many tasks at hand and each one avoided is another bit of impoverishment I can no longer afford.


Posted January 15, 2012 by Joel Caris in Work

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15 responses to “A Matter of Habit

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  1. Wow… You have very thoroughly intuited and stated one of the things I struggle the most with! Tricks is very much the butt-buster, and I can be once I get going, but I am very susceptible to distraction and procrastination. Changing those habits into habits of good work is one of my goals for this year as well – I hope we can help keep each other on track!

    • I hope that, as well, Celine. Ideally, this blog will serve as a good source of motivation—a bit of accountability, basically—in my ongoing projects. We sound much alike. I can be pretty good when I get going, too, but getting going can be a challenge and I do so love me a bit of procrastination. I just don’t feel like I can afford that anymore.

      Once you get to Maine, will you be posting on some of your plans there?

      • We will be. Once Tricks lands a job out there, we’ll be looking for a piece of land – the most perfect outcome would be to find a place we could rent-to-own that had land and a small cabin we could restore (then live in while we salvage parts for and build the main green/house space). Even if we’re renting again, though, it’ll be in a place where we can have a spot of garden and a few hens, so if nothing else I’ll be documenting that. 🙂 Provided I don’t spend all my time reading blogs on the internets…..

        • That perfect outcome does indeed sound pretty perfect. I hope you find it.

          Yeah, the blogs do tend to call. Resist it! (Except for a select few, which of course will include this one.) 🙂

  2. Thank you for this detailed and thoughtful post, Joel. I was just struggling with this same issue myself, and I happened across a post I’d bookmarked a while back: http://www.inspired-entrepreneur.com/Freebies/Discover-The-Work-You-Were-Born-To-Do/Part-4.aspx. In it, Nick Williams, a British speaker and coach, talks about the 9 signposts that can help us find our life’s work.

    One of the 9 — this is what startled me and seems possibly relevant to the struggle you describe — notes that the thing we resist doing the most is often the thing we actually came here to do, and our resistance is the “dragon” we must fight to get to the “treasure.”

    In other words, the resistance (procrastination being just one form of it) is part of the test life sets up to help us see how much we do want what we say we want.

    Best of luck with your daily practice! I’ll be working on mine, too. :^)

    • Thank you, Beth. That’s an interesting analogy and something I’ll have to mull over a bit. Certainly, I’ve come to think that the point of being here is to learn how to live well in the world. I’ve had that general idea for a few years now, with many thanks to Wendell Berry for providing a lot of insight into that. But what I’m figuring out more of late is how much work is involved in that. Seems odd that it took me so long to figure that out, but it did. Learning to appreciate that work is a big piece of it, I think.

      So yes, resisting the work is resisting the point of being here. It’s a tricky conundrum, but also seems to me what makes this whole thing have meaning. If doing the work was easy, then . . . well, this would just be vacation, I suppose. And while I do enjoy a good vacation, I wouldn’t want to spend my entire life on one.

  3. “”dragon” we must fight to get the “treasure”” the Arch Druid strikes again! Life is a pulp fantasy.

  4. “Gardening When it Counts,” great book!! I’ve got a copy. It’s the book that introduced me to organic methods, and I’m not sure I could have found a better one. I’ve recently come into a bit of luck and have access to 14 acres of pasture. The owner just needs somebody to tend it for tax purposes. It will go residential if it doesn’t stay in the farm program. He doesn’t care what I do with it. This opportunity came to me a couple of days after I resigned from the rat race and put in my two week notice. My only concern is that he is in his 70’s and his son would love to sell the land off the first chance he got. So my risk is that all of the work will be sold out from under me. The Buddhist in me see’s that as a learning experience but the realists sees it as a gargantuan waste of effort.

    Ran across this:


    Ever heard of it? Seems promising and Michael Ruppert (Crossing the Rubicon, Collapse) is highly recommending it. I’m thinking about following Joel Salitin’s lead with the land and start with a mobile chicken coop and go from there. The only problem I have at this point is that I don’t have any investment capital. Figure I’ll start small and hopefully work my way into something. I imagine a tractor will be necessary at some point? Don’t know, I’ve only every tended an organic kitchen garden on the magnitude of 1500 square feet.

    As far as the procrastination and time lost, my first thought is to not be too hard on yourself. But you are right. But what qualifies as good work? Does reading your blog qualify? It seems to me that good work must necessarily involve other people with similar goals, outlooks, and perspectives. I’d be interested in how you would define “good work.” Could be a good blog.

    • I’m really enjoying the book, Aaron, and am eager to put Solomon’s advice into practice. I’ll also have to read my copy of Growing Vegetables West of the Cascades, as it’s quite relevant to my current home.

      Man oh man, 14 acres of pasture sounds pretty fantastic. It does sound like a potentially tricky situation, though. I don’t imagine I would turn down the opportunity. If nothing else, you can do your thing there while you keep your eyes and ears open for other, more stable and permanent opportunities. I just wouldn’t invest in any serious infrastructure and be thankful for the learning opportunity.

      I haven’t heard of the aquaponics company. I poked around the site a bit and it seemed interesting. I’ve always been a bit hesitant with hydroponics, though aquaponics is obviously a bit of a different beast and seems much more reasonable to me. While it seems like it might make some sense if you’re short of space, I would think that if you had land, it would make as much sense as any to use the soil. But a side aquaponics set up to raise some fish does make sense. Does that all sound contradictory enough? I suppose the short answer I should have typed was, “Looks interesting, but I otherwise don’t have strong opinions either way.”

      A mobile chicken coop sounds like a fine start. I imagine you could piece something together fairly cheap, though it depends on the particulars of the land and environment, local predators and what not. I imagine a little googling will get you plenty of ideas for making a functional mobile chicken coop out of salvaged and low-cost materials, though. As for the tractor, I would avoid it as long as possible. It’s a big investment and to start off with, seems like you’d be better off investing in hand tools and using human labor. We farm two-ish acres here without owning a tractor. It most certainly can be done. (And you might want to see if any friendly neighbors have one. You may be able to work out some kind of deal with them to plow in the spring that will save you gobs of money and headache.)

      I think study falls under the “good work” rubric and that blogs can provide good study. But there’s far more good information out there to study than there is time to study it—and even more so time to study it and time to do the good work that you’re studying doing. Striking that balance is key, and that’s something I need to work on. I usually know when I’m doing some legitimate and worthwhile online reading and when I’m just wasting time. It’s the wasting of time that needs to be cut.

  5. I really don’t want to rely on a tractor. Ecotechnic is how I want to direct my life, but 14 acres of land that I don’t own…just tend!!! I don’t know, I can’t quite rap my mind around it. I do know there is a seed of opportunity there, and I don’t want to pass it up.

    Maybe I can put a call out into the community. “Hey, 14 acres, we can do whatever we want. Is there anybody out there paying attention to reality? We can do something worthwhile that does not require behemoth developed infrastructure. Something that will withstand any price per gallon energy. We can build a community based on human needs and not corporate greed, profit, and soul crushing destructive progress.”

    Upstate SC…I’m just too much of a pessimist to believe that anybody would understand the message. Maybe I need to try?

    • Put out the call, most definitely. I know nothing about upstate South Carolina, but I do know that there are a lot of people out there who are interested in a different way of life and they seem to be most everywhere. Sure, many end up in the NW or NE, but I think there are plenty who find themselves in less trendy states without the means or desire to move elsewhere, but who would love to hook up with someone like minded and build something fantastic.

      There’s no sense in not putting it out there and seeing who responds. You may very well be pleasantly surprised.

  6. Pingback: A Matter of Responsibility « Of The Hands

  7. I am terribly undisciplined. it takes monumental effort to finish a project. I think part of it is fear. what after?–kind of thing. or that perhaps I will have to do something constructive with it. maybe I’m addicted to process. still, I work best collaboratively, driven my something I see or hear, conversations had, a quote read; I derive my energy from those things, and I am busy until I am exhausted. I hope you will find inspiration enough, community enough, conversations aloud or with a pen even when you are by yourself.

    (can you tell I am catching up on my blog-reading and commenting?)

    • I can tell! And I’m flattered you’re taking the time for and expending the effort on my writing.

      I work best driven by outside stimulus, as well, if I’m understanding you correctly. That spurs the inner thoughts, the considerations and contemplations, the dwellings on the world and how it works. I think the fact that I’m doing work that seems good, that seems productive, has allowed me the ability to write so much about it, and to write things that feel worthwhile to me. It’s all rooted in that good work. Without that, I would have little to say and what I would say would be mimicry at best (I say with the hope that what I’ve written on this blog isn’t too much simple mimicry.)

      But yes, the lack of discipline is always a challenge. I’m happy it’s gotten better; I see so many ways in which it still is bad. It’s a struggle I’m quite sure will be going on throughout my life. So be it. That seems as much as anything what this is all about, anyway. Wouldn’t be much reason for me to be here if I had it all figured out, was dealing with no challenges, just went full bore ahead in perfect, productive work.

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