Today, my friends, I'm on self-discipline again. Self-control. Will power. Call it whatever you like, we're talking about essentially the same thing--being able to work without allowing ourselves to wander off either physically or mentally. Writers are not the only workers who need to be able to do this, by the way. Here in the twenty-first century, huge numbers of jobs require that the people who do them manage their workloads themselves, with some leeway as to when and how they get everything done. We're talking about people who aren't punching time clocks or being paid for having produced X number of pieces of material work.
I'm talking self-discipline/self-control in relation to work situations, but it has an impact on a wide array of behaviors--eating, money, and alcohol use for starters. And so it's being studied by psychologists.
Walter Mischel's is a name I suspect will keep coming up if I do much reading on this subject. He created the "marshmallow test" in the 1960s, in which he tested children's ability to delay gratification. They could have one marshmallow right away, or if they waited a few minutes, they could have two. More importantly, it seems to me, he followed his test subjects over the years. As explained in Don't! The Secret of Self-Control in The New Yorker, he found that children who were able to wait so they could get the better deal on marshmallows had S.A.T. scores higher than the children who weren't. "For decades, psychologists have focussed on raw intelligence as the most important variable when it comes to predicting success in life. Mischel argues that intelligence is largely at the mercy of self-control: even the smartest kids still need to do their homework." Angela Lee Duckworth, another psychologist studying this subject, agrees. "One of her main research projects looked at the relationship between self-control and grade-point average. She found that the ability to delay gratification...was a far better predictor of academic performance than I.Q."
Fascinating, huh? But we're not students anymore. The S.A.T. and grade point average ship has sailed for most of us. How can knowing any of this marshmallow stuff help us? And how much help should we need because we're highly motivated, right? We really, really want to write the next book.
Those kids really, really wanted the marshmallow. The kids who were able to put off taking one marshmallow, so they could get something better later (two marshmallows) did it by distracting themselves "by covering their eyes, pretending to play hide-and-seek underneath the desk, or singing songs..." They were able to divert their attention from the thing that they were tempted to do so they could get something better later.
For writers, wanting to write the next book is not the marshmallow. For us, all the things we wander off to do instead of writing the next book is the marshmallow. Checking e-mail and Facebook, looking to see if anyone has commented on our blogs in the last half hour, making sure nothing new is happening with TomKat... What we need to do is find ways to distract ourselves from the distractions so we can work, the way those kids distracted themselves from the single marshmallow so they could get the second one.
Mischel has taught children "mental tricks" that improved self-control. He says, "Once you realize that will power is just a matter of learning how to control your attention and thoughts, you can really begin to increase it."
What can we use for mental tricks? Oddly enough, I'm going to suggest distracting ourselves from our distractions with...work. How?
1. Remember the unit system? You only have to work for 45-minutes, and then you can stop for 15. I've found it really does help to keep me on task. I'm thinking I want to drift away to one of my distractors, and I check my timer. Hey, in 23 minutes I can! So I work another 23 minutes. Doesn't sound like much, but in the past I would have been off like a shot to check CNN to make sure the latest dead celebrity was still dead.
2. Remember the significance of beginnings? You can use the unit system to get yourself working. Okay, first thing in the morning, right after lunch, I have to work for 45 minutes. I've put in 45 minutes and maybe I've gotten myself into a flow state and will want to keep going. (I don't know about you, but I don't keep Time Cops at my house. If I want to work longer than 45 minutes, I do.) If I haven't, I stop for 15 minutes and begin again. Either way, I've got all these 45 minutes chunks of work done.
Thinking of work as something I do to keep myself from doing other things...Well, I guess people have been using work as an escape from their family problems for generations. But using it as an escape from social media is new for me.