For the past year or so, I’ve been tinkering with guided self-improvement through various tools and tests — most recently, I reported back on my 2015 New Year’s Resolutions — in an effort to make conscious, deliberate steps to bridge the gap between Who I Am Now (and What I’m Doing) and Who I’d Like To Be.
At the beginning of the year, I set a goal to spend some time Making Stuff (writing, videos, whatever) at least four days a week. Last week, I revisited my results and felt that even though I was hitting the mark, I wasn’t doing as much writing as I had hoped, and decided that was most likely because when I got home from work, my brain didn’t feel like writing (probably because I had just spent most of the day reading text on a screen), and so I felt like I could only write on weekends.
Last week I tried an experiment: I’d wake up an hour and a half earlier every morning (8AM) and be in bed by 1AM every night, to see if I could write more consistently in the morning. And so far, it has worked! I wrote a lot more last week than I had in the month prior, and as far as I can tell it’s because my brain feels a bit more fresh and I’m working under a strict time limit (an hour-ish most mornings, depending) that forces me to just shut up and Do It. I’m writing this in one of those mornings before going to work, and my timer tells me I’ve got 17 minutes left.
I think this is a pretty neat example of conscious self-improvement! But, the thing that I wanted to bring up in this post is that I wouldn’t consider it Hard Work; there’s nothing seriously that difficult about cutting off an extra hour of basically-nothing time at night to get in bed by 1 and waking up by 8. It doesn’t take a cultivated sense of rigorous discipline and self-denial; it’s just me looking at at something I’m dissatisfied with in my life (I’m not writing enough) and trying to find a way to work around it. And it doesn’t work because it feels like Hard Work; it works because it’s easy.
The reason I bring this up is because I think that many of us are devoted to a similar kind of continuous self-improvement in who we are and what we do, and we’re surrounded by stories that glorify the value of Hard Work. We’re taught that Hard Work is not only key to our success, it’s the only thing we can do to deserve success, and we don’t like people who we don’t think Worked Hard Enough to earn what they’ve got. But we don’t actually talk a whole lot about what goes into Hard Work, we just worship the people who took it upon themselves to Do This Thing over and over until they became awesome.
Don’t get me wrong: I think Doing This Thing over and over again is rad! (In fact, here’s a really good short read on why it’s more important than Thinking About This Thing — sorry for the tangent). But instead of jerking off over How Hard Successful People Work, let’s get better at unpacking the things we can do to make that Hard Work less hard.
In this case, the stuff that is helping me write currently isn’t about slavish devotion to the craft of writing. I’m not some noble ascetic hermit monk, and I sure hope that if I end up noteworthy enough that anyone ever bothers to chronicle my work some day I am not represented as such. Nor do I wake up every morning burning with some kind of profound passion to unleash my words upon the world. Yet this is the kind of thing we’d ascribe to all kinds of amazingly talented people when we could instead be dissecting what it was that got them to Do The Thing so much that they got good at it. Okay, Kanye made five beats a day for three summers; what’s the best thing I can do to lubricate my creative process so that I can do that too? That’s the stuff that I think we ought to be talking about! Because that’s what makes hard work easy.