You’re at one of the lowest moments in your life.
It might be when you’re sizing yourself up in the mirror, realizing how much you hate all of that dough beneath your skin. It could be when you discard that withering butt of a cigarette and stare at it on the pavement, realizing that you’ve finally been smoking long enough to be killing yourself. It could be when a guitarist in a music video is doing all of those fancy riffs, and you wish you were just like them.
You’ve made the decision. An epiphany strikes—heat flushes your face, your heart quickens, and the ball begins to roll. You’re going to change your life. Starting today, you’ll be going to the gym like clockwork. No more fast food. Who needs to smoke? Definitely not you. Time to check the Internet for the nearest music teacher.
The next few days are the happiest you’ve been in awhile. You went to the grocery store and bought all the right items. You’ve finally used that gym membership that’s been leaching money out of your bank account for months. You’re cutting down on those nasty habits, or you’ve severed them entirely. After a trip to Guitar Center, the new love of your life is sitting on the backseat in its leather case.
Things go great, and your day-to-day routine becomes flawless. You’ve finally got your shit together, and things are looking up. You’re practicing, or exercising, or avoiding those habits you hate as if they never existed at all.
And then it hits. It’s probably not as dramatic as flying full tilt at the proverbial brick wall. Maybe one day you wake up and realize how hard it is to be consistent in this new lifestyle. Going to the gym everyday takes time—time that doesn’t make you feel quite so happy as it did in the first week, or the first month, and you wish you had something to make you feel good again. For the first time, spending the whole day doing nothing sounds appealing.
And so you do it. It’s been a long time since you’ve been lazy, and you deserve a day away from the routine… and that day off is glorious. It’s reminiscent of those times before you changed your life, but without the guilt—you turn your head away from the alarm you never set, sleeping in instead of rising to go sweat at the gym, and the fast food never tasted so good, and that marathon of Sherlock makes you giddy like a little school girl.
The day is so fantastic that you can’t help but do it the next day. And the next day.
Before you know it, you’re right back where you started. They say old habits die hard, and these ones returned from the grave to reclaim what was theirs.
Do you want to know why this happened? It was because no matter who you are, you can’t change your life in a day. You need to realize that when you have those epiphanies and decide that things are gonna be different around here, that you’re still the same person you were an hour ago.
“Long-term consistency trumps short term intensity.” – Bruce Lee
At the start of my second semester in college, I finished reading a book (for the life of me I can’t remember the title), and I remember afterwards realizing that telling stories seemed kind of fun. I had this scene slowly coming into focus in my head, like a sculptor chipping at a block of marble, about a private investigator treading through the ruins of a hospital, trying to make sense of what at first everyone believed was a terrorist attack. The scene seemed intriguing, and that’s when the epiphany came—excitement surged through me like a tidal wave, and I had to go to the student store to buy a notebook.
So that’s what I did. I bought a notebook, ditched my next class, and ended up writing a fifteen page scene about this investigator. By the time I finished, the creative juices were flowing, and I knew where I wanted to take Richard Quincy the next time I had a chance to write.
The thought of this scene turning into a full length novel occurred to me, but I never took it seriously. All I knew was that I loved reading because I loved stories, and now I felt like it was my turn to tell one. Even as the pages started adding up, from fifty to a hundred to two hundred, and the idea of this becoming a completed novel became more realistic, that accomplishment wasn’t what made me return to my notebook the following day. What made me come back to those lead-stained pages was my desire to continue the story.
The little things were what kept me going—the happiness from completing a scene, or when a new idea for the story struck, or when the characters showed signs of life, and suddenly they were the ones making the decisions, not me. That overshadowed the happiness I knew I would inevitably feel when the entire thing was done.
Weeks went by, then months passed, and after a year and a half, I finished writing the last page of my first draft. I remember that moment sitting in Starbucks, staring at the last sentence halfway down the page of the third notebook I had eventually needed, and that’s when it all became overwhelming. I’d written a book. I’d written a fucking book. For weeks afterwards, I was on Cloud 9.
The work wasn’t anywhere near completed, as the journey of editing had only begun, but I could finally be one of those people who could say they’d written a book.
A year after that, I was done editing. The thing was as finished as I could make it (Nothing’s ever really finished for a writer. I’m sure if I went back and read it again, I’d make an excuse to edit it some more). Want to know what I did the day after? I started page one of the next book. Why? Not because I wanted to be the guy who could say he wrote two books, but because I wanted to write the next scene.
Actually, it wasn’t because I wanted to write the next scene. It was because I needed to. I was no longer a guy writing a book. I was a writer.
I’ve been writing for years, and I’ve spent nearly every one of those days typing away on my computer (turns out typing is faster than literal writing). People always seem baffled over how I can be so diligent and consistent, and I’ve realized something. While I did change my life in a day by going to the student store and buying that notebook, it was the mentality I used that helped keep me going. I didn’t buy that notebook with the intention of writing a book, I bought it because I knew I wanted to be someone who had stories to tell, and I had a scene in my head that I wanted to put down on paper.
This is how you should approach a lifestyle change. While it’s okay to fantasize about the ultimate goal—having an impeccable body, or never craving a cigarette again, or mastering a new instrument—that shouldn’t be your main source of motivation, otherwise you’re setting yourself up for failure. You need to work for that sense of accomplishment you feel after a day at the gym, or for beating your previous record of days without smoking, or for that new chord you just learned on the guitar.
Yes, there will be road bumps. It took me a year and a half to write the first draft of my first book because there were many times I stopped. I struggled with the next scene. I knew in the back of my mind though that I would get back on the workhorse, because I’m a storyteller and I knew I’d get an idea eventually. I never stopped because the idea of finishing an entire book seemed too daunting, and I always started again because I missed those moments when I chipped a little further into that block of marble.
So never do it for the book. Always do it for the next scene.
Clay Harmon is a writer in the Central Valley who doesn’t know much about most things, but likes to give his two cents on the few things he does.