“Thrift is poetic because it is creative; waste is unpoetic because it is waste.”
― G.K. Chesterton, What’s Wrong with the World
Here’s a confession for you: I waste a lot of time. If something I want to accomplish has no deadline or other time-related penalty, I tend to put it off. And I don’t just procrastinate the simple things, like dusting or organizing my desk. I avoid things that I find deeply fulfilling, like reading good books or writing about things I care about. Instead, I spend hours on websites like Facebook and Netflix, letting potentially productive time melt away. I consider it one of my greatest flaws.
It bothers me because I want the things I do to lead me somewhere. Activities like browsing YouTube resemble treadmills – you spend a lot of time going nowhere. Activities like reading and writing are like cross country runs – there may be some rocks and hills along the way, but by the end you’ve arrived somewhere new.
I don’t think I need to prove the case that hard work typically yields better results than laziness. I want to work hard because I want rewards that have long-term worth like knowledge and perspective, not watered down rewards that diminish quickly, like the simple pleasures of procrastination. So I guess the real question I want to explore is: how do I get myself to choose the open road over the treadmill?
Not long ago, I would have said something vague about the need to get inspired. If a book didn’t entrance me, I wouldn’t give it my time. If a blogging prompt didn’t practically write itself, I didn’t waste the ink. This was just how I thought it was supposed to work: inspiration was a required prerequisite for hard work. This mindset yielded nothing but procrastination and general laziness. The real key to developing habits of productivity, I now believe, is self-discipline.
In his book After You Believe, author N.T. Wright says that we ought to develop “moral muscles” by practicing good behavior consistently to the point that “it becomes second nature.” When we do a certain thing with regularity, he writes, “new patterns of wiring are being put down all the time, corresponding to the choices we make and the behaviors we adopt.” Regularity demands discipline. So what does this look like in practice?
Benjamin Franklin was all about virtue – so much so that he built a daily routine that was intended to provide his life with the structure and organization he needed to accomplish great things. (And apparently, it worked.) As an experiment, I tried to apply the same structure to my own life for a weekend.
Surprisingly, the hardest part was not waking up at 5am. What was far more challenging was keeping work and play separate. Checking Facebook is such a habit of mine that it was a huge struggle during my reading sessions to resist the urge to reach for my phone. But when I set up those strict boundaries, with work on side and leisure on the other, it allowed me to sharpen my focus and give my reading and writing the attention it needed. The weekend was challenging at times, but it’s convinced me to make some significant changes to my routine that will hopefully stick.
It remains to be seen if this experience will help me in the future when I’m, say, trying to choose between a good book and a funny video. But I think that might be the hardest part about discipline. My current habits have me hungering for a seed that will sprout the moment I plant it. But disciplines must be tended consistently to ensure a future bountiful harvest. A great reward requires great patience. The growth of seeds can’t be immediately observed, but every day I need to make sure they get all the nutrients and protection they need, in anticipation of their future. Hopefully, with time, my new habits will become like second nature. Until then, I’ll have to keep working towards the time when the green leaves of what I’ve planted begin to peek out from the soil.