Tangible Rewards

Last night, I was reading Dr. Andrea Bonior’s latest book, Psychology: Essential Thinkers, Classic Theories, and How They Inform Your World. Andrea is a good friend of mine, and the book comes out on 20th of this month, and so I am reading an advanced copy. Does that make me feel cool? The answer is yes. Do I feel cool that I have a friend who wrote another awesome book? (Yes, this is her second book, and yes, I feel cool.) Does it make me feel like I need to step up my game a little as a writer knowing that Andrea in addition to having her second book published also maintains a practice, teaches psychology at Georgetown, raises three kids and every once in a while makes a dress? Yes, and I’m not kidding about the dress. Andrea’s book is really interesting. In it, she explores the greatest minds in the field of psychology, and she explains, in her warm, witty, down to earth way, how their studies, ideas and experiments apply to our lives today. I’m so enjoying reading this book, one because it’s interesting and it makes me think, and two because I miss Andrea dearly, and when I read it, I feel like she is right next to me, and we are talking over tea.

In her book, Andrea asks, “Have you ever started a blog, only to have it gradually peter out after a few months despite your best intentions?” (Bonior 49) Now, I feel like she might actually be talking to me. As the readers of this blog may remember, I set a simple intention at the start of the summer to write for 15 minutes every day. At first, I discovered that it wasn’t so hard to fit this time in. I was excited to write and thrilled that I was sticking to my intention, and I often found that once I started writing, I wrote for much longer than 15 minutes. I just needed the push to get started. And then we took a vacation, and I missed a day, but I still wrote, so I thought maybe missing a day here or there wasn’t such a big deal. And then we returned from vacation, and I was determined to get the house organized before the school year started, and I skipped a few more days. And then the school year started, and on my first morning before heading to work, I made the time to write for 15 minutes, and I thought, “I can do this. I can make this a part of my routine,” but the next morning came, and I didn’t write, and that day was followed by another, and before I knew it, an entire week had passed, and I hadn’t written anything for myself. Andrea looks at this in her book too. She discusses William James’ work on the formation of habits. If we want to create new, positive habits, we need to start with “a strong and decisive…initiative” (Bonior 28). She goes on to say that anyone seeking sobriety or charting a new exercise regimen, knows well that “one day’s fall of the wagon can feel as if it’s done more to destroy your new positive habit than the six months of practice you put in to establish it” (Bonior 28). I’ve struggled with food most of my life, and I know how difficult it can be to make healthy choices consistently. However, shouldn’t committing to writing and actually practicing the art of writing be a little different? It is something I love, and it makes me feel good, so why is it so difficult to form a habit where I do it every day? Andrea’s got an answer to this too. Working off the ideas of B.F. Skinner, she explains that the reason that I, or you, might not be blogging, and here I would say that you can substitute whatever your passion is, writing, playing music, painting etc., is because our passion is not paired with tangible reinforcement. Our jobs offer a paycheck every two weeks, whereas our passions offer “vague good feeling(s)” (Bonior 49). If we stop showing up for work, there will be real and immediate consequences whereas “Aunt Edna” might miss our blog posts, but she will probably get over it.

I am sitting in a coffee shop right now while my kids practice aikido across the street. My intention when I left the house this morning was to do work, work-work. It’s September. I am a resource teacher, and I am swamped. I have students to serve, and I need to figure out how, when and where I will serve them, and then I need to communicate that message to my principals, the other teachers within my building, and the families of the students I work with. During the school week, I am teaching and nurturing and putting out fires, and some days I don’t feel like I have the time or space to think. Two nights ago, I was up most of the night because I couldn’t turn my brain off. It was processing all the things that had happened during the day, and there were so many things. But the day after that pretty much all-nighter, I was completely drained and stressed and less productive than I probably would have been after a good sleep. I was cranky and didn’t even really want to be around my kids. At the dinner table, my husband asked me if I had acquired a street parking permit for our car, and I chewed him out. I could have said no, or not yet, or I am not sure when I will be able to take care of that as I am so overwhelmed at work right now, but I spewed fire at him for asking and suggesting it was my responsibility rather than his. I was not my best self, and my family doesn’t deserve that, and my students don’t deserve that, and I don’t deserve that. So last night, I forced myself to stop checking work email after 8 pm. I took a walk with my neighbor and friend, and I vented as we looked on the stillness of the bay, so calm and peaceful compared to the turmoil I was feeling inside. I was so tired, I felt like a shell of a person. Later that night, I read Andrea’s book until I grew tired and fell asleep. I woke up at 2 am, but instead of turning on a screen or allowing my mind to endlessly cycle through the issues of the week, I read some more before I fell asleep again. I woke up again at 6 and repeated the process. I was refreshed and rested, Mary 7.0, and halfway through a really good book.

In my first blog post, I shared that I felt haunted by the fact that I had done zero personal writing during the course of last school year. This morning, as I dropped my children off at the aikido dojo and walked to this lovely coffee shop, I thought about Andrea’s words, and I looked at my failure to create a positive daily ritual of writing from another lens. I know that writing enriches my soul, my life and my interactions with others. It causes me to reflect and think and makes me a better version of myself. You would think that would be enough to motivate me to do it every day. After reading Andrea’s musings on B.F. Skinner, I’m comforted, though, by the realization, that to my brain, these rewards are not always enough. They are “vague” and out of reach, and their intangibility causes me to focus on the other parts of my life that have ‘real’ and immediate rewards or consequences. This year, I inspired ten students to write their own book by telling them if they accomplished their goal, they would receive a published copy of their book. This was a huge motivator for them, and I was amazed at how they tackled this task with gusto. However, sometimes, their writing slowed down a little or ceased completely, and during those times, I met with them, helped them talk through their ideas and encouraged them to keep going. At the end of the year, they received their tangible reward, their very own book.

Today, I made the choice to write for myself, but how do I maintain the habit of daily writing? What can I learn from William James, B.F. Skinner, Dr. Andrea Bonior and my students? In order to create a daily ritual of writing, I need to be consistent. I need to make time for my passion, in this case writing, every day. Ideally, I need to pair my passion with a tangible reward. Since I currently do not get paid for my writing, the tangible reward piece feels more difficult. However, perhaps I could treat this blog a little more like a job and give myself a deadline. If I write for 15 minutes every day, I should be able to publish at least one post a week. To create a new positive habit, I need to declare my intention boldly, so here I am saying that I commit to writing one blog post a week. Does that suit you, “Aunt Edna?”

Like my students, I also need a teacher, and I think my teachers are all of you, my dear friends, who read this blog. What is your passion, and how do you make time for it? Do you sometimes get stuck like me and fail to make time for your passion? How do you unstick yourself? (It would be oh so awesome, if you could reply.)

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