i don’t believe in “you’ve got time”

by s.

I think a lot about habit; I think I write a lot about habit. It is easy, when you are someone with a certain amount of intentions, to look first towards the actions of others when trying to account for your own inadequacies. I’ve had a number of workday conversations with a friend lately that always begin with a similar instant message cry for help: “Why can’t I get anything done?”

It’s not hard to find information about the daily habits of great creatives, particularly great writers. A rudimentary examination of this evidence concludes that the primary habit that writers share is establishing an early morning routine that encourages sitting down at the computer as early as possible. There are exceptions, of course, but more often than not, the habit is a morning one.

This works well on a wonderfully romantic level; it is a beautiful thing to imagine waking up at your lake house, putting on a pot of coffee, slicing a thick loaf of bread into toast, and settling down on the porch with a notebook or a laptop to knock out words and revisions. By late afternoon, you reason, you can reward yourself with a swim.

That is how the habits of others look on paper: like the lake houses we don’t have. They appear idyllic and poetic because they are the habits of people we envy who are doing things that we wish we could; they are the habits that we don’t have and aren’t sure we ever could. In the ideal, however, there is always a glimpse of a cold hard truth. In this one, it’s that – in the words of Broken Social Scene – if you always get up late, you’ll never be on time.

Pete and I had a conversation a while back about a couple of mutual friends who have highly respectable day jobs and keep up with their art (music, graphic novels) on the side. He mentioned that they both wake up at 5:30 in the morning to work on their own stuff before they go to work. These are not the habits of long-dead geniuses; these are the habits of the geniuses you know. It was shortly after this conversation that I resigned myself to setting my own alarm to 5:30.

It hurts less than you think it’s gonna.

There are other ways in which you know your own habits are the ones worth envying; there is something about my work ethic and my work personality that make people (knock on wood) receptive to my ideas and my efforts. People seem to like me, and until recently I couldn’t figure out what is was that set me apart. I realized, finally, after my boss calculated that a project would take me 800 hours and I just shrugged and said I was sure it would really only take half that long, that it’s simple: I do things.

The summer before I moved to New York, I got my first real job making sandwiches at my dad’s best friend’s deli. I’d already been a vegetarian for three years, but I learned how to operate a meat slicer. I learned how to make a reuben. I learned how to discreetly slide off to the bathroom to towel the blood from prime rib out of my cleavage. I talked to a lot of people about their favorite sandwiches, and I invented specials based on those favorites as I restocked gum on racks and counted the cash in registers. I didn’t seem to have an off button, and I didn’t seem to mind doing drudge work, and my boss fucking loved me. His kids fell in love with me, and I became friends with all of the completely random people who work together at a small town deli, and all of a sudden I felt like I had a great job and a family that I was about to leave for a complete shot in the dark. I knew that it was a place I could come back to if New York didn’t work out, so I left anyway, and then I found out that the rest of the world is just waiting to see how attentive you are to their sandwiches and their kids.

Paying attention is a habit that I already have, and I learned in that deli that it’s occasionally the only thing that I need to get by. I’m grateful to Kenny for teaching me how to pay attention, and for showing me that the easiest way to get things done is to just do them. He passed away today, and I hope he knew that I never forgot who taught me those things.

Our habits are also the things that undo us, and it would be easy to say something about how Kenny’s habits with respect to alcohol are what killed him, and then to mention that I have broken that habit, and then to write the whole thing up as a tidy story to include in a Chicken Soup for the Soul book. This is not, however, how real life works. What is true is that I’m examining habits, both my own and those of the people I admire, and I am walking through life in my barely-recovered-from-pneumonia state with a relatively serious new juice and smoothie habit.

I walked into my new boss’s office today, and she told me I look great. “Have you lost a ton of weight or something? You look really fit.” I thanked her, and she continued to go over a couple of ideas with me. I paid attention.

My old pal William James has a tremendous amount of things to say about habit, one of the best of them being simply that “we are all bundles of habit.” He believes, also, that our habits require a workout from our brains, and that to make them stick we must “keep the faculty of effort alive in you by a little gratuitous exercise every day.” In other words, if you want something to become habit, do it. So you wake up at 5:30, and you pay attention, and if you fall deeply in love with green smoothies along the way, you can hope that it helps to counter the bad habits long enough for you to get things done while you’re still around to do them.