Listen

This blog is about how, when I was stuck, stopping got me started.

For much of the last two weeks I’ve been working on the most important Field Guide I’ll ever write: the Hard Not Complicated Field Guide to Designing your first Daily Practice. This Field Guide will form the foundation for all the other Field Guides that follow it. And it has been hard going.

Writing Field Guides is so much harder than writing almost any other kind of material. I’ve written blog posts, interviews, scripts, instructions for games and exercises, and they all require a different sort of attention to detail. This sort of thing – the blog post – is the easiest of all for me. I can be relaxed in my language, fairly loose in my structure and all I really require is that the reader understands the general thrust of my argument.

Field Guides are different. The reader of one of my Field Guides needs to be able to walk away and feel ready to do something. Any ambiguity in the way I write, any missing elements, could lead to confusion and a failure to act. Go on too long and the reader may skip ahead, missing important information. Try to cut too much and I may leave out something vital.

Unlike the instructions for games that I play, which also require clarity and strong communication, I’m not going to be there to answer questions and to help out when someone reads my Field Guides. Once this is out the door, it has to be able to fly on its own.

And while a Field Guide should be fun to read, entertainment is the second level priority. Sometimes I write blogs that are mostly for fun! Field Guides are a little more hard working in that regard.

But sometimes it isn’t the challenge of the writing style but an issue of content that is the problem.

The Hard Not Complicated Field Guide to Designing your first Daily Practice Has three main parts:

  1. Authentic Insight – understanding your relationship with creativity
  2. Sustainable Action – turning your insights into knew habits
  3. Practical Expertise – applying your new habits to your life and work

Authentic Insight was easy for me to write. This is very much a coaching conversation at the basic level. I knocked that out pretty quickly.

Practical Expertise almost writes itself. In many ways it is a mirror image of Authentic Insight but rather than looking inside to how you relate to creativity this step looks at how you and creativity relate to your world.

But Sustainable Action had me stumped. It wasn’t that I didn’t have anything to say. In fact it was the opposite. I had too much and I didn’t know what to hang it on.

One piece of advice I give my clients when they come to me not knowing what to do is to listen to George Harrison’s Any Road. Not only are we treated to a very catchy pop song but we also learn that:

If you don’t know where you’re going, any road will take your there.

I’ve always taken this to mean that you should just start walking and eventually you’ll figure out where you’re going. But another way to think about this is that sometimes you need to stop and listen. That’s what happened to me.

While writing this Field Guide I’ve developed a deepened interest in the science of habit formation. Until just this week I hadn’t suspected that my increased interest in this area might have been more than coincidental. But when I came across the topic of how new routines become driven by a craving for a specific reward, more even than the reward itself, it clicked for me that my unconscious mind had been incubating all this time, quietly nudging me towards the information I needed.

At the centre of building Sustainable Action is the question of how and why some things become long term changes and others remain short term interests, it turns out, is to do with, among other things, how the mind responds to the anticipation of a reward. That is to say, once we begin to see the reward response in the brain before the reward has been received, what we’re seeing is a craving. Used well this craving can drive us towards any action we choose.

For instance, I enjoy yoga and I have come to anticipate and crave that post-yoga feeling of relaxed accomplishment. That moment when I feel at ease and physically rejuvenated. In many ways I think of yoga as meditation with movement because that’s the exact same reward that drives my meditation habit.

There’s lots more on this in the Field Guide itself but for now I want to focus back on how I came to find this little nugget that helped me finish off the chapter. It came about, not through hard work and focus but through stepping back and thinking, not hard, but softly.

Often when stuck we are habituated to pressing on, pushing through. Not only is this stressful it’s sometimes counterproductive. If you don’t know where you’re going, sticking to the one road that’s not working for you is maybe the worst choice. But how to choose a different road?

Before you can change direction you need to know that there are other directions to go in. When I let myself step back from my work and gave in to my desire to learn about habits, I realised that my unconscious mind had been calling me, trying to bring my attention to the answer that, on some level, I knew was there.

So that’s the lesson I’m sharing. It’s Hard Not Complicated, of course. Sometimes, when you’re stuck, when you don’t know what to do, it helps to stop and give yourself permission to do nothing. Letting the mind quieten down is the only way to hear the clues you might be missing. Being willing to become less focused lets you see what might be just outside of what you think you should be looking at.

As Yogi Berra once said:

You can observe a lot by just watching

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