There are a number of books I return to time and again for inspiration. Among those in the non-fiction category, Made to Stick and Switch by Chip and Dan Heath are easily in my top 10, so I was thrilled to have the opportunity, once upon a time, to participate in a Switch Bootcamp offered by Dan. It was a full-day affair packed with lots of great content and conversation, but one brief exercise we did jumped out at me as particularly in the spirit of Mission to Learn.
The exercise, derived from the Heaths’ overall framework for change, was aimed at identifying “bright spots” in our efforts to establish habits and achieve personal goals. As we went through it, I realized that it was a simple, but effective approach to the sort of reflection and goal-setting I often advocate here on the blog. Here (with Dan’s permission) are the steps:
1. Identify a goal you want to achieve with a simple “I want to ___” statement.
I decided to go with “I want to spend more focused time writing songs.” It’s something I used to do a lot of, but rarely make much headway with these days.
2. List out three or four times/circumstances in which you have previously been successful in achieving or making significant progress toward the goal.
For me, my most consistent and longest string of song writing was way back in ye old days of graduate school, and to a certain extent, before that when I was playing music more with other people, rather than just on my own.
In more recent times, it’s usually been some sort of special occasion – like my son’s or daughter’s birthdays – or possibly just a bit of down time on vacation that has prompted to finally come up with something new.
3. Identify the factors that made you successful in these circumstances
The obvious one for me was that I simply had much more free time back in graduate schools days and earlier, but that realization was not very helpful – I do a reasonably good job of blocking out the small amount extra time I can find for writing in general, but that hasn’t resulted in much song writing.
But the process of reflecting made me realize two other factors.
One was that I usually had some sort of clear focus that drove my past song writing – like writing a song for a some special occasion or putting together some new tunes for a show.
The other was that I tended to read a great deal more poetry and fiction at the times when I was most prolific, and I also tended to go to more live music shows – in other words, I was exposing myself more to things that probably helped to spark the type of creativity I needed for writing music.
4. Come up with specific actions that help reproduce successful times or remove barriers
Simple as it sounds, the fact that something other than “more time” might spur my song writing was a revelation. Finding more feels like getting blood from a stone, so I need to get more out of the time I have.
One specific action I’ve taken is to mix up my reading a bit more. As fond as I have become of non-fiction – like, er, Switch – in recent years, I needed to get back to reading more poetry and fiction.
And, I needed to start listening to more music again. Getting out to shows with any frequency wasn’t much of an option even before we got hit by a global pandemic. A much more realistic approach, which I have now adopted as part of my morning routine, is to listen attentively – i.e., not just background music – to at least one or two songs by interesting singer-songwriters daily. I try to mix up as much as possible and not just listen to old favorites but also to newer songwriters whose work I may not know all that well.
This listening practice also leverages another idea from the Heaths – I used making my morning coffee as an “action trigger.” As soon as I have that cup of coffee in hand, it’s time to listen to a couple of songs, note what I’ve listened to, and then spend at least 10-15 minutes, if not more, jotting down some lyric ideas of my own. It’s amazing how much my new song production has gone up based on just this small amount of daily effort.
Finally, I also needed to figure out a focus that would drive me to writing more songs – the pandemic has interfered with this some, but I started actively participating in a local songwriters circle and I’m looking for more opportunities to play publicly.
So, that’s it. I’ve served myself up as a guinea pig here with the hope that you will see how very easy and yet incredibly useful this exercise can be. Give it a try, and please comment to let me know how it turns out.