Entry 8: Practice Makes Habit
Editor’s Note: This is the eighth installment in Van Jackson’s daily writing journal, “Nuke Your Darlings,” which tracks his six-month battle to write a new book on North Korea. Will he meet his deadline?
I made it to the beach both days this weekend, which makes life feel lighter. A guy could get used to summer weather at Christmas. More importantly, I also managed to write 1,487 words, though the footnotes were meatier than probably makes sense for a book meant for a broader readership. I finished the section of Chapter 3 on how North Korea thinks about coercion, and made a dent in mapping out some of the risks and rationales for North Korean nuclear first-use.
Last week, several friends asked about the volume of my writing. Specifically, how did I write the amount of words I did last week and still churn out a thousand-word op-ed on the new National Security Strategy? First, high-volume, rapid-fire writing is the stock and trade of policy pundits. I’m not especially prolific compared to some of my friends and colleagues.
Second, I’ve published previous versions of a lot of what is going into my book before. In the current chapter at least, I’m really consolidating and re-writing a lot of disparate threads I have floating out there already into a single tome. I doubt I could write another book about a different topic at this same pace. Third, practice makes habit, and I got into the habit of writing a lot everyday a long time ago.
I studied Brazilian jiu jitsu for years and the head instructor of the school where I trained was fond of barking, “Practice makes…what?” Then he’d pause, baiting the newbies to shout “Perfect!” He’d then laugh or shake his head, and say “Habit! Practice makes habit.” This is sort of profound. His point was the Aristotelian maxim that you are what you do repeatedly. If you’re on the mat all the time but your technique is sloppy, you’ll become a fighter with bad habits that may haunt you in a fight. Practice makes habit.
When I worked in the Pentagon and was doing my PhD (at night), I got in the habit of writing a lot in spare moments, at nights and on weekends. In a lot of ways, writing helped exorcise the stressors from work. Most of what I wrote never saw the light of day. I’ve written lots of garbage, and lots of half-finished articles. But I wrote all the same. Post-PhD, I never stopped. When I entered the think tank world, suddenly I had professional incentives to write all the time, but for public audience rather than for me.
I can write a certain number of words per day now without feeling too much strain or effort because I got in the habit of doing it as a release. But I can only put maybe, at most, a thousand words per day into a long project like this book before the act of writing starts feeling like it’s draining me. But even once I hit that wall I’ll still have words to give to other things.
So I can give 600 words to an op-ed, or 500 words to an in-progress journal article, or 400 words to #NukeYourDarlings. No sweat. Why? Because it’s habit, and habit’s not hard. If I could channel all these words into a single writing project, then I’d impress myself. Instead, my daily words get spread across numerous projects, watering down how much progress I can make in a day.
Van Jackson is a senior editor at War on the Rocks.