Willpower. Habit. Feeling inspired. How does it all fit together? In my experience, the key is to build a consistent habit (or eventually, a bunch of consistent habits) so that when the moment of motivation strikes, we can be ready to make the most of it. Let me expand on that.
At the beginning, a habit is born out of a combination of feeling inspired and a bit of willpower. “Wouldn’t it be cool to ___?” we think. We imagine what life would be like now if we’d started practicing that thing a year ago. And then we realize that it would be easy enough to practice it today. But that would be useless if we didn’t practice it tomorrow too.
In this way, a new habit is born. Many new habits of this sort don’t survive long, and that’s okay. I try not to stress about it. Don’t have too much riding on any one new habit. I just observe, and see which ones stick, and then nurture them as well as possible.
And it’s important to nurture it for as long as possible. We shouldn’t think of this as a thirty-day challenge or something, or as a practice that can be discarded once a certain goal is reached. It takes so much effort to establish a habit, that I would recommend finding a way to transition it into a new goal once the first is done. If the habit’s originally about writing a poem, for instance, well then, go on afterwards to write a second poem, or an essay, or a short story, or a memoir, but just keep the habit rolling!
Once the habit exists, it exists in a pretty minimal form. We want something that we’re going to be able to do consistently, no matter how we feel or how busy we are. If the goal is reading through something difficult, maybe the actual habit is reading a paragraph a day. We shouldn’t shoot for something ambitious like a chapter a day, because that will end up killing the habit and in the long run, it will accomplish a lot less.
However, I’m also not saying that, in such an example, we’d ever need to limit ourselves to reading only one paragraph. This is where inspiration comes back into it, and this is what can make a daily habit so powerful.
If all we ever do is that one minimal daily habit, it will add up over time. Let a few years pass and see how much has been accomplished that otherwise would never have been imaginable. Those years would have had to pass one way or another, and they might as well bring with them these sorts of effortless conquests. However, it can feel a bit slow.
The beauty of having a minimal goal in place is that we have a foundation for more extensive efforts to happen. Someone who’s not reading through Phenomenology of Spirit one paragraph per day might feel randomly inspired to read the book for a couple hours one day, but probably not. Even if that inspiration does strike, the person might well not act on the inspiration to start reading the book, thinking very reasonably that it would be a bit of a waste of time if there’s no followup, if it’s just a brief encounter with the book followed by months of forgetting what was read. And even if the person does sit down and read, that reading will be better than nothing but it probably won’t do all that much for the person reading.
Now, imagine instead that the person who’s already started reading a paragraph a day is seized someday by the random desire to sit down and read the book for an extended stretch. That day, we’ll far outstrip our planned one paragraph. Maybe that day we’ll read page after page after page. The inspiration, when it strikes, is easy to act on, because we’ve been in the habit of sitting down and reading that book every day for weeks and weeks now. And when we act on the inspiration, it is not an isolated incident; it’s a flurry of activity bringing us closer to the goal that we were going to reach anyways, but which is no longer quite so far away.
Put a small habit in place and stick to it consistently. The benefit is not only that we will eventually draw closer to our goals, but also that we will have put in place a framework that allows us to harness our flashes of inspiration when they strike, rather than having to watch them fizzle away. If we can do that, we will have gained a powerful resource.