Zen & the Art of Work – review part 4

Quick interlude – writing a review of a course as a project in that course

This ultimately sixteen (!) part review is now an official project which I’ll use as the basis for applying the principles of Zen & the Art of Work. This I realize, of course, on the day I’m reviewing the video chapter on the establishment of a daily practice to install habit. Quite recursive.

What is chapter 4 all about?

This specific video chapter in Zen & the Art of Work by Kourosh Dini, which you can find out more about here, focuses on habit and the ideas behind creating and building habits. It integrates some of the ideas offered in earlier chapters into a comprehensive whole that makes very practical sense. And that is quite a feat in such a course. In terms of transformative relevance, this session approached key insights I learned in Getting Things Done, thé book by David Allen.

Key insight: what are habits?

We talk about creating habits quite often. Habits are, or should be, good, especially if you strive to adopt them. We have, of course, bad habits as well. While it is not too much of an issue establishing those, creating good habits often requires an effort. Or does it?

Kourosh’ key insight actually helped me in getting over the natural resistance I had in doing the work to establish good habits. His key insight can be found in his definition of habit: he defines habits as being with the work on a daily basis.

Note that, as in the previous chapter, there is no strive here, no concerted effort to achieve a result. No, it is about being with the work daily. Nothing more, but nothing less either.

The relevance of habits

Kourosh explains that habits are good because they will make what we want to achieve during our work sessions, a state of play, easier. Once a habit has been established, it will become easier to slide into that state of play, that state in which effort-less creating can happen.

Note that effort-less literally means with less effort, not without any effort, but the boundaries to get in that flow state will become significantly lower, because we have created a habit.

How to develop a habit

The parallel Kourosh offers is both simple and clear. He refers to touching the keys of his piano as a child every day. Herein lies one of the key ideas I’ve to date taken away from this magnificent course: do not focus on achieving a specific result, do not project into the future what you want to achieve, only to be disappointed when you do not achieve what you want to, but something else, which may be better or worse, but not what you were aiming for. Just be with the work. Just commit to doing the work on a regular, a daily basis.

In essence, what Kourosh is showing here is the application of the concept ofdeep time, applied to us humans. Dramatic change can happen if you put in a little bit of effort every single day, day after day after day, even if you don’t see the change immediately. Our problem? We want to see results now, right after we started. However, there are no shortcuts to doing the work.

A case in point: like Kourosh, our kids play musical instruments. They started out years ago, and I remember those first, hesitant steps. I also remember the second and the third year, when they had not yet achieved a certain natural practice with the instrument. And when I listen to them now, I am amazed by what they have achieved. The reason is simple: they put in the time, day after day, week after week, month after month, year after year. The transformation is amazing, but it took the time it took, because that is the way it works. Talent may be a factor, but just doing the work, producing the perspiration counts for so much more.

A side note: How to get really good at stuff

There is another level to this: the level of deliberate practice. If you can combine Kourosh’ technique with a controlled, regular practice aimed at improving specific aspects of one’s play, by practicing again, and again, and again, taking a step, and another one, and another one, we arrive at the practice that distinguishes top talent from the also rans. Not to make this about competition, but this is where the difference is often made, all other things remaining equal. If you are willing to put in the time and you do it in a correct way most of the time, you will improve.

“Habits are rhythmic streams”

As Kourosh correctly posits, it is not about how well you do on any given day. It’s about doing it every single day. It’s about creating muscle memory, just like a dancer, or a piano player would. The single session will not make a difference in terms of what you achieve within that specific session, but it will make all the difference in the world when it comes to what you achieve in the end.

Let’s examine another example: I used to have tasks like “Read 10 pages in book x.” This worked for about three days, when I ran into a day where I did not have time to read. The day after I had to make up for the pages not read the day before. With a very busy agenda and with lots of other reading to do, the reading of a book which was supposed to be educational fun turned into a chore, a burden. I actually have a couple of books on my Kindle which sit eternally at the 20 to 30% read mark. Not because they are not interesting, but because reading them became a burden, no longer a joy. This is from someone who voraciously read through the entire children library in his home town. before the age of 11. After following Kourosh approach, these tasks changed to “continue reading book x.” Even if I just touched the book and read one paragraph, I could check of the task. The self-imposed pressure was off. The reading became enjoyable again … and I have increased my reading, because there is no pressure. Not anymore.

What I learned in this chapter

This chapter is a consolidating chapter, bringing together some of the ideas of the prior chapters into an overall approach which is a very practical approach to getting some seriously relevant work done. Really good work is revisiting the work day after day until it is done, without imposing specific targets on ourselves within the confines of one session.

Deciding to make a settled decision on whether and if so, when you will be continuing this work later removes barriers to actually taking up the work again, because there are not specific targets. Starting early will lead to results without the pressure to perform and is likely to lead to better results overall.

There is a link with the Pomodoro technique in here somewhere, but I’ll need to reflect a bit more on that in the coming days.