Scala virtutis*

  1. Get enough sleep, 7-8 hours night, plus naps as necessary.  Particularly important when you are trying to learn something new, think through a difficult problem, or recover from a session of writing.
  2. Eat well and often, about every 3 hours, but only when actually hungry.  Eat foods that make you feel good, not jazzed up or sluggish.
  3. Exercise regularly, ideally 6 days a week, 20-45 minutes at a time.  (Translated into Fencing Bear's terms: walk the dog twice daily, go to fencing practice twice a week.)
  4. Write (or whatever your most important work is) for no more than 90 minutes per session, with adequate breaks in between.   Schedule your writing for the time of day at which you can concentrate best (in my case, mornings).  Work gradually over time at longer projects rather than "bingeing" or "pulling an all-nighter" or "writing the conference paper/chapter/proposal in a weekend."  Set a timer, turn off all distractions, and concentrate on nothing but your writing for 90 minutes (or two intervals of 45 minutes), then stop.  Even if you do a second 90 minute session, do not try to write more than 4 hours per day.
  5. Practice sitting with uncomfortable feelings rather than reacting to triggers that make you want to fight or flee: "Whatever you feel compelled to do, don't"--the key word here being "compelled."  Watch particularly for the times when you are feeling devalued, criticized or blamed, or not feeling appreciated or listened to; these are typically the most powerful triggers.
  6. Practice paying attention.  I am astonished (and not a little embarrassed) that it took me as long as it did to learn this one, but there you go.  It's the secret I've been looking for in fencing, in writing, in prayer, and it was there staring me in the face all along.  It's all about attention.  Everything.  A.k.a. centering prayer, 20 minutes a day.
  7. "Do the most important thing first."  Ditto
  8. Cultivate thinking on both sides of your brain, both the verbal, rational, quantitative, analytic, deductive, simplifying, specializing, separating, critical, goal-oriented, sequential, systematizing, objective, literal, rule-bound, and outcome-driven capacities of your left hemisphere; and the visual, intuitive, qualitative, synthesizing, inductive, enriching, integrating, connecting, nonjudgmental, big picture-oriented, simultaneous, empathizing, subjective, metaphorical, unbounded, and process-driven capacities of your right hemisphere.  Or, if you will, empower your inner monk (medievalists will get what I'm saying).
  9. Know your purpose.  Ah, here's the rub.  Still working on this one.
  10. Trust the process.  A.k.a. God (see no. 9).  Ditto.  Just this afternoon, after a very good writing session this morning and another good session of reading after lunch, while I was out walking the dog, I felt myself falling into the usual panic, thinking about how many books my colleagues have written and worrying about why I'm not working harder than I am.  Breathe.  Sit with the uncomfortable feeling.  Trust the process.  Do not try to write more than 4 hours a day; you will burn out if you doYou did--and it has taken you over two years to recover.  Don't make that mistake again.
*Ladder of excellence, as gleaned from Tony Schwartz, with Jean Gomes and Catherine McCarthy, Be Excellent at Anything: The Four Keys to Transforming the Way We Work and Live (New York: Free Press, 2010).


  1. Dear Fencing Bear,

    Your Scala virtutis is very inspiring, thank you for sharing it!

    I have a question for the writing part. Do you set a word count goal when you write? I am currently trying to write 4 hours a day, but sometimes those yield only 500 words, and leave me so frustrated... I am so anxious about getting my dissertation done that I feel a high number of hour will calm me down, but the tiny word count does not... I would love to hear your wisdom about that.

  2. You are most welcome! Re: word count. At my best, I can write about a page, one and a half spaced, so about 500 words a day, if I am doing academic writing. This means thinking everything through, looking up sources, and so forth. Funnily enough, I wrote my dissertation on a schedule much like the one I am trying to practice now, but I lost my balance with my first book, trying to write for much longer per day. It worked, but at a cost that my body can no longer pay, not to mention the rest of my life. See no. 10: Trust the process. It will work if you give your full attention to your writing for those four hours--and then give yourself time to recover.

  3. Thank you for your advice. 500 words is not as little as I thought then, especially since I also check all my references. I have tried "free writing", but I can use it only as a way to pick my brain for ideas. I write many more words when I do that, but it is not really presentable...

  4. hey good post, !! thanks-wanted to know if yr book psalter of bvm, is available? i'm a throwback catholic, with the latin mass rosary kinda thing, so interested in 'practical' end. have the 'red'book, little office of bvm, st Bonaventure press, Montana, usa, recent 1999 reprint of bent zinger 1904 edition- so mi pregunta es...any books avail you could reccomendation on the psalter along lines of your other blog? Deo gratias, Mater Christi, Ora pro nobis. -paul

  5. Hi, Paul, welcome! No book yet: my "Psalter of the Blessed Virgin Mary" is my other blog (see link at top right). At the moment, I am using it to post a translation that I am doing of John of Garland's 13th-century Epithalamium in praise of Mary. I am also at work on a study of the Hours of the Virgin (see Fencing Bear's post "What I Did in My Year Off," listed in Bear's Best Blog Posts), but it's going to take me a few more years to finish that. Meanwhile, you might have a look at Nathan Mitchell's The Mystery of the Rosary. It's a history of the practice, rather than a practical handbook, but you might find some inspiration there. I should do a bibliography on Marian readings for my other blog!


Post a Comment

Thank you for taking the time to respond to my blog post. I look forward to hearing what you think!


Popular posts from this blog

One-Talent Wonder

Bear's Theory of Comics*

How to Signal You Are Not a White Supremacist

The Forge of Tolkien

Draco Layer Four: The Anagogic or Mystical Sense