For the last fifteen years, I’ve wanted to pick up music again. That’s one of many things on my “want to do” list. I want to exercise more, wake earlier, sleep more, and meet interesting people. Somehow, my motivation is never enough.
I can focus on these things for a while, but before I know it, I’m on Reddit watching animated gifs. I push off the things I want to do because they’re difficult. After all, it’s easier to watch old episodes of House on Netflix than write blog articles.
I want to write better, but it’s tough. You need to know your audience, research your topic, outline your article, put it in sequence, write a draft, rewrite it, rewrite it again, and if you haven’t given up by then, publish it. If you’re new at it, every step is harder and takes longer than you want.
For me, a typical writing session looks like this:
- Sit down at the computer
- Open a blank document with the best of intentions
- Stare at the blinking cursor for about ten seconds
- Remember that there is an ever-expanding internet for me to browse
- Browse the internet
- Repeat steps 3 through 5 twenty times
- Complain to myself I couldn’t write today
Browsing the internet is a million times easier than writing. Why? I have twenty years of experience. If there was an achievement badge for wasting time on the internet, I’d have it.
Why all this delaying? I want to sit at the keyboard and have my keystrokes turn into beautiful sentences, and then have those sentences become the most delightful and inspirational assembly of words humanity has ever read.
Instead, my sentences look like this:
Hello, I’m Dan. I teach you to write good things. Do you like writing too?
What makes writing hard is my need to be good at it now. I want those flowing sentences now.
I see what I just typed and realize it needs a lot of work.
My god, just that one sentence is terrible. How can I keep going?
Writing Expectations vs. Writing Realities
Before I write, my brain dreams up wonderful sentences. Somehow, the trip from my brain to my fingers doesn’t work out.
I compare my work to writers I look up to and feel I’ll never be like them. Realizing how long and difficult my journey will be makes me want to throw in the towel and watch hours of a hydraulic press crushing stuff.
I forget these “better” writers didn’t become great writers overnight. They, too, were learning at one point.
Writing is hard, but it’s easier if you manage your expectations, especially at the beginning of your journey. Getting better means you keep writing even if the finished product is bad.
Granting yourself permission to be bad is the first step to getting better.
Just about everything is challenging until it becomes a habit or skill. Once something becomes a skill—a habit honed over time—it gets easier. You must put in the work now to be proficient later.
If you put in the work (e.g. write something) you can get feedback. Without doing the work, you’ll never see what you’re doing right or wrong.
You didn’t learn to ride a bike by dreaming about how well you’d do after you started pedaling. You needed feedback in the form of scraped knees and grass stains. After enough of those, you knew what not to do. Today, the memories are buried deep in your brain, and you can hop on a bike and ride it without thinking.
I’d like to sit down at my computer, start typing, and have it be as easy as riding a bike.
To build this habit, I’ve come across two useful techniques.
The Two Things I Do to Write Every Day
There were countless times when I wanted to write, but didn’t. I sat down, got distracted, then complained to myself that I didn’t have time to write. Or, I wrote a ton one day, then never looked at the material again.
I tested different ways to motivate myself and found two things that stuck with me; self-accountability and low-stakes writing.
I promised myself I would journal a minimum of one page per day.
Some people suggest using accountability groups or partners. I’ve tried this for other activities and found being accountable to myself worked the best. Cultivating my own desire to write each day is more important than having others hold me to it.
A partner may give me grief for not doing something, but then I’m off the hook. Nobody makes me feel as guilty as I do when I miss my goals.
Here’s how I picture it: Five years from now, if I don’t work on a skill, I’ll be the one to regret it. In that same span of time, my accountability partner will have forgotten all about it. Why shouldn’t I be accountable to myself?
It’s been challenging to find the time to journal. After sticking with it, daily journaling started to pay off. It became more of a habit versus something I had to fit into my schedule. Instead of pushing myself to write, writing began to pull at me.
Each time I wrote, it became more comfortable. Since I was writing and not just thinking about it, the task became less daunting. Plus, each day I was more accountable to myself.
Over time, I grew more serious about writing. Instead of trying to fit writing into my day, I scheduled it at the beginning to be sure it was done. I tracked each day I journaled, and soon I had a chain of days I didn’t want to break.
As I write this, my writing streak is over four-hundred and twenty-nine days in a row. If I break that chain, no one will make me feel the disappointment like I will.
Writing takes a lot of effort; carefully selecting the right words to make pretty sentences, ensuring one paragraph leads perfectly into the next, etc. If you’re not used to it, it’s even harder.
Many times I would over-think what to journal about. To avoid this, I used a technique called freewriting, which I first discovered in The Artist’s Way. The basic idea to write whatever is in your stream of consciousness. The topic didn’t matter, nor did grammar or spelling.
If I didn’t have anything to write, my solution was to scribble “I have nothing to write about” over and over.
Allowing myself to spew anything onto paper helped me avoid over-thinking. I could keep my inner editor locked away and write without judgement. This put the focus on the writing habit rather than writing well.
My daily goal was one to three 8 ½” x 11” pages. One page only takes about ten to fifteen minutes. No matter how strapped for time I was, ten to fifteen minutes was always doable.
Whoa, wait… Three pages? Handwritten? That’s hard.
Like anything else you’re trying to learn, it’s hard… at first.
Freewriting without critiquing myself wasn’t easy. At first I found myself carefully selecting my words and sentences when I had no reason to. Over time, the need for quality control went away, making the process easier.
The same low-stakes technique also helps me develop other writing that I may publish. It allows me to brainstorm an idea without focusing on the details. Later, I can work on revising those details into something more refined.
Wins from Self-Accountability and Low-Stakes Writing
Combining self-accountability and low-stakes writing helped build my writing esteem. Do I publish everything? No. When I do, it makes me feel better about the finished product.
These two techniques can be used beyond writing. If you want to learn to draw, you do it each day and don’t judge the final product.
Do any activity daily, and it will eventually become a habit. The habit pulls you to work on the activity. Working on the activity will give you feedback on where your challenges are. Feedback on your challenges will allow you to learn. Learning will make you better at the activity. Once you know how to do something, it becomes easier to start.
What are some areas or activities where you could combine self-accountability and low-stakes results? I’d love to hear from you.
(If you’re looking for a group of writers to hang out with, come join us at the No BS Writer’s Club!)