I wanted to write a book this year
I started My Sweet Dumb Brain instead.
I started this newsletter out of avoidance.
My goal for this year — the year I was bold enough to quit my full-time job — was to write a book. And unless something miraculous occurs in the last seven weeks of 2018, that’s not going to happen.
I thought the problem was that I didn’t have the talent or know-how to write a book. I quickly got discouraged by how ambitious the process was, and distracted by all the other work I said yes to this year. The real problem was that I didn’t have any of the habits in place to make a book actually happen.
As anyone who’s read Bird by Bird and On Writing knows, the act of writing books is an act of discipline. You have to actually write the damn words and you have to do it consistently.
After months of not writing and berating myself for not writing, I started dreaming about a newsletter instead. I didn’t know how to write a book; that’s true. I do, however, know how to write a newsletter. I started The Cohort in 2016, and missed the regular routine and connection with readers. I wanted to flex those muscles again.
I’m so glad I did. This the tenth issue of My Sweet Dumb Brain. That’s arguably a small milestone. But it’s a milestone nonetheless, and it’s one I’m taking some time to reflect on. Ten issues means that I’ve written 10,000-some words. Ten issues means hundreds of subscribers and plenty of feedback on which topics resonate with others and why. Ten issues means 10 different opportunities to open up and be vulnerable. Most importantly, ten issues means that I’m well on my way to developing productive writing habits and a regular writing routine.
Instead of giving up on writing altogether, this newsletter gave me another way to reframe my goal. I’m not nearly as consistent or prolific as many of the Real Writers out there, but 10 weeks in, I haven’t missed a issue yet. That’s something!
Developing good habits or quitting bad habits can be a difficult and frustrating process. In order for a habit to truly stick, you need to want to change the habit, and you have to give that process time and patience. It’s also worth mentioning that what you consider “good” or “bad” is subjective and will shift over time. I define a good habit as one that generally makes me feel centered and calm, brings me joy, or helps me work towards something beneficial.
I’m currently taking a habit-building online course, and there are three concepts that have really stuck with me so far:
Tackle one habit at a time. It’s tempting to want to change all the things at once, but that’s when we’re most likely to let habits slip. Picking one small habit is key, and it often might not be the most obvious behavior to begin with. If our goal is to wake up at 6:00 every morning, it might seem like the habit you’d want to focus on is setting your alarm and not hitting snooze. But the first habit to get you toward your early-bird goal is probably something closer to avoiding screen time after 9:00 p.m., which will allow you to get to bed earlier. If you focus on adopting that habit first, the others will more easily follow.
Doing something daily is the easiest way to build habits. It’s easy to forget about habits when we’re trying to do something every other day, only on weekdays, or a couple times a week. If it’s not possible or realistic to do the same behavior daily, try adopting what Sarah Von Bargen calls a “bookmark habit” — something similar you do on your days off. If you want to run three times a week, go on a walk at the same time during the remaining days. If you want to make your bed daily, keep up the habit on the road by making your hotel bed, too.
Track your process, not your progress. Changing habits is haaaaard. And progress is slooooow. I often wind up getting discouraged and abandon the effort before it has time to stick whenever I don’t see immediate results. Tracking your process (i.e. how many days you’ve stuck with your habit) is much more effective and can be less psychologically damaging.
I don’t have a consistent writing routine in place. I haven’t figured out how to be the type of person who lets the words flow freely instead of stumbling over the details. I haven’t identified a time or place that helps me get into the best mindset for writing. I’m not even entirely sure if I write better in mornings, afternoons or evenings. There’s a lot I haven’t done.
I do, however, have 10 issues of a newsletter completed. I’ve taken some baby steps, and can keep building from here. Maybe 2019 is the year I write a book. Or maybe it’s the year that I set the habits in place to become a consistent writer. That sounds like a goal I can get behind.
Good job, brain
I'm currently reading: Small Great Things, by Jodi Picoult. (Related habit tip: Build in accountability! I wanted to read more this year, and the routine of sharing my current reads each newsletter has helped a lot!)
I’m currently inspired by: Every single person who voted yesterday. Thank you.
I'm currently aiming to: Write like a motherfucker. This advice will never, ever get old.
Make it Stick Habit School is a bit of an investment ($97), but I’ve found it incredibly helpful in terms of reframing habits and helping me understand why certain behaviors haven’t stuck in the past.
“Don’t break the chain”: Jerry Seinfeld’s productivity secret.
If you’re the techy type, here’s a thorough list of habit-tracking apps.
For your sweet dumb brain
If you want to try adopting a new habit or kicking an old one, spend some time really thinking about why you want to change that habit and how the new approach will make you feel. Visualize what success will look like! And before you dive in, have a contingency plan in place for the days when you can’t complete your habit. Simply put, do some deep thinking and planning before you approach your next habit, and you’ll have a better chance of achieving success.