Sometimes we have the very best of intentions to do a thing but we don’t have the tools to do it. Or we try to do everything all at once, because we want to be where we imagine we should be, once all the good habits and practices are in place.
Slow down. Time out. Take a breather.
Habits aren’t built overnight. Habits don’t even become habits overnight. They all start out the same, as Something We Just Did. Then it’ll happen again, and again and again, and sometime later it will become a habit because we don’t consciously notice it. Like how I have this strange habit of tilting my head back and staring directly into the ceiling light when I’m stuck on a scene and trying to think it through. At this point I don’t even know when or how that habit started. Maybe my subconscious decided to seek out an actual idea lightbulb in hopes inspiration would smack me in the face. Or maybe it started as a way to stretch my neck after bending forwards towards the computer screen for so long. Or both, who knows.
Unlike that habit or chewing on your fingernails, you want to consciously choose to build good writing habits. You need to be in control of what those habits are, and how you perform them, so that those habits are constructive, instead of restrictive. Think of how you learned to write. You didn’t start by scribbling out paragraphs of full and complete sentences the first day of kindergarten. You started with the alphabet, learning the letters, their sounds, and their shapes. That was your foundation for when you moved on to simple words. Then sentences. Then small paragraphs. Those simple starts of your foundation now support everything you are capable of doing with your native language. Good writing habits that promote healthy and productive skills in writing must start the same way; consciously, small, and then build as you master them.
Sound complicated? It’s really not. It’s just eating the elephant one bite at a time.
1. Start Small.
You don’t just jump up one morning and decide you’ll skydive that afternoon. You have to learn all the safety stuff, do training and practice so you know where that little pulley cord is that will let loose your parachute and save you from plummeting to a violent and squishy death. Start small and at the beginning. Set aside twenty minutes to write. That’s it. Just write for the full twenty minutes, whatever comes to mind, even if it’s just inane nonsense. Then do it again tomorrow. And the day after. And the next day after that. Write whatever comes to mind. If you get stuck with one train of thought, switch to another. Most of what you’ll produce won’t be pretty or even make sense. Neither did your first attempts at the alphabet. This first is you training your brain to do the writing trick whenever you sit down to actually write. Coherency and usable prose will come later and in editing.
2. Writing Time is Sacred. Treat it That Way.
No matter what kind of day you’re having, you can carve twenty minutes out of it for writing. Wake up half an hour earlier, or stay up half an hour later. Write in the bathroom, during commute (unless you’re driving!), while you’re waiting at the dentist’s, on your lunch break, etc. You know what your day is like. Start thinking it over and find some minutes you normally devote to something you can cut out of that particular time and take advantage of the empty space. Give up some game time on your phone, or a TV show at night, or another twenty minutes in which you’re not doing something vital. Once you have it, protect those twenty minutes like a hungry lion defending it’s first meal in over a week. This is important to you, the people around you should respect that, and so should you.
3. Reward your success, no matter how small.
All work and no play make one a dull, murderous person. Reward your successes. Congratulate yourself. Revel in any victory you achieve. You are an awesome, kick ass individual for crossing your personal finish line, and you deserve recognition for it. So recognize yourself. Positive reinforcement is the best way to encourage a new habit, it will entice you back to the computer to try again, even on days you really don’t want to. So give yourself a couple Hershey kisses, or watch an episode of your favorite show after you’re done. Whatever gets your rocks off.
4. Don’t Punish Yourself for Bad Days.
We all have them. They are, unfortunately, an inevitable part of life. Sometimes everything in the world will go wrong, or something disastrous may occur. Don’t, for the love of coffee, berate and down yourself for it. Instead, take an honest look at the day and acknowledge what happened. Was it outside your sphere of control? See it for what it is and try again later. Was it within your sphere of control, but not dealt with properly? Accept that, figure out what you could have done differently, and try again later. You’re not a bad person. You’re just human. The world has enough shitty people who will crap on you. Don’t be one of them.
5. Hold Yourself Accountable.
Accountability is one of the best ways to keep on track. That’s why I’m making my Doneness Project public. You can certainly achieve your goals in private, but it helps to have some kind of audience, whether it’s family, friends, or everyone on the internet. They can be there for support, for advice, and for a kick in the pants when you need it. Best of all, you’ll find people who believe in what you’re doing, and you may inspire them to take action themselves.
6. Push Yourself To Do Better
Once you get the hang of the twenty minutes, push to forty, or do another twenty minute stint during the day. Or, if you like to work by word count instead of time, set a higher word count goal. You should never linger too long in a comfort zone of something you’ve fully mastered. Push yourself to do a little bit more. When that’s been achieved, set the bar a bit higher. You don’t become a master by dithering around in the minor leagues forever. You should always expect yourself to reach a bit higher than where you currently can stretch.
7. Take It All Day By Day
“You can eat an entire elephant if you do it one bite at a time.” That is one of The Mom’s favorite sayings when things get overwhelming. And that is definitely true. Most goals, when viewed at a distance, can be daunting by sheer size alone, not to mention all the steps and preparation and planning and skill one needs to acquire before getting to the top of them. Do not panic. Keep one eye on the big picture and the other squarely at ground level, continuing to move up as you accomplish new skills. Bite by bite, you will devour your elephant. Just take it slow, be kind to yourself, allow yourself room to be human, and never stop aiming for the next level.
You’ve got this, guys. Just take the first step. Then take another. And so on and so forth. Eat that elephant down to the bones. I bet you’ll be surprised at how quick you actually progress.