I have ADD. I spent most of my 20’s flitting from one business idea to another.
Despite this appalling track record and a condition I could use as a convenient excuse, I’ve managed to turn things around. Since 2013, I’ve written 100’s of articles, millions of words, two self-published books, and two traditionally published books. I’ve managed to do this in roughly 3 hours a day.
All of this is the result of habits, routines, rituals, and systems. At this point, most of these things are second nature. When I don’t follow through on them, it feels as weird as it would if I didn’t brush my teeth.
Some writers avoid reading when they’re writing a book because they’re afraid of being influenced by other people’s work. But nearly all writing is influenced by other people’s work. Finding your unmistakable voice is often the result of borrowing ingredients from other people and coming up with your recipes.
I always read before I write. It’s an essential part of my creative process. I read anywhere between 20-50 pages every day, which adds up to 100 books every year.
Sometimes I revisit books I’ve already read. Sometimes I read new ones. Many of my ideas for what to write about come from sentences I’ve underlined or passages I’ve highlighted. If you want to become a prolific writer, become a voracious reader.
2. The Warm Up
After years of writing, I’ve learned that you can’t expect much from the early parts of a writing session. The purpose of the first 20-30 minutes is to get your fingers moving and let the words flow without resistance or judgment. Writers have to warm up like athletes.
And the first few paragraphs or first 500 words are my warm-up. By knowing it’s just a warm-up, you also take the pressure off of yourself.
3. 1000 Words A Day
Ever since I started my first blog, I had the dream of a book deal. But in 2013, after almost five years of blogging with no book deal, I decided to take an entirely different approach: focus on behavior and let go of outcomes. That was when I started writing 1000 words a day.
To increase your creative output, you need a system that’s measurable, within your control, and leads to visible progress.
Two years after I started this habit, I self-published a book that became a WSJ Bestseller and an editor at Penguin Portfolio reached out to me about writing a book with them.
To this day I still write 1000 words every morning. Every single thing I do is the result of this keystone habit. This habit has consistently led to ideas for articles and content for speeches that I’ve given.
4. Observation and Capturing Ideas
I’ve jokingly said one of the occupational hazards of being a writer is that everything and everyone in your life is at risk of becoming material in your books. When you’re writing a book everything is material; every conversation you have, a person you meet, movie you watch, and book you read. The fact that you’re writing a book becomes the lens through which you view the world.
5. Organizing Ideas
One of the most significant challenges that I had when I initially wanted to write books was structure. I thought you had to write a book linearly. But this one simple idea from Jen Louden changed everything for me.
Your structure needs to be linear, but your process doesn’t.
Think of it this way. Everything you write is a piece of a bigger puzzle. Writing is putting the pieces of a puzzle back together in a linear fashion.
In my writing software Macjournal, I have three primary notebooks
1) Daily Writing: This is the most unstructured of my notebooks. It’s filled with false starts, half-baked ideas, and a lot of incoherent psychobabble. The only goal is to hit my word count.
If I’m lucky, one sentence or paragraph turns into a puzzle piece.
For example, this post you’re reading started out in one of my free writing sessions. It could be a few days, a few weeks or sometimes even a few months before I start to see how the pieces of the puzzle fit together. The puzzle pieces for this article emerged over the course of about two weeks. Once I have several puzzle pieces, I start putting them together in one of my other notebooks.
2) Blog Post Ideas: This is where the puzzle pieces tend to get put together. Once something has been moved here, I look at it every day and keep adding to it. Some days I add a sentence, other days an entire paragraph. Rinse, wash, and repeat until the puzzle is complete.
3) Book 2/Current Writing Project: If something I wrote during a free writing session seems like it would fit well into one of my books, I move it here and follow the same process I do for blog posts. I also use this notebook to answer any queries that I get on a section of my books that I get from my writing coach.
Deep Work and Flow
Writing a book is cognitively demanding work. It takes intense focus and long bouts of uninterrupted creation time. Turn off all notifications on your phone, block out all sources of distraction, and for the love of God, don’t get on the internet for anything. Grab a pair of headphones and listen to the same track on repeat.
If you can get into the habit of regularly, doing deep work your creative output will go through the roof. And you won’t crave the shallow satisfaction that comes from the dopamine hit that comes from a quick social media check.
6. Getting Stuck and Taking Breaks
Sometimes you get stuck. That’s an inevitable part of the creative process. When you get stuck, the thing that makes the most sense is to step away for a bit.
Take a shower
Go for a walk
There’s no only so long you can do deep work before you reach a point of diminishing returns. For most people that is somewhere between 3-4 hours. But make sure you’re taking a break. We reduce the value of taking a break when we use our breaks to consume more information because we don’t allow the unconscious to do its work.
It’s unlikely that that your first try at anything will be a success. But that’s ok. It’s hard to be “best” right away, so commit to rapid and continuous improvements. – David Kelley, Creative confidence
No matter how much you prepare, plan, or practice, your early work won’t be that good. And the only way to get to good is to shut up and ship. Put your work out into the world. Let the audience praise or demolish you. Either way, you’re going to learn. You’re going to to get better. You’re going to improve.
After two books, I’m still ok with making mistakes. I’m well aware that things I write are far from perfect. I have verbal tics, bad habits that show up throughout my writing process. That’s part of the trick to becoming prolific. You write shitty first sentences, shitty first drafts and recognize that as Anne Lammot says “all good writing begins with terrible first efforts.” By the time you’re reading one of my published books, it’s gone through dozens of edits, revisions, and rewrites. If my first pass had to be perfect, I’d never manage to put together a sentence.
I have a friend who has been working on a book for over a year. She tells me about it every time I see her. She opens her laptop for a few minutes at a coffee shop, talks to a few people, and then leaves. She frequently changes locations to get the book done. The one thing I’ve never seen her do is to sit down and write, for an extended period, without interruption. This behavior isn’t uncommon for many aspiring authors. There’s a lot of extra activity that surrounds the writing process that makes people feel busy and productive, even though they’re not getting anything done. It’s all just resistance. If you find yourself doing anything other than actually writing, it’s resistance. The only difference between the people who finish books the ones who don’t is that they understand how to overcome resistance.
I’ve written before about the profound power of consistency. If you want to finish a sizeable creative project like a book you have to be consistent. “Binge creating” as our content strategist Kingshuk likes to refer to it, is not only an unreliable strategy, it’s not sustainable. Great books don’t get written when on a random afternoon when you temporarily feel inspired. By doing something consistently, you build muscle memory and momentum. Consistency is what causes an item on a to-do list to become a lifelong habit.
After learning about the 9 environments that make up your life, I’m convinced that almost nothing has the impact on a behavioral change that environment does. Because of this, I’m fanatical about my environment. I try to keep my desk clear of-of everything other than a book to read, a pen to write with, and a Moleskine notebook. Physical clutter takes a toll on mental bandwidth.
Anybody can write a book. But to write a book that you’ll be proud to put your signature on takes time, something that will stand the test of time, what Ryan Holiday calls Perennial, takes commitment, the right habits, and a consistent daily effort.
Coming full circle- I started this article by saying I was really inconsistent through most of my 20’s and some of my 30’s. If I was just starting out and wanting to start writing, 4 books and millions of words would sound completely unattainable. So really, if you’re starting out, just focus on getting your daily process right. These 10 daily habits and mindsets started off as one habit– showing up to sit down and write every day.
Anchor that one habit to your day, and progressively add more habits with intention. If you’d like to learn more about creating bulletproof, long-term habits, you’d love my newsletter. You’ll get a weekly article like this one and immediate access to a swipe file, where you’ll get my best tips on honing your productivity & creativity, as well as a guide on finding the courage to carve your own path, rather than following someone else’s footsteps. Sign up here.