A few years ago I wrote a piece about how writing 1000 words a day changed my life. That article resulted in a two-book deal with a publisher and became the basis for my new book, An Audience of One: Reclaiming Creativity for Its Own Sake. I’ve written extensively about how much this habit has changed my life.
The beauty of writing as a method of expressing your creativity is that it requires very little upfront investment:
- It can be done any time from anywhere
- It can be done with tools you already have (pen, paper, laptop)
- It costs nothing
Julien Smith was the person who turned me onto this habit of writing 1000 words a day. When I interviewed him in 2013, he had one of the most popular blogs on the internet, had written a best-selling book, and worked with Seth Godin on The Domino project. He’s since gone on to become the founder of a venture-funded startup called Breather. His results made for more than a convincing case to develop this habit.
It’s a habit with a minimal investment and an exponential ROI. So let’s talk in this post about how much it can change YOUR life.
It Provides You With Measurable Progress
Progress is the antidote to perfection. When it comes to results in our lives, we tend to have an all or nothing mentality.
- We hit the number, or we didn’t
- It met our expectations, or it didn’t
But in doing so, we overlook or altogether ignore progress. As a result, we shift from a growth mindset to a fixed one. To ignore progress, regardless of how insignificant it might appear is to cut off a wellspring of motivation.
If writing 1000 words seems too ambitious or unrealistic, measure something else.
- Measure the number of days in a row that you show up
- Measure the time you spend writing each day
What matters is showing your brain that visible progress is being made.
It’s powerful to be able to tell your own story.
Your life is a story made up of events, circumstances, experiences, and emotions. But who is telling that story? Is it your parents, peers, and society? Is it the gurus and pundits you place on pedestals? Is it internet trolls who hate something you’ve written? Or is it a story that you’ve written?
The habit of writing every day makes you the author of your life story. You get to decide what to leave in, what to edit, and what to trash. Instead of doing life by default, you do it by design. You shape the expression of your soul’s calling to your own liking. You start tapping the power of being able to create your own reality.
It Increases Your Productivity
Writing is a form of deep work that demands all of your attention. It forces you to avoid multitasking. One of the triggers for flow is clear goals. When you aim to hit a word count, spend a certain amount of time writing, or commit to showing up for a specific number of days, clarity is amplified, and flow is triggered. The result is a drastic increase in your productivity.
It Makes You Happier
Setting aside time to write every day allows you to disconnect from the world around you, and revel in solitude. Even if all you can manage is a brief window of uninterrupted creation time, you’ll find that a writing practice can be incredibly therapeutic.
University of Texas professor and author James Pennebaker has researched and written extensively about the impact that writing can have in healing trauma. In one of his studies, he found that participants experienced:
- Long-Term improvements in mood and indicators of well-being compared to participants writing about control topics
- Beneficial influences on immune function, including t-helper cell growth, antibody response to Epstein-Barr virus, and antibody response to hepatitis B vaccinations
- Improvements in grades
- Finding new jobs more quickly after layoffs and writing about the experience.
This simple habit that takes less than an hour a day can make us happier, healthier and more successful.
It Changes Other Areas of Your Life
Keystone habits are powerful because they have the potential to transform habits in every other area of your life. Shortly after I started writing 1000 words a day, I found myself reading more books. What followed was a meditation habit and eventually this 8-step daily routine that helped me to read 100 books a year, write multiple articles and two books.
Putting it into Action
Design the Right Environment: Half the battle of following through on any behavior is designing an environment that is conducive to the person you want to become. If you set up the right environment, it will be much easier to follow through on your desired behavior.
Reduce the activation energy: The most essential step of designing the right environment is reducing the activation energy, which is the number of steps it takes for you to take action on a desired behavior. In the case of developing a daily writing habit the following 4 steps are the activation energy required:
1) Find something to write with
2) Find something to write on
3) Decide where you’re going to write
4) Decide how long you’re going to write for
You can easily reduce the activation energy by doing a few a simple things, all of which will increase the likelihood that you’ll follow through.
1) Choose what you’re going to write with the night before
2) Decide in advance what you’re going to write on (computer, notebook)
3) Choose a space where you’ll do your writing in advance.
4) Set up all your writing tools the night before. If you use a computer, open up a word document or distraction-free writing prompt, so it’s the first thing you see when you open the laptop.
The goal is to eliminate as many steps between you and the desired action as possible. While those activities might seem small, the fewer steps there are between you and your desired habit, the more likely you are to follow through.
Always Carry a Notebook: I’ve said before that you should always carry a notebook. Our ideas don’t arrive on a set schedule:
- Sometimes they come when we are in the midst of an in-depth conversation with a friend
- Other times they arrive when we’re stuck in traffic or when we are on a 9-mile run.
A notebook is a platform for your imagination. It allows you to plant seeds not just for your ideas but for the person you want to become ultimately.
Utilize the Power of Success Accelerants
For anybody who is not in the habit of writing every day, a blank page can appear daunting. Fortunately, the solution to this is straightforward. Rather than starting with a blank page, start with a quote or something that someone else has written. Why does this work? It allows you to tap into the power of success accelerants.
Your brain makes progress towards a goal based on the perceived distance to that goal. When the gap becomes smaller, progress accelerates. For example, if the quote or passage you start your writing session with is 25 words, the perceived distance to the goal is now only 975 words. This simple idea was instrumental in developing my writing habit. It’s just one of the many reasons I read before I write.
Read Before You Write
Writing without reading is a bit like trying to cook without any ingredients. At best your stove would be covered with pots and pans. At worst, you might burn the house down. By reading before you write, you prime the brain. You give yourself ingredients. The overwhelming majority of the ideas I have for articles are the result of something I’ve read.
When you put something on a calendar, it’s more likely to get done. By putting something on your calendar, it goes from being something in your head that you want to do to a time-bound commitment. This is why despite using a combination of both, I believe that calendars are more effective than to-do lists.
Reduce the scope but stick to the schedule
When we reduce the scope but stick to the schedule, our habits don’t become an all or nothing proposition that eventually causes us to abandon a new habit altogether.
Instead of writing 1000 words, you write 500.
Instead of reading a whole book you read 10 pages.
When you reduce the scope but stick to the schedule, you stay in motion. You build momentum. And you experience progress. Progress motivates you and eventually the habit sticks.
Small Consistent Actions
People often underestimate the impact of small consistent actions, so they end up doing nothing instead.
- The desire to write 3 pages turns into no writing at all
- The desire to read a book turns into no reading at all.
It’s easy to forget that small actions add up over time.
- 10 pages a day for 30 days and you’re finishing a book.
- One paragraph a day for a week and you’re writing essays and blog posts
It’s not a lack of time, but a lack of prioritization that prevents people from doing this. Small consistent actions also build our capacity to stretch.
- Reading 10 pages quickly turns into 15
- One paragraph turns into 2
Little actions create momentum. Snowballs turn into avalanches.
We write off small consistent actions because we can’t see their impact at the moment. But that’s a bit like trying to drive from LA to Chicago, and wondering why we aren’t there yet when we’re one free we exit from where we started.
We forget that every day we have an opportunity to plant seeds and some of those seeds will bear fruit. Our job as creators is to plant seeds. A page, a paragraph, a brushstroke, with each small act of creative expression we lay the foundation for something bigger.
Don’t underestimate the impact of small consistent actions. It’s wonderful to dream and have grand visions. But too often, our grand visions prevent us from doing the little things we could do right now.
All of us who write face resistance. Resistance shows up in many forms: self-judgment, a voice of self-doubt or the vicious critic who leaves us a 1-star review. To this day, the only review of mine I can quote to you by memory is from the woman who said: “I hope this guy is a better surfer than he is a writer.” Dani Shapiro echoed my sentiment in her amazing book Still Writing:
Press many of us– including those you’d think might have moved beyond this– and you will discover that we can quote you the most painful passages from our worst reviews. We can give you a list of critics who are dismissive of our work.
Action is the antidote to resistance. With every additional word we get down on the page, we wound that dragon of resistance until we lay him out and chop off his head.
As Amber Rae has said to me once, “you want to accumulate pages, not judgments. So fill your pages with shitty first sentences and shitty first drafts. You’ll have to fight the dragon of resistance every day, but if you keep coming back, you’ll able to take him out quickly.
A daily writing habit is one of the easiest ways to reclaim creativity for its own sake and tap into the benefits of doing your work for an Audience of One.