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The Daily Writing Habit: What’s Stopping You From Sitting in the Chair?

Empty Blue ChairIf we did all the things we are capable of, we would literally astound ourselves.” – Thomas A. Edison


The Client

I have a client who’s been struggling to commit to a daily writing habit. A writer I really respect (and agree with) wrote that the hardest part about writing is sitting in the chair. Just sitting down and doing it. The first week, my client agreed to schedule writing time. He didn’t. The next week, he scheduled writing time, but he didn’t write or sit in the chair. He was frustrated.

I asked him to examine his reasons for not sitting down to write. I told him to look for the deeper story behind the excuse (note: these are not his actual excuses).

“I keep getting distracted.” The distractions are within your power. Turn off the internet. Put away your phone. Shut the office door.

“I don’t have time.” Really? Not even 15 minutes a day? I know people who spend more time than that in the bathroom every day! (Hey, you could write in the bathroom!)

“I’m no good at this.” Don’t let perfection stand in the way of getting things done. And you definitely won’t get better without practice.

Those are the excuses. What’s the deeper story? What’s the Why? It’ll be different for everyone, but most stories come back to fear.

Fear is deep and instinctual. Fear resides in the oldest part of our brain. Fear keeps us from getting killed. Fear is nature’s way of keeping us alive to pass on our genetic material. Fear wants us to stay exactly where we are, because it’s known, and you’re not dead, so it must be safe.

But in today’s world, most of the things we fear aren’t going to kill us. But the fear itself? If we let it, it can ruin our lives.

Fear of Failure

Fear of failure shows up in self-statements like:

I’m afraid I won’t produce anything worthwhile. No kidding. In fact, if you don’t sit down, you won’t produce anything, period.

I’m afraid I won’t be taken seriously because I’m not an “Expert”. You become an expert by doing. Your confidence and your attitude will define your authority.

I’m afraid what I have to say isn’t worth saying. One of my favorite mantras is “Ideas don’t need to be new, they need to be heard.” I don’t know if it’s true, but I’m going to keep on telling myself that.

A Confession

I have a confession to make. I’m terrified.

I only recently re-launched my freelance consulting career. And I’m terrified.

Every one of the fears I just listed above are my fears. I’m afraid no one will take me seriously. I’m afraid I’m just adding more noise to the internet. I’m afraid that if I find my personal voice, I will be embarrassed, or no one will listen.

Do I know enough? Will I be exposed as a fraud? Will anyone else ever hire me? If they do, will I be able to follow through on my promises?

It’s paralyzing. It’s keeping me in one place.

Fear of Success

So, let’s peel back another layer. Unlike the fear of failure, fear of success rarely shows up as self-talk. Most of us don’t even recognize when we’re afraid of success, so our ancient little survival-oriented reptile brains disguise it as fear of failure, or even worse, hide it under a layer of klutzy mistakes you just happen to make when you’re just about to succeed. But if you’re willing to dig, you’ll often find this much more difficult fear underneath.

Success means change. Change is uncomfortable. It’s easier to stay where you are, where it’s familiar. If you succeed, you might have to keep on succeeding. Then where would you be? People might depend on you if you succeed. You might have to do even more scary things if you succeed. You might have to work hard. You might have to be a different person.

The Hard Work of Not Changing

But guess what. You’re working hard (and I’m working hard) right now to stay in the same place.

Fear takes a ton of energy. Fear takes up a lot of time. Fear is exhausting. When we’re busy hanging out with fear, not much else is getting done.

And at the end of the day, those are the only two things we’ve got. Energy and time.

So stop spending energy and time covering your head with a blanket, resisting change, and being afraid of success.

What’s the worst that could happen? Maybe you’ll fail. And if you fail, guess what? The world won’t end. Your family won’t be thrown in prison. You won’t starve to death. In fact, you’ll pretty much be right back where you are right now, except with a whole ton of new experience to learn from.

The reptile brain isn’t going to go away. It’s a hard task to silence the self-talk. People spend years learning how to meditate, in therapy, or running away from that self-talk. Mostly, it doesn’t work.

In the movie A Beautiful Mind, John Nash was asked how he silences the voices of schizophrenia when they threaten to take over his work and life. He answers, “I don’t. They’re talking to me right now. I have simply made a choice to stop engaging with what they’re saying.”


Some advice to my client:

Still don’t want to write? Okay. Don’t write. But sit in the chair. Give yourself space to think about whether you want to be writing, why you want to write, what good things it can create for you, and how you would benefit and grow. Schedule 15 minutes, 3 times a week. Just sit quietly. Eventually, you will come away with inspiration, determination, or boredom. You will make an honest decision about whether you want to write or not. Either way, you’re creating the space to confront the thing you fear.

Some advice to myself:

Stop engaging with the voices.

Take the next little step. I already know what it is. That step will illuminate the way forward just enough to see the next step. I might not need to know the end goal right now. I just need to keep moving in the right direction.

What are you afraid of? What’s keeping you from sitting in the chair?

Want to Jump-Start Your Writing Habit? Try Gratitude!

Gratitude written in sand on the beach.
Practicing gratitude improves our happiness, our health, and our writing!

If you search “Science” and “Gratitude” on the internet, you’ll find that institutions from UC Berkeley to Forbes have weighed in, and studies have been published in all sorts of academic journals. The official verdict is in: Gratitude isn’t just a nice sentiment.

Gratitude is GOOD for you.

Among the most powerful health benefits of gratitude are improved immune system function, better physical health, improved heart health, and reduction of stress hormone levels. Improved relationships, especially when you’re expressing gratitude for your partner, seems like an obvious gimme.

It’s easy to read this kind of thing and say “Yeah, gratitude, I’ll remember to be grateful more often! Great idea!” And then? You might be more aware of your blessings for a few hours. You might say thank you to a few more people that day. By next week? Nothing. Life gets busy. We forget. Stress is such a familiar state. It’s easier to find things to complain about.

If you really want to cultivate gratitude, you need to practice. Those things that we practice become easier, more powerful, and more natural as we make them part of our daily routine.

This is Where Writing Comes In.

Cultivate a daily written gratitude practice. Every morning I take a few minutes to jot down at least three things for which I am grateful. They can be simple things: the sunshine, my home, the health of my loved ones, the awesome cup of coffee I’m drinking. I might contemplate for a few minutes on the previous day or the day before me and allow events of my life to bring new gratitude into my awareness. Sometimes I think about the things I have that others don’t. (Those first-world problems? They should be gratitude triggers!)

Write It Out Longhand.

I use a special notebook for my gratitude journal and I take the time to write by hand. Writing engages different parts of the brain than typing. When we write by hand, we tend to be more thoughtful and engaged. We learn more, processing and integrating what we write. It also helps us become better writers by slowing us down and giving space for thought between the words.

Improve the Quality of Your Writing.

Keeping a gratitude journal is great for increasing your perceptiveness. After a few days of being grateful for your house, your friends, your puppy, and your dinner, the exercise becomes more challenging. This triggers the process of thinking outside the box, exercising the creativity muscle.

Schedule Your Daily Writing Time.

Let your gratitude practice do double-duty by limbering you up for your daily scheduled writing. The hardest part about getting started with writing is often just that — getting started. A gratitude journal gives you a simple, clear way to begin every time you sit down to write.

Don’t Keep All This Gratitude to Yourself.

Back on the “good for you” front, take some time to spread your gratitude around. Share it with other people. Find at least three things to thank others for each day, either in person or via phone or email. Even a text message can be meaningful. Thanking others builds relationships, self-esteem, and a positive feedback loop. When you genuinely thank people, it makes them feel good. They’ll naturally want to do more things that will bring thanks their way.

Gratitude, like writing, is a habit. And you get better at both by just doing it. So start today, right now, and write down at least three things you are grateful for. Improving your writing might just be one of them!

Three Unconventional Ways to Improve Your Writing by Tomorrow

technology-keyboard-desktop-bookPut down that thesaurus! Step away from the dictionary! Is that a word-a-day calendar I see on your desk?

Writing better isn’t about bigger, fancier, more high-falutin’, incomprehensible, elitist words. Especially online. It’s about clarity. And brevity.

We’re busy people. The content on the internet is limitless. Ain’t nobody got time for that.

Whether you’re writing a blog post, website content, or even an email, your reader will appreciate it if you get right to the point. So here are three tips to help you improve your writing:

1. Write as if you’re writing for a fifth grader.

You might be surprised to find the best, most treasured authors in our history wrote on a fourth to sixth grade level. This kind of writing reads as bold, straightforward, and persuasive.

Use common words, be direct, and use simple sentences with few clauses. You can check the readability of your work using a site like Readability-Score or the Hemingway App. Yes, that Hemingway.

2. Cross out half your words.

Yes. Half. Write a paragraph. Check the word count. Now edit it until it’s half the words but still gets the point across. You’ll probably want to add some things back in for clarity, but as an exercise, this one can’t be beat. It’ll help you find your point and get to it.

3. Put it away.

Seriously. Put it away and don’t look at it again until tomorrow. Reading your writing with fresh eyes will help you read like the reader instead of like the writer. What you think you said isn’t always what you said. The more objective distance you can put between your work and yourself, the better you’ll be able to edit your own writing.

The BBC recently wrote about the biggest writing mistakes new grads make: not being clear. So quit worrying about perfection and start writing. The simpler, the better.

P.S. – This post scored grades 5 and 6 on the two apps cited above. Do you have other ideas for writing clear, simple copy? Share them in the comments! Happy writing!

Three Tips to Start Writing

Writing is hard work. And sometimes the hardest part is getting started. To write, you need to overcome inertia. The easiest way to overcome inertia is to create momentum. You do that by starting a writing habit.

writing on a bench

The only way to get better at writing is to write every day. The only way to write every day is to pick a time, hold yourself accountable, then sit down and do it.

Here are three quick tips to help you just do it.

  1. Schedule a time and stick to it: If you really want to start writing, you need to write every day. Pick a time, ideally the same time every day, and block it out in your calendar. Yes, in your calendar. This is an appointment with yourself, and don’t forget it. Something between 20 and 40 minutes is a good place to start. Long enough to get some ideas on paper, short enough to stay on task and avoid frustration.
  2. Remove distractions: It’s really easy to not write. It’s easy to chase internet links. It’s easy to answer email or texts. It’s easy to turn on the TV. Close your internet browser, or use a distraction-free writing tool. Turn your cell phone on silent. You’re in a meeting. If it helps, move out of your regular work space.
  3. Choose a quantifiable goal: 200 words, 500 words, 1000 words. If you have a real measurable metric, you can stop kicking yourself about “enough”. You know what enough is. Did you write XXX words today? Then you wrote enough. Did you write more? Great! (It doesn’t count against tomorrows quota, though.) Do you like what you wrote? Who cares! The goal is to start writing. Is it good? That’s completely subjective. I recommend you go with the less subjective question: is it written down? Yes? Then it’s good.

If you feel stuck during your writing time, look around the room and write about the things you see. Write about what you want to write about. Write about your audience, or what you hope to accomplish with your writing. The important bit is to get words down on paper. As you write each day, it’ll get easier, you’ll become more focused, you’ll start to figure out how to write what you want to write.

Now here’s the bad news. It takes an average of 66 days to form a habit. I know, the internet is full of people telling you that 21 days is the magic number. There’s no magic number. Twenty-one days is a myth. But habits do form. You can make writing a part of your life. But it might take a while.

So you should probably get started now.