I have two questions for you.
How successful do you want to be? And how willing are you to do what it takes to become that successful?
How you answer these questions will likely dictate your level of success.
Often, we see people on the other side of the hump — after they've found success. From so-called overnight sensations to the Next Big Thing, when people pop on our radars, seldom do we see the hard work that went into their climb. We think they caught a lucky break or knew the right people. Yes, luck plays a part in success, but you can make your own luck by working hard and networking.
We see the novelist who made it huge on Amazon when last month we didn't even know her name. What we didn't see were all the countless hours she spent hammering away at stories, writing book after book, perfecting her formula until she found the one that caught the attention of readers and publishers.
It's what others don't see which often makes the biggest difference.
This post is about work habits. I believe with hard work you can accomplish nearly anything.
YOU are your biggest asset.
YOU are also your biggest obstacle.
Bad habits are formed by a slow and steady accumulation of mindless minutes. As a million years of rainfall smooth the slope of a mountain, so will a million misplaced moments warp your best intentions. Fortunately, you can unlearn bad habits and replace them with good ones that will propel you forward. But you'll never unlock the door unless you look for the key.
Start by searching for the reason in your routine. Finding the “why” in what you do is an excellent precursor to rooting out the undesirable. If a bad habit is built through a sequence of negative actions, a good one can be shaped by stringing opposite elements in the opposing direction.
This post is filled with thoughts on the work habits I’ve found most critical as a writer. What works for me may not work for you. That’s the problem with reading anyone else’s list of life hacks. You don’t need a “How To,” you need a “Why Should I.” It’s the universal thread that’s important — your need to change and desire to do so. When want meets willing, there’s no limit to how high you can climb. Start here, but make your own rules. Just make sure you follow them.
1. Get Up Earlier
Writers don’t have enough time in the day. Unfortunately, we all share the same set of hours and will never get a single minute more. You probably know a few people who rise before the sun each day, bustling with energy and enthusiasm. You enjoy your pillow time, but are also envious of how much that person seems to get done and how energetic they usually are, despite rising so early.
So how can you get up earlier?
- Alarm clocks. Yes, plural. Sometimes, you need a symphony of annoying sounds to get you out of bed, especially if you’re not used to beating the rooster. Get an alarm clock with multiple settings, then schedule different alarms to ring five minutes apart. Move your alarm to the opposite side of your nightstand or set it on the floor, so you’re forced to move your head from the pillow to push snooze. Set another alarm on your watch or cell phone. You can set this 10 minutes later, but make sure it’s farther away so you’re forced to leave the bed.
- Get your blood going. Eventually, you will grow used to getting up early. At first, you must make a conscious effort to get your blood flowing. You can do this the easy way with caffeine, or start your day with some basic stretches or cold water on your face.
- Early to bed, early to rise. Your body needs a set amount of sleep each night. Though everyone is different, most people require between six and eight hours, some need even more. Figure out what time you must go to bed to get the rest your body needs. A good way to determine how much sleep you need is to go to bed early one night before a day you don't have to work or wake up early and sleep in to see how many hours you slept. Assuming you weren't catching up on a sleep deficit, this number is likely the hours you need. It might take a few days to determine your sleep needs, but it’s worth the effort.
For some people, getting up early is natural. Maybe it won’t be for you. Fortunately, you’re a creature of habit, and even if it’s hard at first, you’ll find that diligence will lead to change.
Just remember: no matter how early you manage to get up, never start your day with email!
2. Don’t Start Your Day With Email
Hitting my inbox first thing in the morning has cost me more time, money, and momentum than any other mistake I've made, online or off.
Too often, starting your day with email leads to disregarding the necessary cogs of your career and slipping false urgency to the front of the line. Dip into email first, and you might end up populating the first part of your day with someone else’s problems. Don’t ignore the needs of others, or always put yourself first, but fail to prioritize your day and it will float away like leaves on a flooded street.
Many people, especially writers, treat their inbox as a task list. Answering emails gives you license to lose focus, forces you into reaction instead of pro-action, and leaves you with more work. Worse, it’s usually the type of work that keeps you running in place. Rather than actively setting your agenda, you react to items as they arrive, regardless of actual priority.
Email is a remarkable means of communication. I couldn’t run my business without it. I communicated with my business partner every day for a year and a half through email before we ever met in person. I love email, but I’ve surrendered a ridiculous amount of time to its whims and I don’t want the same thing to happen to you.
So how should you start your day?
By slaying the dragon and doing the one thing you absolutely do not want to do.
3. Start With Your Worst Task First
Have you ever put something off for days, weeks, or even months because you hated the thought of doing it? Then, when you finally had no choice, you realized it only took a couple of hours (or even minutes!) and wasn’t nearly as awful as you expected. Every writer has tasks they dislike doing and work grinds to a halt when they try to avoid them.
The simple solution is to start with your most undesirable task first. This will help you clear your desk of the undesirable and leave you with the motivation that will make it easy to fly through the remainder of your day.
Everything is easier when you are organized and focused. This is especially true for jobs you don’t want to do in the first place. Clear your mind and workspace of distractions. Turn off the phone (unless making calls is your dreaded duty), and put away everything except your required materials. Shut down all unnecessary applications, including email and your web browser. Don’t sabotage yourself with distractions or lie yourself into thinking you’ll be able to get more done by multitasking. (Much recent neuroscience has shown that multitasking decreases the quality of your work and drastically increases the amount of time it takes to finish any one task, so don’t fall into the trap of thinking you can do more than one thing at a time!)
Start by making a simple outline of everything you need to clear the project from your plate, but don’t let yourself drown in details. Sketch your to-do’s in a logical order, so you know where to start and what to do after finishing each element. Look at the big picture as you complete each step and focus on getting the critical pieces in place rather than getting bogged down in minutia. Make wise use of placeholders and side notes, which will keep you moving forward instead of getting stuck.
Once done, give yourself a well-deserved break. Rewards are motivating and allow you time to recharge before moving on to your next task.
While it’s smart to start with your worst tasks, it isn’t necessary to do it every day. Depending on the project, try consolidating dreaded tasks (billing, coming up with article ideas, pitching editors) and designate one morning per week or month to get it all done. Just make sure you make your morning about you and do the small things that will move you forward, even if you’re only draining your brain in daily pages.
4. Keep a Journal
Most writers want to keep a journal, but it’s a habit that easily slips through the cracks. The modern writer has few excuses. The ability to store your fleeting thoughts, organized by date and safely harbored on your hard drive is worth consistent practice. Your thoughts are treasure. You never know what you will think next or where it may lead your life or business.
The best thing about keeping a journal is that it will one day lead you down a road of remembrance, reminding you of who you were and who you once wanted to be.
There are no rules in keeping a journal. You decide how often to empty your brain, how long you allow your thoughts to run, and how carefully you keep to your schedule. Benefits are countless, from a running record of your life to writing that stimulates ideas for future projects. Stay invested, and the rewards are numerous. Unfortunately, with the hectic fray of modern life, writing for yourself isn’t always a priority.
Here are a few ways to make it a little easier:
- Carve yourself a corner. Everyone needs a space where they can write without interruption. It doesn’t need to be isolated, but it should be comfortable. If you thrive amongst the steady thrum of others, perhaps a coffee shop is the perfect place for you. Maybe solitude is best. Either way, find a spot where your mind can run free.
- Prompt yourself. Try filling the first page of your journal with a few prompts that will get you writing immediately.
- What are you thinking?
- How was your day?
- What makes you happy?
The questions themselves don’t matter so much, but you need a spark if you want to make fire.
- Be consistent. The more consistency you can build into your routine, the more success you will see. When you schedule alone time into your day, and control the flow of interruptions, you will get the full benefit of your exercise.
- It’s the doing, not the done. The point of journaling isn’t to write The Great American Novel. It’s to use your private pages as a conduit, with your flow of language moving in a current from brain to page. Don’t stop to worry about the words, even if you’re only moving your pen in spirals across the page. Promise yourself you’ll show up, then follow through.
- Look forward to it. It’s easy to manufacture escape clauses for the mandatory. Consider journaling a peaceful time of anticipated reflection and you will be more likely to greet it with a smile. When journaling is an obligation, it loses its value.
- Dig deep. Some days you will write a little. Other days your thoughts will spill like blood from a wound. Those days are a wonder. Recognize their beauty.
- Above all, enjoy the experience. Keeping a journal is like inviting a new best friend into your inner circle — a friend who always listens and never forgets. A well-maintained journal holds the raw materials for a million adventures, but they are up to you to foster.
At first, use your journal to ground you. Once you find your rhythm, it’s the best planning tool you could possibly have.
How many nights a week do you plop on the sofa to watch “a little” TV, then suddenly realize it’s 11 p.m. You didn’t read the book you wanted to read, work out like you said you would, call your friend you’ve not talked to in a month, or accomplish any of the dozens of things you say you want to do, yet somehow never have the time.
Television is stealing your minutes. Even worse, too much passive media consumption can cripple your imagination, decrease your quality sleep and exercise, and pull you from the pursuit of more productive activities.
Unplugging the cable can be one of the best things you ever do for your life as a writer. I unplugged my cable because we were living on credit cards and couldn’t justify the expense, but it was one of the best things I ever did.
Imagine what you could do with all the hours you once spent passively watching TV.
You could spend a couple hours each night reading a wide variety of literature to feed your mind and spirit. It’s amazing how many writers neglect to read and are then surprised to find their creative wells are running dry.
Without the burden of TV, you could spend more time in the world, socializing and observing. It’s hard to write well when all your input comes from the blue glow of the Big Happy Box.
While some shows are incredibly well written, featuring strong characters and dialogue, even the best miss out on the subtleties you’ll notice when you spend more time with people. Even if you’re introverted, you’ll benefit by spending an hour or two each week engaged in people watching.
To tweak Benjamin Franklin's famous quote, “Early to bed and early to rise, makes a writer healthy, wealthy and wise.” Your mind and body are more connected than you may realize. While there are some artists who manage to destroy their bodies and still produce genius, why would you want that for yourself?
Don’t swear off all onscreen entertainment; I haven’t. There are plenty of high-quality series that are an absolute joy to watch, teaching me a lot about pacing, dialogue, foreshadowing, and other literary devices. Being out of touch with popular culture is never a good idea when your job is relating to readers, especially online.
Even a bit of trashy television every now and then can be good for a writer’s soul. The producers and writers behind some of the worst reality television understand how to appeal to audiences in a way most writers could only dream of. We all need brain candy, whether it’s beach blanket romances or Jersey Shore. The trick is to plan your viewing, then once it’s over, get up and do something else.
Don’t think you’re home free if you never watch television, but still spend every night surfing the Web. Every writer needs time away from whatever hypnotic glow has their attention. Unplugging will give you the time you need to recharge, get inspired, and take care of your physical, mental, and spiritual self.