Habit maketh the man or woman

There is something inescapably offensive about the idea of structure or keeping particular hours: if you’re a creative freelancer, the notion that you are tied to doing this work at that time just feels wrong.

Freelancing is about working through the night to meet one deadline, then taking an afternoon off for coffee because you can, so there.

But as unpalatable as it is, structure gets us where we’re going. I’m intrigued by how as writers we inherently grasp that for our work itself, for our fiction or our non-fiction, our books or our songs. Yet for writers as people, not so much.

Let us grasp together.

What if we don’t call it structure and instead call it habits? There’s an inevitable pairing where you have to put the word ‘bad’ next to ‘habit’, you have to. And I like that. Let’s get some bad habits.

Like I have a bad habit of a Friday when I always write a Self Distract personal blog. I have done that every Friday for something more than three years and so it’s a habit. I don’t get paid for it – though it’s led to paid work – and there are a million other things I should be doing that might get the mortgate sorted out, but Self Distract is what I do on Friday mornings.

It was an effort at first, then for the longest time it became a habit, now it’s a normality.

Self Distract is what I do on Friday mornings. No discussion, no debate, no postponement in favour of something more urgent.

Consequently I’ve written these, what, 150 or more blog posts and you have to think so what? But each one gives me some discipline, many have led to other things, some have been bought and then much later paid for. They’ve also taught me a lot. Plus the reason I did it, the reason for that initial effort, was that I knew what the benefits to my writing are when you have a deadline. I wrote columns for BBC News Online, I had a weekly thing in Radio Times for years, I know the benefit of sitting at the blank screen with no choice but to write something and write it good.

So I had practical reasons to do it and now I don’t need them, it is just what I do. I should say that I’ve written Self Distract for much, much, much longer than three years but it’s about three ago that I decided to emulate writer Ken Armstrong’s weekly pattern.

Three years in, I’ve also built on that habit. You’re reading a post from The Blank Screen website, a productivity site that ties in to my book wg and I’ll add you.

Every Friday I write this newsletter which is full of productivity advice that ranges from quite silly but excellent videos I’ve gathered to specific techniques and specific things to buy that will help you. I also have a thing where I confess to you exactly what I’ve done this week: I’m using you to make me do things so that I have something to tell you and I’m hoping to encourage you to write down or email me what you’ve done. So that you feel the weekly pressure too.

But here’s the thing. I baked a reference to Self Distract into The Blank Screen email newsletter. It is there every week, a specific link to the latest one so you can see what has to happen here. I have to write the new Self Distract first.

So I write that, publish it, then write the Blank Screen newsletter that links to it, then I publish that. That’s suddenly a couple of hours of a Friday morning and I suppose you can argue that it would be better spent earning some cash but it gives me a couple of important things.

It gives me a chance to natter with you, which is hugely important to me.

But it also gives me energy. Like going out for a walk when you’re tired can revive you, so I get to the keys early in the morning and having to write something makes me perform. I come away from the two pieces of writing feeling energetic and enthused.

It’s all artifice, it’s all contorted nonsense, but it’s a habit and it’s normal and it works well for me.

The lazy route to doing more

This isn’t my idea, but it’s similar to ones you’ll find all over The Blank Screen and – to be fair – pretty much everywhere you look that covers creative productivity. But there’s a reason for this: it’s a good idea.

The short version is that you should concentrate on doing small steps but doing them often. Let Steven Farquharson of 2HelpfulGuys explain his take:

I’m not going to lie…

I’m lazy by nature. Left unchecked, I would never get anything done. I always had trouble handing in assignments at school, and I always look for corners to cut.

In recent years I have become very ambitious, which mixes with my lazy attitude like oil and water. I’ve learned that most people are lazy to some extent. It is human nature to want to experience the most amount of pleasure with the least amount of pain.

I have often created vast plans for achieving my goals, but they would only work in a fantasy reality. I imagine myself turning into some sort of robot overnight that can work twenty-four hours a day without eating, sleeping, or needing to relax.
But these plans never stand the test of time.

Eventually I give up, and feel ashamed.

Does the progression towards your goals have to be this hard all the time?
No, and I think I’ve figured it out.

Daily Automatic Progress – Steven Farquharson, 2HelpfulGuys (3 January 2015)

Read the full feature for exactly what he’s figured out though, prepare yourself, it means doing a few things every single day.

It’s so easy to break habits

Well, I could do with fixing my tea drinking habit. And my Pepsi Max addition. I could lighten up on the curries too, or at least if I stopped having so many I could perhaps lighten up.

But about six months ago I made a plan – and put it in OmniFocus – that every day I would post one article to this Blank Screen news site. Just one. After a while, it became a habit. And there was certainly never a shortage of material.

After a spell, that became frustrating: there was always more that I wanted to say.

So I worked out timings and figured out the average time per article – it’s ridiculously variable – and also reckoned that doing two together would take less time than doing one then coming back later for the next.

In my head I was about to change the repeating daily OmniFocus task to “Post three new articles” and I began typing exactly that. But somehow the word ‘three’ changed itself to ‘five’. A slip of the mind.

But I tried it. And for at least five months, I did five stories a day. It got so doing the five was a normal part of my day. Until the end of September.

Then various events I’ve been producing all year came along and last preparation, new marketing and new research followed by the performance, it clobbered me and I failed.

I failed to post at all one day.

I remember sitting by the bed, iPad in hand, not really able to focus my eyes let alone my head. It was probably a sensible decision to fall asleep, even if my body made that choice for me.


Having broken the chain once, that chain became china: it shattered at the break. It became very easy to not post at all.

Now, I don’t think you were waiting for me every day. But I was. And I’m jolted by how hard it was to break the pattern the first time yet how very, very easy it was to break it the second.

So I’m back. I promise myself and you that I’m back. But do please take a telling from my admitting to having been poor like this. You can do more than you expect with a habit and if you don’t break it, you feel great.

Three years of checks and balances

I’ve mentioned this before but I’ve realised more about it. One of the key things I recommend you do is to check your bank balances every day. That’s it. It keeps you focused and, moreover, it keeps you really aware of how what you do pays off.

Now, that’s not to say that you can or should only measure your productivity and worth by how much money you earn. I’m a writer, I’d be insane to do that.

But it is a measure you can see and now that it is so easy to check our accounts online, it’s a really fast and handy measure.

The reason I’m telling you this again today is that I’ve now been doing it since 2011. Today is my third anniversary of checking all my accounts every single day: I have checked without fail 1,095 days in a row.

And this is what I have just realised: while I might want those balances to be healthier, the fact is that whenever I doubt I’ve got the discipline to do something, I can now look to 1,095 days in a row where I did.