Name: Annie N.
Lives: London, U.K.
Work: Middle school teacher
Hobbies: Watching T.V and movies, writing, going to Mumford & Sons concerts
There's a secret that real writers know that wannabe writers don't, and the secret is this: It's not the writing part that's hard. What's hard is sitting down to write.
In this post you'll see how Annie goes from zero to habit to realize a dream she's had since she was a little girl.
She did it, and so can you. Here's her story...
THE NEW HABIT ANNIE WANTS TO START
Annie may well be, pound for pound, the most fearless person I know. Though you might not guess it if you met her. She's maybe 5 feet tall in heels. I'd bet you a dollar she doesn't weigh 90 lbs soaking wet. And she hasn't got a huge personality to compensate. Instead, she's sweet, friendly, and a little scatterbrained.
The thing about Annie that inspires me the most is that where some (like me) might sit, think and plan forever, Annie does. Annie moves to France for a semester abroad in the middle of her university career. Annie takes a job teaching in the U.K., leaving friends, family and all things familiar behind in Canada. And when Annie imagines her own story lines for the characters in her favorite T.V. shows and movies, she actually writes those stories and publishes them on Tumblr for all the world to read.
By sharing her art, Annie has built a readership of over 1,000 complete strangers, and in the process has made friends around the world.
But Annie the Fearless is just getting started. She's going to write a novel. And she's already got the beginnings of the plot and a few of the characters in mind.
But as Steven Pressfield tells us in the quote above, the hard part about writing professionally is that you actually have to sit down and do it. That's what Annie's been struggling with.
Annie wants to start a habit of writing at least 300 words in her novel every day.
WHY IT'S IMPORTANT TO HER
Simply put, Annie is a writer. Writing stories is the creative self-expression that makes her feel alive and fulfilled. The stories she writes are her contribution to the world, and in the end will be the legacy she leaves behind.
She's just 23, so all that can sound a little melodramatic, but it's true. And if you consider how many people arrive at the end of their lives and look back with regret at not having pursued their life's purpose...well, a 23 year old recognizing hers and getting after it seems nothing but wise.
In our coaching session I asked Annie to describe in detail what her life would look like after she'd written every day for the next 10 years. What difference would it have made in her life that would have made doing it worthwhile?
The image that dominated her answer was a bookshelf in her future home office. On that bookshelf were copies of the novels (plural!) that she'd written and gotten published.
Next, I asked her how she felt, standing there in her vision, holding a cup of tea, seeing her own name smiling back at her from each spine. The words she said next were the big, important words we all spend all our lives chasing: Happy. Proud. Fulfilled. Satisfied. Successful. Validated.
WHY SHE DOESN'T ALREADY DO IT
You might wonder, if all that's standing between Annie and her dream is sitting down and writing every day, why she doesn't just do it?*
It's a great question. In fact, I think it's THE question. Why doesn't she just do it? She has everything she needs to do it. She just doesn't. But the truth is, just about every one of us could ask ourselves the same question about some important thing that we just don't do.
Usually, when I dig deep into this question with someone the answers we find are...well...they usually just aren't very good. Typically, once they are spoken in public, they feel illogical, even silly, to the person saying them.
The reasons Annie gave for not writing consistently were that way too, and she knew it as soon as the words came out of her mouth.
(*To be fair, there are probably lots of things standing between Annie now and Annie the published author, but writing every day is very likely the single most important thing she can do to move herself in the right direction.)
RECAP: HOW HABITS WORK
A habit is made up of three components that together are called a habit loop. In addition to the behavior you actually perform are the cue (also called the trigger) and the reward. The cue reminds or prompts you to perform your behavior. The reward is the good feeling or thing you get from performing your behavior.
A habit results from consistently repeating a habit loop over time until you start to crave it. How long the craving takes to show up varies widely from person to person and behavior to behavior.
My general approach to new habit creation is pretty simple. I help people be consistent with their target behaviors until their cravings kick in. I give clients tools to keep their behaviors in their attention, ideas to make their behaviors easier to do, and tactics to stay motivated.
That's pretty much it.
HOW ANNIE IS GOING FROM ZERO TO HABIT
In my experience, creating a new habit is at the same time both a simple and a complex undertaking. The guiding principles and tactics are surprisingly simple. However, their application in each unique and uniquely complex person's mind and life can be tricky.
Given the complexity involved, the first thing we try isn't always the thing that ends up working. My first bit of guidance to Annie was to think of herself as a scientist experimenting to find a combination of cues, behaviors and rewards that work for her. Anything we tried that didn't work would not be a failure, but rather a necessary part of the process.
Define What and Why
I had Annie write down specific, detailed descriptions of the action she was going to make a habit of and why it was important to her.
Her "What" (writing at least 300 words every day in her novel) could only be useful if it also included specific answers to what time of day she would write (in the evening after dinner), how she would write (on her laptop), and what she would use as a backup plan in case she lost access to her laptop or the internet (a notepad and pen).
Answers those questions bridge the gap between deciding to do something and actually doing it. If she didn't answer them up front, she'd have to answer them each time her cue happened. That would divert precious energy and attention away from actually writing.
Being a storyteller, it was no surprise that Annie came up with a rich and detailed description of how she would benefit from writing every day. She described herself in vivid detail as the successful novelist she would become. I call this a Why Story. Writing, then reading, feeling, and believing her Why Story will become a key source of inspiration, motivation, and energy for her. It will power her through the inevitable ups and downs that professional writers face.
Go Small to go Long
As I've mentioned, the game for Annie is all about writing consistently until she actually starts to crave it and her habit forms.
However, given that she is, in fact, a human, we can safely say that Annie will have days when her motivation or ability to write 300 words will be smaller than normal. Smaller even, than what's required.
There's the rub. How to write consistently even on days when she isn't sufficiently willing or able to write 300 words?
The answer? Have a version of her daily writing behavior that is sized to match. In Annie's case, the small version of "writing 300 words a day" that we came up with was for her to simply open the document she's writing her novel in. That's it. No actual writing. Not even any reading. Just open the doc, look at it, and close it down.
This can seem silly. Counterintuitive even. You wouldn't be alone in wondering what the point of just opening her document could possibly be. It only makes sense when you buy in to the idea that Annie is playing a long game. The only thing that matters at this point is creating the habit. How much actual writing she happens to do on any given day is inconsequential.
Consistency over intensity. Routine over results.
By opening her document on a day when she's in the dumps emotionally or slammed with papers she has to mark by the next morning, Annie will have kept "writing her novel" in her attention and in her life on a really terrible day. A day that she otherwise likely would have not given any attention at all to her dream.
And chances are, once she gets her document open, she'll probably write a little bit. Starting is often the hardest part. Just getting the document open on her computer and looking at it will create a little bit of momentum in the right direction. I've seen that trick work over and over again with clients and in my own life.
You might think that her small version would be better if it involved at least a little bit of writing. To be honest, you might be right. I've thought that myself. But we had to pick something to start with and decided to go with just opening her doc for now. The good news is we are just experimenting. If the first thing we try doesn't work, we'll tweak and try something else.
Build Habit Loop v1.0
At this point we had Annie's behavior pretty well nailed, both the full and small versions. But of course, nothing will happen until she remembers to do it. And doing it has to give her some kind of reward in order for her brain to ever start craving it. Enter cue and reward.
Her evening routine presented what looked like a perfect spot to insert her writing time. Typical for her is to eat dinner, clean up, then either watch TV or jump online. We placed writing her novel right between cleaning up after dinner and enjoying TV/internet. So her cue is cleaning up after dinner and her reward is watching TV or getting online.
Again, if this doesn't seem to work, we'll try something else.
Belt, Suspenders, and Backup Parachute
The last thing we did was to build in as many back up cues, rewards and motivators as made sense for Annie. These are like her her backup parachute or a belt to her suspenders.
I coach clients to pick back ups that either involve other people, visual cues like a calendar on the wall, or tech tools like apps on a phone that both remind and track progress.
Annie chose three different things that I'm optimistic will support her fledgling habit well. She asked her roommate to ask about her writing at least once a day. She also joined an online writing community that she's familiar with. And she's using the Productive app, which I use and love, and which I unpack in great detail in this post.
The biggest risks I see to Annie's new writing habit are the same two I see with most people.
The biggest risk is that she won't truly to commit to doing her small version when she doesn't have the time, energy or motivation to do her full 300 words. It's so easy to dismiss the small version as silly and useless, when really, it's key to the whole thing.
The other risk I'd call out is disruption to Annie's routine. I see this in my own life all the time. When I wake up late on a weekend or holiday I usually flow directly into breakfast with my wife and kids. At that point, I'm already behind with all the things I typically do before breakfast (e.g. exercise, stretch, meditate, etc.) and have to make an extra effort to catch up.
On those days it's usually Productive that saves me, letting me know every time I look at my phone that I've got something still to do.
UPDATE: HOW IT'S GOING SO FAR
I'll be checking in with Annie in a couple of weeks. I'm interested to ask her about a few different things. How consistent has she been? Has she had any challenging days and if so, has she done at least her small version? Has her cue been working well? Has she felt any hints of a craving kicking in yet?
It'll be interesting to see how it's going for her. I'll post an update once I find out.
Like this? Share it. I'd sure appreciate it. Thanks and take care... - Shaun