Last Sunday I finished reading Atomic Habits by James Clear. With its tawdry promise of ‘a revolutionary system to get 1 per cent better every day’, I resisted reading this book for more than a year.
I wish I hadn’t.
It’s an excellent summary of the current research on habit-building and habit-breaking.
One of the deceptively simple insights that has stayed with me is that every action you take is a vote for your future.
If you write one newsletter, then that’s one vote for becoming a newsletter-writer. If you only ever write one newsletter, you’re not going to accumulate more than one vote and you’re unlikely to become a newsletter-writer. That single vote will be swamped by all the other votes you’re constantly casting for other future selves, whether that’s ‘master carpenter’ or (in my case) ‘internet browser’.
If you keep publishing newsletters every week, then you’re regularly casting votes for ‘newsletter-writer’ – and, more than 150 Fridays later, here we all are.
What’s made this newsletter-writing habit stick for the past three years? I think there are, appropriately enough, three major reasons.
Firstly, and most importantly, I’m accountable to my readers. I have made a promise to write something interesting for you to read every Friday and I want to make damned sure I deliver. So thank you for sticking with me. You are my habit!
Secondly, I have a set time every week that I publish: Friday. If I miss a Friday, like I did last week, then I publish as soon as I can. Missing one Friday deadline isn’t a disaster and skipping a whole week is hardly likely to cause much of a cataclysm either, but habits like this are all too easy to let slide.
As James Clear says: don’t miss twice. I’ve now got this motto written down in the notebook where I record my work progress.
Thirdly, I enjoy writing. Writing is creative, obviously, but it’s also critical. Writing is a way of being in the world. Putting words down on paper forces me to think a lot more about what I do – and pushes me to do a lot more than I think.
Writing the scripts for Foiled is a slightly different experience. Rather than delivering content directly to an audience every Friday, the accountability for a radio series like Foiled lies in making my co-writer laugh and in regular deadlines throughout the three-month writing process: pitching story ideas, drafting story beats, writing the first and second drafts, and incorporating writers room punch-ups.
What makes a writing habit hard is when there is no one reading.
Since 2014 I have written a regular diary and I’ve been aiming for at least 1,000 words per day since 2015. I have more or less managed to stick to this habit, as this count shows:
- 2014: 314,084 words across 353 entries
- 2015: 392,241 ” ” 354 “
- 2016: 327,837 ” ” 320 “
- 2017: 248,865 ” ” 254 “
- 2018: 292,593 ” ” 313 “
But in 2019 I’ve only written 159,220 words in my diary – less than half you’d expect by the beginning of December.
This year so far, I’ve skipped 141 days. On 42 percent of days, I haven’t written anything at all in my 2019 diary. Can this still be called a habit?
In comparison, during my most ‘successful’ diary year of 2015 I missed only 11 diary days, just 3 percent.
Browsing the data, it’s obvious that James Clear’s rule holds fast: don’t miss twice. It’s astonishing how quickly a habit as strong as my five-year daily diary can break down after I skip just one day.
When nothing bad seems to happen after I skip a second day, my habit easily unravels and I go one or two weeks with hardly an entry.
So don’t miss twice.
I say that nothing bad seems to happen, but my daily diary is where I work out all the kinks in my life, personally and professionally.
My 2015 diary was enough of a success for me to start putting together a collection of highlights.
Looking back over words that I wrote nearly five years ago, the value of this daily habit comes clear. I can watch as moments of realisation surface, like in this entry from 5 January 2015:
There is no such thing as a great writer or a great anyone. We are all partners. My story is your story. My story is only a story if you’re invested in it; the language of finance is not misplaced. You invest in my story; you become a partner – an equal partner, no less. My story cannot get off the ground if it doesn’t have outside investment. I need that, we need that, the story needs that.
Diary writing is one of the most important habits in my life. I can scarcely pinpoint what the diary does for me, but I know that I am better off when I am writing regularly for nobody but myself.
Postscript: There’s something similar going on with running. At first glance, the benefit of a running habit is that you get outdoors and stay relatively fit. But running is so much more than that. On my lunchtime run today, for example, I came up with six good ideas that I can immediately implement to save money, improve my fitness and get better at business. Not bad for twenty minutes’ work.
UPDATE 6 January 2021: In 2020, I’m pleased to report that my diary-writing habit bounced back, despite, well, everything. I wrote a total of 319,893 words over 335 days, missing only 8.5 percent of that momentous 366-day leap year.