6 Lessons I've learnt from 52 weeks of writing | Just Reflections #52
I've been writing every single week for the last 52 weeks. Here's what I've learnt from it
Before we start, a bit of housekeeping for those of you who might not make it to the end.
If you’re listening to the newsletter, you’ll be surprised to hear that I have an AI reading for me today. I have been struggling with reading out loud that I spent a bunch of hours on Friday and today building a little app that uses Microsoft’s Cognitive Services Text-to-speech models to turn your articles into audio. So you just give it a link or a text file and it will send you back audio. I think this will be useful to me beyond Just Reflections because I have many situations where I want to read something, but I’m in a spot where it would work better to just listen. The app is mostly done now I just need to improve the voices, but I haven’t made it public yet because I don’t want to rake up a huge Azure bill but I’m happy to share it with my readers, so if you want early access, just reply to this and I’ll send you a link.
Today is issue number 52 of the Just Reflections newsletter. I’ve been writing every week for a full year now. As I promised here, from today onwards, the newsletter will switch from weekly to fortnightly (or bi-weekly for those of you who enjoy weird English). So the next issue will be on the 1st of August 2022.
The reason for the change—as I’ve explained before—is to give more time to improving the quality. Year one was really about building a consistent writing habit. Year two is about improving the quality of the articles by giving each one more time. So I aim to write the first draft by the end of the first week—as I’ve been doing—and then spend the second week improving it so that it’s ready to publish by the end of week two.
Let me quickly give a disclaimer here. Writing—or doing any other creative pursuit—on a schedule is hard. You can’t schedule creativity. This means you’ll have hits and misses. Creativity is a delinquent rebel that doesn’t want to be boxed, so don’t expect magic from me. But do expect that year two will improve on year one.
With that out of the way, let’s go!
Show up, anyway!
I’ve been writing every week without fail for 52 weeks. There aren’t many things I’ve done that consistently for that long out of volition. So I feel like a real achiever right now. When I didn’t feel like it, I wrote. When I was on vacation, I wrote. In fact, even when I had COVID-19, I wrote. Rain or shine, I stuck to it.
It hasn’t been easy though. There were weeks when I was exhausted because there had been many things happening that weekend. I’d be dosing off at my desk cooking up something for all of you. Sometimes I didn’t feel like it, but you know what? I showed up anyway! For all of you, my faithful readers, of course, but mostly for myself (there’s really some psychological trickery in this maintaining a streak stuff).
It’s amazing to look back now and see how far I’ve gone. It’s a great feeling to refer to my work when I do other work.
Stop planning and do it
There’s yet another more important reason for showing up. When you have a goal to do a creative pursuit more consistently, you may be tempted to spend a lot of time planning it out. But trying to plan your way to creativity is a mistake.
Look; I love to plan, however, for creative things planning too much is likely to paralyze you into inaction. Creativity flees when you’re trying to ensnare it in your plans. It likes to catch you while you’re busy doing.
Until you’ve built a habit, planning is the enemy of consistency. You want to eliminate the decision and make it a foregone conclusion. I wrote consistently because when Sunday came; I wasn’t stopping to decide whether I’m writing today. Sunday meant I’m writing, whether or not I want to, regardless of what’s happening. I just got on my computer and wrote. If we spend too much time trying to create the perfect plan for the perfect execution at the perfect time, we’ll burn all our energy preparing and never actually get around to doing things.
So don’t wait until it’s the first of the next month when it’s a round figure to go to the gym, go now. Don’t wait for summer to end, don’t wait for the perfect time, the perfect time is now. When you do this, you shift your thinking from “I need to be ready to write” to “I am writing already; what would I want to change next time?”
Start from plenty
Now that you’re jumping in with minimal planning (geez! said without context, that sounds like terrible advice). Anyway, now that you’re focusing on doing instead of crippling yourself with planning. The next pitfall to avoid is spending too much time figuring out what to write about. To this I say, start from plenty.
Simply put, starting from plenty involves writing all the things that catch your attention in your everyday life. This ensures that when it’s time to write, you have an enormous bank of interesting things to choose from. In other words, you’re starting from plenty.
I’m a very last-minute guy. So much, in fact, that I’d say over 80% of the issues for this newsletter were written on Monday morning after 1 am. Most of them were finished around 5 am, 5 hours before they need to go out, leaving me with only 4 hours to sleep and wake up for work. Writing so close to the deadline means that I have no time to look for something to write. When I sit, it’s time to move. So, to make that possible, I need a bank of ideas I’d love to write about ready for me to choose from.
To be clear, when I say write the things that interest you I don’t mean in-depth writing. Just a sentence or two will do with links and cross-references of the source. This means you need a good quick capture system that’s easily accessible from anywhere. I use Google Keep for things that I’ve read and want to write notes on and Pocket for links that I want to get back to later. They’re both tiny apps that I can quickly and easily open and throw stuff in. I can open them anywhere that has a web browser. And both save my things for offline reading so I don’t need the internet to catch up with what I noted.
When I come across a quote I like, I pull up a note and paste it. When I see an interesting article I want to read, I drop the link into Pocket. I keep my thoughts in a Keep when I watch interesting movies. That way, when it’s time to write, ideas are plenty. I just pick one, follow the link, and follow the rabbit hole. The challenge is never, “I can’t find something to write about,” rather it’s, “Which of these many things should I pick today?” That’s what starting from plenty means.
Focus on consistency, not correctness.
When trying to build a habit, the most important thing is figuring out how to stay consistent. We should set up routines and incentives that help us do the thing, and worry very little (if at all) about whether we’re doing the thing “correctly”. I’m not saying correctness is not important, I’m saying it’s not the focus when building a habit. We have to be consistent about doing the thing before we can think about whether we’re doing it well.
Make the right thing the easy thing
I consider myself to be pretty motivated. I enjoy creating things. So you’d think that taking some time to write each day is a foregone conclusion. Not so. Writing is its own activity. I have to make an active decision to stop what I'm doing and start writing. That makes writing a task requiring conscious effort—however small the effort seems—or put more concisely; writing is an active demand.
During the day, I deal with lots of small active demands, such as forcing myself to put on get out of bed when I'd rather sleep in, or closing down the software project I'm working on to write. These demands are not difficult or important decisions; they're just things that require conscious choice and willpower. And willpower is an exhaustive resource. As my day goes along, active demands pile up and my willpower diminishes. By the time I've fought off my lazy self and dragged myself to the gym, stepped through the rest of my morning activities, settled into work on my current project, and put in a solid few hours of programming, I just don't have enough willpower left to force myself to switch contexts and start writing.
The solution is to make writing a passive demand. You can achieve this by creating a routine that incorporates writing. This is great because it can help you make the right thing the easy thing. I have a Sunday evening routine; I set my phone to charge away from me, sit at the computer and ready the things I saved to my Google Keep and Pocket that week, and then that transitions into writing.
If I try to change the order, say checking my Pocket on my phone, I almost always end up wasting time on YouTube or social media. However, I’ve never gotten into the zone of reading and then gotten up to check my phone. The routine makes the right thing the easy thing. This is because the routine takes away the active demands. I don't have to decide to put my phone away. It's an established step in a larger process: I do it "on the way" to something else.
So, to be consistent as a writer, I don't need to decide to write every week. I need to make sure that writing is part of what I do every week.
Go wide, then go deep
One struggle I had when I was thinking about starting a writing habit was deciding what to write about. I hadn’t figured out that to figure out what you want to write about you have to write. Until you try, it’s hard to know whether something is enjoyable enough to keep doing. This is where planning gets us into the weeds in habit building: we’re forced to hypothesize about how much we would enjoy something, and we are tragically terrible at predicting that sort of thing.
It's not possible to plan your way to consistency. You have to experiment your way there. Cast a wide net, try anything and everything that sounds fun, and keep track of what you’re enjoying so you can do more of it. This is the reason I didn’t box myself to a specific thing with the newsletter in my first year. I went where the interest led. One week I’d write about money, the next week about relationships and then the next about behavioural psychology. Essentially, going where my interest leads.
Now that I’ve done it for a while, I have a pretty good idea of the things I enjoy writing about that I want to explore more. I still have a lot more experimenting to do but going wide first has helped me identify the things that I want to go deep on without me over-committing to one thing at the start with inadequate knowledge.
Just make sure you can distinguish between the things that are hard because you still need more practice and the ones that aren’t fun to you. A good way to achieve this is to not give up on something too early just because you’d have to work at it. Put in the work first, commit for a while, and then you can decide.
Those are just a few of the lessons I’ve picked up from my first year. I’m really excited about where year two will take me.