How to build a writing habit

I don't think writing every day will change your life ...

... I know it will.

I mean, think about all the content you could put out into the world if you could just get yourself to write consistently. Think about the people you look up to professionally. Do they write? I bet you they do.

Frankly, building a writing habit is one of the best things you can do for your productivity, your career, and your mental health.

I was already bought into the idea of writing to begin with. I've never heard anyone say they regretted spending too much time writing, but the benefits have still surprised me. By writing a minimum amount of words every day, my ideas end up as blog posts instead of disappearing, my writing projects make consistent progress, and I'm learning things about myself I would have never realized without the clear thinking that comes from writing. Being able to write without constantly hitting writer's block has given me the confidence to take on more ambitious writing projects.

But I digress.

I'm not here to sell you the benefits of writing. This guide is for people who already know they want to make writing a habit. But how do you go from someone who knows they want to write to someone who sits down to write every day?

Somehow, I figured out how to get myself to write at least five hundred words every single day — something I've never been able to do before. With a few simple ideas in mind, it was easier than you think. Once I realized the key to building a writing habit was to separate the process of writing from the outcome of publishing, I knew I could do it. For the first time in my life, writing clicked for me, and now I feel like I could keep writing forever.

I put together a simple framework for my writing habit, and the words kept flowing. Now, writing is something I do every day, whether I'm journaling, writing a blog post, or working on a book.

In this short guide, I’ll share the framework with you. I’ll introduce you to the mindset that takes the pressure of writing and helped me kick writer's block for the first time in my life.

These ideas are simple, but they really work. I'm excited to see what you do with them!

This is not a guide on writing well

I know what good writing looks like.

That's not my problem.

No. My problem is how to sit down and write anything at all. Or... it was my problem.

I've been writing at least five hundred words every single day for months now. Once I implemented a few simple ideas, I knew it would stick.

I'm going to share these ideas with you so you can build your own writing habit. If you’re already doing a lot of writing professionally, you probably won't like this — the ideas in this guide are almost laughably simple. But if you're anything like me, someone who's always struggled to get the words flowing consistently, there's a good chance these ideas will work for you, too.

In order to become a good writer, you first need to start writing. That’s what this guide is about.

Cheat sheet

These ideas are simple enough to fit in a few bullet points, so if you want to get started right away, here’s the cheat sheet for this entire guide.

  1. Set a writing goal
    Set an ambitious yet realistic goal. I write at least five hundred words per day, but even a hundred daily words add up to almost 40,000 words in a year. Keep the tools simple, and just start writing.

  2. Maintain a streak
    Write every day if that's your goal. Ideally at the same time every day, so it becomes a habit. Build a writing streak that hurts to break. Track your streak.

  3. Write, don’t publish
    The main reason you have writer's block is because you're writing with publishing in mind. Forget about publishing and write for the sake of writing. Most of your words should be going into the bin. Otherwise, you're spending too much energy editing while you write.

  4. Lower your standards
    Because you worry about publishing your work, your standards are too high. Find your baseline standard where you feel like you can write forever. Get comfortable with really ugly writing for the first draft

  5. Write like you speak
    If you don't know what to write, just write like you speak. No one gets talker's block. If you really don't know what to write, live-transcribe your thoughts to get some words down on paper.

  6. Rank your priorities
    Rank your writing priorities so you don't end up with nothing but journal entries if that's not your goal. Always try to make progress on your most important writing priorities, but use lower-priority writing to make sure you hit your word count and keep momentum.

Why write

Everyone I talk to about writing seems to resonate with the idea of writing more consistently. It’s up there with eating healthier and exercising more. But what is it about writing that makes it seem so desirable while still being so hard to do consistently?

I recently listened to the productivity influencer Ali Abdaal on Nathan Barry's podcast. Nathan is the founder of ConvertKit and famously wrote one thousand words per day for two years. Ali said something like, "Think about how your life would change if you wrote one thousand words per day." He was fully bought into the idea and wanted this for himself. The same way that I wanted it for myself and now you as well. But why?

My personal goal is to write five hundred words per day. That’s 180,000 words in a year. Or three times the average business book. With a daily writing slot, all your journaling, blog posts, book ideas, and newsletters can slide right in without the usual willpower required. By becoming a person who writes daily, you simply become a person who gets a lot of writing done.

If you’ve written a book or have a newsletter, you instantly seem a little bit cooler, smarter, and more interesting. Don’t overlook the value of being seen as someone who writes. In the world of remote work, being able to communicate clearly in writing is a required skill and something more and more companies look for when hiring. Writing is a sought-after skill, and having a large body of public writing is sure to make you stand out as a candidate when applying for a job.

I've realized there is a writing aspect to most of my goals. In fact, almost everything I do benefits from writing either directly because the output is text-based or indirectly because it benefits from the reflection and clear thinking that comes from writing.

Writing is also a big productivity booster. I never made this connection until I started to write daily, but it has been really noticeable. By writing daily and getting better at writing drafts instead of finished prose ready for publication, I have become much more proactive. If I am giving a talk next month, by the time I need to sit down and prepare it, I already have a couple of pages of draft material from my daily writing sessions. Those drafts will get me right into the flow. It’s so much easier to start from a rough draft than from a blank slate.

Your thinking will benefit a lot from writing as well. I’ve realized my thoughts don’t really evolve until I get them out of my head. They either stay the same vague idea, or they disappear. The only way my ideas evolve is by talking about them, either directly with another human or by writing about them. I’m always surprised by how much more there is to an idea once I start talking about it. Writing is an effective way to achieve this because you don’t need to find another person who wants to hear about your idea. Some ideas also reveal themselves as too vague or simply just bad when I start writing about them. Sometimes, I have a strong feeling that I have an idea without really being able to put it into words. Writing will sometimes make me realize it wasn’t really an idea to begin with, just a vague feeling about something. Regardless of what it is, writing it down is useful. Clearing your head by writing things down gives room for new things and helps your thinking be clearer.

Writing a journal is another great way to clear your head. Journaling has gotten a ton of attention in the past years, with many journaling products available on the market. The benefits of journaling are similar to those of meditation — you build awareness of what’s going on inside of your mind. You discover patterns that aren’t clear until you start to pay attention to them by writing about them

Now that I force myself to write at least five hundred words every day, I’ve started to love journaling. To me, they’re the easiest words to write, and I’ve realized things about myself that I don’t think I would have otherwise.

Journaling is also a way to preserve what’s inside your mind. It’s common to have had an experience or chapter in your life you really want to write down for yourself or others — maybe just close friends and family, or maybe the whole world.

I had many transformative experiences traveling the world in my twenties, and I recently started writing some of those down because I might not be able to remember them one day. I grew up with the Harry Potter books, and this is my version of Dumbledore’s Pensieve, where he records his thoughts so he can relive them again later.

It’s true that journaling won’t necessarily increase your public-facing writing output, but it can still help your productivity. The things you discover and realize through journaling can be really helpful in all areas of your life — including your work life. If all you did was journal every day, I still think you would be better off than if you didn’t. Your journal would most likely be full of good ideas.

Writing more will make you perform better at your job. Your mental health will improve. You will achieve more of your goals. You will be able to write that book. And you will thank yourself later for having all of your most defining memories safely collected in your magic Pensieve.

How to make it a habit

Pros write on a schedule

Professional writers don’t let it be up to writer’s block whether they’re going to write on a given day. No. Real pros write on a schedule. Steven Pressfield, the author of The War of Art, talks about how to fight the resistance when writing. His “secret” is to sit down at his desk for a set amount of hours every day. Not so much of a secret, after all.

“When I sit down to write in the morning, I literally have no expectations for myself or for the day’s work. My only goal is to put in three or four hours with my fingers punching the keys. I don’t judge myself on quality. I don’t hold myself accountable for quantity. (At least not at this stage; later, I will.) The only questions I ask are, Did I show up? Did I try my best?”Steven Pressfield

For me, my goal is five hundred words every day. I’ve done it for a couple of months now and plan to keep doing it. I strongly recommend you set a similar goal. Whether it’s one hundred words, one thousand, or five hundred like me, it will give you something concrete to focus on. I like a fixed word count because it helps me fight my own resistance. It’s so tempting to stop after two hundred words because I can’t really think of more to write. Forcing myself to keep going trains my writing muscle, gives me more raw material to work with, and forces me to reach a little deeper in my mind. I take my daily word count seriously — it’s how I try to be more of a pro.

The reason I like a word-based goal over a time-based one is that it’s concrete. I either wrote five hundred words, or I didn’t. It’s hard to cheat. If my goal is time-based, it’s not as clear if I did what I was supposed to. In fact, there’s no guarantee I get any actual writing done. Was that “research” actually writing, or was the resistance just a little too strong for me to push through?

The power of the streak

A streak is the only way I know to introduce something hard into my life. I’m a notoriously all-or-nothing person with embarrassingly low self-discipline. But when I start to feel like I have a good streak going, the pain of ending the streak starts to get bigger than the pain of doing the thing. I know that once I break my streak, my willpower evaporates, and the resistance is back in full force. That’s how I’m writing these words weeks into a good writing streak.

Streaks are life-changing because they can rewire your brain. Once you end a long streak, you’ll have changed. Your body and mind will respond differently to the things you did during your streak in the future. If you’ve forced yourself to write every day for a long time, “future you” will have a stronger writing muscle. You’ve broken down a barrier and created a new pathway that will be there for a long time, if not forever.

When your main goal is maintaining the streak, some pressure is taken off the activity itself. If you’re maintaining a running streak, even a poor running session is a win. Instead of feeling like it’s all pointless and that you might as well quit running, you get to add another checkmark at the end of your current streak.

With writing, having the ability to lower your standards is so important to help you keep going. Writing and maintaining a streak go together really well and benefit from each other in surprising ways. The simple act of forcing yourself to type out X amount of words every day will make you a better writer.

The resistance towards writing is so strong in me. As soon as I sit down to write, my brain starts to find excuses for why I don’t actually need to write that day or how I’ve already written enough. I only want to produce the minimum amount of words required to get the task done. Every word I write is going into the final thing. I’m not fighting the resistance just to throw away words. It takes forever to write because I’m fighting that fight constantly until I’m done. When my goal is to write a fixed number of words every day, suddenly I don’t care if I’m writing something that will go in the bin. It still served a purpose because those words are the reason I didn’t break my streak.

How to avoid writer's block

Write, don’t publish

This is a guide about writing — not publishing. Publishing is the root of all evil when it comes to writing consistently. Publishing is uncomfortable, at times even scary. How will people judge your words? It’s publishing that causes writer’s block — not writing. It’s what makes writing hard. In the same way that talking is easy but getting up on stage and giving a talk is hard, writing is easy too, but writing something you feel confident enough to publish is hard. When the stakes are low, the writing is easy. Once I realized the key to building a daily writing habit was to separate the process of writing from the goal of publishing, it all clicked for me.

This doesn’t mean you can’t work towards a deadline. Having a deadline is a good way to push through the resistance, the same way that having a daily writing goal is. But make the deadline a writing goal – not a publishing goal.

My goal of writing five hundred words every day is so much easier than the goal of writing five hundred words for a book or a blog post. If you don’t know what to write, the easiest words are journaling or writing down a memory. You don’t really need any inspiration to write down a memory and you can add as much detail as you want. The obvious side effect is that much of what you write will never be published. It will just be random words that no one besides yourself might ever read. This is okay because you’re training your writing muscle. The benefit is that on the days when you actually have an idea for something publishable, you won’t need to convince yourself to write. You will have an obvious thing to spend your five hundred (or however many) words on that day.

If I had to condense this whole guide into a single sentence, it would be: Just write and worry about the publishing later. Getting something ready for publication isn’t a writing problem. Obviously, you need to write something before you can publish it. Writing is the raw material you need to publish a finished product, but in order to publish something, it needs refining, which is done in the editing process. In that sense, writing is much more like mining, and editing is like refining.

When I think of writing as mining my brain for ideas, it’s somehow much easier. I don’t expect to dig out a fully formed idea or something really elaborate. I’m just trying to get anything that’s in there out of my head and down on paper. My urge to procrastinate is much smaller when it comes to editing. Editing is something I can churn through if I need to. It doesn’t require as much inspiration. If your criteria for writing words down on paper is that they are basically ready to publish, you are relying on inspiration to strike right at that moment. It’s a huge bar to set, and it’s no wonder you end up procrastinating.

There’s even a physical explanation for why editing kills your writing momentum. While writing is additive, editing is reductive. They are opposing forces. It’s painful to see the words you spent so much energy and willpower to produce get deleted.

I don’t count editing towards my writing goal because it blurs the line between writing and editing. It’s also not as measurable. If you want to spend more time editing, I would recommend setting a separate editing goal and making it time-based instead of word-based.

In order to have anything to edit, you need the raw material, though — so start with the writing.

Lower your standards

Believe me, anyone can write five hundred words a day. On one end of the scale is writing five hundred words of beautiful prose ready for publication. On the other end is literally typing the word “fuck” five hundred times. Both count under my rules, but ideally, and especially after a bit of training, your writing will be somewhere in the middle on that scale. Remember: Writing is like mining, and editing is like refining. It is so much easier to edit something rather than starting from a blank page. Almost any writing is better than no writing as a starting point for whatever it is you dream about publishing one day. Maybe not the word “fuck” five hundred times, but I’m sure you get the idea.

The key to pushing through the writing resistance is to train yourself to lower your standards until the writing gets easy. I actually believe that everyone has a baseline standard where they can keep writing for hours. Most people just aren’t comfortable lowering their standards that much because the writing isn’t pretty. The words aren’t right, the structure makes no sense, the repetition is unbearable, and the typos are right there in your face. But you know what? That is what editing is for — or rewriting. Once you’ve written about an idea one time, it’ll be easier to write about it again.

Whatever idea is sitting there in your brain, get it out on paper. It’s the only way to look at it, judge it, and make it better.

Write like you speak

Seth Godin talks about how no one gets “talker’s block”. For some reason, as soon as the words are written instead of spoken, our standards increase until there’s so much friction we literally can’t get ourselves to write another word. If you start to feel writer’s block creeping up on you, the cure is to write more like you talk.

Writing like you talk is one of the easiest ways to lower your standards.

In speech, we have a much higher tolerance when it comes to explaining something. It’s socially acceptable to think out loud, change your mind mid-sentence, and even make grammatical errors.

A practical way to do this is to pretend you’re live transcribing your thoughts. Imagine yourself explaining something on stage or to a friend, and pretend you’re a professional transcriber taking notes as fast as possible to keep up.

If I sit down to write and I literally don’t know what to write, I’ll start by typing, “I don’t really know what to write right now. I feel like I’m too tired to articulate a single sentence about …” It seems silly, but it gets me writing. As I start transcribing my thoughts, I start drifting towards the thing I was actually trying to write about. I get out of my own head as I slowly push my way through the resistance. This always works.

How to always have something to write about

So far, we’ve talked about how you can use writing techniques to push through writer’s block. Write, don’t publish, lower your standards, and write like you speak. Another way is to pick the right things to write to begin with. Not all writing assignments are created equal.

My goal is to write five hundred words per day, not to write anything in particular, but I still try to be strategic about what I write. I have a stacked rank of writing priorities I try to follow. If I have something important to write for work — something I’m trying to push forward, I always start with that. I don’t necessarily need to write five hundred words about it. I just need to push it forward. And because I write with the mentality that a rough draft is better than a blank page, I know that anything I write will set me up for success in the future.

Once I’ve made progress on something work-related, I reward myself by writing something easy. The easiest words for me are journaling and writing down memories. If I’m writing about yesterday and feel stuck, I throw in what the weather was like. I feel like I have unlimited words here. This might be different for you. If writing Harry Potter fan fiction is easier for you, then do that.

Here’s my ranked list of writing priorities:

  • Work: A draft for a blog post, a plan for something, or a brainstorming session.
  • Passion projects: Blog posts and newsletter drafts, ideas, and side projects.
  • Journaling: What’s going on in my mind right now?
  • Memoirs: An experience from the past.
  • Word salad: If the resistance is too strong, I try to write literally what’s on my mind. I transcribe my inner monologue.

With this list in mind, I always have something to write about. On the worst days, I start at the bottom but usually find a way to move up the list as I warm up. On the best days, I start at the top and work my way down if I get stuck.

Nothing beats a morning where I get up early, write a rough draft for something, and get some solid journaling done.

Besides being easy words, journaling is good for your mental health. It’s a great habit to build as part of your writing habit. Same with writing down memories. I recently started writing down everything I did in my twenties so I won’t forget it as I get older. As I was writing about a rough period in my early twenties, I realized I had been depressed. In hindsight, it was so clear to me once I started putting it into words, but it completely caught me by surprise. I didn’t have the language to describe it at the time, and I never thought much about it until I started writing it down.

If you have something you’re trying to achieve with your writing, set priorities to avoid ending up with nothing but journal entries if that’s not your goal. Before I fall back to journaling, I almost always try to make progress on something work-related. I have a running list of things I would like to chip away at or seeds I want to plant.

A final tip, if you run out of steam before hitting your word goal, is to rewrite what you already wrote. Either rewrite it in the same way or turn it upside down. Can you write a shorter version? A longer version? Or can you make the opposite point? If you wrote about how much everything sucked yesterday, can you write about how awesome it was instead? Getting used to writing the same thing multiple times is a great way to train yourself to throw away words.

Remember, the root of all evil when it comes to writing is to think that every word needs to be published. Unpublished words aren’t wasted, the same way that all the training runs leading up to a marathon aren’t wasted.

My writing setup

When I decided to build a daily writing habit, I quickly found myself overthinking every aspect of it. After a lot of fine-tuning, I’ve found some simple principles that are working well for me.

Pick a realistic word count

I was tempted to make my goal to write a thousand words per day. But with two little kids that don’t sleep at night, it wasn’t realistic. With a goal that’s too ambitious, I’m setting myself up for failure. Five hundred words seemed more realistic while still being ambitious. It’s enough to feel like I’m doing something hard. Consistency is what really matters, and even with one hundred words per day, you are still writing almost 40,000 words in a year. Slow and steady wins the race!

Keep the tools simple

There are many tools you can use to write. To get started, I picked the most boring of them all, Google Docs. It’s so perfectly simple and boring that it didn’t get in my way. I had a document called “Daily writing,” which I added at least five hundred words to every day. Several months in, I’m now experimenting with moving my writing to Obsidian because I finally found myself needing a bit more structure (My current Google Docs document has about 35,000 words in it now.)

If you have a tool you prefer writing in already, just use that. If you don’t, I recommend something super boring like Google Docs or Word. It takes a lot of the ceremony out of the writing. There are apps dedicated to writing books and manuscripts, such as Scrivener, with really cool functionality. What I don’t like about them is that as soon as you start typing, it looks like you’re writing a book. That’s the wrong mindset for what we’re doing here because it focuses you on the publishing rather than the writing. Don’t make it look like a book before you are further in the process. Your drafts should be boring Word documents or a stack of messy papers on your desk.

Track your streak

If you end up writing daily, I recommend tracking your streak. As we’ve already discussed, maintaining a writing streak builds up momentum. I use an iPhone app that’s literally called “Streaks.”

Write on a schedule

I always try to write first thing in the morning before my family wakes up. That doesn’t always work out, though — on those days, I push it to the evening when the kids are asleep again. I really love the feeling of getting my writing done in the morning and not having to think about it for the rest of the day. When it comes to editing, I can do that anytime during the day.

Your turn

That's it. You now have the ideas that took me from struggling to write anything to writing five hundred words every single day. With these ideas in mind, are you going to start your own writing habit?

My goal with this guide was never to convince you that writing was good or that you needed to build your own writing habit. My goal was to convince you that it's possible. All it took to convince myself was a few simple ideas.

If you want to start your own writing habit using these ideas, start now. Start building a streak. It won't take very many days before it starts to stick. And please, please remember the ideas from this guide. Writing is really tough at times, but there are ways to make it easier. These ideas really help. Forget about publishing — even if your dream is to publish something eventually. Lower your standards — even when what you write makes you even more convinced that writing sucks. Write like you speak — even when you stumble over the words and the whole thing feels completely pointless. Force yourself to use these ideas, and you can write.

Being able to write consistently is the first step toward wherever you want to go with your writing.

And let me know how it goes!

— Peter

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