Before and After: “I Needed to Establish a Small, Non-Threatening Daily Writing Habit, and I Needed Accountability.”

I’m writing my next book, Before and After, about how we make and break habits–an issue  very relevant to happiness. Each week, I’ll post a before-and-after story submitted by a reader, about how he or she successfully changed a habit. We can all learn from each other. If you’d like to share your story, contact me here. To hear when the book goes on sale, sign up here.

This week’s story comes from Brett Cooper.

I’d known some writing success: winning, for example, a 2003 screenwriting contest that awarded me $2,000, a yearlong contract with a Hollywood Literary Manager and exposure to dozens of top production companies. But I’d never been able to build momentum. I’d work in fits and starts, churning out a lot of content for a month or two and then sputtering to zero output for several months more. It wasn’t until recently that I discovered the big power of small habits.


A teacher by day, I have always struggled to find the time to write. Typically, writing progress only came during my long summers off. One day, inspired by others who’ve traveled the happy road of habits and shared their glowing stories after, I was struck by an idea. I needed to establish a small, non-threatening daily writing habit, and I needed accountability.


100 words a day, I thought. Yes, I could do that. Even after the toughest of spells at school, surrounded as ever by my gaggle of delightfully squirrely eighth graders, I could collapse on the couch and tap out a paragraph or two. Small, non-threatening habit? Check.


Next I needed accountability. If not for that, I knew from experience that I’d fall off the wagon. I contacted a teacher friend who’s also a writer. I asked her if she’d be my “100 Words Accountability Partner.” All she had to do was agree to allow me to send her an email every day. In that email were to be 100 or more new words I’d produced for my daily bread. She could read the words or not. She could respond or not. Didn’t matter. I just needed to know that someone knew if I wasn’t keeping my promise. She agreed. I’m glad I chose her because I don’t see her every day. Now working at a different school, she’s distant enough that I don’t see her face so frequently as to feel self conscious that she’s in the habit of reading my words. Or could be, at least. Accountability? Check.


The results have been astounding. Whereas I used to write 5,000-10,000 words per two months of summer break, now I’m writing about 500 words a day 10,000 every three weeks or so. Once I get started, I can’t easily stop at 100 words. (Though it’s nice to know I can.) And so I don’t. I keep writing.


This is a game changer for me. My 100 Words habit never fails to provide me with a sense of success and a daily dose of creative energy. The hard part was conceiving of the idea. What small habit could I handle? How was I to be held accountable? The rest has been simple, structured, rewarding, possibly – dare I say it? – life-changing. I’d call that momentum.


This is a great example of using the Strategy of Accountability, by teaming up with an accountability partner. Accountability helps just about everyone — of course, it’s essential for Obligers. Accountability also requires Monitoring, which is another helpful strategy, and often involved Scheduling.

It’s also a good example of the Strategy of First Steps. Often, just taking that first step, over and over and over, and keeping that step small and manageable, is enough to keep us going.

I’m reminded of National Novel Writing Month, inspired by Chris Baty’s book No Plot? No Problem: A Low-Stress, High-Velocity Guide to Writing a Novel in 30 Days. With this program, you write 1,667 words a day for a month, which means you write a 50,00 word novel (which is about the length of The Great Gatsby.) As I described in The Happiness Project, I did this myself, and really enjoyed the process.

However, if you’re trying to form a habit, beware the lure of the “finish line.” Make sure that you’re really building a writing habit, not just sprinting toward Day 30. Have a plan for day 31! Because while starting is hard, starting over is often harder.

Brett fostered the habit of writing by starting small. This is an approach that works for many, many people: keep it manageable. But the opposite of a profound truth is also true, and for many people, it’s easier to start big.  I’m a mix of both approaches, myself. Here’s a post on Do you prefer to aim big or aim small? There’s no right way or wrong way, just what works for you. Different solutions for different people.

Have you ever teamed up with an accountability partner? For what habit? Or perhaps you joined an accountability group. These can form around anything; Weight Watchers and AA are two famous examples. For Before and After, I’m creating a “starter kit” for people who want to form their own Before and After accountability groups for habit-change.  (I’m in a writers’ accountability group, and it has really been useful.)

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  • a*

    this sounds like such a nice idea. I am somewhat a writer but i wanted to maintain a regular writing schedule and this is helpful –

  • penelope schmitt

    I like the idea of small increments to tackle a big task. I often find that if I do the equivalent of ‘100 words’ I am engaged enough to keep going. It is the first action of sitting down at the keyboard or picking up a pen that is hardest. Your recommendation to start organizing photos in 15 minutes a day increments helped me to get some albums made, for example. I never would have thought that such a small period of work would be enough, yet it got me well started.

  • Judy

    I believe that the website 750words has been mentioned in this space before, but using it has helped me establish a habit of writing every day since February. My thanks to this blog and to whoever led me to a very helpful site!

  • Scarlett

    I’m 100% obliger and have struggled to exercise consistently, even though I have a lot of back pain and know exercise helps. It’s been even harder since I had twins a few years ago. I’m a stay-at-home mom and can’t afford a personal trainer or even a gym membership. But I have a friend, also a SAHM, who loves to work out and has worked as a trainer. I asked her if she’d be willing to accept babysitting as payment for an hourlong session, and also let me report to her on my progress. She agreed. Our kids have play dates often, and every time we are together we talk about my progress. It turns out that this arrangement works well for her because she’s looking to get back into training–and she gets free babysitting. It’s only been a couple months, but I have established a new habit of doing my exercises (almost) daily. I track my progress on a happiness project chart taped to a kitchen cabinet, where I see it throughout the day. I feel so much better, and that has motivated me even more to keep it up. Accountability partners do make a huge difference! Thanks for this post, and all the other helpful advice you’ve given on this subject.

    • gretchenrubin

      Brilliant solution for both of you.

  • I’m not good with commitment or forcing myself to do something every day; but I needed a way to get into a habit of working on my side hustle. What ended up working for me was I set a long-term, big goal of 160 hours of work, with the reward being that if I reached that goal I could reduce my hours at my paid job to spend more time on my business ideas. This worked better for me because I’m great at starting things, but quickly lose interest or momentum. I had to prove to myself that I had staying power. I planned for it to take about four months to complete all the hours. I kept a running spreadsheet of the hours I put in, and the remaining hours I had to do, to help me stay motivated. Initially I only worked on my project 2-4 days a week. But now I’m used to doing the work and have almost reached my goal 1 month earlier than anticipated, and I work on it 4-7 days a week. It’s totally a habit now. I feel weird if I’m not working on some aspect of my business, and it’s varied enough that I don’t get bored.

  • AnnaKate

    I have written in a journal most of my adult life. But one day I stopped doing it. I wanted to start back up. I did not know how to get the ball rolling then I saw a journal writing class at a local church for Lent. I liked the idea very much, and knew I could stop after Lent if I wanted. Lent is almost over for this year. I have 66 pages of four pages a day, and a new daily habit of writing in a journal made. I am an obliger, questioner, and rebel. So, I had to be really careful about how I set up my habit. I am also not a morning person, so I knew doing it first thing in the morning when I can not focus would not work. My rebel side hates strict rules and would rebel by not writing if I said I “had to write daily” or gave myself a specific time to write. I had to leave it open. “I will write if I want to when I want to.” is what I tell myself. This works most afternoons I write. Though I also write before bed as well.

  • For big papers in law school, I promise to send a friend a certain number of pages each day.

    The fact that I work a lot better when there’s constant accountability became especially evident for my last paper. We had to turn in drafts to our group members and receive feedback.

    Even though only one person was writing the paper, the other two members had to agree on the content. Knowing that my team was expecting a draft from me that was no only coherent but faithful to what we had discussed was a great motivator to get the drafts done efficiently and quickly. This worked even though I was dealing with a family emergency at the same time.