Before & After: “I Needed to Establish a Non-Threatening Daily Writing Habit”

Notes written in notebook

I’m writing my next book, Better Than Before, 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. 

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.



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