In my book about habit change, Better Than Before, I describe the 21 strategies we can use to make or break our habits.
One important strategy (well, they’re all important) is the Strategy of First Steps, which is all about the right time to begin. The most important step is the first step, because until we take that first step, we haven’t begun. But beginning is hard. That’s why the Strategy of First Steps is so important: it helps us figure out how to start.
I’m always fascinated to learn about different ways people grapple with the 21 strategies, so I was very interested to read about how the writer Isabel Allende used the Strategy of First Steps by finding an auspicious day for her beginnings.
In 1981, Isabel Allende was living in Venezuela as a political refugee after the military coup in Chile, and working at a school.
On January 8, she got a phone call that her beloved grandfather was dying in Chile, and she couldn’t go back to say good-bye.
In her grief and frustration, she began writing a letter to him, a spiritual farewell, and this letter turned into her first novel.
I remembered everything he had ever told me—about his life, the family anecdotes, the history of our country. As soon as I began the letter I realized it was not a normal letter; it was part novel, part memoir, part family saga and political chronicle. My grandfather died without reading the letter and I continued to write at night and on the weekends in the kitchen of our apartment. I had a day job in a school and I worked 12 hours a day, so I didn’t have much free time, but I was obsessed with the writing. By the end of the year I had 500 pages of a very dirty manuscript on the kitchen counter. My first novel, The House of the Spirits (Amazon, Bookshop), had been born.
That novel was an enormous international success, and for luck, when she started her next book, she began writing on January 8. That book, Of Love and Shadows (Amazon, Bookshop), also did well, so, she explained:
After a few years and a few books, January 8th became a good habit; it gave me discipline. By then my life was complicated—I had to travel, lecture, do innumerable interviews, I was getting tons of mail—so if I didn’t organize my calendar I would never have the time, solitude, and silence I needed for each book. That’s why I have kept January 8th as my sacred day in the year, the day I lock myself away and start a new book. I have not started something new every year, because sometimes it takes me more than a year to write a book, but I have started every book on the same day.
For Isabel Allende, January 8 was a date that resonated deeply, and gave her the right time to start. She held it as a sacred day, a day of remembrance and renewal, the right day to begin.