#156: On writing habits
Last Sunday I finished reading Atomic Habits by James Clear. With its tawdry promise of ‘a revolutionary system to get 1 per cent better every day’, I resisted reading this book for more than a year.
I wish I hadn’t.
It’s an excellent summary of the current research on habit-building and habit-breaking.
One of the deceptively simple insights that has stayed with me is that every action you take is a vote for your future.
If you write one newsletter, then that’s one vote for becoming a newsletter-writer. If you only ever write one newsletter, you’re not going to accumulate more than one vote and you’re unlikely to become a newsletter-writer. That single vote will be swamped by all the other votes you’re constantly casting for other future selves, whether that’s ‘master carpenter’ or (in my case) ‘internet browser’.
If you keep publishing newsletters every week, then you’re regularly casting votes for ‘newsletter-writer’ - and, more than 150 Fridays later, here we all are.
What’s made this newsletter-writing habit stick for the past three years? I think there are, appropriately enough, three major reasons.
Firstly, and most importantly, I’m accountable to you. I have made a promise to write something interesting for you to read every Friday and I want to make damned sure I deliver. So thank you for sticking with me. You are my habit!
Secondly, I have a set time every week that I publish: Friday. If I miss a Friday, like I did last week, then I publish as soon as I can. Missing one Friday deadline isn’t a disaster and skipping a whole week is hardly likely to cause much of a cataclysm either, but habits like this are all too easy to let slide.
As James Clear says: don’t miss twice. I’ve now got this motto written down in the notebook where I record my work progress.
Thirdly, I enjoy writing. Writing is creative, obviously, but it’s also critical. Writing is a way of being in the world. Putting words down on paper forces me to think a lot more about what I do - and pushes me to do a lot more than I think.
Writing the scripts for Foiled is a slightly different experience. Rather than delivering content directly to an audience every Friday, the accountability for a radio series like Foiled lies in making my co-writer laugh and in regular deadlines throughout the three-month writing process: pitching story ideas, drafting story beats, writing the first and second drafts, and incorporating writers room punch-ups.
What makes a writing habit hard is when there is no one reading.
Since 2014 I have written a regular diary and I’ve been aiming for at least 1,000 words per day since 2015. I have more or less managed to stick to this habit, as this count shows:
2014: 314,084 words across 353 entries
2015: 392,241 " " 354 "
2016: 327,837 " " 320 "
2017: 248,865 " " 254 "
2018: 292,593 " " 313 "
But in 2019 I’ve only written 159,220 words in my diary - less than half you’d expect by the beginning of December.
This year so far, I’ve skipped 141 days. On 42 percent of days, I haven’t written anything at all in my 2019 diary. Can this still be called a habit?
In comparison, during my most ‘successful’ diary year of 2015 I missed only 11 diary days, just 3 percent.
Browsing the data, it’s obvious that James Clear’s rule holds fast: don’t miss twice. It’s astonishing how quickly a habit as strong as my five-year daily diary can break down after I skip just one day.
When nothing bad seems to happen after I skip a second day, my habit easily unravels and I go one or two weeks with hardly an entry.
So don’t miss twice.
I say that nothing bad seems to happen, but my daily diary is where I work out all the kinks in my life, personally and professionally.
My 2015 diary was enough of a success for me to start putting together a collection of highlights.
Looking back over words that I wrote nearly five years ago, the value of this daily habit comes clear. I can watch as moments of realisation surface, like in this entry from 5 January 2015:
There is no such thing as a great writer or a great anyone. We are all partners. My story is your story. My story is only a story if you're invested in it; the language of finance is not misplaced. You invest in my story; you become a partner - an equal partner, no less. My story cannot get off the ground if it doesn't have outside investment. I need that, we need that, the story needs that.
Diary writing is one of the most important habits in my life. I can scarcely pinpoint what the diary does for me, but I know that I am better off when I am writing regularly for nobody but myself.
This is The Process. The Process delivers results that are invisible today or even tomorrow. So ignore results and trust The Process.
Postscript: There’s something similar going on with running. At first glance, the benefit of a running habit is that you get outdoors and stay relatively fit. But running is so much more than that. On my lunchtime run today, for example, I came up with six good ideas that I can immediately implement to save money, improve my fitness and get better at business. Not bad for twenty minutes’ work.
There's nothing like a public sauna for meeting people you wouldn't otherwise meet. The health benefits are well documented, but the real value of a sauna is in the friendships you make, however brief.
Saunas are too small for private conversations. None of us can help eavesdropping and I’ve not met anyone yet who minded.
Jack caught my attention with the conversation he was having with his pal. They sat down heavily on the wooden slats of the sauna in my local leisure centre.
Jack’s friend put his feet up and asked: ‘What's your business name gonna be?’
Great, I think, I love hearing about people’s mad business plans.
‘What do you mean?’ Jack replied.
‘I thought you were going to pretend you had a business,’ his mate says. ‘But you said you needed to make up a name.’
Pretend? Make up?
‘Nah,’ Jack says. ‘I'm gonna tell her it was my grandad's business.’
‘Oh, and you inherited?’
‘Yeah. So if she asks any difficult questions, it doesn't matter when I don't know the details.’
Her? She? Inherited? Difficult questions?
‘Like, if she asks what kind of car I drive,’ Jack continues, ‘I'll just say an Audi S4 and tell her my grandad's the one who was into cars.’
That seals it: these guys are clearly planning some kind of fraud or, at the very least, catfishing on Tinder.
I interrupt: ‘What on earth are you talking about?’
Jack looks up from the floor, a bit sheepish. ‘It's a new E4 dating show.’
‘What, really? I thought you were catfishing!’
Jack laughs. ‘Nah. This girl has to choose between four millionaires - except one of the millionaires isn't a millionaire.’
‘And that’s you?’
‘How could you tell?’ Jack and his mate laugh. ‘I haven’t got a clue what millionaires do. I'm more of a Lidl kinda guy.’
The woman sweating beside me joins in: ‘Oh, I love reality shows!’ she says. ‘How did you get it?’
‘They just messaged me on Insta,’ Jack says.
‘Is there a prize?’
Jack scratches his head. ‘I guess the prize is her,’ he says. ‘The producers can’t tell me much, but they say she's a ten.’
I’m not sure I like the general drift of this show. ‘What’s her prize, then?’
‘What do you mean!’ Jack says indignantly, before laughing at himself. ‘Her prize is all the swanky dates us four take her on, I suppose.’
‘You're not paying, though, are you?’
‘No - that'd give the game away straight up. Cheeky Nandos, love?’
The woman on my left laughs with unpolished delight. ‘Or maybe it's like Love Island and she gets a cash prize as well.’
‘I applied to Love Island this year, actually,’ Jack says. ‘Got down to the final round.’
‘Amazing!’ the woman says. ‘Are you gonna apply again?’
‘Definitely. Next year I’ll have this E4 show on my CV and I'll be able to say I conned a girl into thinking I was a millionaire - hopefully.’
(This story was, of course, first written up as part of my daily diary.)
Project Armonia: A Restaurant for Refugees on Samos
As I settle into life back in the UK, it would be easy to forget the refugee crisis growing on the margins of our society.
Because it’s heavy news from the border.
Since July, the refugee population on Samos has more than doubled. There are now more than 7,700 humans living on a distant island with facilities for just 650.
Refugee support on Samos is underfunded by more than an order of magnitude.
That fact blows my mind.
What also blows my mind is the thought that ordinary citizens like you and I would volunteer their lives to supporting refugees who come here with nothing.
I met many such volunteers while I was on Samos in October, many of whom worked for Project Armonia, a free restaurant and kitchen that feeds more than 500 of the most vulnerable refugees every day.
It’s vital work on a forsaken island, for people so utterly bereft.
But what kills me is that the tireless team of volunteers and refugees at Project Armonia could be feeding many more hungry people - they lack only the money.
That’s why Emily, one of the superb volunteers I met on Samos, is running a fundraiser for the restaurant.
She’s trying to pull together £2,500 - enough to feed 12,000 people. If you’re looking for ridiculous value for your charitable giving, then you can’t get much better than this.
£50 feeds 250 people.
It’s not a conclusive answer to a broken migration system, of course, but it’s a vote of support to people who believe in a more open world.
As Emily says, ‘No one can do everything, but everyone can do something.’
This week, while researching marketing for Thighs of Steel and my other projects, I came across the following quote from Tim Ferriss’ 3 Rules of Branding:
In a social-sharing-driven world, cultivate the intense few instead of the lukewarm many.
My first thought was that this is exactly what many political parties around the world have been doing for the past half decade: cultivating the favour of the intense few who will go out and knock doors, stage protests and start online flame wars, instead of protecting the lukewarm many who want nothing more than the civil harmony that is the aim of politics.
However toxic Ferriss’ advice is for our politics, I can see the advantages for business marketing. But the most useful material I found on branding was actually The Three-Hour Brand Sprint, from GV, which includes these pretty diagrams to fill in.
Your neck of the woods?
I’ll be up in London next week for a massive day in the life of Thighs of Steel 2020 - we decide the rough route on Monday. Huge. I’ve got my fingers crossed for Poland and Ukraine… Block out your summer holidays and stay tuned for dates and distances.
On Tuesday, Abandoned Rugs will be back in the studio for an eighth consecutive Christmas chart-topper, only two days before the General Election. As Tim has threatened to leave the country if Boris gets to #10, this could well be the last AR single eligible for a UK #1.
I can only wish the country the best of luck.
David Charles wrote this newsletter. David is co-writer of BBC Radio Wales sitcom Foiled, and also writes for The Bike Project, Forests News, Global Landscape Forum, Elevate and Thighs of Steel. Reply to this email, or read more at davidcharles.info. Thank you for subscribing!