The art of forming a new habit.

Part of a series on writing every day.

Lots of things look impossible. Running a marathon, writing a book, eating an elephant. They’re huge, seemingly insurmountable obstacles that only the right kind of person can overcome.

But the people who do these things don’t just wake up one day and do it. They start from the same place as you and I. No-one has ever woken up one morning, decided to run 26 miles and then just gone straight off and done it. They start jogging, do a little at a time, and as they get fitter they train to go further and further. They approached the goal the same way you approach eating an elephant - one bite at a time.

Elephant walking towards you

Please don’t eat elephants.

So it is with writing. NaNoWriMo as we saw in the last post is about sitting down and writing a novel over the course of a month. It’s kind of like running a marathon in a week, splitting it up into smaller (but still difficult) chunks rather than doing it all ain one go. You might well manage it, but will you get up the next day and run another 5 miles? Or collapse for a week, decide running isn’t for you and never put on your fancy running shoes again?

Again, I loved doing NaNoWriMo the first time, and the second, but I never felt as excited about writing in between those times. Somewhere along the way I’d lost the joy of it, and while I still wrote it was sporadically and ‘when the mood took me’.

This was not something I wanted to settle for, and if I wanted to make writing into a living, it wasn’t something I felt I could afford to do. So the #BXP2020 experiment sounded like a good way to start to rekindle my love of writing.

BXP Faces

In short, the idea was to write every single day in 2020, at least 200 words. The belief was that it would encourage the formation of a habit and that once you got going on any given day you’d not stop when you hit the very low target. 200 words is a nice round number, and a relatively low number. But if you wrote that many words every day then by 31st December you’d have 73,200 of them - about the size of an average novel.

It worked. And then some.

I decided to start before the official starting date (1st Jan), in mid-December 2019. There were two main reasons for this.

  1. If I could keep the habit going over the holiday period, I could be confident that other distractions wouldn’t stop me either.
  2. I’m impulsive like that.

This let me hit the ground running on January 1st. I’m sure it would have worked just as well without that head start, but not pinning all your hopes for the year on a single day seemed like a good idea too.

I tracked my daily word count in a spreadsheet, along with the type of writing it was (fiction or non-fiction), and how long I had spent on it. When it came time to edit something I’d written, the BXP team had a simple formula: for every 20 minutes you spend editing, call it 200 words. So I used that exchange rate too.

Graph of Words every month of 2020

As you can see, January started very well - over 25,000 words written, or around 850 per day. I expected a good start, new year and new resolutions, the excitement of a new project… You might recall that 2020 went downhill quite quickly though, and February was under half as productive. I still managed over 400 words a day on average though, more than double my target.

In fact, I’d completed the 73,000 words by early May! Obviously I wasn’t about to stop, and so pressed on. As the graph shows I’d gradually been increasing my rate month by month since February’s low, but then June hit.

June & July weren’t especially bad months (I still met the targets and exceeded them) but the pressures of 2020 were getting to me then. I took some time to regroup and recharge, allowed myself to coast along at or near the minimum, and then hit the ground running in August.

By the end of the year, I had written 215,837 words. A hair’s breadth from three times the goal, and an average of just shy of 600 words a day.

I was delighted. This was the equivalent of four NaNoWriMos, assuming I’d completed them all. It was more than 10 times what I’d managed in November before I started this challenge. If I had set that goal for myself on 1st January, I very much feel I’d have found it overwhelming. “Run four marathons? Are you mad?” But by setting a tiny little goal, something so small it can fit in the cracks of a day, I had achieved something to really be proud of.

But were those words any good? Well, I had two stories accepted for publication, have had some great feedback on the main works I completed in that time, and so yes, I feel that they were. Moreover, the more practice I get, the better I will become. Writing every day lets me focus more on the words than on making myself sit down to write. The brain power goes where it’s needed, rather than in forcing myself to sit down.

Now I feel excited to do my ‘daily words’, get antsy if something stops me getting to the writing. Don’t get me wrong, some days 200 words is more of a struggle than others, but it always feels better than not doing it. And watching the spreadsheet fill up, or the graph straining upwards is a fantastic reward.

Part 4: How I wrote every day is where I’ll dig deeper into how I did it. It includes a hat.