How good writers forge good habits

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Today’s column is all about good habits and how to develop them.

I’m not a big believer in new year’s resolutions. I’m the kind of person who already has a mile long “to do” list every day. Okay, well it’s not exactly a mile. But it is a full page, typewritten single-spaced, 11-point list — carefully, if not to say, obsessively, divided into meetings/email/do/write/phone tasks. Every day.

It’s pretty scary. So the last thing I need is more things to do! Some days my list already feels like a 25-pound lead ball, attached by a chunky metal chain, to my aching ankle. But, still, I always have the fond aspiration I can somehow get more done.

Then, just when I was on the verge of officially giving up hope about greater efficiency, I heard of HabitForge. Can’t remember who introduced me — I think it was someone via Twitter. (Aside: Have you joined yet? Find out why you should.)

HabitForge is software that operates on the principle that there are good habits (such as, say, writing daily) as well as bad ones (say, eating cheesecake for breakfast.) The developers also believe that a habit can be formed after 21 days of doing it. I can’t vouch for the truth of this but I seem to remember learning something similar way back in the dark ages, when I took Psych 100.

How does HabitForge work? Glad you asked. You simply create an account (it’s free) and then describe a new habit you’d like to develop by posing a question about it. For example, let’s say you want to develop the habit of writing daily. So, you might set the question: “Did I write for 20 minutes today?” or “Did I write 500 words today?”

HabitForge will then email that exact question to you every morning, for at least the next 21 days, asking if you succeeded. (If you don’t reply to the email, the system records it as a no.) Note that I said this process continues for at least the next 21 days, because they’ll keep emailing you until you’ve been able to answer “yes” 21 days in a row. No cumulative totals here! You have to perform the new habit every day or start again from scratch.

The goal is that after 21 successful days, Habitforge will be able to step aside, and you won’t even think about your task — you’ll just do it.

As well as the basic question, you can also give HabitForge extra information such as the positive outcome of your new habit and the negative outcome if you should fail. Every few days HabitForge will include your “motivators” in your email to remind you why you’re persisting.

As you may have guessed by now, I’m a huge fan and I’ve been using it, habitually (ha ha), ever since I discovered it. My habit goals haven’t been related to writing per se — I’m already a fast and committed writer — my concern has more been my monster “to do” list.

My new habit is to take my “to do” list each morning and then go through it marking all the deadline-related tasks that must be done that day. By the way, that’s quadrant 1 in the Stephen Covey time-management matrix. Then I mark three non-deadline but really important tasks that form the more valuable quadrant 2 according to Covey. I swipe the latter tasks with a streak of bright orange highlight, and I do them first. I give the former tasks a streak of bright yellow highlight and I do them second. If there’s any time left in my day, I work on everything else.

The result? I’m now back in love with my “to do” list and I’m hugely more efficient. Even better, I’m getting the really important stuff done.

My advice: Use HabitForge to rescue any writing project that’s stalled. For example, let’s say you want to write a book. That means you need to produce somewhere between 70,000 and 100,000 words, the standard range for manuscript length. Divide that total by 261 (that’s the number of weekdays in a year) to see how many words you need to produce a day to finish your book in 12 months. Of course you can also do the same thing with much smaller projects (over smaller timeframes, of course) such as reports, sales letters, performance reviews or website copy.

Like many things, writing is mostly a question of habit. Be sure to build yours.

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