How to write a book as a side effect

Reading time: Less than 4 minutes

Do you want to write a book? It may help you to realize that a book is the natural result of a writing habit…. 

I read an article in the New York Times recently, exploring the relationship between swimming and happiness.

I don’t swim much myself (except when it’s too hot in Vancouver, which is rare enough) but I’m interested in happiness and the author was a writer I admire — psychiatrist Richard Friedman.

Here is how the article began:

One day, a few years ago, I was rushing from the pool dripping wet when a man with a Russian accent stopped me and said, “You must come to svim with the team.”

I was in my early 50s — too old for swim team, I thought. But the coach — Igor was his name — persisted: “I see you are good svimmer.”

Intrigued, and being a sucker for flattery, I relented and joined his ragtag group of swimmers. Workouts started at 5:30 in the morning, when most sane people were tucked in bed. It didn’t matter because no matter how sleepy we were, we were guaranteed to be wide-awake, if not euphoric, when we finished. 

One day, a bunch of us were grousing about how little progress we were making in our swim times, how slow we were. 

Ever the philosopher of the pool, Igor smiled and said, “You are all confused! Speed is not the goal; it is the result of perfect beautiful technique.” 

(Go here if you want to read the whole piece.)

What grabbed my attention, however, was Friedman’s main point: Speed is not the goal of having a swimming coach. It’s simply the welcome side effect of swimming well. And, Friedman argues, this point extends to happiness as well.

Researchers behind a study known as “Vanishing Time in the Pursuit of Happiness,” randomly assigned subjects to one of two tasks: One group was asked to write down 10 things that could make them become happier. The other was asked to write down 10 things that demonstrated that they were already happy. As well, subjects were asked to what extent they felt time was slipping away and how happy they felt at that moment.

Here is the sobering finding of that study: Unlike other goals, pursuing happiness rarely leads to attaining it. Instead, seeking happiness more often, decreases it. Here’s what happens in this pursuit: it causes people to feel they need to devote more and more time to the elusive cause of “happiness” — which leaves them with less time in the present.

This principle, popularly known as the “law of reversed effort,” (i.e.: the harder we try, the less we succeed) also applies to writing. So many clients tell me they want to write books — or, indeed write anything without feeling tortured about it — but the harder they try, the more the goal seems to elude them.

As a result, I tell clients that my main job is to help them develop a writing habit.  Habits are always more important and more valuable than goals. Why?

Here are the downsides of goals: they are intimidating, they require willpower and self-discipline, and, finally, they have an ending (for example, you might have a goal to lose 20 lbs. and as soon as you do, you return to your old way of eating and put the weight right back on).

Habits, on the other hand, are easy — especially if you set them up that way. Hint: never try to establish the habit of writing for two hours a day. That’s way too much! Start with 15 minutes. Who can’t fit 15 minutes into their day?

Habits are lasting. Have you ever broken the habit of brushing your teeth before bedtime? Do you even think about it? Studies show that about 40 percent of people’s daily activities are performed each day in almost always the same situations. Once your habit is nailed down, you’ll do those tasks every day without willpower or self-discipline. In fact, it will pain you more not to do them.

Habits allow you to outshoot your goals. Let’s imagine you have the habit of running six blocks each day. But on a particular Friday you’re feeling especially energetic, so you decide to run 24 blocks. If you’d started with the goal of running 24 blocks, your outsized ambitions might have intimidated you. But with the habit of running only six, you’re free to exceed it any time you wish.

Forget about focusing on goals, like improving your happiness, increasing your swimming speed or even writing a book. Instead, develop a habit that will allow you to spend more time at whatever it is you want to do.

In other words: Writing a book is just a side effect of having a well-established writing habit.

Or, as American Major General and engineer Charles C. Nobel put it, “First we make our habits, then our habits make us.”


If you want some help developing a writing habit for your own book or dissertation, consider applying to my Get It Done program. Application deadline is this Thursday, Aug. 22/19. To learn more about the program, go here  and if you want to apply, scroll to the very end of the page and select the bright green “click here to apply now” button.


My video podcast last week addressed the issue of dealing with competing creative interests. Or, see the transcript, and consider subscribing to my YouTube channel. If you have a question about writing you’d like me to address, be sure to send it to me by email, Twitter or Skype and I’ll try to answer it in the podcast.


Do you have a writing habit? How did you develop it? We can all learn from each other so, please, share your thoughts with my readers and me in the “comments” section below. Anyone who comments on today’s post (or any others) by Aug. 31/19 will be put in a draw for a copy of my book, 8 1/2 Steps to Writing Faster, Better. Please, scroll down to the comments, directly underneath the “related posts” links, below. Note that you don’t have to join Disqus to post. See here to learn how to post as a guest. It’s easy!

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