Last week, I mentioned some writing advice I got from a panel Jeff Wheeler was on at the Storymakers Writing Conference a year ago, and I wanted to go a little bit more in depth about it.
A quick rehash: Wheeler used “laying tile” as a metaphor to describe his writing process (he puts out multiple books a year). He said if you don’t work on laying tile a little every day, the room you’re tiling will never get finished. Some days laying tile is fun, some days it’s miserable, rotten, and you have no motivation to do it. But at the end of the project, or even the end of a day, you can look back at the ground you covered with satisfaction.
The nice thing about this concept is it can be used for any long-time project you’re working on. For example, my husband and I just finished painting my writing office. It took two weeks of setting time aside to “lay tile” in my office every day to finish. But because my life pretty much revolves around writing, I’m going to frame the process within my experience of developing my daily writing habit.
Make the Time
The first step is one of the most important. You need to create the time for your long term project. I use the word “create” because let’s be honest. Nobody has time for anything. In her TED talk, How to Gain Control of Your Free Time, Laura Vanderkam said, “It’s about looking at the whole of one’s time and seeing where the good stuff can go.”
As you’re planning, look for a time that would be consistent in your schedule and give yourself permission to move other things around. When I looked at my calendar for times I could write, I found I could have dedicated writing time at 5 am if I moved my showers to bedtime and could have focus time on my lunch hour at work.
If finding one dedicated time slot is difficult, feel free to get creative with where you schedule your project in. But wherever it fits, make sure it’s dedicated.
Create a Habit (or a System)
One of your greatest allies in this process is to develop a habit or a system that points you towards your designated project time. Two strategies that increase your chances of actually following through with your habit/system are action triggers and implementation intentions.
Coined and studied by psychology professor Peter Gollwitzer, an “action trigger” is the environmental condition in which one decides one will do something, or the where and the when, and an “implementation intention” is the pre-planned response one uses to combat challenges or temptations when they arise.
So, how does this apply?
When you have found the times you would like to fit in your project, create an action trigger to heighten your chances of “doing the thing.” Think of something sustainable, that you could bring yourself to do every day. Where are you going to work on your long term project? When are you going to work on your long term project? (I realize this last question is redundant per the last section, but stick with me here.)
Then, create an implementation intention to help eliminate the indecision that happens those first handfuls of times you are tempted to ditch the habit “just this one time.” Identify your weaknesses. What are potential situations might hang you up or divert you as you attempt to start this habit? What will you do if “X” distraction comes along? Commit to preloaded responses and actions to help keep you on track.
Here is what this looks like for me.
Habit: Get up at 4:15 am every weekday and work on my manuscript.
Action Trigger: I will get up every weekday at 4:15 am and work on my manuscript in my office at my desk with no other browser tabs open until 5:20 am.
Weakness/Temptation: Getting up during the 4 am hour is ridiculously hard, especially when I’ve gone to bed late or didn’t sleep well. I would much rather ignore the 4:15 alarm, cuddle up to my sweetheart, and fall back asleep till he gets up at 5 am.
Implementation Intention: When I hear my alarm at 4:15 am, I will sit up, give my husband a kiss, get out of bed, and go straight to the bathroom to wake myself up with my morning routine.
Being accountable for your work and your actions heightens your ability to be successful. Find a way to keep track of your progress with your long term project that works for you. I love data and am super visual, so I do my best work when I either use spreadsheets or a bullet journal habit tracker to be accountable.
Don’t be afraid of failure and remember it will take time for you to sink into the habit or system. As I was working toward my writing habit, I ended up with two months of spottily filled out habit trackers in my bullet journal.
Keep in mind that as you are looking for an accountability system that you don’t spend more time setting up your system than doing your project. Look for something that will help you focus on your growth and use your setbacks as stepping stools and learning experiences.
Treat Yo Self
When you succeed, celebrate!
Taking the time to recognize and reward yourself when you do something amazing will help encourage you to keep going. It doesn’t have to be anything expensive or off the wall. It can be something small like a new pen or a movie ticket. You could even tell a friend or a loved one so they can be excited with you. Just do something to highlight the fact that you made progress in something really hard.
Building the habit of “laying tile” is so difficult. When I first started, I failed A LOT. But because I stuck with it and made it a priority, I (eventually) succeeded and saw huge results. I made unprecedented strides in plot, a sensation I wasn’t used to. Ignoring the fact that I wasn’t perfect at writing every day and I don’t work on my manuscript on Sundays, I averaged about 92.4 words per day over the course of the 5 months I was trying to “lay tile” versus the previous 5 months when I was averaging about 84.5 words per day. That was a pretty big deal for me. I had never before managed to make that much progress ever before.
And you can do it, too. You can get out there, finally achieve that dream, complete that long term project. All it takes is lying one tile after another after another a little bit at a time every day. Then one day, it will all come together and you’ll be able to look back to see all your hard work and enjoy the payoff.
What long term projects are you working on? What steps have you taken to make that project happen? Let me know in the comments below!
Gollwitzer, Peter M. Peter M Gollwitzer, New York University, as.nyu.edu/content/nyu-as/as/faculty/peter-m-gollwitzer.html.
Heath, Chip, and Dan Heath. Switch: How to Change Things When Change Is Hard. Random House Business Books, 2011.
Heath, Chip, and Dan Heath. The Power of Moments. Simon & Schuster, 2017.
“How to Gain Control of Your Free Time | Laura Vanderkam.” YouTube.com, TED, 7 Feb. 2017, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=n3kNlFMXslo.