As the saying goes, a writer is someone for whom writing is harder than for other people. Put another way, the hardest part about writing is sitting down to write, especially for people who deeply understand the hurdles and feelings of inadequacy they’re likely to face while staring at a blank page.
I’ve worked for nearly 15 years in brand publishing, previously serving as the executive editor at Shopify. I’ve led large editorial teams, wrote critical copy under intense deadlines, and edited feature stories that took months to produce. I’m not a reporter and not much of a fiction writer, but I have enough experience to know the benefits of writing regularly and the importance of building a daily habit.
Here are the habits I use to write every single day and publish hundreds of thousands of words each year.
1. Pick a specific time to write every day
All lists of advice will have one point that feels like someone telling you to “eat your vegetables.” Don’t discount this advice, though, because just like the phrase implies, eating leafy green vegetables is genuinely the foundation of a healthy diet—no matter how many times we hear it.
So the advice repeated ad nauseam that I must share with you is to pick a time of the day to write and work on starting at that time, rain or shine. The time you choose should be based on your energy, which we’ll discuss later, but when you’re getting started, you shouldn’t overthink it. And generally speaking, the earlier something is scheduled, the more likely it is to get done.
This habit is really potent when you pair it with other parameters. For example, if you write just 300 words between 7-8am, you’ll be much more likely to stay consistent due to the low commitment but will often exceed your goal once you get in a flow state.
The reason to pick a time at all is that life is messy and unpredictable. Having one specific time of the day removes the temptation to put off writing or convince yourself you’ll have the inspiration later. As Stephen King says in On Writing, one of my favorite books on writing:
“Amateurs sit and wait for inspiration; the rest of us just get up and go to work.”
2. Use micro quotas and macro goals
Motivation is interwoven with the goals you set and the habits you plan to form in order to achieve them; in short, it’s all connected.
In a fascinating study on motivation, researchers found abstract thinking to be an effective method to help with discipline. In the most basic sense, “dreaming big” is pretty good advice after all. However, many of us struggle with setting up grandiose plans and subsequently become discouraged with all that’s left to be done.
There’s a balance to be achieved here. I’m reminded of the idea that most people overestimate what they can get done in a month and underestimate what they can achieve in a year. Consistent progress compounds over time, so how can you set goals that excite you while not over-extending yourself with the day-to-day work?
The best solution I’ve found is to set “macro goals” and “micro quotas.” Macro goals are a written description of the big picture items you want to achieve, while micro quotas are the small commitments you’ll work on every single day to make them a reality.
Writer and entrepreneur Nathan Barry set a goal a few years ago to write 1,000 words per day, come hell or high water. He wanted to become a non-fiction author but set a minimum quota to guide his day-to-day commitment. The end result was that he published three books that brought in hundreds of thousands of dollars in sales. It all starts with a micro quota.
Quotas make each day approachable while your goals stay in sight but never too far away on the horizon. And before you get overzealous with your daily commitment, you might be surprised to find that setting extremely low quotas is actually a great way to begin. Consider this excerpt from Stanford psychologist B.J. Fogg on how he started his flossing habit:
“For me, cracking the code on flossing was to put the floss right by the toothbrush and to commit to myself that I would floss one tooth—only one tooth—every time after I brushed. I could floss them all if I wanted to, but the commitment was just one tooth.[This works] because I was training the behavior. Maybe once every few weeks, I’d only actually floss one tooth, but a majority of the time, I’d end up flossing them all.”
Professor Fogg’s entire system on Tiny Habits is built around this principle that it’s better to set micro quotas to airdrop yourself right into the action you want to take. It can sound ridiculous, but we all intuitively recognize that it’s harder to miss or skip our micro quota once we’ve done the bare minimum to get started.
Think about how you can set small, reasonable micro quotas on your way to a published book, blogging success, or scriptwriting stardom. And consider setting up simple tracking with a spreadsheet or an app like Streaks.
3. Remove moments of friction
The most common saboteur of any regular writing habit is the “ah-screw-it!” moment just before you’re about to start writing. What are these exactly, and how can you prevent them from derailing your writing habit?
The “ah-screw-it!” moment is the precise instance where you throw your arms up in the air and give up after facing early frustration—it’s a hurdle that we use to excuse bad behavior.
One common example for me is when it’s time to go to the gym and my gym clothes aren’t ready. Oh, I left my shoes out in the cold garage? Sounds like a good reason not to go at all. It isn’t a good reason, of course, but the hurdle provides an excuse to wiggle out of a prior commitment. The solution I’ve found in that example is to prepare my gym clothes the night before and put them on top of my dresser.
That’s the right way to solve small hurdles in general, and especially for writing: preempt them by removing the friction beforehand. Doing so will remove the small window you’ll naturally give yourself to make an excuse.
- Don’t know what to write about? Pick the topic the night before and write it down.
- Need to edit a long existing story? Choose one section to edit before sitting down and don’t commit to anything else. (Once you’ve sat down, you’ll naturally work on my sections.)
- Don’t even want to load up your writing program? Open it up to the idea you need to work on before you sit down and write.
All of these might sound obvious or even like you’re dragging yourself into the work, but sometimes that’s what is required. We all know deep down that persistence is an unavoidable part of forming a writing habit and being successful as a writer, so any moment of friction that disturbs our commitment has to be softened or removed—by any means necessary.
4. Manage your energy, not your time
Most people are not busy enough that time management needs to be something they obsess over. And if you feel that busy, the first thing I would look to do is remove activities, not hyper-organize my time.
The mismanagement of energy is, in my opinion, far more destructive to a daily writing habit. Writing is hard work and can be mentally exhausting, so you’ll see better results by picking a dedicated time to write and making adjustments based on how you feel at that time—and generally.
This might seem absurd in an article about writing habits, but the best decision I made in my writing career was to get serious about my nutrition and work on becoming a morning person. It was a hard journey as someone who likes snacks and sleeping in, but waking up at a reasonable time feeling fresh and alert made writing every day a breeze. As it turns out, the writing was the least of my worries: it was how I was feeling when I sat down to write.
Take a look at when you try to write and note how you’re feeling when you sit down. For example, is your writing habit failing because you’re trying to squeeze it in when you’re drained from the day? Are there times when your energy feels at its best when you might be able to focus on writing? Are there small lifestyle changes you can make to increase your energy?
I’m not saying you need to completely rework your diet and schedule to become a writer, but I am saying that you’ll never find me at the keyboard before taking my short morning walk.
5. Don’t be discouraged by slip-ups
No one is perfect, and it’s not helpful to assume you’ll start a writing habit and never miss a single day. Life is messy and will give you every reason to slip up every once in a while, but it’s important to not let an exception turn into a new rule.
The danger of spiralling after a single mistake is rooted in psychology: a phenomenon known as the “What the Hell Effect” reveals that when building a new habit, a single harsh deviation in our schedule makes us more likely to “abandon ship” and give up on all of the progress we’ve made.
This mistake might rear its head in the form of a single missed day after a successful three-week string of writing daily. Once you’ve had a day without a single word written, there’s a real risk of reversing course.
There are two things to consider here: First, you’re less likely to feel this way if you experience a softer deviation, like writing 100 words instead of your 500-word goal. Second, if you do deviate harshly from your habit, you should immediately plan to get back on track the next day. Do something different and deliberate so that this commitment feels real.
One example is moving your writing time up the following day if it usually happens later. Or you might pick a smaller writing project or idea that you know you’d be happy to sit down and work on. Or you might spend the next day on a fun writing prompt you’ve been putting off. Whatever it is, make sure it feels like a small but deliberate action to get back on track—you’ll be more successful that way.