At the start of this year, I wanted to get back into writing. I used to keep a journal and I have maintained this blog for a long time. I was still writing some presentations and workshops at work but I missed writing entire training courses and user guides.
The problem was that I did not have a big dream or vision for a world changing novel and the people at work were not looking for a whole new agile training curriculum.
So I decided to start small and commit to writing 2 blog articles a month. It was a good goal because it was clear and it led to action. Maybe it was not a great goal because it has not led to a “value based outcome.” There was no target of boosting readership, educating people in something new or making money.
The goal has been working well for me because of a couple of things that I learned a long time ago, from books like Atomic Habits and from trying to create new habits at work.
The first is that it was simple, so I actually knew in concrete terms what to do.
It was also small. This is important for me because I am a procrastinator who can get overwhelmed by large goals. The bigger the thing the more I think I should plan it properly and the more I think I should plan it properly, the more I ponder it without moving to an experiment or small action. I have found that, for me, I need to identify a small first step to get momentum.
I also created a “forcing function” of telling myself that there was a deadline every week. People who know me, however, know that I work in bursts of enthusiasm and I can defer little things indefinitely while I take on new adventures. This is bad because I almost become immune to outstanding tasks or expectations that I am missing. For example if we stop following the agenda in our important meetings, I feel a twinge of guilt the first time, then less and then less until the “we should stick to our agenda” comments are really just talk.
So, for me there is one more thing that I need with any new habit or long term goal. I need a “falling off the wagon strategy.” This is my plan B for when I fall short of my expectations.
It may not sound good, but I do actually plan to fail. I think about what will happen when I do not achieve my (simple) goal. For me this is important, because I often have several false starts and several “work emergencies” that distract me for a short time. But once I fall short of my goal, it is too easy for me to become immune to doing that.
The strategy I used this time was “never miss it twice.”
I said that I would write a blog article once a fortnight (yay – achieved). But in fact I also said to myself that it would be a good stretch to write weekly, but if I do not, I will never miss writing an article two weeks in a row.
This gives me a stretch target of once a week, but an escape clause where I can miss it if I have a really full on week and need to take a break.
This works for me because, even if I miss a goal, I can start again. This takes the pressure off for me and gives me a greater feeling of agency/ the ability to make a choice.
It also works by tricking my procrastinator soul though. Every time I decide to miss my deadline for a week, it means that I have a hard, unavoidable, deadline next week. The thought of this hard deadline with no choice then causes me to think that I might have a full on week and no choice and that seems stressful.
Even though I have not had a stressful week, my brain decides to avoid it and the easiest way to do that is to publish a short article and then keep my options open for next week.
I don’t know if it will work as well for you, but it works really well for me – I hate being the victim of a locked in commitment next week and I am happy to commit to a small commitment this week. I am also comfortable that I can forgive myself if I miss this week, since I have my plan B … which makes the commitment this week even smaller and less intimidating.
The goal itself has not achieved a lot, other than me practicing writing, but it has actually led me to start taking on some small writing opportunities at work, because I can see how easy it is to just write something. Since my goal is simply to enjoy writing, that is enough to claim victory.
However I also find that I need to stretch my goals a little as I go, otherwise I end up with a bunch of obligations.
So it is time to either prune my goal or tweak it. For now, I have decided to tweak it.
- I will not write AND EDIT one thing a fortnight, but not with a fixed date deadline. I think editing takes me longer than writing and often creates the best benefit;
- I will still commit to this being done between once a week and once a fortnight, but never missing 2 weeks in a row; and
- I will read someone else’s writing once a fortnight, so I see am exposed to both good ideas and the writing style of others. This can be a short story, SF book chapter or a piece of agile philosophy. Again it will be once a week sometimes and once a fortnight other times but I will not miss two weeks in a row.
So far it is working better than a broad wish based goal or “I wish I had time to write more.” Hopefully I will now make some time for both reading and writing on a regular basis.