What I Learned from Writing Every Day

A few years ago I started blogging every day.  Then I stopped to focus my energy on launching Praxis (so I told myself).  My productivity and happiness began to lag so I started daily blogging again.  Then I stopped again because I wanted to take the time to write more long-form pieces (so I told myself).  My productivity and happiness began to lag again so I started again.

The first stint was six months of unbroken daily blogging.  The second stint, after a six-month hiatus, was a year of unbroken daily blogging.  I just started up again after less than a month off because I couldn’t stand it any longer.

A few of the more valuable things I’ve learned from the practice of daily blogging…

Selfishness

Seems like it would be impossible to have something to write every day.  In fact, it almost feels arrogant to try.  The voices inside began to mock, “Oh sure, everyone really wants to hear what you have to say every single day!”  If I get stuck asking what everyone (or anyone) else wants I’ll never produce anything.  Not happiness either.

I shut out the voices by reminding myself that I write because it changes me.  I don’t write as a mission to the world or a gift to humanity or a calling card for business or to impress my wife (lord knows that doesn’t work) or to prove my point to anyone.  I write for me.  I write because doing so every day makes me more of the person I want to be.

Self-Knowledge

Writing for me might overcome the internal objection to posting my ideas daily, but it doesn’t solve the need for content.  Every day blogging means I’ve got to have something you want to say every day.  It’s not as hard as you might imagine.

I think everyone has plenty to say.  Most of us just don’t know what’s in our own heads until we’re forced to get it out.  How many thoughts go through your head every day?  Brain researchers claim upwards of 50,000, plus all the things you dream.  You make observations, form theories, develop insights, and share many of them in conversation.  You just don’t know it.

Writing every day has taught me more about myself and what ideas are bouncing around in the attic of my skull than any practice I can imagine by forcing me to give them voice.

Killing the Critic

Something weird happened when I started writing every day.  My capacity for lazy criticism damn-near dried up.  When I read articles or watched movies I rarely found myself tossing out unbacked claims like, “That was lame”, or, “What a weak argument”.

The casual signaling of disapproval that passes for commentary is a brain-rotting, happiness-and-creativity-killing habit.  I was good at it.  Daily writing put wrench in my call-outs.

This happened for two reasons.  First, I need content!  Watching a movie I don’t like and sharing my reaction in a simple Facebook post declaring, “Meh” is like washing your hands with the last liter of water in the canteen while crossing the desert.  I need fuel to feed the daily writing and my brain just processed an entire two-hour spectacle full of ideas and implications.  Surely there is something in there that can be turned into a post!

The second reason the critic in me got neutered was simply perspective, or if you wish, empathy.  I know what it means to create something and ship it out to the world, how many or few they may be.  It’s hard.  It’s brutal some days.  And everything I create is not my best stuff.  But the pride I feel when I churn out a post on a bad day, even if I know it’s a weak post, is amazing.  When I see other people create I can’t help but internally cast a knowing nod their way.  Who cares about the flaws?  They’re doing something.  Plus, if they’re like me, they’re probably already…

On to the Next One

I don’t have comments enabled on this blog.  I never read the comments on Medium or other outlets where my stuff is published.  I rarely read or engage Facebook comments on my articles.

Before you think I’m a total condescending jerk let me just say it’s not you, it’s me.

I have nothing against comments or commenters.  I love that people want to engage some of the ideas I produce.  But I’m a pretty weak-willed person in many ways.  It’s hard enough to blog every day as it is, without the backward-looking draw of yesterday’s work.  If I get caught up reading comments I will not be able to do it dispassionately.  It’s my writing, so it’s close to me.  I’ll become vested in the outcome of the conversation, which is like being vested in Sisyphus getting that boulder to stay up there.

It also runs the risk of getting me hooked on the quick dopamine hit of a “like” or positive comment, which is the beginning of the end if I want to maintain my goal of writing for me.

I’ve learned to immediately distance myself mentally from my writing the minute I click “publish”.  Blog for the day is done.  Great.  Let’s move on.  What’s on the agenda?

This practice has been so necessary for my mental health it’s hard to overemphasize it.

Not only that, when you don’t treat your writing as so precious it deserves a week of fawning after completion it frees you up to produce lots of other things and allows you to improve as a creator much faster.  If I’m totally wrapped up in the fate of yesterday’s piece it will be harder for me to see its flaws and improve.  Or, worse yet, I might become overwhelmed and embarrassed by its flaws and never want to write again.

Instead, I tell myself to shut up and ship it.  Don’t look back, look ahead.

OK I’m done.  See you tomorrow.

The Worst Posts Are the Most Rewarding

I’m totally distracted today. I’m busy with a lot of Praxis activities and participants and alumni in town. I don’t have my laptop. I got a late start. I’m hungry. I have a headache. I don’t have time to really write something good. I don’t have much to say.

That’s why I’m excited. 

I have a commitment to myself to blog every day. So I’m doing it. The content isn’t great. But I know from experience that forcing myself to show up and deliver on days like this is what makes me a better creator. It’s when you ship something crappy instead of nothing that you let creativity know who’s boss. 

It’s days like this and posts like this that make the good ones possible. 

Tiny, Ridiculous Daily Challenges Work Better for Me Than Big Goals

I’m not big on goals and goal-setting.  I’ve done it at various points, and it’s had a few positive effects and can be somewhat fun, or at least useful in challenging me to think bigger.  Still, I find that I’m more of an opportunist than a planner.  I prefer to keep building things – myself, my project, social capital, etc. – and be aware and alert to opportunities to leverage those things.

This means creating and succeeding and finishing things in general is more important much of the time than any perfectly plotted sequence of what it is I’m doing.  I try to cultivate creativity as a discipline, while what I use my creative energies for remains flexible to seize opportunities.  I want to also cultivate opportunity spotting abilities and the willpower to act on them and see it through to completion.  “Be ready in season and out of season.”

What this translates into practically for me is a series of very small, daily (sometimes weekly) challenges.  Things that are a little difficult, but simple enough that I have no excuse for missing them.  My typical set of challenges is this:

  • Blog every day
  • Do one form of exercise every day
  • Walk outside every day
  • Consume ideas every day
  • Do one thing to add value to Praxis every day (in the areas of money, talent, and vision specifically)

Many days I do more than this.  I might write a blog post and a newsletter or book chapter.  I might go for a swim and ride my bike.  I might read several articles and listen to a podcast.  I typically do many things to add value to Praxis in a day.  The trick is, doing at least one form of each of these in a day, every single day rain or shine seven days a week.  The fact that they’re so easy is what makes it so hard.

If I had “Run five miles every day”, or, “Train for a marathon” on the list, I wouldn’t feel bad about myself if I missed a day or two.  You wouldn’t look down on me either.  It’s a tough goal, and you might be impressed that I even tried.  But doing one form of exercise every day is so damn easy – some days I literally do a handful of pushups and that’s it – if I miss a few days I feel like a loser, and you’d be a little confused as to how I was unable to complete something so easy.

For me, a big, grandiose, far-off goal like, “Be in peak physical shape”, or, “Make $X by 2017” doesn’t do a lot to help me optimize my days.  It’s too easy to slack and think you can make it up later.  It’s too easy to not push because no one will look down on you for missing your goal.  But blogging every day is totally visible to all and totally doable.  It might suck, but it can be done if you really want to.  I’ve even written some posts on tough days that were nothing more than a haiku about how hard daily blogging is (Salvation by Haiku!).  One day I wrote a post that was a single word.

But I did it.

By showing up and completing it every day, I learn to succeed.  I learn to create as a discipline, not in response to a mood.  I also add value to myself every single day by this practice.  Maybe only a fraction of a percent, but if you know the power of compound interest, you can see how much this can add up when you show up daily.

I recently tried a 30 day experiment going a little more abstract with my daily challenges.  I switched it up so I had to do one thing each day for my…

  • Body
  • Mind
  • Spirit
  • Company

It didn’t go well.  It was too easy to begin to define things in weird ways so that I could check the spreadsheet off (I love checking items off).  I mean, I walked outside, so that’s good for my body, and my spirit, and I thought about stuff with my mind, so I hit them all, right?  But it wasn’t a challenge and I never felt that pride for completing it.  I needed to go back to my tiny, silly, well-defined challenges.

Maybe you work well with bigger, longer term goals and plans.  But if they don’t work for you, try a 30 day challenge of a few small things that you have no excuse for skipping.  You might be amazed at how good it makes you feel to deliver, especially on the really hard days.

The added benefit of doing something creative like writing is that creativity begets creativity, and you’ll become a font of ideas for business, personal, and even other people’s use.  Give them away.  Act on them.  Ideas are infinite and the more you create the more you get.

Fasting from Good Stuff

I grew up in a religious tradition that valued the practice of fasting.  I’d fast from food for a day (or sometimes two or three) from time to time, and I always found the experience valuable.  Regardless of religious significance, fasting has a lot of benefits.  Fasting from food for a few days will teach you a lot about yourself.  You’ll learn how strong your will-power is.  You’ll find out that emotional outbursts and lack of self-control are closer to the surface than you thought once nutrients are lacking.  You’ll go through ups and downs, and during the ups you’ll think more clearly and deeply than ever.  Perhaps most of all, you’ll become ridiculously attuned to and aware of food and all its visual, conceptual, and olfactory beauty!

I haven’t fasted from food in several years.  But the practice of fasting more generally is something I’ve found to be very useful as a way to help optimize my outlook and performance.

Our family has adopted “Screenless Tuesday”.  This is not some kind of puritanical or anti-technology exercise.  We just decided to try it out for the heck of it, not because of any particular problem.  We love it.  Even the kids, who in a typical day can be found all around the house on Kindles, laptops, iPhones, and streaming video on the TV.  They love screens, yet we all really enjoy screenless Tuesday.  It provides an excuse to do things we enjoy – in my kids case drawing, playing games and Legos, etc. – but that take more effort to get into.  It also makes us appreciate screens more, and use them with more purpose (especially on Monday and Wednesday).

I typically pick a day each week to designate as social media blackout day, where I never open Twitter, Facebook, or the like.  Again, not because I think these amazing tools are negative, but because I think they’re wonderful.  It feels good to challenge myself, and going without them brings so much clarity and understanding about what makes them valuable.  So many of the things we do and tools we use are never considered in depth.  We talk trash about them because we’ve never really considered how valuable they are and in what ways.  Going without helps clear things up.  It also helps reveal the aspects that aren’t valuable and makes me a better user.

I occasionally fast from other things for a day, a week, a month or more.  Caffeine.  Alcohol.  Cigars.  In these cases it’s typically because I value these pleasures so much I don’t want to become dependent on them, or mindlessly consume them without enjoying it.  When I realize I’ve had a beer without really noticing it or enjoying it, it’s time to reset.  I love these consumables too much to down them without real pleasure.  A week or two without coffee makes that next cup a divine encounter.

Just knowing you can do something for a period of time is powerful.  You gain confidence, learn discipline, and become good at working hard and succeeding by doing it.  And small challenges that you can do teach you the thought and will patterns needed to do it with bigger things.  You feel a lot of pride by picking something to fast from (not for guilt or shame or fear or the approval of others or disdain for the thing, but just because) and doing it.

Kevin Kelly, founder of WIRED magazine talked about this in an episode of the Tim Ferris podcast I recently listened to, and I love what he said about it.  He talked about abstaining not because the things are bad, but because they are good.  That’s what makes it an effective practice.

Rules Make the Exceptions More Valuable

I shared recently several rules I have for myself that increase my productivity and happiness.  I was discussing these and other rules with my brother, and we both concluded that, despite the value of our rules, some of the most valuable times are actually when we break them.  This is especially the case with time-management and schedule rules.

I try to get 8 hours of sleep every night because I function better.  Yet some of the best flow states are induced when I’m up until the wee hours cranking away on a creativity binge fueled with caffeine.  If I did this often, I’d be terrible.  But it’s so valuable when employed as a rare exception.

This is one of the other benefits of rules.  Keeping to them gives you space to kick it up to “11” when you need it.  Try going without coffee for several weeks, then when you really need to dial-in have some.  You’ll find the boost from a single cup to be amazing in the clutch when you limit your intake on normal days.

Make rules if for no other reason than the value it adds to breaking them.

Why I Blog Every Day

If someone told me there was something that cost $0 and only 20 minutes a day and it would help me…

  • Overcome fears
  • Build confidence
  • Improve thinking
  • Improve communication
  • Build social capital
  • Improve productivity
  • Enhance creativity
  • Bring new opportunities
  • Increase happiness
  • And more!

I’d probably think it was a cheesy infomercial or self-help book.  Yet it’s true.  Blogging every single day has done all of this for me.

It’s not some magical cure all.  It’s actually pretty straightforward and anyone who’s done anything every single day will have an idea why.  If you run every single day no matter how inconvenient, you’ll understand.  Or meditate, or read, or whatever else.  The act of committing to something every day with no breaks or wiggle room is scary in itself.  I heard of a guy who was challenged to run 10 yards every single day and he laughed and said that’s crazy because it’s too easy.  But he wouldn’t commit to run a mile a day because that was unrealistic.  10 yards wasn’t too easy.  It was scary because it was so doable.  There are no situations in which you can’t find a way to run 10 yards.  No excuses.  That kind of consistent finality is scary to face.

Once you commit it’s on.  Every day is a battle.  Ups and downs and everything in between must be overcome.  It’s a wild ride.  The thing I especially like about making blogging the daily commitment is that it’s public.  Once you announce you’ll do it every day you can’t hide.  Everyone can see whether you have.  I also like that blogging is a creative act, and the more you turn creativity into a discipline the more creative you’ll become.

It’s hard to overstate the ups and downs you’ll experience.  Recently I poured my heart into what I thought was a very inspired and very good blog post.  I spent an hour typing it into my phone on an airplane.  I leaned back in my chair tired, content, and excited.  I had a few ideas and a few turns of phrase I really liked.  Then the draft disappeared.  It was gone for good.  I couldn’t recapture that moment of inspiration or those turns of phrase.  And yet I still had to write a post that day.  It took everything I had to make myself get back on the horse and compose and entirely new post, knowing what I had previously written was gone.  The make-up post I wrote wasn’t that good, but I’ve never felt more accomplished than when I finished it.  I know, it sounds dramatic.  But in the moment it felt that way.

You learn a lot about yourself blogging every day.  You learn to pull a lot of ideas and insights to the fore that were floating in your subconscious.  You learn to see the world differently and get better at expressing what you find.  Most of all you learn to take yourself more lightly and not fear failure.  Your ideas are now public and open to scrutiny, which means they could be ridiculed.  Worse yet, they could be (and often are) ignored.  Both prospects are equally frightening.  Getting used to it and being unafraid to churn out posts changes your whole approach to the world.

I won’t go on (though I could) about the benefits of daily blogging.  Nor do I think everyone must do it to have a good life.  I only know how powerful it has been for me, and I think anything you commit to do daily will teach you to be in the drivers seat of your life.

Success as a Discipline

I like to view success as a skill not unlike any other.  I think it can be learned.  If you apply discipline and form good habits you will get better at success.

Perhaps there are elements of heredity or good fortune that might bring a person success or the appearance of it.  But those are less common and tend to be fleeting.  In fact, if you have not learned success as a discipline, even good fortune could end up making you worse off in the long run.

Success is the ability to imagine a desired end and achieve it.  Both components – the imagining and the achieving – are important.  The thing that connects them and ties ideas to outcomes is a willingness to pay the price.  Many people imagine lovely things and get upset or confused when they don’t get them.  But few are realistic about whether or not they actually are willing to do what it takes.

How can you learn the discipline of success?  You learn by doing.  First imagine something you want.  Then think through what it will take to achieve it.  Decide if you’re willing to pay the price and if so, fully commit.  Now begin taking the steps and don’t stop until you achieve it.  That’s it.  Each time you accomplish what you set out to you begin to form a habit and become accustomed to the process of success.  For this reason, as with any other skill, start small.  Think of modest goals and ends that aren’t too far off.  Practice achieving them and you not only get whatever the end was, but you learn how to succeed.  Do it over and over.  Once you’ve mastered success as a discipline, you can apply it to more grand and ambitious ends.

I don’t mean to imply that you can succeed every time you try anything.  Skills don’t work that way.  You can’t master piano playing such that you’ll never make a mistake and you can play anything perfectly the first time.  But we all recognize piano playing as a skill that can be cultivated through discipline and the formation of habits.  Success is the same.  You can teach yourself how to imagine a goal, commit to paying the price, and reach it.

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