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Start Small, Aim High – How to build a daily writing practice


How to Take Smart Notes teaches that clearly defined tasks reduce friction and anxiety. When the word ‘writing’ is invoked, we subconsciously attach many connotations to it. The word carries weight, and therefore there is this factor of intimidation that stems from something so amorphous. So I ask you, what does writing mean for you?

I advise you first to form a clear picture of what writing is for you, and to address your fears on the topic. How can you find time? What application are you going to open? What are you going to write? What if it isn’t good? These are some of the questions this article will help you answer ,thereby allowing you to start the process with minimal friction and maximum benefit.

Building a daily habit

This is mostly up to you, but I recommend you do your writing in the mornings. Writing sets the tone for my day, and I find it encourages a more thoughtful, creative mindset throughout. Following are some short tips on building habits:

Start small. Create a habit so small it is almost embarrassing to not stick to. Ten minutes of journaling is sufficient, the most important thing is to get started.

Grow the habit, little by little. Every week increase the time you write by one minute. This allows your habit to progress at a maintainable pace.

Consistency is key. Don’t worry about the quantity of your output initially. Focus on consistency, all else will follow. If you cannot maintain the habit, downscale.

Establish strong triggers. Build strong cues — whether it be a certain place, music that sets the right tone, a time or a specific preparation routine. Your brain will start to associate these with writing.

Reward yourself. The process must be fulfilling, or you will stop. Make sure you find ways to make the process itself enjoyable.

Make the habit easy. Alter your environment to make writing as easy and obvious as possible. Remove initial friction.

You can see my blog post on building habits for more great advice.

Making it enjoyable

The process itself must be fulfilling, if we fabricate an artificial reward, we are creating an unsustainable feedback loop. In my mind there are two good ways of doing this.

1. Enjoying the act of writing. This means either buying a nice pen, or improving your typing speed. I would like to focus on the latter. I find that the higher my typing speed gets, the more effortless and enjoyable writing becomes. Before I felt constrained by typing, now there is this sense of freedom, of being able to explore my thoughts. A faster typing speed has genuinely worked wonders on my enjoyment of writing.

2. Enjoying the content of writing. You need to write about something meaningful and interesting, that you care about. I believe everyone will enjoy writing if they find the write thing to write about (see what I did there).

What if my writing is not good enough?

It doesn’t matter. Especially if you take my advice and begin by writing for yourself. Don’t begin by writing for someone else, as this places a lot of pressure on you. Write for yourself. The only way you are going to improve your writing and get a good product is by starting.

I advise you to not even consider the product. Don’t even look at it. The only thing you need to consider in the beginning is whether you are writing or not.

Additionally, your life will be much easier if you accept that your initial product is not going to be good, in fact it might even be downright bad. But that doesn’t matter. Just realize that your writing is always going to be improving, and can always be better. So, if the quality prevents you from starting now, then you’re never going to start.

I don’t have enough time

This is probably the most commonly cited excuse. I don’t buy it. I believe that if writing is really important to someone that they will make time for it. I can assure you that writing is more important than at least one thing on your schedule, and provides many more benefits. So identify something you do that is less important than writing, and scrap it, even if this comes with minor detriments.

“Develop the habit of letting small bad things happen. If you don’t, you’ll never find time for the life-changing big things.” — Tim Ferriss

What worked for me is waking up forty minutes earlier. This resulted in me having to sleep earlier, and be more efficient in my morning preparation. However the activities that were ended up being cut were predominantly low impact. And of course I now got an hour of extra writing in, which is invaluable.

Additionally the benefits of writing only develop as you go on. As you develop a routine, you will find that the process becomes easier, allowing you to get in a state of flow, where ideas arise effortlessly. The writing process is only going to become more valuable.

What should you be writing?

You don’t have to be working on some great novel, or crafting articles, when you sit down to write. What I recommend is that you keep a ‘journal’ of sorts, whether it be of your feelings, thoughts, or ideas.

You can write about what you are thinking currently, or how something made you feel. This is great for eliminating stress, self-reflection and getting your thoughts in order. It doesn’t need to be good, as long as you’re writing. Your habit will naturally start to develop as you reach a ‘mental squeeze point’, where you just need to start doing more.

If you want to do something more practical, that can be transferred into articles and perhaps a book later on, I recommend you take notes. What I mean by this is that you keep a record of the ideas you encounter while reading or have thought up yourself. If you start stockpiling your ideas now, it will be significantly easier to transfer them to something concrete and useful later on (like an article or book).

Where should I write?

With your journal, it doesn’t matter that much, as your current feelings have very little to your future self, past the initial act of writing them down and sorting through them.

With note taking, however, I do have some strong suggestions. I highly recommend an application called Obsidian. It provides a simple and satisfying experience, which also offers scalability and much room for improvement of your system (all free of course). You simply download it and select new note.

There are two things I would like you to bear in mind when you start recording your ideas. First, your notes should be atomic, meaning independent, able to stand alone without context. Each note contains a single idea. Secondly, you can link these single ideas by typing in a double bracket and then searching for the name of the note you want to link. Both these features are better utilised now than later. The linking of individual ideas means you will start building a latticework of your personal knowledge, a web of your interconnected ideas. The graph below represents the current latticework of my knowledge, with each dot representing an idea, and each line a stated link between them (this is auto-generated by Obsidian, the platform I use for recording my ideas).

You can find more information about my note taking system, Zettelkasten, here, and Obsidian, here.

Writing every day is truly a life changing habit, one that is at the core of most of my current projects, and has proved invaluable in progressing my thoughts and ideas. My greatest advice is to just start writing, not as part of some grand plan, but just recording your feelings and ideas. It doesn’t have to be good, as long as you are doing something (in fact one common system is just to write two pages of ‘crap’ a day). Actually starting and being consistent is the hardest part, everything else will follow in time.

This is part 2/2 in a series about starting the writing process. The previous entry, How a Writing Habit Can Change Your Life, can be found here.

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[…] This is part ½ in a series “How and Why You Should Start Writing Daily”. The next entry can be found here. […]

Brian Scoles
7 months ago

One of the best pieces of advice I’ve ever encountered on the subject was a remark attributed to Ernest Hemingway:

“There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed.”

Writing from the heart, with passion and precision, that’s the thing.