On building a practice of writing

On building a practice of writing

Recently I got a LinkedIn message from a connection who asked:

I am trying to develop a stronger blogging practice and wonder if you have any tips or habits that could help me publish more?

I'm no paragon of blogging, but I have been doing it for a long time, starting all the way back in 2006 with two long-since-defunct blogs, brightMystery (about parenting, faith, and education) and The Linux Professor (tips and experiences using Linux as a daily driver my academic work). My consistency with blogging has come and gone, and there have been long stretches of time – months – where I've posted nothing. But you might have noticed that I've been a lot more active in the last year, especially in the last four months, despite the pandemic and everything it puts on my plate. This is no accident, and after replying to my friend's message and conveying those tips and practices, we both thought that my experiences would themselves make for a good blog post.

It's been 14 weeks since the start of 2021, and I've posted 26 times here on this blog since then, not counting this post. That's an average of about twice a week. This does not happen because I am overflowing with great ideas that come into my head fully formed, or because I have a lot of free time, or anything else. Any kind of writing that is the least bit consequential is a long way from effortless, for me at least. But it's also not just a function of "effort". It's a combination of several things. Three things, in fact, that have put me in a position to be able to write and publish as often as I have done.

First: To write productively, you have to decide that you are a writer. At my last trimesterly review in December, I was thinking a lot about 2021 and both the promise that it held (since Covid vaccines were just beginning to come available) and how I'd like to grow during this year. I realized that writing makes me happy and not writing makes me unhappy, and so writing is not just something I "do", it's part of who I am. Writing, and by extension blogging, is a piece of my core identity, just as much as being a teacher, learner, family man, or a Christ-follower.

And yet, I'd been using the (very real) stresses and demands of the pandemic and my work as a reason, an excuse, to fail to commit to that part of my identity — or worse, to make commitments and then break them. I'd plan on blogging but then get "too busy" to write. Imagine if the situation were reversed, and I planned on spending time with my 12-year old son but then canceled because I was "too busy". Or skipped out on teaching a class one day because I was "too busy". If I reneged on commitments to other people the way I often renege on commitments to myself, I'd be considered the worst human being alive. So, knowing what I know about my relationship to writing and its centrality in my life, why do I consider that commitment to be of a lower order than any other commitment? Do I just hate myself?

So it was at this Trimesterly Review that I came to the conclusion that I am a writer (though it's not my career, and I have a lot of room to grow) and I need to commit to this identification and follow through on that commitment.

Second: Having decided that writing is part of my identity and that I am going to be deeply unfulfilled if I skip out on this just as I would if I skipped out on a kid's birthday or skipping Mass, I set concrete goals for writing over the mid- and long-term that are concrete and doable, but also a stretch. At the Trimesterly Review I set goals for the next 120 days as well as for 2-3 years out, 5-8 years out, and beyond — in reverse order from what I just mentioned. I think about where I want to be 5+ years from now; then in 2-3 years what should I aim for to move me significantly in that direction; then in the next year what should I try to accomplish that moves me incrementally toward that; and then similarly for the next 120 days. The 120-day goals I frame as OKRs (Objectives and Key Results) — three areas of focus each with three enumerable goals for a single 4-month period.

One of those areas of focus for 2021 is writing. (The other two are improving my health and being more present with my family and friends.) My writing-focused OKRs for the first trimester of 2021 are:

  1. Publish 34 blog posts before the next Trimesterly Review in early May. (That's two per week.)
  2. Do one pomodoro of writing every weekday morning, resulting in at least 100 words, five days per week, every week.
  3. Submit a manuscript of the research study I was finishing up in 2020 before the pandemic hit.

In the language of OKRs (read John Doerr's excellent book Measure What Matters for more), 70% completion of an OKR is considered "success". The idea is to set a moon-shot style goal and then try to reach it but also to realize that the process of trying is just as important, and any significant progress is worthwhile. And if you actually reach the goal at 100%, it probably means you need to aim higher next time.

Every week at my weekly review, I check in with my OKRs and update my progress. So far it's going well. This post will be post #27, which is well past 70% and on track to actually fulfill the first OKR. There was only one week where I failed to do a pomodoro of writing every morning. The third item is significantly further behind, but I'm working on it, which is not likely to be the case if that OKR weren't in my face every Sunday afternoon.  

So you identify on a personal level that you are a writer and then set big but actionable goals for yourself to grow in that direction over the near- and long-term. But there's one piece still missing that makes all this work.

Third: Install habits that move you along toward the goals, and don't let life get in the way of them. The pomodoro-of-writing-each-day habit is an explicit goal, but it's really the installation of a habit. Because committing to writing, or anything else, on this level is not just an addition of more stuff onto an already overloaded plate — taking that approach is certain to fail. It's instead a behavioral change that has to be built up one piece at a time, over time.

James Clear's book Atomic Habits has been a huge help and inspiration here. He makes the point that if you want to build a habit, then you must make it (and the behavior change you seek) obvious, make it attractive, make it easy, and make it satisfying. For my pomodoro-a-day habit, what I do is:

  1. Block off time every weekday from 8:00-8:30am on my calendar for writing. I live in my calendar so I always see this block. It's obvious and I can't claim ignorance or forgetfulness. I take my kids to school around 7:30, am back a few minutes later, and that's when I start.
  2. I always make myself a cup of my favorite tea before starting, and this is the only time of the day that I allow myself to have this kind of tea. So this time is attractive, something I look forward to, for the tea if nothing else.
  3. I don't have grand designs for producing greatness when I sit down to write — just 100 words and it doesn't even have to be part of a blog post. So it's easy. Sometimes I write about cats, or snow, or computers. Sometimes I just vent. The thing is to just write and not worry about the end result. However often when I do this, a free-association writing session will end up as a blog post 2-3 days later.
  4. For me, simply completing the pomodoro is satisfying enough, but knowing that I'm actually doing what I said I'd do — keeping a commitment to myself on a large scale by completing some very small task — is also satisfying.

Clear also says something that resonated deeply with me:

Professionals stick to the schedule, amateurs let life get in the way. Professionals know what is important to them and work towards it with purpose, amateurs get pulled off course by the urgencies of life.

Professionals don't let life get in the way. I really hated this statement when I first read it. I thought he was saying that, for example, if I valued my health and scheduled time to go to the gym, but my kid gets sick and needs me, that I should ignore my kid and go to the gym. But that's not it. This idea, don't let life get in the way, means just what I've said earlier: Figure out what's important to you and commit to it, and follow through on the commitment. Don't let the urgent-but-not-important always trump the important.

Academic life is chock full of items that seem urgent, but either aren't urgent at all, or else urgent but not important. There's always a ton of grading to do, for example. There are people emailing you all the time with items that, to them, are life-and-death matters (but in reality are not even actionable). It appears that they can't wait. But the secret is that they can, and indeed they must if you're going to keep commitments to yourself. So despite how much work may or may not be queued up, you make room for what's important — you don't let life get in the way.

Academics don't like to hear this, because it's much more fashionable to spend 30+ minutes on Twitter liking tweets about how tired or burned out a person is, than it is to block off 30 minutes a day to write and consistently honor a commitment to writing items of consequence (even if they're not world-changing) and thereby re-energizing oneself. This is a large part of why I am off Twitter now (except to shoot out links to my blog and check on the reactions). In fact getting off Twitter has freed up more than enough empty space in my every-day to have time for writing. This, too, was a choice — a choice any person can make. Are you committed to writing stuff that isn't superficial and has the potential to enact real change? Then it's probably going to take more than 280 characters, and mile-long Tweetstorms don't count. Just walk away and get a blog.

So to sum it up,

  1. Decide that writing is part of who you are, not just a thing you do, and therefore it's a part of your identity that deserves and demands serious commitment.
  2. Set near- and long-term goals for writing that are concrete and attainable and that represent where you want to be as a writer, but also goals that stretch you. And,
  3. Be disciplined about building writing habits that move you along incrementally toward those goals each day.

As I've told my 15-year old daughter, who has an incredible imagination and capacity for making up stories, you don't need anybody's permission to become a writer – just start writing.

Robert Talbert

Robert Talbert

Mathematics professor who writes and speaks about math, research and practice on teaching and learning, technology, productivity, and higher education.