Creators' Corner #37 - Atomic Writing Habits

Creators' Corner #37 - Atomic Writing Habits
Photo of the week: Plansee, Tyrol, Austria. Just wow.

Hey everyone 👋. I'm John. Welcome to Creators' Corner: a place where I share advice on writing, drawing and mindset to propel you on your creative journey. Here's the previous edition of the newsletter if you missed it. Today is (mostly) about getting back into good writing habits.

Getting back in the game with Grammarly

Nobody wants their writing to sound like it was created by a cold, impersonal robot.

This is why, for a long time, I resisted the urge to use text editors like Hemingway and ProWritingAid. I like my writing style, imperfect as it may be. I (mistakenly) believed a text editor would rob me of my voice and make me sound like everyone else. Or worse, like a robot.

Finally, a few weeks ago, something gave. I threw my apprehension out the window and downloaded Grammarly.

Why the change of heart?

I wanted to get back into writing every day.

My life was in flux over the last two months. I used January and February to find my feet after quitting corporate and going self-employed. While I love my newfound freedom and flexibility (I can work on what I want with who I want), it felt like a rug was pulled out from under me after being in a cushy job for nine years. My old routines were gone and I had to find a new rhythm.

This meant my personal writing, which has been a massive generator of opportunities and new friendships, took a backseat.

After two months, it was time to get back in the game.

I made a commitment to restart my writing habit. Goal: write for at least 30 minutes per day Monday-Friday.

But how would I track this habit?

Sure, I could write for 30 minutes per day in Apple Notes or Google Docs, but I prefer the heightened accountability that comes from tracking a streak.

I checked out writing apps like 750 words, but they all required subscriptions.

Enter Grammarly.

Apart from the text editor, it has a superb, free writing tracker. It sends weekly reviews of words written and days written. Similar to having streaks on Duolingo, but for writing instead of languages.

Two weeks in. Came for the stats and stayed for the text editor.

My approach:

  • I write 30 minutes per day about what I learned that day. I have free rein, there are no limitations. I try to embody the mindset of Don’t Create, Document. There’s supposed to be a lot of junk, but if I fight the resistance to get up long enough something usually pops up. Something useful, something other people might enjoy, something I might be able to publish without grimacing.
  • At the end of the week, I sift through all the bits and pieces from writing 30 minutes per day, look for the gold dust and expand on the best ideas for my newsletter.

Added bonus: my grammar and spelling has also improved. Have you noticed?

For all of my apprehension and resistance, it turns out I can still retain the personal touch while fixing my obvious mistakes and using a better vocabulary. Thanks to Grammarly for coming up with alternatives to 'great' (my go-to adjective) in the paragraphs above.

Here’s a photo of me doing my 30 minutes per day:

Even though I could cave into the Resistance (as Steven Pressfield calls it in the War of Art) and skip the daily 30 minutes, there are too many benefits to writing online to let this habit slip.

Prepping the page

Writing for 30 minutes is one thing, but getting yourself to sit down to write is something completely different.

Up to the point where I type my first word, I always feel the Resistance settling in. There is invariably something better to do than writing. A voice inside my head looks for a way out… sports highlights, Instagram reels... even taking out the trash sounds interesting if you're faced with a blank page.

Here’s my 5-step approach to "prepping the page" i.e. getting my bum on the seat and staying on the seat for 30 minutes, sometimes longer.

1. Distraction blockers. I write with the Cold Turkey (PC) and Forest (phone) apps turned on. I also switch my phone to do not disturb. These tools protect me against myself. They prevent me from checking my emails or social media when my monkey brain is looking for a distraction.

Distraction blockers keep the monkey at bay.

2. Headphones on. Instrumental, non-vocal music usually serves me best. I like this playlist by online writer Julian Shapiro.

3. Time-boxing. I set my phone timer for 30-45 minutes of focused attention at a time. I’m not allowed to get up or surf the web during my time box.

4. To-do-later list. I create a separate page for things to do later i.e. not during my sacred writing time. This helps me single-task instead of switching context the whole time. Examples that appeared on my latest list: buy new running shoes, buy gf flowers (NB), check slides for analytics presentation again plus 16 more.

There are three benefits to postponing these to-dos:

i. You can stay in flow for longer leading to better outputs.

ii. Some of these to-dos are unimportant and will fall away (not the gf flowers one, but definitely the new running shoes one). So you save time by delaying them.

iii. Cells that fire together, wire together. Every time you get an impulse and act on it, you make that wiring stronger, making it more difficult to resist distraction in future. Break the loop.

5. Note capture. At the end of a session, I create a summary of the interesting things I wrote down and I pull these sections into my Notion content management system. This requires effort, but it makes it easier to sift for gold at the end of the week and find segments for my newsletter.

While this advice is focused on writing, you can also "prep the page" for any other deep work, whether that's creating a presentation or planning your next workshop or writing code.

Next time you feel the Resistance settling in, give these 5 steps a go!

My favourites

📚 Book: Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott. Recommended by Ryan Holiday, the writer behind The Daily Stoic (see his full list of recommended books here). I haven't read any of Lamott’s other writing yet, but I adore this book. In it, she gives all her best advice on writing and life. Right up my alley. Her main advice is to do short assignments. Write a little bit every day. Break the big mountain into small steps.

💬 Quote. Philip Dormer Stanhope, The Earl of Chesterfield, on the importance of single-tasking:

“There is time enough for everything, in the course of the day, if you do but one thing at once; but there is not time enough in the year, if you will do two things at a time.”

From “Letters to His Son on the Art of Becoming a Man of the World and a Gentleman”, 1746-47. Goals I aspire to myself, lol.

📝 Essay: The Diderot Effect by James Clear, the author of Atomic Habits, which I liberally borrowed today's newsletter title from. This is an important essay about the perils of keeping up with the Jones's. It reminds me of René Girard's mimetic theory, which says we attach value to things because other people value them, not because of their intrinsic value. Thanks to Rudi Visser for sharing. Extract:

“The Diderot Effect states that obtaining a new possession often creates a spiral of consumption which leads you to acquire more new things. As a result, we end up buying things that our previous selves never needed to feel happy or fulfilled.”

Until next time, happy creating and good luck getting your bum on the seat!

– John

P.S. On the 8th of March, we are hosting the next CV4W workshop. This time we are joined by writer and graphic artist Leslie Kim, who will take us through her visual design process and show us how to merchandise our own designs.

​There are already 20+ confirmations. Sign up below if you'd like to join us!

CV4W Guest Series: Leslie Kim on Design & Merchandising · Zoom · Luma
Join us for the third edition of the CV4W Guest Lecture Series.This time we are joined by writer and graphic artist Leslie Kim who will take us through her visual design process and show us how…

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