If I did my job right last week, two things happened. First, I convinced you it is more helpful to think in terms of forming habits than setting goals. Second, you are curious about my writing and reading habits from last year.
I hope sharing these with you will help you get some ideas about how to set up new habits or tweak and improve old ones that are already working well.
A Writing Habit
At the beginning of 2019 I wanted to work on developing a habit of writing some most days. I decided to work on a habit of writing at least 500 words 200 days out of the year.
I had a pattern of writing that was closer to feast or famine than slow and steady wins the race. I would try to write unrealistic amounts in short periods of time. Sometimes the goals I set would help me grind out thousands of words in one day. But these times of writing were usually draining. Instead of thinking about the next session of writing with energy and expectation, I would feel something closer to dread.
I am convinced that it is better to do something that you want to be an expert at some every day than to do a lot less frequently. So I decided to try an experiment in 2019 of trying to work on a habit of writing some every day (or most work days) even on busier days.
I framed this habit in a goal oriented way because I found it to be motivating to think both of the short sprint as well as having a vision in mind of the cumulative impact of all of those sprints. Most days I was able to find the energy to write 500 words. On its own, this didn’t feel significant. But knowing if I did this I would write at least 100,000 words motivated me to show up and write a humble 500 words.
I gave myself credit for this habit as long as I wrote 500 words. I could write more if I had time and energy. But I could not get credit for more than one day of writing on the same day. (I.e., I could not get credit for 5 days of writing by writing 2,500 words on 1 day.) This was important to me because I wanted to intentionally deemphasize the feast side of writing in order to focus on the habit of being a consistent writer.
This was hard. 200 days ended up being the ideal amount of writing. It was consistent enough that I thought about writing every weekday. But it gave me enough cushion that I was still able to accomplish the goal even if I occasionally missed days. I ended up writing 500 words or more exactly 200 days in 2019. I wrote a total of 133,052 words.
I highly recommend an approach like this to anyone who wants to develop a habit of writing but does not have the luxury of setting aside big chunks of time. Cutting this goal in half to 250 words a day would still be at least 50,000 words over the course of a year, which is the length of many books.
This general approach would work well for almost any kind of writing. You can write a novel, a doctoral dissertation, or a whole bunch of blog posts using this approach.
One caveat: I did not include editing in my daily 500 words. That has been a different process for me that is closer to feast or famine. But I am ok with that right now because it makes sense to me to edit when I have gotten to a certain point in the writing process. All that is to say, I had 133,000 rough draft quality words.
A Reading Habit
One of my favorite things to do is read books. I love reading. Working on a habit of reading was not so much trying to work towards establishing a new habit of reading as it was trying to provide new focus and structure for this habit. In past years I have set a goal to read a certain number of books in a year. I was curious to see how shifting from number of books read to number of pages read would change reading for me.
I decided to work towards a habit of reading 100 pages a day every day in 2019, which would be 36,500 total pages. For the first time, I decided to count audio books and subscribed to Audible.
I measured this goal by subtracting from 36,500 over the course of the year. On this goal I was more focused on getting that number to zero than I was on whether I read exactly 100 pages each day. I usually subtracted the pages from the total after I finished a book.
I was happy with the results of this habit. I read 37,163 pages, which ended up being 106 books (about 15 of which were audio books).
I think the ultimate success of these two habits is less the number of words written and pages read than the fact that I decided to continue both of them this year. When I think about a typical day now, I think about spending some time reading and writing.
If you want to give this approach a shot, I recommend you start by identifying an activity you place a high value on but tend to have a feast or famine approach. It might be different than writing or reading, maybe running or practicing an instrument.
Once you have identified that activity, decide what amount of consistent practice is needed in order for this to move towards becoming a habit that is a part of your consistent rhythms. The key is to set the daily habit at a level that is easy to achieve and focus on the long term results.
If you have similar systems or decide to implement this, I’d love to hear from you in the comments.
Kevin M. Watson is Assistant Professor of Wesleyan & Methodist Studies at Candler School of Theology, Emory University. Want to know more? Click here.