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How I Tackle a Big Writing Project

Writing something big is one of the things people tend to procrastinate on the most.

It doesn’t matter what the writing project might be: writing a novel, a non-fiction book, a long article, a thesis paper, a bunch of pages for a website. Whatever it is, the writer will find a way to procrastinate.

I count myself among those happy procrastinators. But in the last 7 years, I’ve managed to write a couple thousand of blog posts, a print book, about 10 ebooks, and numerous online courses, not to mention a couple of novel attempts totaling 200K words. I’ve figured out a thing or two that works.

To help my fellow procrastinators writers, I thought I’d share how I tackled an ebook I decided to write last week about Letting Go (I’m releasing it for free next week on my birthday, as a gift to you guys).

I wrote the book in two days last week, and edited it in another day this week.

Here’s what I did.

First, I defined and thought through my problem. I’ve been working through a process of letting go that actually helps with pretty much any problem, if you’re willing to do it. This is what I wanted to share with you guys, to help you through difficulties in your life, small and large. So I imagined my typical reader, and what his or her life might be like. I walked through a typical day, from waking up to work to socializing and taking care of responsibilities. What problems might someone like that face?

I tried to visualize how I’d deal with those problems, using the letting go method that’s been working for me. What steps would I take? What doubts and concerns would I have about the process? What would stop me from doing it? What would be helpful to know?

Then I started jotting down notes. After visualizing all of that, I had some ideas. Not organized, just random stuff. So I jotted notes down on paper, in a notebook, and also on a text document. No order, just get things down. I can organize later.

I kept thinking through all of this, for a few days. In the shower, while I was walking, while I meditated, during workouts, as I ate. It was foremost on my mind, and as I thought of ideas and problems, I’d jot them down.

Big step: I committed. I told an ebook designer that I’d have the manuscript to him by Wednesday, so that he’d have enough time to have it done by the end of the month. In my mind, I was now fully committed, instead of just thinking about doing it. This is a huge step, one of the most important. You have to watch your mind trying to get out of being committed, and don’t let it run.

Now that I was committed, I set aside big blocks of time to work on the book. I knew that I’d never get it done unless I made the time, so I canceled appointments, said no to meetings, did a bunch of work so my work schedule was clear. Marked off the writing blocks on my calendar.

Next I chunked out the writing. There’s no way to write 10,000 words at once. You can only write them one at a time, one sentence at a time, one paragraph at a time. And yet our minds think of the work as one big thing, one scary thing, and so we procrastinate. Writing a paragraph isn’t hard, but writing a book seems terrifying. So I try not to think of the entire project — there’s no way for me to actually tackle the project. A short chapter, or a section of that chapter — I can do that in one small chunk of work.

So I decided to keep the chapters very short (they’re more readable that way) and work on one short chapter at a time. Not think about the entire thing, just the one piece of work in front of me. Something doable, not scary. That seems obvious, but you’d be surprised how often we procrastinate because we’re thinking of the entire project.

Then I procrastinated. No, I’m not immune to procrastination. It happens to me, inevitably. I put off the writing by working on other, more comfortable tasks. But I found several things that worked this time (and many other times):

  • I told a friend that I was procrastinating, and committed to getting to work on the book. I texted him later, as I successfully wrote the book, and that felt great.
  • I reminded myself of why I was writing it. It wasn’t for my vainglory, but to help people. I pictured the people I was trying to help, and visualized their pain, felt it in my chest. I could feel anger, frustration, sadness, grief. I knew this was something I wanted to help with, if at all possible. And so this was my intention in writing: to help people in pain. And this is a huge motivator.
  • I examined my fears. My fears were about failing, about not getting the book done, about not doing it well, about people not liking it. These were all rooted in ideals, fantasies. This is a process I was actually writing about in the book, so I used it on myself, and it worked. I let go of the ideals, and worked without expectations, trying to be in the moment as I wrote, being grateful for that moment.
  • I would watch my mind try to run. Fear still came up — fear of discomfort, of doing something hard. My mind wanted to go check social media or Hacker News or blogs I like to read. I saw my mind trying to run, but I didn’t let it. I stayed with the writing.

Once I got the ball rolling, it got much easier. I just had to write a single sentence. That’s all. That’s easy as hell. So I did, and once I did, the second sentence was tremendously easier. Then the third, even easier. The first chapter started to come, then other chapters came one after the other.

I worked in little bits, took breaks, worked again. I would sit down to write, and do it for 10-15 minutes. Maybe a bit longer if I was on a roll. Then get up, stretch, get some water, maybe clean or take care of some other household task. This allowed my mind to take a break. It got my blood circulating again, which is good for the brain. Then I’d sit down to write again. Repeat, over and over.

I worked for about five hours that first day, once I got the ball rolling, then 3-4 hours the next day, and wrote 10K words in that time.

It felt amazing.

I sent the draft to some friends. I asked them to read it over if they had time, and if they had any suggestions or found any typos, to let me know. If you send it to 10 friends, about 3-4 will get back to you with changes. That’s a good number.

I spent a day editing and revising, and wrote a new chapter based on the suggestion of one friend. I tend to put off the editing but I had a deadline of Wednesday, so that pushed me to get on top of it. I edited, revised, edited.

And sent the manuscript, triumphantly, to my ebook designer.

I can’t wait to share it with all of you next week.

Zen Habits

Leo Babuata
Chapters
Neither Averting Nor Craving in Each Moment
How Taking Care of My Finances Changed My Life
Tips for Traveling with Kids
My Grand Travel Experiment
The Parent I Aspire to Be
The Best & Less-than-Best Motivations for Learning
The Miracle of Suspending Mis-Belief
7 Strategies for Dealing with Toxic People
Finding Motivation on Important But Non-Urgent Tasks
Learning Tips for the Top 8 Learning Challenges
The 30-Day Learning Challenge
The Place Where You Are
Feeling Determined to Change
Practicing Non-Judgment
Hold Your Own Feet to the Fire
Don’t Waste Your Opportunity
How to Beat Procrastination with Daily Training
The Time When We’ll Be Present & Content
A Simple, Powerful Self-Compassion Method
When Others Frustrate You
Your Internet Habits Create Your Reality
The Case for Replacing Exercise with Play
Leave Yourself Wanting More
Fail Faster at Habits
The Anti-Bucket List
Getting Started with the Discipline Habit
The Case for Caring About Your Work
Questions of Priority
The Futility of Always Pushing Myself to Be More
Pare Down with the Declutter Habit
You’re Not Doing Life Wrong
Getting Lost in Just Doing
An Addict’s Guide to Overcoming the Distraction Habit
The Source of Contentment
Savor Discipline: Merge the Interests of Your Future & Present Selves
What You Can Say Instead of “I Don’t Feel Like It”
The Things That Get in the Way of Doing
The Girl Who Saw Through the Illusions
A Gradual Approach to Healthy Eating
Unconditional Acceptance of Yourself
My Typical Day: How I Get People to Think I’m Productive
The Contentment Habit
The Delightfully Short Guide to Reading More Books
In Praise of Limits
The Art of Being My Dad
5 Ideas to Create an Amazing 2015
Essential Zen Habits of 2014
Karate Chop
Practicing Slowness & Being Present
Overwhelmed by All the Changes You Want to Make
My 2014 Successes and Failures
Finding the Motivation to Change Your Entire Life
When You’re Lonely
The Brain’s Fast Mode
5 Questions to Simplify Your Life During the Holidays
The Zen Habits Holiday Gift Guide
The Four Hidden Habit Skills
The Power of Delay
Overwhelmed & Rushed? Do a Stress Assess
Writer as Coder: The Iterative Way to Write a Book
Please Support the Zen Habits Book
Are You a Lift or Drag Force?
When Resistance Smacks You in the Face
When Your Plate is Too Full
The Quickstart Guide to Quitting a Bad Habit
The Zen Habits Book is Almost Done
A Quick Guide to Gaining Confidence When You Socialize
The Empty Container
The Realization
A Guide to Changing Self-Destructive Behaviors
Pushing Past the Terrifying Dip in Motivation
It’s Not Too Late to Change Bad Habits
The Smart Way to Stick to Habits
My Most Effective Learning Tools
What I Do When I Fail
How to Put Your Writing in Public
The Productive Sprint
The Biggest Reasons You Haven’t Changed Your Habits
Seized by the Thunderhold of Fear
What to Eat for Fat Loss
The Heartbreaking Cruelty of Comparing Yourself to Others
A Brief Guide to Overcoming Instant Gratification
How to Get Motivated After a Vacation
7 Strategies for Facing Your Internet/TV Addiction
How to Breathe
7 Discipline-Mastering Practices
7 Rules That Keep My Life Simple
An Education in the Majestic Sierra Nevada
The Lies Your Mind Tells You to Prevent Life Changes
How to Believe in Yourself
Don’t Waste a Moment
How to Find Your Life Purpose: An Unconventional Approach
How to Be Great
Making Yourself Work
Inhabit the Moment
How to Master the Art of Living
The Delusional Fantasies We Live With Each Day
Living the Simple Life
How to Be Prepared for Anything
Turn Toward the Problem
The End of the Day Philosophy
The Painful Beauty of Impermanence
How to Change Other People
Pursuing Happiness When It’s Already Within You
The Quickstart Guide to a Decluttered Home
Parental Zen: How to Keep Your Cool as a Parent
Looking for Love
How to Stop Your Habit Changes From Getting Derailed
Why We Have Regret
The Essence of Fatherhood: 6 Simple Lessons
A Call for Revolt: Advertising is the Anti-Minimalism
The Frustratingly Slow Pace of Making Changes
My Struggles with Eating Boring Food
The No Procrastination Challenge
Creating a Lovely Morning
A Father’s Manifesto: Raising Young Men Who Respect Women
Turn Inspiration Into Action
Coming Back From a Setback
The Gift
A Guide for Young People: What to Do With Your Life
No Excuses: Minimalism with Kids
How to Make a Marriage Work
Love Notes
Flavorless: My Month of Food Boringness
The Letting Go Ebook, Free
The Miracle of the Self-Compassion Habit
How I Tackle a Big Writing Project
The Habit Action List
The Reality of This Moment
Confidence in Your Business
10 Ways to Do What You Don’t Want to Do
On Making It Through Tough Journeys
The Hard Stuff Often Matters Most
What to Think About During Exercise
You’ll Be OK
The Most Important Two Minutes of Your Life
A Call for Compassion for the Defenseless
The Cure for Your Distraction Syndrome
You’re Not Worse Than Other People
Being Mindful of Your Stress
What if You Didn’t Have to Worry About Yourself?
The Universe of a Single Task
Simplifying Is Painful
Becoming Emotionally Self-Reliant
How I Cleaned House & Simplified My Work Life
The Busy Person’s Guide to Reducing Stress
My Month Without a Smartphone
What I’ve Learned as a Writer
What the Exercise Habit Did For Me
Fear is the Root of Your Problems
This Moment
36 Lessons I’ve Learned About Habits
The 3 Do-What-You-Love Conundrums
How I Conduct My Business
Constant Task Switching
The Habits of Five Amazing Founders
The Incredible Importance of Sleep for Habits & Motivation
What Really Motivates Us to Stick to a Project?
I Tried to Quit & It’s Too Hard!
Unwired: A Month With Limited Internet, & Now No Cell Phone
Procrastination is a Mindfulness Problem
Letting Go of Judging People
Don’t Scratch the Itch
Become Happy in the Face of Physical Misery
How Repetition Can Kickstart a Habit
Zen Productivity
When You’re Feeling Self-Doubt & a Lack of Motivation
The Child That Holds Us Back
Stateless Mindset
My Month of (Almost) No Internet
12 Changes for 2014
Essential Zen Habits of 2013
The Fear of Being Alone
The Calm Approach
Things Every Man Should Own
Family Gatherings: The Ultimate Mindfulness Training Ground
Letter to an 18-year-old on the Career Path Less Traveled
A Method to Find Balance
16 Surprising Lessons from My First 50-Mile Ultramarathon
The Simple Fitness Habit Holiday Challenge
Struggles with My Morning Internet Fast
Surrender, Mindfulness & Entrepreneurship
How I Learned to Stop Procrastinating, & Love Letting Go
Finding Focus
When You Run Out of Ideas
The Necessary Art of Subtraction
Jealousy & Suffering
How Creativity Works, & How to Do It
Self-Discipline in 5 Sentences
Make It Your Job
Developing Selfless Compassion
Lyrical Learning, & Why We Learn Habits Wrong
A Month Without Sugar
Why I Read (+ a Dozen Book Recommendations)
12 Indispensable Mindful Living Tools
Burn Down the Farm
My Most Minimal Travel Setup Yet
The Exquisite Habits of the Founder of Blue Bottle Coffee
3 Little Tricks to Deal With People Who Offend You
My Healthiest Travel Routine Yet
Startup Founder Megan Casey’s Habits of Priorities
My Pursuit of the Art of Living
A Month Without TV or Video
The Way of No Debt
Letting Go: How to Live With the Loss of a Loved One
The Way to Be
Ramit Sethi’s Entrepreneurial Habits
The Time to Shut Down
The Pain & Beauty of Life Changes
8 Creativity Lessons from a Pixar Animator
Zen Mountain: Leave It All Behind
Overcoming the Social Costs of Being Different
Finding Quiet and Mindfulness Through Food
My Failed Month of ‘No Sitting’
The Thinking Habit That Changed My Life
Liking Healthy Foods is a Choice
Unschoolery: My New Blog on Unschooling
My Advice for Starting a Business
Creating Your Habit Environment
Travel Lessons with My Family
Easier Decision-Making: Conduct Experiments
Simplify: Let Go of Your Crutches
The Fear of Being Found a Fraud
The Flexible Mind
Declutter Your Life
A Month Without Coffee
The Healthful Vegan Diet
Living the Quiet Life
The Art of Tasting Chocolate Mindfully
Why Fear of Discomfort Might Be Ruining Your Life
The Habits of Happiness
How to Keep Habits Going During Travel
A Year of Living Without
The Key Habits of Organization
I Failed
Vegan Guide to San Francisco
The Futility of Comparing Yourself to Others
A Secret to Dad Greatness
Habits: A Simple Change in Mindset Changes Everything
The Worry That You’re Doing the Wrong Thing Right Now
6 Steps To Being More Creative
How I Finally Faced My Weight & Debt Problems
Working with the Obstacles in Your Path
9 Rules for a Simpler Day
The Little Book of Contentment
The Obstacle is the Path
5 Lessons in Contentment from Billionaires Warren Buffett & Charlie Munger
Smile in Each Moment
A Guide to Practical Compassion
6 Steps To Healing Yourself
The 7-Day Vegan Challenge
Why You Should Write Daily
Achieving Without Goals
Flowing with the Stresses of Kids (or anyone else)
Habit Mastery: Creating the New Normal
Defeat Distraction: Refocusing with Purpose
Expanding the Envelope: A Method for Beating Anger
A Guide to Practical Contentment
The Practice of Work Mind & Vacation Mind, Simultaneously
How to Eat Real Food Without Spending Hours in the Kitchen
Quitting Your Habits
The 38 Best Methods of Successful Exercisers
How To Make It Impossible To Fail
The Not Knowing Path of Being an Entrepreneur
How to Change Your Life: A User’s Guide
Getting Your Family On Board with Life Changes
How to Stick to a Habit When Life Falls Apart
Zen Mind in the Middle of Chaos & Stress
Create a Sacred Space in Your Heart
Meditation: The Most Fundamental Habit
Creating the Genuine Connections We Long For
Tremors of Psychitude: One Little Trick to Find Purpose and Motivation
Create the Habits of Being Lean, in 7 Years
Walled-in: Life Without Facebook
The 7 Habits of Calmness
The Four Habits that Form Habits
Advice to My Kids
My 10 Essential Email Habits
The Daily Checklist
Sticking to a Habit: The Definitive Guide
The Meditation Diet: How I Lost 60+ lbs. by Savoring
The Power of Habit Investments
Discomfort Zone: How to Master the Universe
The Most Successful Techniques for Rising Early
Do Less: A Short Guide
How to Savor Life
What We Lack in a Hyperconnected World
Simplify the Internet
12 Rules to Live By
The New Rules of Fitness for 2013
52 Changes for 2013
The Unprocrastination Month, and the Relaunch of the Sea Change Program
Essential Zen Habits of 2012
The Other Person is Never the Problem
The Do Plan, or Why We Know But Don’t Do
28 Brilliant Tips for Living Life
The Clutter-free Holiday Guide
The Little Trick to Make Any Moment Better
Tim Ferriss vs. Leo Babauta Showdown: On Whether Goals Suck
The Work You Love is Waiting For You
The 7-Step Method to Find Focus for Writing
The Buy-Nothing Holiday Survival Guide
Challenge: Buy Nothing Until 2013
How to Learn Anything
Shaken By Life’s Beauty, Shaken
Untrack: Letting Go of the Stress of Measuring
15 Great Excuses Not to Form the Fitness Habit
How to Make Health Insurance a Bad Bet
Why the Fitness Habit is More Important Than the Plan
The Willingness to Think Differently
Create a Superhealth Community
A Vegan Tour of NYC