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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
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