Writing: The most powerful habit you can start today
It’s something you learned to do back when you were just a few years old. It’s something that you most certainly do every day of your life. Yet you’ve probably also misused it and, consequently, failed to harness its true power. What I’m talking about today is the simple act of writing.
What’s the purpose?
Almost all of us have been conditioned to think that writing exists for solely two purposes: interpersonal communication (like texting, instant messaging, emails) and professional functions (like essays, academic papers, work reports). What we’re never taught or encouraged to do is to write just for the sake of writing. To let thoughts flow. To let anything that’s in your head right now flow through your mind and hit the paper. The type of writing that I want you to take up as a habit is exactly that: honest, non-restrictive, and no-strings-attached writing. This is a type of writing that you’re not “forced” to do because it’s born out of your own desire to crystallize personal thoughts. Granted, academic writing is definitely useful in its own way – mostly for learning how to coherently structure arguments and master fundamental grammatical rules – but we've become so used to writing out of obligation to achieve a certain goal that we never learn how to write without the pressure of some final goal.
The process of putting all the madness that’s going on in your head into written form is tremendously powerful, especially when you look back at it afterwards. I remember hearing something on the Fizzle Show a while back where they said: “When you write down a thought, it becomes real.” I took me a while to really “get” what this meant, but now I realize that it means that writing a thought forces you to truly recognize its existence. It could be a billion-dollar business idea, a note for your to-do list, anxiety about where your life is heading, or a passion you’ve always had that you can’t stop thinking about. Whatever it is, once you write it down you’re really saying: “This thought I had truly existed in my mind and it existed clearly enough that I was able to write it down. This is real.” To emphasize just how powerful this process is, you can highlight every step of it: you think a thought, you recognize that you want to write it down, you rethink it so you know exactly what you want to write, you write it down in a way that’s clear enough that it makes sense to you, you reread it, and maybe you look back at it again sometime in the future. You’ve just legitimized this thought at least four times just by writing it down!
What if it’s an anxiety you’re having? You just owned up to the fact that this has been on your mind instead of allowing it to float in and out of your consciousness at random. What if it’s a great business idea you have? Maybe this marks the beginning of your brainstorming phase. Who knows what it might be; what I do know for sure is that writing is the spark that lights a fuse to something potentially remarkable. It is absolutely one of the most powerful exercises in mindfulness you can ever do.
Take away my anxiety!
We human beings have an absolute overload of thoughts on a daily basis. It’s probably good that we’re not conscious of all of them otherwise they would easily cause our brains to explode. But by cultivating the habit of writing down your thoughts, you learn how to convert something that is most often quite volatile and fleeting into a (somewhat) structured and logical product. You may smirk at this, but it’s deceptively difficult to "verbalize" specific thoughts if you've never done so before. It’s like trying to calm down an extremely fast trapped animal so that you can let it go free, but it’s obviously wreaking havoc because it’s terrified (or, for those of you that have watched the show, I prefer the imagery of Spirit-bending in the Legend of Korra to illustrate this activity).
Tips & Tricks
You may now think: Alright great, I’ll start writing. But, what am I supposed to write about? Where do I start? How do I do this? Although I’m absolutely sure you have no lack of topics buzzing around in your head to write about, let me give you two quick and easy ways to get started:
1. A blog! Obviously, this has to be one of the suggestions since, well, you’re reading a blog right now. However, if you’re a bit scared or nervous about putting yourself out there on the scary terrain of the World Wide Web, you can just keep everything you write about completely private. Is this sorta a diary? Perhaps. And if that’s what you want to call it, fine. If you do decide to publish your blog though, you might think that nobody cares about your topic. Well, you're most likely very wrong about that. Or do you think that nobody will read what you write? Who cares about how many people read your material? This is about one thing and one thing only: you writing about something, anything. Besides, my traffic numbers are far from stellar and, well, I'm still here!
2. Thought (or idea) journal. Another one that brought me to the fame, riches, and stardom of where I find myself today (not). This is exactly what it sounds like: a place where you just write anything that’s on your mind. The difference between this and a blog is that a thought journal is exclusively for you, is far less legit, and doesn't have to be structured. Ah but I know what some of you (probably the men) are thinking: how unmanly it sounds to keep a journal! Although I'm generally quite sympathetic and tolerant towards different points of view, I have no time or patience to dissect stupidly lazy stereotypes like these. If you think the act of writing down thoughts is unmanly, I don't really know what to say.
That aside, there are two rules for a TJ that really matter: 1) don’t judge or filter your thoughts and 2) don’t feel the pressure to make it something super official that you write in on a fixed schedule. I cannot stress enough how important especially the first point is because you must have the humility to admit and recognize that you have some crazy shit flying around in your head. The process of writing all the insanity down is exactly where you humbly admit this fact. Interestingly, I first started with a TJ before I began blogging because the habit of consistently writing about anything gave me the confidence to eventually put material out there for others to see. Just remember that it's up to you: if you want to have a steady schedule for writing, that’s completely fine but you don't feel the pressure or obligation to do so. You’re doing this for yourself so you have to do it in a way that's most comfortable for you.
A minor tangent
As you all know, I reference the podcast Back to Work quite frequently in my other posts. In one of their episodes, Dan and Merlin had a fascinating discussion about the death (and dearth) of good writing nowadays. It’s a bit of a tangent to what I talked about here but it hits hard onto something that I’ve believed for a long time. I believe that at least 50% (and that’s probably an understatement) of being a good writer boils down to one simple thing: the understanding and correct usage of grammar.
Granted, the true crème-de-la-crème of writers have just that extra edge of creativity, insight, and style that others don’t have so I don’t want to diminish them or their talent at all. But it seems like people get frightened by the best writers and think: “damn I have to be super eloquent, creative, and witty to be a good writer.” Well, yes… but no. You would be utterly amazed to see how far you can get if you simply know how to structure your paragraphs, use commas correctly in your sentences, have a basic grasp of sentence structure, and (for the love of God please) not use run-on sentences. Honestly, run-on sentences are like that person in your social group that talks too much and constantly jumps from one point to the other at random. I do need to stress though that all of this obviously only applies if you’re writing for the viewing of other people. If you’re just writing for yourself then for all I care you can use ten different languages and a hundred commas in the same sentence.
Fizzle has a refreshingly honest guide (free video webinar) on how to journal. Chase and Steph discuss their personal journaling methods that are perfectly tailored to their respective personalities. I think Chase’s method relates most to what I’ve discussed here but that doesn’t take away from the razor-sharp focus and clarity of Steph’s approach.
The Back to Work episode referenced earlier is #265. The part where they discuss the topic of writing is from approximately 1hr 8mins until 1hr 30mins.
The Morning Pages writing exercise. Credit to Back to Work for this one, which is where I first heard about this method. It’s essentially the very disciplined and more official version of the thought journal I discussed above.
Moleskin notebooks. Personally, I do 90% of my writing electronically and the rest in a notebook that, Lord knows, I probably got for free somewhere. If, however, you like to do it exclusively the old-school way you should check out these journals. No, I’m not a marketing representative of this firm, I just heard that they have some really good journaling material. If, however, they want to sponsor me then they know where to find me...
So what are you waiting for? Start writing!
See you, Space Cowboy.