to do list

I really recommend against keeping to-do lists on your hand.

Hi, I’m Abbi, and I’m kind of obsessed with habits. I love reading about habits and theories of habits, and I really enjoy the process of making new habits.

There are a LOT of blog posts out there with titles along the lines of “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective Writers.” I read easily 20 different posts with that title or a variation of it when I was researching this post, and I decided that I didn’t like ANY of those posts, because they said things like:

Don’t procrastinate.

Or: Tap into the power of metaphor. 

Sorry, but neither of those are habits.

Look, my goal here isn’t to talk to you about the art of writing. There’s absolutely a place for that, and that place may even be elsewhere on this site, but right here, in this post, I want to talk you about building and growing your freelance writing business, and how habits can help.

What’s a Habit?

When I talk about habits, I’m talking about the things you do without thinking of them. For example, when I get in my car, I have to punch a 4-digit code into a keypad before I can start the car. (It’s stupid. It’s an Israeli thing. Don’t ask.) Anyway, I often realize, after I have started the car and pulled out of my street, that I cannot actually recall having punched in the numbers, but I obviously did, because otherwise I wouldn’t have been able to start the car. Putting in my code is something I do without having to think, “I’m going to punch in the code now.”

No matter how tired I am when I head upstairs for bed, I brush my teeth. Sometimes, when I get in bed, I can’t remember having brushed, but I know that I did, because I can taste the toothpaste and feel my clean teeth.

I still don’t floss. Don’t tell my dentist. 

See? Habits.

Two of my favorite books about habits are Charles Duhigg’s The Power of Habit and Gretchen Rubin’s Better Than Before. I highly recommend both of them. But the absolute King of Habits, if you ask me, is BJ Fogg, in part because he focuses on the work you need to do in order to establish habits. One of the ways he teaches this is through his totally free Tiny Habits workshop, where you establish a “tiny habit” — for example, flossing ONE tooth, every night. You can then build on that tiny habit until you are ultimately flossing your teeth, washing your face, putting on moisturizer, and cleaning the bathroom before bed every night.

So, how do you get from here to there? Well, I definitely recommend taking  BJ Fogg’s Tiny Habits course — but if you’re looking for a quick and dirty explanation, I’ll give it to you.

Tiny Habits: Quick and Dirty

Tiny Habits are built on anchors. An anchor is something you know you do every day, at a set time or in a specific place. For example, most people brush their teeth after waking up in the morning, in the bathroom, in front of a mirror. So brushing your teeth is a good anchor.

A Tiny Habit would be, “After I brush my teeth, I will floss one tooth.” When you carry out the Tiny Habit, you celebrate the win. You can celebrate with a movement or an action — for example, pumping your fist in the air, blowing a kiss to your reflection, doing a little victory dance, or something else.

This is one of the hardest parts of the Tiny Habit process for a lot of people, but it’s also really important in establishing that habit — we like rewards! We like to feel good! The trick is to find something that’s almost natural for you. For example, I have a tendency to whisper-shout “Ha!” a lot when I do something particularly awesome, like play a great word in Words with Friends or get a new Twitter follower or pluck a particularly stubborn hair from my chin. So that “Ha!” works for me — it doesn’t feel forced, it’s not weird for me, and I don’t feel like I’m faking it.

The awesome thing about Tiny Habits is that you can use them in many different areas of your life, and they are extremely effective. Last summer I took a great class with Maria Brilaki of Fitness Reloaded that was heavily grounded in the concept of building on Tiny Habits for healthy eating.

What Does this Have to Do With Freelance Writing?

Yes, yes, I’m getting there. If I were going to make a list of, oh, say, seven habits of highly effective successful freelance writers, I would strive for these:

  1. Daily writing
  2. Daily marketing
  3. Daily engagement
  4. Daily reading
  5. Daily planning
  6. Daily admin tasks
  7. Daily brainstorming

None of the cafes I visit ever look like this.

Now, when I say “daily,” think “workday.” I work Sunday through Thursday, with occasional mornings off for important research (breakfast dates with my girlfriends. We are researching the cafes in Israel. It is critical work, and it won’t get done by itself.) Anyway, on days when I am working, I want these actions to be so automatic that I have to say to myself afterwards, Wait, did I?… Oh, yeah, yeah, I did.

Let’s take an example. A lot of writers have a tendency to procrastinate on marketing and admin tasks, so let’s figure out how to handle those. When I say “marketing,” here, I’m talking about pitching yourself; for me, admin tasks means clearing out my email, sending invoices, and updating my spreadsheets.

In order to make these things part of my automatic daily routine, I created some Tiny Habits. First, I looked for my anchors. I wanted one morning anchor — so I could get my marketing done early in the day — and one afternoon anchor, so that I could do my administrative tasks as I was winding down for the day.

An easy, natural morning anchor for me is checking my calendar on my computer. This is different from checking the calendar on my phone, which I mostly do to figure out what my kids and husband have going on during the day. When I sit down and my computer and check my calendar, I’m already in work mode. The kitchen has been tidied, a load of laundry is running, and I’m ready to start my day. So my Tiny Habit started off like this:

After I check the calendar on my computer, I will open my pitch template. Then I will whisper-shout “Ha!”

Over time, this Tiny Habit grew into something larger, and now, I can almost sleepwalk my way through sending out 3 copies of that pitch immediately after checking my calendar on the computer.

Get Creative With Your Anchors

This is Amit, dancing in the rain. He is awesome.

When I looked for an afternoon anchor, I found my kids. My youngest walks in the door at around 1:45 each afternoon. He became my anchor: After I smother Amit with kisses, I will open my spreadsheet file. Then I will do a little finger dance. (I mostly do this finger dance because it REALLY annoys my 17-year-old daughter.) I don’t even try to get the task done immediately — I just open the file, close my laptop, and go back to bugging my kid. But the very next time I open my computer — usually about an hour later — the spreadsheet is right there, and I think, “Oh, right. Admin stuff.” I log everything that needs to be logged, file my email, and I’m good to go.

On days when I feel overwhelmed and unable to get anything done, I find it incredibly useful to take a moment and think about the tiny habits I have or want to have — whether or not they’re related to work.

After I open my computer in the morning, I will write three sentences of my work in progress. Then I will do a little finger dance.)

(Look, I KNOW I’m not cool. I don’t even pretend anymore.)

After I drink my second cup of coffee, I will unload the dishwasher. Then I will do a dance move. (A truly tiny habit would be to open the dishwasher, and that was how I started, but I’ve progressed.)

For the most part, I can do these things without thinking, which is the point. When you unload the dishwasher without noticing that you’ve unloaded the dishwasher, it’s a habit, and you will never, ever have to think about it again. This is awesome, unless you are my dad and you really enjoy unloading the dishwasher. (I’ve never known anyone else who gets such joy from unloading a dishwasher. Certainly none of my children find it remotely enjoyable.)

You want your habits to be automatic. It is super-automatic for me to get down my 3 sentences each day after opening my computer, and I would say that 96 days out of 100, I continue writing for a good 15 minutes — which can often be as much as 750 words — before I even notice that I’ve done so. (I delay my water-glass-toasting until I finish writing and look up.) This is how I fit in my personal writing projects, which vary from month to month.

When I started working on the habit of Engagement, I chose to go with Twitter. I have dedicated Twitter time while I drink coffee. (After I make a cup of coffee, I will open Twitter. Then I will raise a glass to myself.) I go through my feed and mark articles I want to read and possibly share later, I like and respond to tweets that catch my fancy, clap my hands in glee if I have a new follower, and so on. Fortunately, I am a writer and therefore required by law to drink a fair amount of coffee each day, so I have triggers during the day to go back to Twitter, too. 

Reading — as in reading for work — is also a daily habit for me. I don’t have to work very hard at this one, but I do have to remind myself to stop and move on to other things. I love the stuff I read for work, and I would spend my whole day doing that if I could. So can you guess what I did? I made reading an anchor and linked another tiny habit to it. After I finish reading my saved articles, I will open Notes and brainstorm three post ideas. Then I will whisper-shout “Ha!” I really love this one, because reading the brilliant things other people have to say is a natural trigger for coming up with my own brilliant ideas.

How Can Habits Help You?

Think about the habits you need to establish to be successful as a freelance writer. Do you need to spend more time writing query letter? Making cold calls? Working on your web site? What are the things you need to do every day in order for your business to be successful? Figure out how you can establish tiny habits — the very first step to doing those tasks. For query letters, your tiny habit could be opening Word or Google Docs. For making cold calls, it could be opening your spreadsheet. Find the anchor, and don’t forget to celebrate your win.

You can even do the finger dance.