The past two weeks, I've failed at writing a new article.
It isn't like I have a great excuse, either. I've had plenty of time to write, and a growing list of ideas to pull from. But without fail, each Wednesday evening I've ended up with a half-written draft clenched in one hand and a stiff drink in the other, brimming with self-doubt and wondering how I let the week get away from me yet again.
I've been thinking a lot about what I need to do to get back into a good rhythm. So far, I've come up with two problems I'm struggling with - and, unsurprisingly, both problems are caused by my own expectations.
I expect all my work to be the highest quality
I've always set a very high bar for myself and my work. I want every article I write, every website I design - hell, even every tweet I twit - to be the best it could possibly be. I'm always able to find little tweaks and small improvements in whatever I do - I’ll spend hours getting the design on my site to look exactly the way I want it to, even though I know most people won’t even notice.
I used to be proud of being a perfectionist until I started building my own business.
As it turns out, having a pixel-perfect website or a perfectly written article each week doesn’t matter a whole lot in the big scheme of things. By starting out with the expectation that I need to write something insightful and witty and valuable every time I sit in front of the keyboard, I've set myself up for failure even before I've begun.
When I feel like I NEED to be performing at my best 100% of the time, it kills my motivation. I start to feel overwhelmed before I even begin.
We're all human - we're not designed to run at full throttle all the time, like a weed whacker. James Clear puts it clearly (no pun intended):
Being productive is about maintaining a steady, average speed on a few things, not maximum speed on everything.
Things won't always go right. Some weeks I can write an article with minimal effort - some weeks, it feels like pulling teeth. It won't be perfect every time - but that's OK. Done is better than perfect - and done is what I need to be aiming for.
I expect myself to deliver the highest quality every week
Last year, I made a commitment to myself to publish a new article each week. Now there isn't anyone holding me to this - if I don't write, I'm not losing money, and no-one's going to give me a bad performance review at the end of the year.
When I started writing, I was doing it just for me - it didn’t matter that my writing sucked, or that only a handful of people read it. But then a funny thing happened: I started to enjoy sharing my thoughts and creating something new each week. The writing was challenging, it felt good to be creating something new again, and sticking to a schedule helped me start climbing out of burnout and getting things done again.
Over time, though, I started pushing myself harder to perform each and every week. Gradually, the writing process stopped being enjoyable and started feeling more like an obligation and a chore. Writing stopped being something I wanted to do and started feeling like something I needed to do.
Perfectionism + Obligation = A recipe for unhappiness.
So, to help me get back on track and focus on keeping a steady pace, I'm making a couple of changes to how I write each week.
Break it down into bite-size chunks
First, I'm breaking each article down into multiple tasks. Jeff Goins suggests using a three-bucket system for writing, breaking the process up into three separate activities - coming up with ideas, turning those ideas into rough drafts, and editing those drafts into a polished final piece. For my own system, I'm also adding a fourth bucket - publishing and sharing the finished article, since my writing can’t help anyone if I’m shouting in an empty room.
These four tasks are now separated on my calendar and spread across multiple days. I’m still piecing together a system that works, but here’s what it looks like right now:
- Sunday evening (30min): I go through my ideas scratch pad and pick an idea. I keep the scratch pad as a simple Markdown file in Dropbox - whenever I have a thought or idea about an article topic, I can quickly whip out my phone and write it down, along with some quick notes to help me remember what I was thinking.Choosing an idea is the only thing I try to get done today. I’ve found if I try to sit down and write without already having chosen a topic, I’ll spend a half-day procrastinating, so deciding on an idea in advance helps me get started more quickly.
- Monday morning (2-3 hours): Write the Ugly First Draft. I try not to worry about editing, formatting, voice, or any other pesky distractions, and instead just get my thoughts down. I’ll also spend some time researching similar topics to get others’ perspectives and to add some facts and figures to the article.This is the piece I struggle with the most - it’s always tempting to try and make it perfect in a single pass, but I’ve found that it takes twice as long and is twice as hard. The goal for today is to write the shell of an article, not to make it perfect.
- Tuesday morning (2 hours): Re-read the Ugly First Draft, moving the pieces around and adding detail here and there until it makes sense. I also make sure the article has a clear purpose, a unifying story or idea, and an introduction and conclusion that fit with the main idea. I’ve found my creative side is a morning person (it likes to take a nap in the mid-afternoon), so I try to write and edit in the mornings before jumping into the rest of my day. Sometimes the polishing process flows into Tuesday afternoon or Wednesday morning, so the extra day of buffer helps to make sure I have the breathing room to get the article finished by Thursday morning.
- Wednesday afternoon (1 hour): Re-read the article with fresh eyes, making sure it makes sense and sounds like me. I’ll also schedule the article in Mailchimp to be sent Thursday morning, and in Wordpress and on Medium to be published Friday morning.
Having a more defined system like this in place is helping me break down the overwhelming feeling of treating "write an article every week" as a single task, making it easier to get started, and to keep writing once I've started.
Focus on the process instead of the outcome
I’m a terrible judge of the quality of my own work - I’ll either write something I think is great but no-one reads, or I’ll grit my teeth and publish what I think isn’t a great article, and thousands of people will read it. I can’t predict what you’ll find valuable - so I’m trying to get back to enjoying the process of writing, instead of focusing on whether or not it will be successful.
To do this, I'm working on writing on a more consistent schedule. I'm starting to write 500 words each morning around a particular topic - no expectations, no goals, and no guarantee it will ever be published. I'm hoping this’ll start to take the pressure off myself to create something perfect the first time.
That's what this is all about - lowering the pressure I put on myself to create something worthwhile. That's not to say goals are wrong, or that we shouldn't aim high - but if we set the bar where we can’t ever reach it, what’s the point in trying?
I’m lowering the bar so I can reach it.
Things won't always go the way I want them to. But by lowering the bar, the next jump won't seem quite as hard.