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How to Write a Book One Tiny Habit at a Time

I wanted to write a chapter of my book in May, but got super busy with the end of school. I intended to do it in June while on a cruise in Norway with my family. I mean, what else is there to do during sea days on a cruise ship? Turns out, a lot. And thus, two months disappeared in the blink of an eye with nary a new word written for my book. I was down on myself for getting distracted and, let’s be honest, for procrastinating.


On the last day of my trip, I sent out a cry for help to my writing group, an incredibly generous group of fellow authors who have consistently been there for each other over the past three years. “I’m not making the progress on writing that I need to be and need a push. I think I need someone to ask me weekly: what’s your goal this week? And when the week closes to ask: how’d it go? And what’s your new goal?”


My friend Mark pinged me soon after and asked, “How can I help?” We hopped on a call and designed a plan. Every morning, I need to touch my book before I can touch my phone. If I succeed, I text Mark a thumbs up. If I fail, he gets to bug me.


We picked a super easy goal because all the habit gurus (check out James Clear, BJ Fogg, and Charles Duhigg in the Read More section below) say that setting the bar low is key to establishing a new habit. “Touching” my book can be as small as jotting a single sentence down on the page, texting a new title idea to my agent, or copying a quote I plan to reference. Alternatively, it could be a big touch like sending a pitch derived from a future chapter to a magazine, power writing for two hours straight, or restructuring the entire book on post it notes.


James Clear calls it the two-minute rule: “When you start a new habit, it should take less than two minutes to do.” It should be so easy that there really is no excuse but to do it. If you want to run a marathon, start by putting on your running shoes and walking out the front door. If you want to get better at networking, start by inviting one person to coffee. Thus, if I want to finish my book, I need to touch my book every day.


And so I began. At bedtime, I would put my phone far far away from my bedroom and leave my computer close by. (Always a good idea to set up the environment to support your success). Day after day, including an early morning travel day, I was able to send a thumbs up.


Ten days in, I woke up and, in that hazy-dazy not-quite-awake moment, picked up my phone. Check messages → news → social media… I was 15 minutes into doomscrolling before I realized my mistake. I extracted myself and guiltily engaged with my book once more. I texted Mark: “Is there a sideways thumb? I picked up my phone and got sucked into it for 15 minutes before extracting myself and getting a great writing session in.”


His response: “Just your awareness (and acknowledgement) that you were sucked into the phone before getting to your writing is insanely powerful mojo and worth two thumbs up in and of itself.”


I realized just how motivating and sustaining accountability partnership can be. Instead of getting down on myself, I felt uplifted and excited. The next day, I wrote over 1000 words.


Last weekend, I was at a travel writers conference. Seated around me at the time were magazine editors, award-winning journalists, and published authors with multiple books to their names. The conversation drifted to Pico Iyer’s keynote address the night before. He said the hardest part of writing is willpower and determination. Distraction is the enemy. As is writing alone. There are no shortcuts to writing every day.


At our table, we all commiserated about just how difficult willpower and determination can be. And although I was definitely the least experienced writer at the table, I shared the system Mark and I devised, the system that was working so well for me. Immediately, one of those successful multi-book authors asked if I could receive a thumbs ups from her each day. Of course I said yes. And thus the circle of thumbs grows.


So now, here I am, 38 days of continuous daily thumbs later. (I’m counting the three sideways thumbs in there because I’m human.) It now feels a bit weird if I don’t write every morning. It’s easier now to spend an hour or two, though I’m keeping my low bar commitment with Mark: touch my book before I touch my phone.


Pico Iyer said that, to him, writing is sanctuary and solace. That it’s liberation and clarification. That writing is his confessor, therapist, and playmate. Now that I’ve been touching my book daily, I can now see my book the same way. It’s amazing how such a small, two-minute habit, has deepened my entire relationship with writing.


I’ll end this post with the following wisdom from Mark:


"If I am remembering correctly, you used the following epigraph from Lao Tzu at the start of Chapter 2, ‘The journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.’ I was contemplating this line from the Tao Te Ching some ten years back when it suddenly struck me how it shares two very different insights (or pointings).


“The first, which has charmed readers for years, is obvious: any great work is the culmination of the almost countless small acts preceding it. This understanding is especially appealing to the ego which thrives on the idea of arriving at some lofty destination at some point in the future. One just has to put in the work to get there.


“The second pointing, is somewhat obscured, but still clearly implied: THIS step, the one you are taking right now, is the culmination of the 999 that came before it! This recognition (what a great word) has the power to take attention away from an imagined future and focus attention on just this. This as it is. Right here, right now. When seen in this light, it becomes abundantly clear that today's thumb is as worthy of celebration as any of thousands that have preceded it or will succeed it. THIS is it! What a gift to be able to write THIS morning, whether with pen and paper or keyboard and screen. The present of presence. Again and again.”


♥️📖👍🏼


Read More

Check out any one of these three brilliant books on habit change:



I’ve also written about habits and doing new things on my blog. AND the neuroscience of habits features prominently in my recent “Thought Experiment” published last week in the ground-breaking online magazine, Hidden Compass.


Going Further

There’s big changes happening in and around Inquiring Minds. Three things to note:


  1. Inquiring Minds Book Club is expanding and we’d LOVE to have you, especially because we’ve been reading Pico Iyer’s The Half Known Life: In Search of Paradise! You don’t want to miss our August meeting where I’ll share more Pico Iyer brilliance and lead you in a writing exercise inspired by the book. (Don’t worry. No experience necessary. It’ll be easy and fun!) Sign up for free on Eventbrite or send an email to irene@irenesalter.com, and I’ll add you to the list!

  2. Thanks to Robin Canfield at Ramble Design I’m getting a new website with a completely different look and feel. My blog, book club, and latest articles will all be rolled into a single brand new area called the Leader’s Campfire. Think of it as a cozy campfire for leaders to gather around to get advice, talk shop, discuss great books, and find community at the end of a long day. Bring s’mores! It’s free and open to any leader driven by passion, purpose, and the people they serve. Subscribe to my blog today and you’ll get a front row seat around my campfire for the big launch! And if you’ve already subscribed please share this invitation with a friend.

  3. Finally, a huge welcome to my new executive assistant, Tessa Borquez! She’s a hospitality professional who instantly makes you feel right at home. She’ll be handling my calendar and welcoming people to the many programs and workshops I offer. You can reach her directly at tessa@irenesalter.com


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