You don’t need more willpower you need a better writing system

Why you need a writing system

Mark Zuckerberg’s wardrobe is stuffed to the gills with exactly the same clobber so he doesn’t have to think about what to wear in the morning. He does this because even the smallest smidgen of mental energy invested in deciding whether it’s a brogues or sneakers kinda day (it’s normally sneakers) could be better spent. Zuckerberg never bothers about his daily outfit because he removes the need to make a decision in the first place. In short, he has a system – and it’s a system you can apply to keeping productive with your writing.

Why you need a writing system

Whilst willpower can be an admirable quality – and researchers have found that people who have it in spades are often super-successful – it’s not necessarily the best way to get something done.

Force of will

Ultimately, willpower is about forcing yourself in some way – either to do something or not to do something. It’s about trying to take a new course of action – or to stop taking an existing one.

It’s about keeping your distractions at bay and sticking with what you’re doing through sheer force of will and often through gritted teeth. And let’s be honest, all that teeth gritting takes a lot of effort and it isn’t easy.

Now clearly, sticking with something – whether that’s a daily writing regime, an exercise habit or that scrummy new raw beetroot diet – isn’t supposed to be easy.

And I’m definitely not arguing a case for quitting with abandon.

Persisting with something difficult to do for long periods of time can be hugely rewarding. It can lead lead to all sorts of deep work benefits that we crave.

But I do think that it takes more than just grim-faced determination to see a task through to the end. New year’s resolutions being a case in point.

Writing resolutions don’t work

The vast majority of people who set themselves a resolution on the first day of the year never see it through. We’ve written about this before.  In fact, 92 per cent of new year’s resolutions never make it past January.

This isn’t because these new year eager beavers aren’t committed or have a lower-than-average human quota of willpower but rather, because they don’t think through how hard sticking with something over long periods of time really is. They often rely on willpower and self control alone – and that’s what makes them fail.

Willpower is finite. It gets depleted – and it can get depleted fast. It might be easy to commit to a resolution after a Christmas holiday of mince-pie packing indulgence. But then, reality kicks in.

You’ve had a grindingly bad day at work, you’ve had the meeting from hell, your eldest kid has Tippexed your Lazy Boy again and now you need to force yourself to sit down and write your novel. Then there’s that Game of Thrones boxset. Boxset wins. Every time I bet.

Systems are fun!

Routines and systems are hugely important in the creative process. Although I admit ‘have a system’ doesn’t sound the most sexy creative advice ever doled out, the science tells us that they work – and that many of the most productive creatives are also the most regimented and rigorous in their behaviours.

Habits and routines help you become productive because they make you to do things unthinkingly.

Like Obama and his identical wardrobe of presidential knitwear, the more decisions you remove, the less chance you’ll get distracted or have your mental energy depleted.

How to be a gritty writerScheduling is sexy (no really)

For example, many people struggle to find a time in their daily schedules to write. And that’s perfectly understandable – you’re busy, you’re tired, you have other commitments, I get it.

But one of the most excruciatingly painful ways to get something like a writing project done is to spend time and energy trying to find a time each day to complete it.

We’ve wagged our finger at you before about doing this and we’ve even come up with our very own traffic light system of scheduling.

In a nutshell, work out which periods of time in your week are totally out of bounds for writing (red), which periods are possible writing times (amber), and which are clear (green).

Then, discard the red times, think about what you might be able to achieve in the amber times (e.g. distracted editing) but book in writing time in those green periods and always stick to them.  Then, set up structures around you to help you achieve this. Tell family and friends that green times are writing times – help them to understand that these times are precious to you and need to be respected.

Systems rock

Another tip is to try to turn your writing time into a system – so you do it automatically and unthinkingly.

Research from Stanford University’s venerable Behavior Change Lab recommends approaching large projects (like your War and Peace-like novel) into smaller chunks so it becomes more manageable and not so down right scary.

Then, they suggest associating your writing time with something else you do habitually every day – that way it becomes normal rather than something you have to ‘find the time’ to do.

For example, if you write in the evenings, associate a 30 minute bout of writing when you retire to the drawing room with a fine brandy – or after you’ve finished your ready meal with a mug of tea.

Either way, once you start doing this then you associate one habit with another and you do it unthinkingly.

How to master the art of deliberate procrastination

Distracted? Moi…?

Lastly, we all get distracted – and that’s fine. The key to managing your distractions is to build a system to manage these distractions.

If your particular vice is capturing Pokemon, rather than banning it from your life entirely, manage your use of it and use your love of it as an incentive to help you write.

For example, use 20 minutes to hunt Squirtle with a coffee as a mini power-up to keep you going between bouts of writing. Don’t let your urge to Pokemon distract you, save it up as a reward. The more you control it, the less you’ll be depleted by being distracted.

Poor Squirtle.

5 actionable points:

  • Remember that any activity you need to make choices around will deplete your mental energy.
  • Develop as many systems as you can you help you carry out activities unthinkingly.
  • Your mental energy is finite – reserve it for your writing, not for thinking about when you’re going to write.
  • Don’t rely on willpower alone to help you sick with a long-term project – use a system.
  • Stop ‘finding the time’ to write – plan in your writing so you don’t need to think about it.
  • Be nice to squirtle and their Pokeman ilk.

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Chris Smith About the author: Co-founder and writer in residence at Prolifiko | Ex-philosophy lecturer | maker of unpopular short comedy films.