Tuesday, August 14, 2018

How To Change Your (Writing) Life In 30 Days

30-Day Challenges - from Ben Hardy

The Internet is a big place. I am one of those people that read a lot of different articles about a ton of different topics and ideas that I find interesting: from fake news and media manipulation through to why schools are prisons. Frequently, I save the links to read later - and then don't always get around to looking at them.

A laptop, beside a mug and notebook
Writing materials in place...now what?

However, one person's writing kept appearing in my news feeds, suggestions, and in Medium - Benjamin P Hardy. And what a character he is! His meteoric rise using Medium; his suggestions for action; his ideas on self-development, and his ability to collect ideas and assemble them is masterful. It's also totally accessible for anyone interested and willing to put in the time. His post “How To Change Your Life In 30 Days” sets out "30-Day Challenges" that invite people to cause their growth.

This post is about my 30-Day Challenge. I took on writing 30 blog posts in 30 days for one of my projects - goodmanplan.com - where I help single women attract a great guy, so that they can share their life with someone

I currently work full-time as a teacher, and I have a middle leadership position* (where I'm also trusted by the senior management team). I was hesitant about taking on this challenge: how would I find the time? What would I write about? What would my wife say? Would it all be worth it?

From completing the 30-Day Challenge I've discovered eight things that could be useful for you - or anyone writing.

1. Separate Planning and Writing

Thinking and action are different. They are different skills. I first discovered this when teaching my pupils about writing essay questions. In the UK for Economics, Business Studies and Psychology A-levels, students need to be able to write answers to essay-style questions - against the clock. I found that they would write answers that were often disjointed and unfocused. The examiners' reports and mark schemes state that the highest marks come from writing that is coherent and structured. I would find that students were writing long sentences - which reflects attempting to think and write at the same time. Or they put arrows or asterisks to paragraphs they added in at the end of their answer - which reflects attempting to plan and write at the same time. Keep in mind also that most of my pupils are not using a computer. For exams they have to handwrite their answers.

No wonder their answers were disjointed and incoherent.

My solution is to plan out your answer, then write it. (Of course the problem then becomes how do you plan an answer - and my frustration with teachers who say this, but then give no guidance about how to plan an answer. I will be writing about a suggested planning process in another post). This is not a revolutionary idea - I've come to the same conclusion from over ten years of teaching.

In my 30-day challenge, I would splurge out all my ideas for a particular topic. From this mess some kind of idea for a title would emerge.

Do the thinking first to make your actual writing easier.

2. Structure

Over the 30 days of the challenge, I needed to find ways to speed up my writing - if I wanted to get to bed at a (relatively) decent time. So, I would always choose the ending insight of each post before I started writing. Again my experience with teaching hundreds of pupils to improve their exam answers, suggests that structuring - in advance - helps writing. I have been telling my pupils for years to choose an overall answer to the question before writing, because this would give their writing a natural direction, purpose and flow.

However, I found myself writing a short paragraph to begin each post that detailed the main point. On the surface it helps focus the reader. In reality, it helped me focus my writing. This was a revelation for me: clarifying the point of my writing in the introduction. On reflection, the reason I needed to do this, was because I was generating content from scratch. I didn't have an exam question to answer. Writing is so much easier when there's an exam question.

On deeper reflection, different media for writing require different structures: the proposal I gave to senior management was put together differently from the essay for my Sixth Formers. I also realised the same is true for a blog post - a blog is a medium unto itself - where there's much more room for providing value (see 3. below) and expressing my unique voice (see 4. below).

Create a point and the insight for your posts to speed up your writing.

3. Provide Value

Not rocket science this one - but as I wrote each post, I became more and more focused on giving something valuable to readers. I would link to my free downloadable material; I started to add Amazon affiliate links for the books I mentioned; I always ended with a question to which you could respond.

It also became natural to link to other posts I'd written. Writing 30 posts in 30 days had me create a body of work. I realised after downloading Hardy's free ebook that it was a collection of his blog posts. Regardless of how I got the material it was valuable - and he has a clear focus on giving us something useful.

This can be very difficult when there's no exam question. In truth it's about creating ideas...actually creating is the wrong word - collecting, finding, discovering, stealing...whichever way I could (see 6. below). In focusing on providing value for readers, I had to hone my ideas. I learned to trust my instincts and the creative process. As I practised, it got quicker.

Identify the value you provide, and plan for it to emerge in your writing.

4. Discover Your Voice

I've been blogging on an off for over ten years. I've been teaching for over ten years. Marking work and teaching is a constant process of reflection, writing, testing, communicating, discussing, measuring, judging...which means over time, I've discovered (some) of what works.

One thing I've found from doing a lot of writing in different ways, is learning to trust my voice. However, the 30-day challenge focused my thinking - because I was writing about a specific, chosen topic. By writing a lot in a short space of time, I got to discover my style, and my voice. When I first started the challenge, there was a big gap between creating and planning the posts and actually writing them. After 30 days of posts, the gap got smaller (that practising thing again). I move from a title to completed post smoothly.

And - it's a constantly evolving process. Like learning, the more you learn, the more you find there is to learn. The more I write, the more I find out about what I like; the more freedom there is to explore. Writing daily means I have experimented with different writing styles and structures to do discover my voice. There is no shortcut to achieving this.

Your voice could grow in all sorts of ways if you embraced a 30-day challenge (i.e. write a lot!)

5. Let Go Of Thought And Opinion

Once I started this challenge, it did get easier...for a while. It became more and more difficult at all stages of the process: creating titles, ideas, structuring - all of it. What I realised was that this happened mostly because I listened to my thoughts including: "I don't want to", "I'm tired", "why did I do this?", "I don't have time","I won't have  time to do anything else" - and many other ruder things.

I started to get that my opinions were actually no different to my thoughts. Opinions don't necessarily make the difference to the actual process of writing. Neither do my thoughts. Letting go gave me a bit of room - a bit like separating planning and writing (see 1. above).

This relates to trusting the creative process (see 8. below). Without letting go of my thoughts and opinions, I couldn't get creative. Of course this is easier said than done because as much as I might tell myself "they're only thoughts" - letting it go is really difficult, because the very fact I'm telling myself "they're only thoughts" is thinking itself. (Mark Manson calls this "The Feedback Loop from Hell") I realised that my head is a dangerous wild-west type place.

How to get round all this? To be honest - I couldn't. And didn't. The phrase "the way out is through" expresses my view. I kept going - and practised. I have a joke with my wife about thoughts: "thoughts are like farts - they leave a whiff, but they pass". As they pass, a bit of space emerges - and that's where I was productive.

Practise letting go of your thoughts and opinions to give your creativity some space.

6. Be Ready To Collect Ideas...But Organise Too

Inspiration can strike at any moment. Ideas seem to come to me wherever, whenever. I've found that it's not that I run out of ideas - it's more that when I sit down to write, I suddenly run out of ideas. A quick internet search of "carry a notebook" will bring up a load of material on the importance of being able to write down ideas as and when they happen.

This is because the brain works partly on associations so anything goes, at any time. Getting them out of your head and into a notebook or onto some mobile version.

I read somewhere (although I'm not sure where - and it kind of relates to Daniel Kahneman's work in Thinking Fast and Slow) that you could approach our thinking as conscious and subconscious parts. The conscious part takes focus and energy; it's linear. The subconscious part is free-flowing and associative; it's non-linear.

The non-linear nature of the subconscious can explain why we suddenly get the answer to the problem we were thinking about yesterday - today - perhaps after a night's sleep. (This idea of conscious and subconscious relates to separating planning and writing, and the actual planning process itself - which I'll write about later).

It's those moments of inspiration that need collecting and capturing. However, that's only half the story -  because I had to find the ideas I'd collected to make them usable.

When I was completing my 30-Day Challenge, I collected lots of ideas and started outlining them in single posts in Evernote. I then used a tag 'blogpost?' to be able to find them quickly. This meant I could get down to writing quickly, or make the most of my lunch hour by planning a post (see 1. above) in 20-30m.

Whatever method you use to collect your ideas - ensure you have some way of organising them for later use.

7. Develop Habits

Speaking to a friend recently (she blogs here with a really cool Instagram @birdflyingsolo) she mentioned that I come across as very disciplined.

I said that I struggle with time sinkholes too (I'm looking at you Reddit/ YouTube/ Facebook/ Instagram) - especially during the holidays. And then my mind kicks in with all its negative thoughts "I should have..."/ "Why did I...?"/ "It would so much easier if could just..."/ etc.

I've found that understanding habits and setting up effective routines helps me. Again, this is something that written about loads. I know I'm at my best in the mornings. And if I'm going to work at other times, I need to complete plans first.

During my 30-Day challenge, I would sometimes be writing sitting on a bench in our bedroom, with the bedside lamp on, with my wife asleep. I couldn't write before bed like that unless I had some kind of plan to follow (see 1. above) which meant I could just focus on writing.

To get to that stage, I had a set morning routine I followed. All ok -  but people often forget the importance of an evening routine too. I had one of those as well (which included completing the washing-up in the sink...sadly it's got to the stage where I can't go to bed unless the sink is empty).

Charles Duhigg's material about habits is brilliant. Setting up these habits meant I could find where I worked best and make the most of my time. I completed my challenge during the school year from February to March. Setting up the habits was so important.

Work out when you work best and create a strong morning/ evening routine to get into writing.

8. Trust The Creative Process

Again there's so much written about the creative process. It's a bit like that phrase I mentioned 'the way out is through'. But at some point during my challenge, I learned to trust that something great would emerge from the chaos.

This trust didn't come from nowhere - a plan helped, structuring helped, finding my voice helped, letting go of my thoughts helped, collecting and organising ideas helped, setting up habits helped - kind of obvious.

But as I wrote a post, day after day, sometimes I would start of with one idea - and keep trying to push through writing. Then this (almost) strange thing would happen - I would let the idea evolve and the post would end up somewhere even better than I could have planned.

Over the 30 days, I learned to go with it - to trust the creative process. I've had a more visceral experience of this (that might have supported me in the 30-Day challenge) when collaging (my collage blog is thismanscollages.wordpress.com)

Plan, structure, let go of your thoughts, collect and collate your ideas - then as you write - start to trust the creative process.

What I Really Got - Action Matters

What I really got from completing this challenge is that action matters. Until I start writing or typing - nothing happens.

I'm also glad I did it because it reminded me that I do have something to offer, and affirmed that I can write. I'm still pleasantly surprised when I go back to old posts and re-read them.

I invite you to choose something and complete your own 30-Day Challenge
Photo by Social Mode on Unsplash