135: 3 Elements of a Writing Habit that Lasts

Writers write. It doesn't seem that complicated, but most of us struggle with consistency in our craft. It plagues the best of us. So why does a writing habit matter?

135: 3 Undisputed Elements of a Writing Habit that Lasts

A writing habit is a characteristic that separates the amateurs from the professionals. In spite of its difficulty, or perhaps because of it, consistent creation is what makes you a pro. You can clearly distinguish the real writers from the pretenders not only by the work they produce, but by the practice that goes into it.

This week on The Portfolio Life, Andy and I talk about some tricks, targets, and tools to help you write more consistently. We all struggle with this stuff, so maybe this episode will help you get unstuck and start creating.

Listen in as we discuss how to move past your excuses and write better in less time on a more frequent basis.

Listen to the podcast

To listen to the show, click the player below (If you’re reading this via email, please click here).

Show highlights

In this episode, we talk about:

  • The first job of any aspiring writer
  • How quantity leads to quality
  • What it takes to become faster and better at writing
  • The three steps I follow whenever I'm writing anything
  • My favorite writing app

Quotes and takeaways

  • It is better to write more than less, especially when you're beginning.
  • Pick just one tool. Not 37.
  • The more you can not think, the better you're going to write.


Are you willing to commit to writing 500 words a day? Which writing tool do you recommend the most to other writers? Share in the comments

Click here to download a PDF of the full transcript or scroll down to read it below.


JG: The more you can not think, the better and faster you’re going to write.


[0:00:17.0] AT: Welcome to the Portfolio Life Podcast with Jeff Goins. I’m your host Andy Traub. Jeff believes that every creative should live a portfolio life, a life full of pursuing work that matters, making a difference with your art, and discovering your true voice. Jeff’s committed to helping you find, develop, and live out your unique world view so that you too can live a portfolio life.

Writers write. It doesn’t seem that complicated, and yet you still struggle with the daily habit of writing. How can you build the habit and what tools can you use to assist you? Well today, Jeff has some simple, practical advice if you want to get past your excuses and write consistently.

Here is my conversation with Jeff Goins.


[0:01:04.3] AT: Jeff Goins, how are you today my friend?

[0:01:08.3] JG: Doing great Andy, how are you?

[0:01:09.5] AT: I am really, really good and I’m excited to talk about today’s topic because those who are listening — you who are listening right now, whatever you're doing, wherever you are — you at some level consider yourself a writer in some way, whatever that fiction, nonfiction, you haven’t started writing, you’ve been writing for a long time and today we’re going to talk about how to write more consistently and what are actually tricks but what are some targets and maybe some tools to just writing more consistently.

This is a problem that I think is a lifelong battle, it’s like gravity, it just never grows away. So, Jeff, if it’s okay I want to start with something that I don’t know if you would consider this your most successful teaching but it’s got to be one of your most popular and that’s the idea of writing 500 words a day, right?

[0:02:01.0] JG: Yeah.

[0:02:01.7] AT: Break that down, because this is the next question people always ask, “Are you talking about publishing those 500 words? Where do I put them?” What is the idea of 500 words, what does that require?

[0:02:11.8] JG: The idea is that when you start out as a writer, you aren’t that good and most writers are self-editors and so they write a little bit, they delete a little bit, they write a little bit, they delete a little bit and this is not how you become a great writer. I think the first job of an aspiring writer is to learn how to get words down on a page, and I believe that quality follows frequency. That’s really, it’s a byproduct of quantity and so the more you write, the better you write.

I do think that there can be a threshold to that where if you write so fast, you’re not really thinking through what you’re writing. But as a general rule, it’s better to write more than is to write less, at very least when you’re first beginning. I’ve been writing professionally now for at least five or six years and a decade before that on more of an amateur basis, and I could tell you, there was a line in the sand between me being an amateur and me being a pro. The one defining characteristic that separated my professional years, i.e. when my writing was getting acknowledged by lots of people, I was getting paid for my content and I was able to make a living writing.

Versus when I was just thinking about being a writer, keeping a blog sometimes when I felt like it, and writing pieces of books and saving them on my hard drive. The one defining characteristic that separated those two different seasons of my career were how consistent I was in writing every day. So, as you know Andy, I had this conversation years ago with a friend who asked me what my dream was, I said, I didn’t know and he said, “Well I thought it would be to be a writer.” I said, “Yeah, I guess I’d like to be a writer someday,” and he said, “Jeff, you don’t have to want to be a writer, you are a writer, you just need to write.”

The next day, I got up at five Am and I started writing and I wrote about 500 words a day consistently for the next year and by the end of that year, I had over 10,000 email subscribers, I had a growing blog, I had a publisher who had reached out to me asking me if I wanted to publish a book. I was on my way to becoming a professional writer. And then the year after that was the year we had our son, I started trying to find ways to make money writing. I published two books, replaced my income, then ended up tripling our household income and quit my job at the end of that year.

So it took about two years, but if I could trace it all back to one activity, it is the habit of daily writing. Why 500 words? Because it is enough. I mean, really, for me it was kind of a fairly arbitrary number in the sense that I was writing and publishing an article every single day seven days a week, for a year. I was doing this because I didn’t want to hide and I knew if I wrote something, it didn’t have to share it, I might not finish it. So there was this consequence of if I didn’t do my work, people would know because they wouldn’t see it, right?

So I was practicing in public, I was sharing almost every word that I was writing, not because I thought they were all stellar but because what mattered to be the most at that time was developing the habit. So I did it for the practice, and when I asked Seth Godin, to this day, he blogs daily. “Why do you do this?” He says, “I do it for the practice.” That’s an idea that I really got from him and I love that idea that if you're putting your work out there every day then you can’t hide. Now, I no longer do that but I’m still writing 500 words a day for books and blog post and articles and various things.

I was writing 500 words a day because that is enough that you could turn it into a blog post or whatever or it’s enough that if you do it every day for the next 90 days, you’re going to have a 45,000 word manuscript. When I got my first book deal, I did what I’ve been doing for a year, writing 500 words a day every day and I did that with my first book, Wrecked, and I had a three month deadline. So I wrote 500 words a day and by the end of it I had a 40,000 word manuscript and we edited it and all of that but that became the book.

So it’s a small enough increment that you can typically do it in less than an hour, I could write about 500 words in 15 to 30 minutes now, but it is a big enough number that if you do it every day consistently over time, it will get you something. It’s small enough that you could do it every day I think. It’s big enough that if you do it consistently, it will lead to something substantial.

[0:07:04.2] AT: Right, it’s worth doing.

[0:07:05.2] JG: Like a book or a blog with 10,000 readers or what have you.

[0:07:08.9] AT: So it’s like that story about the person walking down the ocean shore and they throw out a starfish back and they say, “You’re really making a difference, I made a difference to that one.” It’s like that but it’s actually making a difference. I make a joke of it, but also, I mean, how long does it take, I have a couple of questions here in a row. How long does it take for you now on a good day, on a crummy day but on a good day, maybe an average day to write 500 words?

[0:07:36.2] JG: It takes about 15 minutes. I’ve become a faster, better writer because of this habit and so I have a goal and a deadline like I’ll just sit down, like in a subject, that’s the hardest thing for me. This is why I created the three bucket system, which we’ve talked about another episode, that’s why I separate ideas, drafts and then edits.

When I sit down to draft something, I just pull an idea out of my idea bucket and I go, “Okay, let’s go,” and I get 500 words in 15 minutes.

[0:08:04.6] AT: The next part of that though is, how much of those words do you have an expectation will be useable?

[0:08:10.8] JG: Probably 80%. I mean, like I’m getting the essence of the idea down and then I’m going back and chipping away at it and then as I chip away down to the essence, I kind of add back to it. How I write is I write a bunch out and then I kind of cut it back then I add a little bit more to it and that’s those kind of three sweeps; one is to get it down, the second is to get all of the clutter out and then the third is to really kind of crystalize and clarify the idea. At that point I’ve got a pretty decent draft.

Click here to download a PDF of the full transcript or scroll down to continue reading below.

[0:08:44.3] AT: All right, let me ask a more technical question, which is what are ways that we can help ourselves wth calendar reminders? Are there certain apps that you would use or programs that would help us see our progress. Just give us some tools that we can use to make this just a little easier to succeed?

[0:09:04.6] JG: Sure and I think it begins with a few things. One, pick a number. It doesn’t have to be 500. It could be whatever you want but I recommend 500 and so that’s the first thing. You just pick a number. My friend, Shaunta Grimes picks a time allotment. So it’s either amount of time or amount of words. Don’t do both because then you’re going, “Well where do I stop?” have a very clear understanding of I’m going to write until “blank”.

In the case of Shaunta, she writes for 10 minutes and this is a really interesting strategy. She talks about the importance of tiny goals and how, she did a guest post for me one time called “how tiny goals helped me become a writer” I think and basically what she’s doing is she’s tricking her brain. When she says, “I’m only going to write for 10 minutes,” that is such a small increment of time to ignore it like what else are you going to do in 10 minutes?

You’re going to check on Facebook or something. Can you go for a walk? Can you eat lunch? Can you call a friend? You can’t do anything in 10 minutes so you might as well write because it’s such a small increment of time that it’s not worth procrastinating whereas if I say, “I’m going to write for an hour” or two hours, I will delay that for as long as I can if I’m going to write 10,000 words. It’s so overwhelming that I’m going to push it off.

Whereas 10 minutes I can’t push it off so it’s a small enough increment of time that you’re just going to do it now. But then what ends up happening as I said, you trick your brain and with Shaunta she says, “Most days I write more than 10 minutes”. So I am just telling myself I am just going to write for 10 minutes but on the days when I can only write 10 minutes, I don’t beat myself up about that. I go, “Okay well that was your goal” so you do it.

So pick a small enough goal whatever it is, 10 minutes, 30 minutes, 500 words. For me it’s 500 words because I know I’d rather work to the word count than the time amount because I waste the time right? Whereas if I write 500 words in 10 minutes, I just did it faster and that’s me knowing myself and going, “I want to do things efficiently, quickly and then move on to the next thing”.

So pick a number then pick a time, time of day. Beginning of the day, end of day, whatever, have a time that you can reserve specifically for writing. When I first started, that was five to 7 AM every morning. Now that my life has changed a little bit, I’ve got more free time during the day. I don’t have a day job. I like getting up with my kids and spending some time with them, having breakfast that sort of thing. Most days I’m writing from at least nine to 11 AM but I’ve got time blocked out to get my 500 words down and if I mess around for an hour and 45 minutes and then on those last 15 minutes I write 500 words.

[0:11:36.0] AT: They’re good.

[0:11:36.5] JG: I celebrate that, right? So I’ve got some grace and then lastly, pick a tool. One tool not 37, whatever it might be. When I just want to write something, I’m looking at my desktop right now. I’ve got Microsoft Word, which I am editing a book on. I’ve got Scrivener which I use…

[0:11:55.7] AT: Now let me pause real quick, I heard someone say, it might have been Hyatt actually but the Microsoft Word has improved dramatically.

[0:12:03.1] JG: It has. I swore it off at one point.

[0:12:06.4] AT: So you and billions of other people. I want to pause because I don’t want people to go, “What? Microsoft Word? Jeff must not be thinking right” No, I have heard from very reliable sources that it’s better.

[0:12:19.6] JG: It’s better. So I’ve got Word, I’ve got Scrivener, I’ve got Text Edit, I’ve probably got a dozen word processors on my computer. When I have an idea, when I have something that I want to write, I always pull up in the same app and it is an app called Byword. It is a minimalistic text editing tool and all it shows me is the text, no formatting. I can’t italicize or do anything. It uses mark down which is a coding language which is kind of cool.

But the bottom line is it’s minimal formatting. All I see is a big blank screen and a blinking cursor and the word count. So have a tool. It could be Evernote, it could be whatever it doesn’t matter. There’s lots of great tools. If you need to pick one, I recommend Byword. I think it’s only available for Mac. I’m not sure that there’s a PC version.

[0:13:09.8] AT: Yep, you’re right.

[0:13:10.9] JG: But you could use Word or Evernote or any number of other tools. iA Writer is another one. I like something that’s minimalistic so I can just sit down and write and just get the words down. So yeah, those are the three things that I would have. I would have a number, some kind of goal. I would have a time, when you’re going to do it that isn’t going to compete with other activities and again, know yourself, know your schedule, know when that time is.

Try to be consistent with that not because you’re the most consistent person in the world but because if you make that decision ahead of time, there’s not the stress of, “When am I going to find time to write today?” because that’s writing time and then lastly, pick one tool because the goal here is to think very little about it. To sit down, open up the thing and just start writing and the more you cannot think, the better and faster you’re going to write.

[0:14:03.0] AT: Absolutely. I want to echo or wrap up here but I want to echo the Byword endorsement. If you are going to write a very robust book, Scrivener can definitely be a good place because they have these writing targets but it’s just more complicated. I think it’s worth it but if we’re trying to just get into the daily writing habit, certainly you could use Scrivener, but sometimes using Scrivener for daily writing habits is like driving a Land Rover or a Hummer to the supermarket.

It will get you there but it’s an overkill, right? But the Byword, it does have apps for your phone, for all your I devices as well as Mac and if you save it to Dropbox then you can pick up your writing wherever you are, so you can start and stop. I do a lot of it for its minimalism. You had mentioned mark down, I don’t have mark down open when I write mine. But I actually had something I made called the productive writer’s guide and I went through eight different programs.

Including Google Docs, why not use Google Docs? It’s all backed up in the Cloud or Evernote and I love Evernote. I’m a huge Evernote fan, but for just undistracted writing Byword wins and one of the main reasons it wins is because I encourage people to write when you’re not on the internet. You can turn your internet off, I don’t know if people knew this or not, you can turn your WiFi off and you probably should and Byword will still work.

And it’s because it’s not a distraction that’s why I never tell people to write in Google Docs because you’re just one click away from Gmail and that’s a dangerous hole you’re going to fall into, right?

[0:15:37.0] JG: Right, yeah.

[0:15:37.3] AT: You’re never coming back but I love your endorsement of Byword and I do encourage people to go pick it up and it’s not a free tool. It’s just worth every penny and more, right? So definitely check that out in the App Store. Great recommendation, great other tips you have given us and I encourage you all to go out there and just start to build a habit. Put those things in place; a number, a time, a length of time and start that writing habit. As Jeff said, it really is the line in the sand, the beginning point of when he really turned pro. So Jeff thanks for that recommendation today.

[0:16:12.5] JG: Yeah, you bet and I would add one bonus resource to it, which is if you need some accountability which we all do, I would encourage you to check out My 500 Words. It is a free online writing community where you get 31 daily writing prompts to get your going and I think if you can write 500 words a day for about a month, you’re on your way to having a regular writing habits. We also have a free Facebook group with thousands of writers.

So they just post their daily writing count or either their daily word count and get encouragement feedback, not a place to endlessly promote blog posts or whatever. Just a place to get encouragement accountability for your writing and you can find more about that at my500words.com, 500 is the numerals, 500, my500words.com.

[0:16:59.4] AT: Awesome, thanks again Jeff.

[0:17:01.0] JG: Yeah, thank you.


[0:17:09.1] AT: So are you willing to commit to writing 500 words a day and are you going to invest in Byword to help you write in a distraction free environment? Well, let us know by going to goinswriter.com/135. Or you can message Jeff on Twitter @jeffgoins. We appreciate the time you take to listen to our show. I’m Andy Traub, and on behalf of Jeff Goins, thank you for spending some time with us.

Now go build your portfolio.

The first job of an aspiring writer is to learn how to get words down on a page and I believe that quality follows frequency.

Click here to download a free PDF of the complete transcript.