3 Ways to Engineer Your Book Writing Environment

If you’re like many of the junior scholars I coach, you desperately want to find time to write your academic book. But during the semester, it doesn’t feel possible. You might have developed your first container routine. And you’ve taken to trying to implement it each week. You set product-focused weekly goals.

But then it’s time to actually sit down to write, and something comes up. You have trouble sticking to your plans, especially on teaching days.

And you feel frustration, shame, and guilt.

Why can’t you just stick to your plan?

Want to know the secret?

The problem has nothing to do with you, and everything to do with how you’re approaching writing.

I bet you’re making one common error. And, as a result, you’re stuck in a hopeless cycle.

The good news?

Fixing this error is simple (but not necessarily easy).

The tricky piece?

It requires shifting much of what you might believe about how we do hard things (like writing a book).

What’s the error?

You believe that willpower alone will get you through.

Benjamin Hardy, author of Willpower Doesn’t Work, disagrees, for two principle reasons. First, putting yourself in a situation where you rely on willpower means you are likely internally conflicted about your desires. (You might want to eat healthfully and want to eat a cookie. You might want to run and want to sleep in).

Secondly, and more importantly, willpower alone cannot overcome environment. So, to repeatedly do something difficult–like sitting down to write day after day, week after week, month after month until the book is done–you need to engineer your environment to rely on as little willpower as possible. Here’s how to do it.

Create Conditions that Facilitate Your Commitment

“If your life requires willpower, you haven’t fully determined what you want. Because once you make a decision, the internal debate is over.” (“Willpower Doesn’t Work. Here’s How to Actually Change Your Life“)

#1: Install Several Forms of Feedback/Accountability (Hardy)

To see objective trends and revise your plans accordingly, you first need to define important metrics and track your progress. Do you want to write for more minutes per day? Every week day? First thing every morning?

Write down: What’s the one thing I can do that would make my outcome inevitable? Then, aim for that.

Then, set up external accountability relating to that one metric. Track your progress (using a Google Form or spreadsheet) and check in with someone when you begin each session.

Every few weeks, review your objective feedback and adjust your environment based on what you discover.

#2: Reduce Your Decision Points

You are probably unwittingly sabotaging your own progress by not making decisions ahead of time. Remember that each decision you make requires you to recommit to doing something hard. Put another way, it’s also an opportunity for you to quit.

Make these common writing decisions in advance:

  • When will you write?
  • Where will you write? If outside the home, what time will you leave?
  • With whom will you write?
  • What will you write? (Break your weekly product-focused goals into action steps).
  • How will you write? Is your goal to get words on the page? Revise what you have?
  • For how long will you write?
  • What will you eat/drink? (Bonus if you prepare this in advance.)
  • What will you wear?
  • What will you need to have with you?

Making these decisions ahead of time means that you can save your precious mental energy for the important task of writing your book.

#3: Anticipate, Eliminate, and Pre-Practice Overcoming Obstacles

As Hardy suggests, the best way to ensure success is not to rely on willpower, but rather to engineer your environment so that the hard task is the default.

Many of the challenges you will face are predictable. So, brainstorm the obstacles (both environmental and mental) you think you will face. Then, do as much as possible to eliminate them now.

Finally, make an “if this then that” (IFTT) plan to deal with the excuses your doer self might offer to avoid the hard task. For instance, what will you do if you think “I’m too tired to write right now”? What will you do if your writing partner is sick?

Having a IFTT in place now will mean you are more likely to stick to your plan and save your mental energy for the writing itself.

Bonus #4: Reframe “Failure” as “Feedback”

You will slip up along the way. But frustration, guilt, and shame perpetuate the myth that your willpower is lacking. Instead, think of your quest to write your book as an experiment; failure is merely “feedback” about what doesn’t work in your case.

But feedback is only good if you reflect on it and use it. So, during your weekly writing review or weekly container routine implementation, ask yourself “what about this plan didn’t work this week?” Then, address what you learn.

You’ll likely discover that you need to develop additional IFTT and that you can reduce additional decision points. Remember that developing and streamlining your own writing and productivity habits is an iterative process. The seemingly tiny changes you put in place now (like pre-committing to when and where you will write) will compound exponentially over time.

Your Turn

What other suggestions do you have about how to engineer your writing environment? Or, what questions do you have about how to do so? Let me know by email!

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