Do Less Than Your Best

Build a writing habit james clear atomic habits

Do Less Than Your Best

We’re inculcated, particularly in American culture, with messages that exhort us to do something 100% or not do it at all: Go big or go home. Give it your all. A job worth doing is worth doing right.

That’s certainly been a governing principle of most of my life, and it is often at the root of a host of our demons of the psyche, among them perfectionism, where an A—or, God forbid, a nice competent B or C—isn’t good enough. Only first place matters and everyone else is just an also-ran. Winning is everything.

It’s why if you miss one workout at the gym it’s so much easier to start missing more and more, until inertia gets you right back on that sofa in front of Netflix night after night. It’s why we may break our diet and decide we ruined everything, so we might as well binge on an entire half gallon of ice cream.

And it’s why, too often, we don’t write.

We’re busy. Life is pressing. Crises come up. The people we love need us, and we need them. Who has a chunk of time to sit down and work on their WIP with any regularity? And if you can’t get butt-in-seat every day for those long, productive creative stretches, what’s the point?

Obligations Won’t Change—So You Must

One reason my own writing time—I’ve been working on a follow-up book to Intuitive Editingoften gets derailed is that in addition to doing my regular editing work, I’ve been doing more and more teaching and writing lately.

I love all these pursuits, but they often co-opt the time I set aside each day for my creative work. I have editing deadlines, plus course creation or articles I need to submit, plus my weekly blog, and sometimes it’s hard to find not just the time, but the creative headspace to also work on the book.

That meant that the book I had hoped would come out last year is still being drafted. And while at the beginning of the year I had set publishing it as my goal for this year, at this point I’m not certain I can hit that deadline.

But my work and speaking and writing commitments are unlikely to change anytime soon. And if I can’t find any time to dedicate to my book, then I realized I would be back-burnering this meaningful personal goal and creative pursuit because of those other work commitments and obligations—ones I also find meaningful and creative, and that have become a big part of my business, but I don’t like the idea of putting my own personal priority items behind everything else.

The Two-minute Habit

Regular readers know that I nerd out pretty hard for anything related to psychology and sociology, and recently I’ve been reading a book recommended to me by a number of friends, James Clear’s Atomic Habits. Based on its sales figures there’s a solid chance you’ve read it too. It’s a granular, doable approach to creating the kinds of habits you want to make a regular part of your life.

The book offers plenty of good, actionable ways to incorporate and commit to habits you want to instill in yourself, but the one that struck me most directly undercuts my need to do something thoroughly and perfectly or not at all: the two-minute commitment.

A main foundation of building a habit is showing up consistently, as anyone who has ever tried to follow the writing advice of getting your butt in the chair every day knows. And the main reason we get derailed is because we don’t seem to be able to find blocks of time as life creeps past the boundaries we’ve set around our intention.

Clear suggests that you start by making the habit as easy as possible. Take just two minutes to work toward whatever your goal is for the habit.

This concept initially struck fear into the heart of me. Trying to do anything creatively meaningful in two minutes? I can’t even imagine taking two minutes to clean part of the kitchen and then leaving the rest a mess. In two minutes I’m still settling into my groove in the seat, and waiting for my coffee to cool enough to take that first sip and charge up the creative juices. What is even the point of trying to do a damn thing for two minutes? It seems like a way to just waste an additional two minutes of the time that’s already so scarce.

The main reason our writing gets derailed is because we don’t seem to be able to find blocks of time as life creeps past the boundaries we’ve set around our intention.

And yet.

Telling myself I only had to sit there for two minutes made it pretty ridiculous to make an excuse for why I couldn’t spare that time. So I did it. Sat down at my desk and told myself I would do whatever I could for those two minutes and then I would go about all my other obligations.

The first day I poked at a few sentences, rearranged some things I had already written, and called it a day. Clear also suggests noting your progress so that you can see a pattern and how many days you show up, so I faithfully wrote down that I’d written that day, just a green “W” noted in my calendar, but felt a little foolish for calling that a writing day.

The next day I sat down and realized I’d overbrewed my French press coffee by ten minutes because I got distracted with the writing. The day after that I wrote a minute or two longer. Most days I seem to be averaging anywhere from two minutes to forty minutes.

But a weird thing has started happening: The manuscript draft is growing.

Not by leaps and bounds, but by dribs and drabs, I’m making progress on a project that I’ve kept stalling out on for months. I finished a complete chapter—one I was very happy with. I’m revamping another one—a quite complicated one that’s coming in fits and starts and has required reworking a number of times—but I’m almost finished with it, and I love how it’s coming out.

If I keep this pace up, I may or may not hit my self-imposed goal of finishing it this year.

But I will finish it. And a lot sooner than if I kept waiting to have blocks of time in my ever-complicating schedule.

Don’t Get Derailed

Since I started this experiment I’ve had an unexpected situation arise that has sucked up an astonishing amount of my time, on top of my other obligations. Amid that I missed one day of writing—broke that little streak of green Ws, sadly, after a nice stretch of unbroken ones.

But I didn’t let it derail me. I told myself the next day that as crazy as things had suddenly become, I could still find two minutes. So I did—and I started again. And again, the time I spent writing slowly started to build. Not every day (seriously, friends, things are on FIRE with this unexpected issue, which you’ll hear more about in a future post—nothing life-threatening, just all-consuming at the moment), but steadily, with my actual two-minute writing days being much rarer than longer ones.

But it’s those two required minutes that get me there every day and make those longer sessions happen.

You want to write. You have a story to tell—or many stories. You have a desire and a dream and a passion. You wouldn’t be here if you didn’t.

Can you honor that for two minutes a day? Give yourself those 120 seconds to dedicate to what is so meaningful to you, no matter how hectic or demanding the rest of your life may be?

If you can, you may find that without even trying, you’ve created an unshakable writing habit—one that may ebb and flow, but that is always waiting for you…just two minutes away.

No questions for you this week, authors; instead I’ll ask whether you might be willing to commit here to the FoxPrint community to giving your creative work two minutes on each day you want to dedicate to writing (for me it’s weekdays, five days a week). Studies show that stating an intention and sharing it with others makes you more likely to honor it. Want to make everyone here your accountability buddy and cheering section? If so, weigh in below!

16 Comments. Leave new

  • This is the practical kick in the pants I’ve needed. Two minutes. That’s doable. I work full-time and in the evenings, I’m drained from my job. But two minutes in the morning, I can do. Instead of waiting around to hear back on queries, I can use some of my angst to fuel another writing project. Love this! Can’t wait to read your follow-up to Intuitive!

    • I needed it too! I’ll think of you every morning when I’m sitting down for my two minutes and hope you’re also doing yours. 🙂

      And thanks–I’m excited about this follow-up book, and it’s nice to take some time to work on it, even if it’s just by little increments. It’s progress!

  • I’ve run myself into the ground with anxiety about writing, to the point where I think about it all the time but just can’t get myself to sit down and do the work. Yesterday I forced myself to write just one sentence. That in itself was a struggle, but I’m still proud I did it. This article came at the perfect time – I’m going to commit to 2 minutes 5x a week as well 🙂

    • As they say, that’s one sentence more than you had before. That’s what I am telling myself even on my actual two-minute days when I do very little. It’s more than nothing. And apparently that’s my new bar right now–just do more than nothing. 🙂

      It does feel weirdly validating to show up every day, and see steady progress, even if it’s slow. Hope it does for you too!

  • Tiffany, thank you for this post. Every word landed on my writer soul. Like Candy, “I’ve run myself into the ground with anxiety about writing, to the point where I think about it all the time but just can’t get myself to sit down and do the work.” This morning I’m committing to write at least two minutes a day. And you’re right, Tiffany, posting this intention feels like a positive shift from anxiety to anticipation.

    • I’m thrilled to hear that! I’m holding you virtually accountable…in the gentlest and most understanding way. 🙂 I’m being kind to myself about this, and if I miss a day I just get on the horse again the next day. I’ll be thinking of you tomorrow when I sit down for my two minutes!

  • I am always on the hunt for time management tips, and this one sounds totally doable. My problem is the opposite-I never have an issue making time for creative work, even if I can only squeeze in an hour a day. But one thing I procrastinate on is writing pitch copy and submission materials. The dreaded synopsis! So, I am going to try to work on those items for 2 minutes per day. If I know I can stop in two minutes, it won’t be as painful to begin. But if I end up having inspiration and go for longer, great.

    • Love your creative dedication, Cate. And that you are adapting this to part that IS hard for you. I hope it helps! The one-bite-at-a-time mentality is really helping me so far. I tend to do just what I counsel authors not to–look up at the whole mountain, rather than just take that first step…and then another…and another….

  • Claudia Lynch
    March 16, 2023 5:47 pm

    It took me more than two months last fall to recover from Covid’s fatigue and brain fog (I wasn’t that sick with it, and I’m fine now, thanks). The knowledge that I was good for only a few hours a day had a surprising result: MORE productivity. Because I knew the time was not up to me, it was easy to keep my butt in the chair as long as I could, forgive myself for quitting when I had to, and put off distractions that didn’t require having my wits about me until later. It went on long enough to turn that work schedule into a habit… and it was going great until last week, when our homeowners insurance company went belly up. Having dropped everything in a mad scramble to replace it (thoughts and prayers, please) and schedule the home repairs necessary to do that — and just remind myself to keep breathing — if I get any writing or artwork done during the day right now that’s a bonus. And it’s likely to be only 2 minutes, so the timing of this reminder couldn’t be better.

    • Glad to hear it! As I mentioned, this mentality really helped me when I also had an unexpected issue blow up at me–and then I had another personal crisis (all fine now), and was able to keep up the habit with that tiny-bite approach.

      What’s that old saying about if you want something done, give it to a busy person? Funny that you were more productive when you had less bandwidth for productive work. I also find that the more limited my time for projects, the more focused I can be–if I put my mind to being focused. For the reason you say–that scarcity mindset, being creative about maximizing limited time to be creative.

      Glad your COVID was mild and you’re feeling better–that brain dog is one of the side effects I fear most. Thanks for the comment, Claudia.

  • This is great advice! Thanks for mentioning the book as well, I plan to check it out!

  • I, too, stress about the amount of time, or lack thereof, I spend each day writing. Setting boundaries is something I’ve struggled with in my life. When I cross my boundary about writing, the inertia, as you mentioned pulls at me and I tell myself writing for ten minutes or five or fifteen isn’t enough time to matter. So, I do something else – pay bills, laundry, clean the house – and the cycle begins again. Today I wrote for two minutes that evolved into twenty minutes.

    Each article lands in my inbox at the right moment and day that I need the wisdom and encouragement contained within. Thank you for the inspiration! And I commit to two minutes, five days a week!

    • That’s such an easy trap to fall into! I do too–yet I’m seeing my manuscript steadily grow from those small sessions accruing. I’m so happy you wrote today–so happy it expanded to 20 minutes. I hope you keep showing up, even just for two minutes. Thanks for sharing, Samantha!

  • P. Jo Anne Burgh
    March 20, 2023 4:21 pm

    Your timing couldn’t have been better! I want so much to have my new book out in time for the holidays (and not just because this is what I told people at last year’s holiday fairs!), but I’ve been struggling for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is how incredibly bad the second draft was and how much work will be required to shape it into a cohesive narrative. I keep envisioning long, quiet blocks of work time, but there’s so much going on (paying work, rehearsals, elder parent care, etc.) that those long, quiet blocks are pretty much a “someday” fantasy. But two minutes–that’s something I can do. And so, I hereby commit to two minutes every day!

    (Side note: thanks so much for Intuitive Editing! In addition to giving me solid advice and encouragement on what to do with the Dreadful Draft #2, it’s inspiring me to get back in there and actually do the work.)

    • I’m so glad the post came at the right time! Glad you’re joining the two-minute club too. 🙂 So far it’s standing me in very good stead–helping me create an unshakable writing habit, which was the goal. I hope it does for you too–it’s true that those unhurried, unbroken chunks of time seem so scarce.

      Thanks, too, for the feedback on Intuitive Editing. It means a great deal to me to hear that it’s helpful to authors. (And if you had the time and inclination to leave a few words in review on Amazon, I’d be grateful as well–it helps me reach more writers.)

      Thanks again–I’ll be with you in spirit tomorrow morning (for at least two minutes). 🙂


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