We indie fiction writers are shafted by the nature of our business.
Nearly everything we do takes forever.
A novel can take weeks or months (or years!) to write.
Building your back catalogue takes years.
Marketing is a long term strategy that takes months or years to pay off.
Once you’ve figured out what habits you want to develop, that will move you closer to your far distant goals, even those habits are long term–they need to be executed every day, for weeks, months and years, in order to see any benefit from them.
Everything we do as indie fiction novel writers has little or no pay-off except for somewhere down the line, a long time from now.
In addition, the lack of professional recognition from the industry means there is little or no positive feedback, except for reader messages and sales.
While non-fiction essayists, short story writers, blog writers…just about anyone in any other profession, get frequent dopamine hits from finishing small projects quickly and consecutively, earning pay-raises, promotions, accolades and awards.
Long Term Goals Lack Immediate Motivation
So, no regular, reinforcing dopamine hits, plus, weeks and years to wait for the ultimate pay-off for our goals (better sales, finishing series, hitting best seller lists).
Given these facts, it’s easy to understand why, when you consider a new habit such as “write 1,000 words every day”, and the fact that you’ll be writing 1,000 words every day for the foreseeable future, it sometime seems a lot more appealing to skip a day here and there, or even a few. After all, over the long term, what does a day or a few missed here and there really matter?
Yet consistency helps establish habits, especially in the beginning. Skipping days (or weeks, or more) will weaken the effect, and make it more likely that the habit will fail to establish itself.
As positive habits are far more easier to “break” than negative ones (it’s a lot easier to skip a day’s workout than to skip your lunchtime soda), you need to really focus on getting the habit established.
Enter the 30-Day Challenge.
The Magical Tactic
30-Day Challenges give you a handful of great benefits.
They reinforce in concrete any new habits you’re trying to establish.
It takes 30 days (more or less) to establish a new habit. 30-Day Challenges help you nail the habit as quickly as possible
They’re short enough that you get a quick pay-off and psychological reward for “completing” the project.
30-Day Challenges are finite. They’re short enough that you can power through them with a bit of effort.
Instead of working (sporadically) toward (say) building your back catalogue, you can earn the quick boost from spending 30 days without fail writing 1,000 words on the current novel.
They draw on the power of the unbroken chain to keep you working on completing them.
Jerry Seinfeld made “Don’t Break the Chain” famous, but he wasn’t the first to figure out the power that consecutive days of task completion has upon your subconscious.
As soon as you have successfully completed a couple of days in a row of your challenge, you subconsciously want to keep the successful run going, and completing the challenge in the following days becomes just a bit more compelling.
Toward the end of the thirty days, you will find yourself overcoming all sorts of challenges and obstacles in order to keep the chain going.
I’ve experienced the power of the unbroken chain myself. I’ve used 30-Day Challenges for everything from walking each day (which was the last thing I wanted to do while undergoing chemotherapy!), to writing each day, to eating clean, to getting a craft project done that was promised to a friend, but didn’t inspire me creatively.
They work with anything.
You can set up 30-Day Challenges for just about anything, from writing xxx words a day, to working out, to eating a healthy breakfast, to cleaning your teeth, to being more positive.
Challenge yourself to spend 30 days in a row minimizing dialogue tags.
Spend 30 days meditating each day.
For 30 days, spend 20 minutes outside, soaking up the sun (and absorbing beneficial Vitamin D).
For 30 days, spend an hour each day working on a new marketing plan for your business.
They can be standalone or part of a larger goal.
You can use 30-Day Challenges to complete small or medium-sized projects that might not get completed without the power of the challenge.
Or you can use 30-Day Challenges to establish habits that are on-going.
You can break down massive projects and use 30-Day Challenges to complete components of the overall project.
You can also use 30-Day Challenges to re-build habits that have slipped from “regular” to “sometimes”.
And you can use 30-Day Challenges just to power through work that must be done, that doesn’t inspire you at all.
At the end of the 30 days, you don’t have to do it ever again.
Knowing in the back of your mind that there is an end to the work, the struggle, the dismal chore you’re pushing yourself through, is also a powerful motivator to dig in and do it.
In fact, you might have to do the work again at some other time, or for another challenge, especially for on-going habits and activities that we indie authors have to tackle. But when you’re in the midst of a 30-Day Challenge, it’s easy to ignore that fact, and just focus on the end of this challenge, when you can stop. Even if it’s just for a short while.
How to set up the challenge
There’s a couple of things to keep in mind when you set up a challenge.
Make sure the 30 days are clear
This is probably obvious but should be stated anyway. I fell into this mistake very recently. I set a 30-day challenge for myself, but I had forgotten that the very next day (day 2) had commitments in it that guaranteed I wouldn’t be able to complete the challenge that day.
I tried to pick up and carry on anyway, but a few days later, faltered again. After that, the power of the challenge quickly evaporated.
It’s likely that you’ll run into obstacles and days where it is genuinely impossible to complete your challenge for the day. No one can anticipate everything.
But do look ahead and give yourself as clear a run at the challenge as possible. Can you move commitments? Cancel them? Can you move appointments around to give yourself time to meet the challenge every day?
Do NOT reward yourself.
It has been amply demonstrated and researched that rewarding yourself, or setting up an incentive that you’ll earn at the end of the challenge doesn’t work to keep you moving through a challenge.
In fact, it does the opposite. It will make you focus upon the reward, and lose interest in the work itself.
The work should be intrinsically rewarding. You should enjoy (or even just like yourself a little more) each completed day of the challenge.
Use a calendar or chart to track the thirty days.
You might think that just keeping track in your mind will be enough, but the act of crossing off the days and seeing an unbroken line of “X” marks is a powerful motivator to keep the chain going.
You can build any type of chart or calendar you want to keep track of the challenge. I’ve made a simple one you’re welcome to download and print. Click here to download the PDF.
I build tables in OneNote and blank out the squares each day. I’ve created a template that I can apply to any page, that puts a chart on it for me to complete.
You can make it a week long challenge, too.
If the challenge is particularly gruelling, and can’t be broken down into a manageable daily effort, then you can flex your self-discipline for a single week, and really go at ‘er.
A week of cleaning the basement for 90 minutes a day, because Aunt Jemima will be here in 10 days.
A week of 10K words a day to meet a deadline. (Self-imposed, or not.)
A week of 18 hour fasting.
But a Seven-Day Challenge doesn’t help build habits that last, so if the work of the challenge is ongoing, even after the challenge is complete, you’re better off building a 30-Day Challenge.
One Challenge at a time.
You’ll split your energy and your attention if you try to do more than one challenge. Just do one at a time, and give it all your time and attention.
Or, if you must do more than one at a time, choose challenges from different areas of your life. A writing challenge and a health challenge, for example. Or business + personal.
If you don’t complete the challenge
If you get knocked off the challenge, you can try to pick it up again and keep going, with that empty square (or more than one) staring at you. But you might find that having broken the chain, you are no longer as keen to finish the rest of the challenge (which proves how powerful the unbroken chain can be).
You can always start again. Set up fresh, find 30 clear days, print off another chart. This will tell your subscious that it’s a new challenge, not a spotty continuation of the previous one.
If you didn’t complete the challenge because it was too hard, or too ambitious, start a new one with less lofty criteria — 1,000 words a day instead of 3,000 words. Or 30 minutes a day instead of 90. And so on.
Or break down the challenge into smaller components. Instead of a 30-Day Challenge to completely revamp your 300 page website, make the first 30-Day Challenge simply to renovate the static pages, or renew a year’s worth of blog posts.
You have probably figured out several challenges for yourself just reading this post. But here’s some more that demonstrate how flexible the 30-Day Challenge can be.
Word count challenges. Pick a daily word count slightly higher than you’re used to. Or, reduce the time to reach your usual word count. This will teach you to write faster per hour. (So do Writing Sprints).
Or, even more basic: Challenge yourself to write every single day for 30 days. Harder than it sounds! But a great habit to form for a lifetime of writing.
Writing challenges. 30 days of ruthlessly finding and rewriting any occurances of “There was” or “there were” in yesterday’s writing. 30 days of finding and removing any “but”s. 30 days of finding all dialogue tags and removing as many as possible. 30 days of inserting descriptions where they are needed in yesterday’s writing.
And on and on. Any weakness or problem or bad habit that your editor keeps pointing out to you is a candidate for a 30-Day Challenge. Any of the weasel words and other common weaknesses of fiction writing can also be made into challenges.
The benefit of these writing challenges is that by the end of the 30 days, you will be automatically using these techniques as you write, instead of coming along behind yourself and fixing them later. The 30 day challenge makes you more aware of the poor technique, or the need for a different way of expressing yourself.
Reading Challenges. 30 days of reading non-fiction for an hour each day. 30 days of only reading books already on your reading device. 30 days of only reading authors new to you. 30 days of comfort reading and nothing else.
How you set up reading challenges will deliver different benefits. A challenge is a good way of just getting back to reading more, or more regularly. A reading challenge can help you research comp authors and genres. And so on.
Marketing Challenges. 30 days of deep research into viable marketing strategies that are new to you (or just new, period). 30 days of online networking and contact development. 30 days of leaving comments on book blogger sites. 30 days of researching and building autoresponders and email sequences. 30 days to establish your profile and upload all your books to a new book promo site, or networking site.
Marketing challenges are as endless as writing challenges, and as many writers hate marketing with a passion, thirty day challenges can get work done that might otherwise meet an untouched death.
PostProduction and Admin Challenges. 30 days of learning how to properly use software that you know you’re not exploiting as much as you should. 30 days of filing every scrap of paper living on your desk and on top of the filing cabinet. 30 days of organizing files on your hard drive. 30 days to learn how to properly format your own books.
There are a great many administration tasks that writers generally hate. Anything to do with taxes, or money, for example. Anything to do with filing, or organization. Anything that requires analysis. Learning new software, learning new skills.
All of them can be shaped into a 30-Day Challenge that gets the work done, or at least gets you into a groove so that the work progresses.
General Productivity and Self-Discipline Challenges. 30 days of a cold shower every morning. 30 days of getting up 30 minutes earlier than usual. 30 days of writing every day. 30 days of meditating every day (which is an excellent training for self-discipline).
Whatever productivity facet that you feel is deficient, and could use some bolstering, try a 30-Day Challenge to see if you can pack on some muscle in that regard.