Want to write more? Don’t rely on willpower—try this instead.
About a year ago, a friend of mine asked me, “How do you commit to writing every day? I want to write more, but I just don’t have the willpower to keep it up.”
I responded by telling them that they shouldn’t think of writing as a willpower challenge, but as a design challenge.
They gave me a funny look. I suppose I can’t blame them. What does design have to do with writing?
“Design is how it works”
To understand how design can help you write more, first you have to expand your understanding of what design is.
When we hear the word design, most of us think of how a thing looks. Graphic design, or interior design, or fashion design.
But design is a lot more than that. As Steve Jobs once said: “Design is not just what it looks and feels like. Design is how it works.”
Consider these examples of good design.
Graphic designers design book covers to make people want to pick up and buy the book.
Product designers design smartphones to function well and be pleasing for users to interact with.
Interior designers design rooms for socializing, or collaboration, or quiet contemplation.
UX designers design e-commerce websites to move users quickly and effortlessly from the decision to buy through purchase and checkout.
Managers design teams to take advantage of each person's skills, leading to productive teams and happy team members.
Operations managers design processes to efficiently arrive at outcomes that are beneficial for businesses and organizations.
Looking at these examples, it’s clear that design is way more than just looks. Design is any arrangement of elements that were put together that way on purpose in order to bring about a desired outcome.
Design your writing life
So why did I tell my friend to think of writing as a design challenge, rather than a willpower challenge?
Because willpower is fleeting—as anyone who’s tried to stick with a diet, a workout program, or any beneficial habit for more than a few days at a time will tell you. Willpower comes and goes. You can grit your teeth for a while and power through, but eventually your willpower will fail.
Still not seeing the connection with writing? I’ll give you an example:
For years, I dreamed of being a writer. I wanted to write fiction, to be published, to see my name on the spine of a book.
There was just one problem: I wasn’t writing.
I knew I needed to practice my craft. I heard Malcolm Gladwell telling me I needed 10,000 hours of experience to master writing; I heard Ira Glass telling me that I had to power through a lot of subpar writing before I could be any good—but I still wasn’t showing up and doing the work.
Why? Because I didn’t have the willpower.
Every few months, I’d recommit myself to writing. I’d get a head full of steam, tell myself that this time would be different, that I’d really make writing a habit this time. And for a little while, I’d succeed. I’d write for a few days, maybe a week, maybe two. I’d finish some work—a couple stories, maybe an essay.
But then, inevitably, I’d stop. My willpower would run out on me.
Then, a few years ago, I tried one more time—and this time, it stuck. I developed a writing practice that lasted. I got an agent and published a book, with more on the way.
How? Not with more willpower. The thing that helped me succeed this time was design.
I kept writing because, almost inadvertently, I’d designed a system that accomplished the desired outcome of keeping me writing. I experimented with different writing tools, tested writing processes and tricks I’d never tried before, and purposefully rearranged my daily schedule to give myself small but regular chunks of time to apply myself to my craft.
My willpower to write was just as unreliable as ever. But it’s a funny thing: because I had designed a writing system, I discovered that I didn’t need willpower anymore. The system helped me keep going even when I didn’t want to, even when things got hard, even when I got stuck and blocked and wanted to quit. The system—the design—carried me through, and gave me the confidence to begin finding my voice and honing my craft.
It can work for you
I designed a writing system for myself almost accidentally. But it doesn’t have to be accidental for you. Designing your life to be more creative, more productive, and more fulfilled isn’t rocket science. Design thinking is a simple process that can help you think critically and non-judgmentally about obstacles to your own creativity—and devise design solutions to help you overcome those obstacles.
I’ve practiced design thinking in my jobs as a project manager, director of operations, and product developer at a creative media company. I’ve also used design thinking to help design a more productive and fulfilling creative practice for myself. I started Designed to Write because I want to help others do the same.
If that sounds like something you’re interested in, I hope you’ll join me. I’m currently writing a free ebook summarizing the design thinking process and you can use it to cultivate a writing practice (or any creative practice, really). If you sign up today, you’ll be among the first to get that free ebook.
Are you designed to write? Then design a life that’s made for writing.
Also published on Medium.