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Biting the Bullet — Tracking my Writing Habit

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Image by Natascha Kranenburg

I’m a writer. I’ve been a writer since I first held a pencil and figured out how to spell, both somewhere around the first grade. (I was a late bloomer.) Writing is as integral to my identity as my name or my face.

Yet somehow this past year, I found myself not writing.

Sure, I was talking about writing. I was reading about the craft of writing. I was thinking about writing all the time. But the words were not making it to the paper.

To be fair, other important activities were being neglected as well. Things like exercise, time in nature, walking the dog (unforgivable, I know!). Things like fun. But who has time for fun these days?  Between parenting teenagers, eking out a career as a freelancer, running a household, carpooling, and engaging with my spouse, my days — like everyone else’s — are full. Add in the distraction of social media and time slips away faster than the bubbles in the bath I keep neglecting to take.

So this January, I decided to be more mindful of how I wanted to spend my time. I’d been reading about bullet journals (there’s a great — if slightly salty — explanation of what they are here, [2] and our own Barbara O’Neal talks about her take on them here.) [3] In short, bullet journals are a combination daily planner, journal, to-do list, and goal-setting guide, personalized for your individual situation.

I’m not artistic, so I kept mine simple.  No beautiful pencil sketches or intricately decorated text, just a yearly calendar where I list big-ticket items that are happening, a monthly calendar so I can see the overall picture for that month, and a daily calendar that lets me list to-dos. (Although I’ll admit, now that I’m three months in, I’ve started jazzing up the pages with cutouts from magazines and inspirational sayings that catch my fancy. It’s  a slippery slope.)

These pages serve as a kind of  “brain dump” for me, so I can put down some of the tasks that are floating around in my head taking up valuable space. I’ve found that even though I have duplicate lists/calendars on my phone and computer, there’s something soothing about seeing everything written out in black and white.

I also created a habit-tracker — a simple monthly grid that lists the habits I want to create. Each day that I perform one of those habits, I simply fill in a colored bubble for that date. By the end of the month, I can tell at a glance that I’ve walked the dog 10 times, exercised 11, and meditated not at all.  (Life — it’s a work in progress.)

Interestingly enough, it took me three weeks to realize what was missing from the habit-tracker: writing. It’s one of the most important habits of my life, and yet for some reason, it didn’t rate a mention on the “activities that are important for my mental health” section of the journal.

Why? I have a few theories. One is that, because I spend so much time thinking about writing, reading about writing, and talking about writing, it felt like I was already writing.  It’s like breathing — I do that every day, too, yet didn’t feel the need to track it.

The second theory is the exact opposite — I wasn’t tracking it because, on some level, I didn’t want to know. It’s been a discouraging year, writing-wise. I’ve struggled to find a home for a book I love, and I’ve found revising frustrating. Maybe thinking I was writing, but actually not, was a mechanism for staying sane.

No matter the reason, I promptly added an accountability line for writing in the journal. And then I filled in a little bubble every time I wrote or revised. At the end of the month, I sat down to take stock.

And was promptly horrified.

The time my butt was actually in a seat writing was staggeringly low. So low I’m embarrassed to admit it here. At first, I was convinced I must have made a mistake — accidentally filled in the bubble for working out, for example, instead of writing. But since I use a different color for each activity, I had to face facts — I had been giving my writing short shrift.

So I set out to make a change. Now, when I fill out my bullet journal I:

Set an intention for my writing at the top of each monthly calendar, so I see it each time I flip to that page.

Decide on monthly and weekly writing goals and write them down.

Examine what my schedule is at the start of each week, then identify blocks of time for each day that I can carve out for writing.

Continue to track each day’s accomplishment in the habit tracker.

Is it a perfect system? No. My schedule is still frequently derailed by school vacations, sick kids, last-minute work assignments, and the other unpredictable factors of a full life. But by planning my writing in a mindful way, I’ve increased the amount of time I’ve been able to devote to it, and made myself more honest and accountable.

Now it’s your turn. Are you a fan of bullet journals? (If you are the artistic type, please share your images with me on social media. I will not, however, be sharing my sad cutouts with you.) If not, what system do you use to track your writing practice?

About Liz Michalski [4]

Liz Michalski's first novel, Evenfall, was published by Berkley Books (Penguin). Liz has been a reporter, an editor, and a freelance writer. In her previous life, she wrangled with ill-tempered horses and oversized show dogs. These days she's downsized to one husband, two children and a medium-sized mutt.