3 Lessons Learned from NaNoWriMo

I Will Find The Droids I'm Looking For by Stephan

Last month I decided to dive headlong into a new challenge – writing 50,000 words in 30 days for National Novel Writing Month. Ok, so really I decided to write 60,000 in 30 days but that’s not important. The important part was the challenge, and it was definitely a challenge.

As much fun as it was, and as happy as I am that I was able to surpass my goal of 60,000 words, I also must confess I’m glad that it’s over. I went into it thinking that, given the amount of writing I do on a regular basis, it would be a piece of cake. Unless we’re talking about a piece of lead cake wrapped in razor-wire and resting on a downed power line, I was way off. It was a grueling 30 days and seriously tested my ability to commit to a project like this. Having trudged through the hardship I’ve found my reward isn’t just 60,000 words of terrible first-draft fiction – the experience has also taught me a number of valuable lessons.

1. It’s Easy to Conquer Big Tasks Through Deconstruction

I’m sure everyone has heard the old saying about how one goes about eating an elephant – one bite at a time. While I’m not one to put stock in something just because it’s an old aphorism, I have to concede that the moral of that one holds true. In fact, the whole premise of NaNoWriMo is built around it.

To most people, writing a 50,000 word novel in 30 days seems like a monumental task. It is, really, but that’s not to say it’s unobtainable. In the end it works out to only about 1,667 words per day. If we assume an average typing speed of about 80 WPM that’s only about 24 minutes per day. You can double that to account for pauses to think and distractions and round up a little to an even hour.

Everyone has at least one hour per day they can devote to writing. When you look at it in that light, it doesn’t seem so difficult anymore. In fact it, it seems a little surprising everyone hasn’t written their own novels.

This divide and conquer strategy can be applied to any big task, with or without a deadline attached. The trick is to go over whatever your task is and deconstruct it into manageable chunks.

Want to lose 20 lbs. in a month? That’s only 5 lbs. a week or roughly 3/4 of a pound per day. If you focus on just losing at least 3/4 of a pound everyday, you’ll hit your goal easily.

Want to learn to play guitar? Pick one thing per day to practice (a few chords, a scale, the first few bars of a favorite song) and before you know it you’ll be better than you ever expected to be.

2. You Can Develop New Habits

Not just bad ones either, good habits. Habits that you want to develop. It’s not even all that hard when you approach it the right way.

Like I mentioned before the whole premise of NaNoWriMo is to dissect this giant 50,000 word goal into daily, manageable bites to achieve it in 30 days. If you don’t want to fall behind, you have to be putting your time in every single day to at least hit that 1,667 word minimum. Interestingly, this has the side effect of teaching you a little bit about habit formation. By the end of the month, I found that if I went a day without writing anything it bothered me. Writing daily had become a new habit.

The true key to habit formation isn’t to possess some kind of superhuman willpower with which to force yourself to do something each day until it’s habitual. That will never work. You just can’t fight your nature like that for that long, in the end you’ll always lose. The key is to only commit to a little bit and slowly, as you acclimate, to increase the intensity.

Think of it like exercise. If you’ve never worked out before you wouldn’t jump in and expect to bench, squat and deadlift 300 pounds three days a week as your new routine. Even if, by some miracle, you could do it the strain it put on you would probably make you dread the second week. You would inevitably crash and quit. Instead, you start out at low weights and work your way up.

NaNoWriMo works the same way. If they asked people to write 5,000 words a day, it would never work. People would make a few days, but overall the task would prove too much and people would give up. For some reason, I always see people take this approach when trying to develop a new habit. They commit to working out every single day of the week or to studying for two hours every night or the like. It’s always too much and it never works.

Instead, take the NaNoWriMo approach. Start with something easy and work your way up. Five minutes of flashcards everyday for a week. Anyone could do that. Then bump it up to ten minutes. Still easy. Then fifteen. Before you know it, you’ll be studying for an hour every night just because you’re used to it. That’s how you develop a habit.

3. Procrastination Is Poison

I have a confession to make; I am a serious procrastinator. No matter what it is I’m trying to accomplish that sweet, seductive voice whispers in the recesses of my mind, “There’s always tomorrow… You can do it later… You’re not in the mood to work right now…” Always it tempts me away to other, more wasteful pursuits.

NaNoWriMo proved to be just what I needed to exorcise my procrastination demons, primarily just by being so demanding.

About halfway into the challenge, I faltered. Things got in the way, we had computer problems, excuses excuses excuses. Before I knew it, almost a full week had passed and I hadn’t written a word. Thankfully, NaNoWriMo gives you lovely charts and graphs plotting your progress and projecting just how many words you’ll need to write per day to finish.

My little lapse in attention had almost doubled what I would need to write every day if I wanted to finish on time. What was worse, each day I procrastinated added to the workload of the rest of my days which made them even more daunting which made me want to do the work even less. The more I procrastinated, the more hopeless my chances of finishing on time looked and the more I was inclined to procrastinate.

In the end, I sat down one day and pounded out about 10,000 words in one sitting. I’m still trying to get the blood stains off my keyboard, but it caught me back up to where I needed to be.

If you’ve set yourself to a task, particularly one with a deadline, it is vitally important that you don’t allow yourself to procrastinate. One way to avoid it is to challenge yourself to complete just a little extra work each day, or to pretend your deadline is before your actual deadline.

Now, you don’t have to give NaNoWriMo a shot to learn all these lessons, but I’d encourage everyone who’s interested to give it a shot sometime. If you’ve had a go at NaNoWriMo in the past and have some other lessons to add feel free to share them in the comments!

Photo Credit: Stephan

Adam is a former English teacher turned personal trainer and writer. He’s addicted to learning, parkour and martial arts. In addition to being a voracious bibliophile Adam’s fascinated by anything related to health, fitness and language. When not studying or training he can usually be found curled up with a good piece of fiction. You can e-mail Adam at Adam@RoadtoEpic.com