(This is a retrospective post on a month of daily blogging on my personal blog, what I got out of it, my case for the benefits of regular writing and why this is a good use of your time, and advice for starting a daily writing project yourself)
Overall, I am incredibly happy with this project! This began as a 15 min/day project, and ballooned into 2-3 hours/day by the end, which ended up a dramatically bigger time sink than expected. But I consider this super worth it!
I find it useful to divide happiness into happiness of the experiencing self, feeling joy in the moment, and happiness of the remembering self, looking back at the action and feeling satisfied that it happened. And blogging was definitely a good project for the experiencing self! But now I have some perspective, I want to think about the value I’ve gotten for the remembering self:
- I’m really happy that I’ve made something - the total length is about 67,000 words, which is about the length of a standard book. Which feels exciting, and not quite real
- Intuitively, I feel like books should be longer than that, but clearly my reference class here is fucked - most reasonable sources agree with this number
- I deliberately optimised blog posts for the ability to say in conversation “oh, I have a blog post about this” - in part because this was a good way to select for important ideas, and in part because I find it really satisfying to be able to say this. And this has definitely worked!
- Projects that appeal to my inherent sense of smugness are the best projects
- I’ve heard from a range of people who’ve read various posts that they’ve enjoyed them and gotten value from it, and a handful of tangible ways this has been useful (I really enjoy receiving these messages ;) )
- One of the original goals was to become less of a perfectionist. So I very explicitly set out to not be a perfectionist when blogging, and to only publish rough first drafts. And this part definitely worked! I mentally marked blogging as a separate arena where I had lower standards, and managed to keep to these standards. But the interesting question is whether this generalised.
- Prior to this, my one attempt at blogging was writing up a post on how to notice emotions. I’m really happy with this post, but I was a massive perfectionist about it - I asked about 10 people for feedback, and spent a long time drafting and re-drafting, and editing it in line with feedback. And I’m pretty happy with the results! But it took about 20 hours total for 5,000 words, or about 4 WPM. While my average WPM across these blog posts has been about 28 WPM (data for the curious).
- So, by deliberately not editing, I’ve sped up by seven times
- And the feedback I’ve gotten for these posts has been, if anything, more positive!
- I think that these posts do have flaws, and ones I could plausibly fix given more time. But empirically, this shows that I’m hilariously badly calibrated when it comes to targeting my effort to good ends - trying to improve and polish things leads to a ton of wasted motion, and “fixing” things that never needed to be fixed
- My underlying model of perfectionism is that it comes from loss aversion - I can see flaws in what I produce, and it feels awful to make anything with flaws. But the opportunity costs of the time I spend fixing the flaws doesn’t feel visceral - I’m losing all the other things I could be doing, but they aren’t concrete. While the flaws are!
- And I’ve learned that, at least for blogging, my perception of flaws is awful - a far better way to be grounded is to listen to feedback, than listen to my own neurotic intuitions
- Further, I’ve gotten a much better feel for the opportunity costs! I know that I can write a good post, from scratch, in 2-3 hours. I could do 2-3 a day. And spending 2 hours doing something feels small, while burning a potential blog post feels big, helping make these costs feel more visceral
- This is the best general solution I’ve found to opportunity costs - mentally convert what I’m missing into something concrete. Eg, convert money I’m spending into potential nice dinners out I could have, or holidays - whatever feels visceral.
- I also have a much better appreciation of the importance of seeking upside risk! I've written a lot of posts, some of which are mediocre, and some of which I think were excellent. And, in practice, I figure out the posts I'm most satisfied by, and promote those, and they end up being read by many people. While my mediocre posts can just be forgotten. The upside of writing something great is far higher than the downside of writing something mediocre, so I should bias towards taking action!
- This applies even more so when posting somewhere with an upvote system - far more people see the best content than the worst, so the impact of writing on other people is outsized
- I’m definitely still a perfectionist, but this has made me much more confident that this is a genuine cognitive bias, though I find it harder to transfer these insights outside of a blogging context.
- General takeaway: The bottleneck is making stuff not making good stuff - obsessing about making something good is just screwing myself over
- Intrinsic motivation:
- A general goal of mine is to live a life I feel excited about. I use a lot of guilt-based motivation on myself, and store things I genuinely want to do as obligations that I must get done. This can be effective in the short term, but makes me unhappy, and causes a lot of procrastination and wasted motion.
- Note: If you relate to the above, I very highly recommend the excellent series of blog posts Replacing Guilt by Nate Soares
- In part, this project helped with this goal because it’s the most fun project I’ve done in ages. And bringing more excitement into my life is the goal!
- But it also helped me understand my intrinsic motivation better! In part, because I wrote a post clarifying my thoughts on the topic. And in part because I deliberately shaped this project to trigger as many of the things I found exciting as possible. And this worked!
- By optimising for posts about “life advice I’ve frequently given”, I got to frequently bring up in conversation “oh, I have a blog post about this”
- Very highly recommend, this strongly appeals to my smug side
- And made this something appropriate to frequently bring up, and be excited about in a social context
- It was big, and ambitious, and tangible. So I could feel a constant feeling of progress, and having made something
- Word count and timing myself gave an easily quantifiable metric of progress
- And, by the end, I’ve written a book. (67,000 words) Which is insane. And feels tangible, while all the time I spent on this project doesn’t
- I got positive feedback in the form of messages from people enjoying my posts - which was motivating in and of itself, and gave a tangible sense that I was helping people
- And gave me a venue to talk about things I think are genuinely important, and which might lead to tangible impacts on the world, like my views on altruism
- I’ve felt fully aligned behind all the time I spent on this - I was satisfying a commitment to myself, improving at useful skills like writing, motivation and unperfectionism, and having fun.
- The skill of committing to things:
- This project originally began because my productivity coach noticed that I was very resistant to committing to any solution ideas we came up with that seemed imperfect. And suggested that I practice setting myself an ambitious commitment and keeping to it, to practice the general skill of overcoming reluctance and committing
- Empirically, this worked!
- I was pretty hesitant and doubtful of this project at first, but in hindsight this was an awesome idea. Which suggests that I hold out for perfect solutions more from conservatism & loss aversion, than because I’m genuinely protecting something precious
- In practice, I mostly committed to this project by being really excited about it. I had a few commitment mechanisms: posting to Facebook, making bets with friends where I went long myself, and committing it to specific friends. And there were a few days where I was tempted to give up for the day, and these helped it stick. But for the most part, this worked because I wanted to keep to the commitment, and that gave me the motivation to stick to it, and do it. And that overcame a lot of the inertia and insecurity that came with doing something like this
- I originally had systems about exactly when I did posts, but found that this seemed to not matter over time - I never forgot about posts, and always made time in my day for them
- I think this is much harder for smaller side projects - blogging was very much at the top of my mind. I was thinking of new post ideas and refining them in the shower, during walks, in bed, etc. This was a major component in my not forgetting about things, and it’s very hard to force something to be at the top of my mind
- General takeaway: An imperfect idea I’m excited about will work, a “perfect” idea I feel reluctance towards will not
- Clarifying my thoughts
- I’ve now taken 26 ideas I consider important to my life and worth sharing, and put them into words. I think teaching something is one of the best ways to understand it, and doing this has definitely helped me clarify my thoughts on a bunch of important things.
- Even for topics I felt I already understood well, there was normally something novel that came out - when thinking about an idea inside my head, I often skip over details and small confusions. It’s much harder to lie to myself when it’s put into words
- Probably my favourite conceptual clarification is the distinction between inner and outer optimisers - I’ve noticed this come up frequently in day-to-day life
- Note: nothing to do with AI Safety
- Some other highlights:
- Clarifying my thoughts on altruism, and why I care about things outside of my head
- Teaching skill, and my underlying model of learning
- What optimisation really means, and why so many people object to the idea
- The world is full of wasted motion - why I feel convinced that it is worth spending effort being meta and optimising
- Collecting all of my thoughts on prioritisation and life goals
- My philosophy of friendship
- How to network without being a terrible person
- My toolkit for overcoming procrastination
- Cultivating intrinsic motivation
- Writing skill
- Writing is a skill, and one you get better at with practice. This feels less tangible to me, since I don’t have obvious progress markers here, but I’m pretty sure I’ve improved! And this is definitely a valuable skill that I care about - especially putting concrete ideas clearly into words
- My general philosophy here:
- Conceptual clarity is by far the biggest value-add in a blog post. Taking a fuzzy intuition, making it crisp, giving it a name, and giving the reader tools for dealing with it
- Accordingly, the goal is to convey concepts well. This means that the first paragraph is by far the most important - that’s what locates the article in the space of all possible things, and tells the reader what it’s about. Screwing this up means they may completely miss the point.
- I spend at least twice as long getting the intro right, and I think this is perfectionism done right
- People seem to enjoy a stream of consciousness, fairly chatty style? I get positive feedback on being casual, making jokes, and heavily overusing italics
- Examples are awesome. If your post lacks examples, you’re doing it wrong. A friend of mine put it quite well: You can teach an OK class with only examples, you can’t teach a class with no examples
- Examples break down into a few categories with different purposes
- Micro-examples - a short example you give along with a point, to give the reader more context with the point, add intuition, and ensure it lands correctly
- Communication is hard, and examples provide another channel!
- These should ideally be one clause, and rarely more than a sentence - they don’t break flow, they’re part of the flow
- Motivating examples - when communicating an idea, readers may be initially skeptical. Motivating examples make it clear that things are important, make it relatable and personal, and help motivate the reader to care and take action (and to continue reading!)
- I try to make things personal, and describe a state of mind that I dislike, but make it general enough that it’s relateable
- See my post on procrastination
- Actionable examples. These are a way to take an abstract point and make it concrete, by giving a flood of concrete examples. As many examples as possible, ideally personal ones. The point is to provide the reader with inspiration and ideas, and to make it clear that things can translate into meaningful action change.
- I think most people don’t have enough examples, and I find it valuable to figure out exactly what purpose an example serves. I normally add one when I notice a point feeling too abstract, ungrounded or confusing.
- Doing hard things
- An unexpected benefit! When I started out blogging, I overthought most posts before writing. It felt scary to start writing something ambitious, because I wasn’t sure I’d have enough to write about, so I tried to flesh out posts mentally before the time of actually writing
- But later on, I decided to say fuck it, and run with an ambitious post idea that felt fuzzy, and where I wasn’t sure what to write about. And this went really well!
- Empirically, I can flesh out a vague idea into a coherent structure with clear content and examples in about 30-60 minutes, and write it in the next 2-3 hours!
- Most notably, my posts on friendship, self-image & feedback and emotions
- Generally, I’m pretty risk averse, and find it hard to start things which feel scary and non-concrete, and where there’s a good chance of failure. Times when I don’t feel perfectly in control
- This has shown me that I am awfully calibrated on that front, and can rely on my abilities more. At this point, writing a blog post is a skill I’m pretty good at! I can trust my abilities in the areas I know I’m good at, and run with something ambitious, rather than being paralysed
- Note: First verify what you are actually good at! This advice does not perfectly generalise
- And this is a key skill to being able to Actually Do Things, and one I’m super excited to improve at!
- General takeaway: Just because something feels scary, doesn’t mean it is. I am more capable than I give myself credit for
How to do a Daily Writing Project
So, this is a project I’ve gotten a ton out of. And if those points resonated with you, and you find this idea exciting, I highly recommend trying a daily writing project yourself!
This obviously isn’t for everyone, but I think a lot of people would benefit from doing something like this. But there is a major sense of inertia at the idea of something taking up time and effort for uncertain reward, and anxiety at putting yourself out there. I felt all of these at the start, and so have a few friends I since talked into starting projects like these! So, empirically, these feelings are at best weak evidence that it’s actually a bad idea. As a general rule - downside feels concrete, upside does not.
My intuition is that people have a systematic bias against doing this kind of thing - it’s not the default action. But fuck being the kind of person who only ever does the default action - taking opportunities and Actually Doing Things is habit forming, even if those opportunities aren’t perfect.
If you feel tempted by this but hesitant, and uncertain this is actually the best use of time, I’d note that this uncertainty seems important! Writing could add value, or it could not. And learning whether this is a good use of your time is valuable, and worth spending some time on now! I recommend making this into an experiment - commit to doing writing every day for the next week, and review at the end of that whether this has felt valuable. You aren’t doing this to write, you’re doing this to gain information! So there’s no way for this to fail!
More concretely, my advice for doing this well:
- The biggest failure mode is that you do nothing, not that you do something badly. It will not feel this way from the inside, but the biggest failure mode by far, is just not doing anything. And constantly procrastinating.
- It’s easy to get caught up in optimising things - exactly what you write about, where you write, when you write, for how long, to which audience, etc. I think optimising these is important! But it adds a bit of extra value, at the cost of giving excuses to procrastinate
- If you relate to this, I recommend setting a 5 minute timer right now, and coming up with a complete plan for this system. It might not be perfect, but you can come up with a plan in 5 minutes. Far better to have a decent plan now than a perfect one never.
- I highly recommend blogging on Medium - it’s trivial to set up, and hassle free. And it’s not super hard to copy posts to a better place if you later change your mind - the key is to build momentum
- Note - obsessing over format delayed me starting to blog by a long time… And that’s why this is not on Medium! Do as I say, not as I do
- And if you're a LessWrong reader, posting anything you write to LessWrong is also an excellent option! Or, eg, putting everything in a low stakes environment like a personal Medium, and cross-posting the ones you feel proudest of, or which get the best reception.
- Even worse than obsessing is making no plan at all! This means that in the moment you’ll start obsessing. I recommend coming up with a rough plan now for what to write, when to write and where to write
- I recommend making this a system - pick a specific time right now, and put it in your calendar every day for the next week.
- You can freely change this plan! The important part is to have a default
- Separate planning and doing
- This is the underlying problems with endless optimisation - planning feels important. But prioritisation and tweaking, and actually getting shit done are fundamentally different mental modes. You can’t be in both at once, and switching breaks your focus. So you want to separate them wherever possible
- So have a clear time and routine for writing, so at the right time you’re purely doing
- This applies to the writing itself too! My approach is to set a 5 minute timer, brainstorm possible topics, and pick my favourite. Then, committed to this topic, set a 10 minute timer, and write out a rough skeleton structure for the piece. Then, with that done, stick to the plan and write
- Sometimes I’ll adjust the plan when I see a problem with it, but this is to be minimised - adjusting the plan prevents me from doing. The plan is the default.
- If you’re curious, the structure for this post - the point is to be rough and to guide my thoughts, not to prescribe things
- You don’t need to stick to the timers, I find the function is mostly to overcome inertia, and to focus me/prompt me to action.
- I often tweak this: I usually have a topic in mind already, and the amount of time for structuring depends on the ambition of the idea, and how much I’ve thought about it before - if 10 minutes feels too long, just stop early!
Questions I often hear:
- “I don’t know what to write about”
- I hear this one a lot, but I completely call bullshit on this. There are loads of things to write about! Cool things you’ve learned, useful advice you’ve received, things that confuse you, things you think most people are wrong about, something you were recently wrong about, niche hobbies and interests, etc.
- I think the feeling of having nothing to write about is really that it’s not easy to come up with something to write about. This manifests as feeling stuck, and giving up immediately.
- If you genuinely think you have nothing to write about, I challenge you to get a piece of paper, set a 5 minute timer, and list anything that pops into your head. I guarantee that by the end of the 5 minutes you’ll have something
- “I don’t have anything original to write about”
- I utterly relate to this insecurity. But I think that it is an insecurity - a cognitive bias, rather than a genuinely valid concern. This is wrong on many levels
- Firstly, originality is in the eye of the beholder! Writing is a very high-dimensional space, everyone has their own take and nuance. And every reader has their own context, prior knowledge, and preferred framing. This means that it’s really hard to gauge what is and is not original
- For example - I thought my post on agency and actually doing things was super derivative, but it’s been one of my best received posts, even from people who’ve already encountered the idea.
- A familiar idea phrased differently can be really valuable - everyone learns things in a different way, and framing is a lot more important than you think
- And something completely derivative can be useful if the reader hasn’t encountered the original!
- Secondly, why do you need to write originally? There are all kinds of reasons to write! Write for fun! Write to help you clarify your thoughts! Write to get better at writing! Write about
- Thirdly, by actually writing things, you’ll generate a lot of stuff, and likely some will be original! And you can polish and build on those, while ignoring the dross. The upside is far bigger than the downside!
- The first things you produce when starting anything new will suck - failures are what learning feels like. If your goal is to be original, don’t ask whether you can start by being original, ask whether you will become somebody able to be original
- And finally, trying to be original is not the right way to be original. It’s hard to tell what is and is not original, especially before even writing it. This mindset leads to paralysis, and never writing anything, because it feels safer.
- Ultimately, there are two worlds: one where you write a lot, and some is original, and a world where you write nothing. And there’s a third world, where you only write original things. And this world is awesome! But it’s utterly unrealistic. And aiming for it means you hit the world where you write nothing. Look past the idealistic outcomes, and think about which world you actually want to live in
- To take the first step, you need to overcome this kind of paralysis
- “How strongly should I commit to this?”
- It’s not that hard to make a really strong commitment to something, eg pledging £1,000 on stickk.com. And this would work pretty damn well! But I would advise against making strong commitments like this
- I think for a project like this, it works far better to be excited about it. Do it if you want to do it.
- By all means create commitment mechanisms, but they should be to help the excitement stick, not to create excitement.
- Think about why you want to do this project. Make it something you feel excited about
- A good hack: Imagine a world where a few weeks from now you’ve succeeded at writing, versus a world where you didn’t, but had some extra time. Which world do you most want to live in? And what can you do about this right now?
- “Should I make it public?”
- I don’t think making it public is super important - I found it helpful and a lot more fun, but it seems to cause anxiety and paralysis in others. The important point is to do something, and a lot of the benefits of writing don’t come from it being public.
- The important part is to figure out what you want, and to achieve that. If you want to clarify your thoughts on a private blog, or in a series of google docs you share to interested friends, I say that sounds awesome!
- Remember - you will fail by doing nothing, not by doing something badly
And finally, remember, humans systematically suck at making plans. The default state of the world is that you’ll forget about this idea. If you have felt excited about the idea of daily blogging, and want to try writing something every day for the next week, look past that enthusiasm. Imagine yourself a week from now, feeling guilty because you totally forgot about all of these ambitions. Are you surprised by this? What went wrong? And what can you do about it right now to prevent that failure mode coming to pass?
Pick a time right now, for when you’ll start writing. And if it’s not today, ask yourself, do I really have a good reason for this?
Overall, I’m really glad I’ve done this project. I’ve had a lot of fun, made progress on things that are important to me, made something I’m proud of, and cultivated the skill of doing hard things.
If these ideas resonated with you, I highly encourage you to do it too! I think it’s an excellent use of time, a way to practice important skills, and of clarifying thoughts on things you care about. Further, I think that one of the most important skills you can ever learn is the skill of agency. It’s easy to go through life passing up opportunities, and always seeing reasons why they’re imperfect. Always waiting for the perfect opportunity, building the habit of passing up opportunities, until you pass on the perfect opportunity without even noticing. Fuck that.
I’ve tried to be fairly deliberately persuasive in this post, because I think regular writing is valuable, and to far more people than those who’d naturally do it. But it’s not for everyone, and that’s fine! If writing isn’t resonating with you, try something else! Find a project you feel excited about! It’s easy to go through life being constantly reactive and passive - find something you care about and make it your own! Having autonomy is a really powerful motivator, and a major component of life happiness. And cultivating the skill of doing things and starting projects is a key source of it. This is definitely something I still suck at, but I’ve gotten a lot better with time, and this has been a major part of how my life has become more awesome over time.
If this is something you want to get better at, does it seem like it’ll happen on its own, given how you’re currently living your life? Imagine yourself a year from now. Are you surprised if you still feel passive then?
What can you do right now to take the first step?