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The habit of creating

Jan 24, 2021 · 7 min read

Over the last 9 months, I’ve published 1 short story, 6 articles on my newsletter, 1 article for a different website, and written 9000 words for a fiction novel. Over the past 15 months, I’ve built around 10 different apps as I tested market fit and co-founder fit.

This all happened and I’m proud of it. But it’s not the full picture. As I’m writing this, I’m fully cognizant of all the days in between these shiny moments where I could not do much at all.

There’s a lot of things I could blame.

The pandemic. Being stuck in close quarters with loud distractions. Forest fires. Bad weather. People who are angry with you. People who worry about you. People who get into your mind with your insecurities. The past. The future.

But those are all things we can’t control. The only we can control is how we act today. In the present.

Change is hard. By now, many people have made and broken their New Year’s resolutions. It’s hard to step out of our comfort zones and become a new person, particularly when our fears hold us back.

I’m a huge fan of James Clear, BJ Fogg, and similar folks that have broken down habit research, behavioral psychology, and neuroscience to make it easier for people to improve their lives. It was through their research that I was able to successfully change my non-vegetarian diet to 70% raw vegan, 30% vegan diet, be able to consistently work out, meditate, and become more loving.

While it was (relatively) easier for me to make these changes, I’ve had a harder time identifying the habits it takes for me to become a successful creator.

I think it’s because of the high uncertainty.

When you’re a student, you do well by reading the assigned reading, practicing the assigned projects/homework, and taking the assigned tests. When you’re an engineer, you do well by planning and coding the assigned technical projects (by your manager) every sprint. When you’re a product manager, you do well by analyzing and understanding the assigned market and customers (one of the company’s sub-markets) and executing with the support of designers, engineers, and salespeople/marketers to hit the company’s assigned metrics.

But as a creator, nothing is assigned to you. Instead, everything is assigned by you.

Even if there’s a regular cadence, habit, or stride you’re trying to hit, that’s something that you make up.

It’s thrilling. It’s terrifying.

It’s overwhelming.

What if you’re not good enough? What if you’re not moving fast enough?

But lately, I’m trying to be ok with that.

I may not be as good as everyone else. I may not be as fast as others are. But that’s ok. That’s out of my control.

As long as I keep taking action. That is in my control.

Tiptoeing past my comfort zone by selling daily

When I realized that my fear of selling was holding me back from executing on profitable projects, I found the smallest possible action to practice stepping out of my comfort zone to overcome that fear. Over the last six months or so, I’ve been engaging in some daily selling activity or the other through my giant decluttering project. I’ve also had some fun selling things I made myself – like this fun little earring holder.

earring holder I made

I’m pretty happy where this habit is right now. It’s a little ahead of my rate of creating things that are saleable.

For now, my plan is to maintain this habit by decluttering some more. However, as the year progresses and my creating “frequency” improves, I can switch over to selling things that I’m creating myself.

The smallest possible step to writing daily

Over the last 9 months, I’ve published 1 article for a different website, 1 short story, 6 articles on my newsletter, and written 9000 words for a fiction novel. I wrote more publishable content this year than I ever had before. But I only wrote when my motivation struck.

To my regret, I was unable to commit to any sort of daily writing habit. I experimented first with 1000 words daily and then just 500 words a day. Thinking that maybe an explicit word count was too hard, I tried setting a time window instead - 1 hour a day or 30 minutes a day. But that was also difficult to sustain.

In the end, I realized that I could keep googling how other people developed this habit or I could learn from how I built my selling habit and brainstorm what my personal hang-ups with the daily writing habit were. And that’s when I identified my biggest hang-up.

There were days this year where I was able to write several thousands of words in a single day. And I had internalized a habit of judging myself whenever I tried and failed to write less than that on a daily basis.

So for the past three weeks, my daily requirement was to just write a sentence. No judgment. If I’m not able to do that, then I’ll write just a word.

I’ve also found two peer writer groups that I really enjoy: the On Deck Writer fellowship for this newsletter and the Coursera Write Your First Novel class.

At first, I doubted whether peer writing groups would really help you grow, but both of these groups heavily emphasized two invaluable forms of critique. When peer writers critique your writing (the first kind of critique), you receive detailed suggestions on how to structure sentences or the essay/chapter better and an understanding of what parts of your writing resonate with readers. When you critique other peer writers, you learn by example of what other writers do better and also share your learnings with them.

Exploring how to simplify coding daily

Over the past 15 months, I’ve built around 10 different apps as I tested market fit and co-founder fit. And through this process, I discovered how much time was wasted deciding what to build, how to build it, and how it should look.

I completely hold myself and my past career choices responsible for this. As an engineer, then product manager, and then a product manager at a company with limited design talent, I learned to love determining what / why to build (product manager), how to build (engineer), and how it should look (designer).

This was all fine at a company that already had a market, customers, and a brand that limited how big the decision could be and how long it could take while also providing a lot more resources, people, and budget. But it’s not fine for a company of 1-3 people with a limited budget.

My plan this year is to ruthlessly edit away features and complicated developer tools just like I edited away words in this essay. I want to create smaller and smaller MVPs so that I can validate faster.

While I was developing my habit of selling, I deeply experienced the hack of starting with a good existing platform. If I had tried to declutter through a garage sale, I would have limited exposure to potential customers, a whole lot of work, and likely very little sales at the end of it all. The difference between FB marketplace and other marketplaces like Craigslist or even eBay is stark. Instead of starting out with a separate website and a standalone app, I want to start identifying and leveraging good app platforms that make the work of finding and reaching potential customers much easier.

My version of creating

There are no societal success metrics I can adopt for my journey as a creator because there is no single definition of what a creator is. A lot of things along this journey are so specific to me.

My personal habit of creating is made of three parts: selling, writing, and coding. And I plan to work on them every single day, one small step at a time.

What’s your smallest step to develop a habit of creating?

Thanks to Akash, Jamie, Nich, Anand, and Ana for reading early drafts of this.