A few years ago, I stumbled upon a blog called “A Learning A Day” where the author wrote daily about life and work.
At the time, I was struggling with my English communication skills at work and was looking for ways to improve. To tackle this, I started writing down my ideas before meetings, which helped me clarify my thoughts. I wanted to continue improving my communication skills through writing and decided to follow the author’s example of writing in English every day.
How long did I manage to do it?
I lost motivation on the third day.
I put my daily writing plan on hold. I still wanted to improve my English writing with the daily writing method, but I just couldn’t stick with it.
I felt guilty for lacking willpower and self-control, but I knew that forcing myself to write every day would make me unhappy.
Then, one day, I had a few small incidents that I wanted to capture, so I drew a few strokes in my notebook, and I could tell from this simple sketch what has happened.
Maybe I could draw a simple picture of a topic first, then write about it?
I have always loved drawing since I was a child, and the idea of filling up a notebook with drawings felt so rewarding.
So, I started a daily drawing and writing project where I found a topic, drew a simple picture, and wrote about what was behind it. My goal was not to write beautifully, but to learn a new English phrase or expression every day.
I could not stop. For a year and a half, I didn’t miss a single day. If I had more time, I wrote longer, and if I had less, I wrote shorter. I enjoyed the process and I loved flipping through my notebooks filled with drawings. Gradually, my fear of English writing decreased and I felt my English improving.
Interestingly, adding drawing to the process increased my workload, but I was able to stick with it. It wasn’t until I read “Atomic Habits” by James Clear, an expert in building habits, that I had an “aha!” moment and understood why adding drawing worked for me.
In his book, James Clear introduces the idea that committing to a tiny habit, such as writing a paragraph or running for just 30 minutes, can lead to significant changes over time. However, forming a habit is not easy, and requires four steps: cue, craving, response, and reward. The cue triggers a craving, which leads to a response, and the resulting reward satisfies the craving. By repeating this feedback loop, a habit can be developed.
For example, your phone vibrates, and you see a new message on the screen. This is the cue. You feel the urge to check the message, which is the craving. Then you pick up your phone, unlock it, and read the message, which is the response. The reward you get is satisfying the craving to read the message. Thus, when your phone vibrates, you habitually pick it up.
Our lives are full of such simple habits that we perform unconsciously, from cue to reward, without much thought.
However, deliberately cultivating a good habit is not easy because the effects are often not immediate. In contrast, many bad habits provide instant gratification. If you want to lose weight and run for half an hour every day for a week, you may not see any significant results. But if you can’t resist the temptation of a burger and fries, the taste will immediately satisfy your taste buds, making it harder to stick to your weight-loss plan. Cultivating good habits takes time and requires investing time in yourself. and habits can gradually shape your future life.
If a behavior fails to satisfy any of the four steps of cue, craving, response, and reward, the habit cannot be formed. Without a cue, you can’t remember to perform a habit. Without a craving, you won’t have enough motivation to act. If a task is difficult, you’re less likely to do it. And if the reward is insufficient, you have no reason to continue doing it.
James Clear summarizes how you can leverage the four steps to form good habits:
Step 1: Make the cue obvious.
Step 2: Make the craving attractive.
Step 3: Make the response easy.
Step 4: Make the reward satisfying.
I sketchnoted this feedback loop:
Looking back, the reason my initial writing plan failed was simple – completing an article did not make me enough joy. However, However, I found that when I combined my drawings with writing, I felt incredibly happy. I enjoyed filling every blank page in my sketchbook — it was as satisfying as checking off a completed task from my to-do list. Moreover, when I looked at my sketches, the words just come to mind naturally, which was quite interesting.
During that time, I mainly drew and wrote about my thoughts on life. I wanted to improve what I was writing about. As a result, I couldn’t find the satisfaction I was looking for, and stopped writing.
After a period of stagnation, I discovered a new way: creating sketchnotes first and then pairing them with text. Sketchnotes help me capture the essence of a book or speech through images, which is a learning method I really enjoy.
To better stick with my new writing habit, I didn’t force myself to write every day like last time. Instead, I set a relaxed writing frequency.
I adjusted this writing routing based on the four steps of habit formation:
The first step: Make the cue obvious – after completing an article, I would start thinking about the topic of the next one. If I couldn’t think of anything interesting to write about, I would actively look for interesting books and videos to summarize into sketchnotes.
The second step: Make the craving attractive – I’m eager to draw a new set of sketchnotes and write a good article to accompany it.
The third step: Make the response easy – to make it easier to modify my sketchnotes, I switched from using a paper sketchbook to using a tablet.
The fourth step: Make the reward satisfying – I enjoy the feeling of completing an article. Writing is not my forte, and I often spend a lot of effort trying to write smoothly, so the outcome is all the more precious.
I’ve been following this new writing habit for over three years now, and so far, my interest hasn’t waned. I have confidence in sticking to it. During this time, I’ve also noticed some writing courses and resources that can help me improve my writing, so I’ll consciously try to learn from them. Previously, I had mostly ignored these resources, but perhaps that’s the power of habits.
The author of that blog I followed still writes almost every day, and I admire him for it. But I am so glad that I have found a method that works just for me.
Check out my write-up in Chinese 《视觉笔记 • 画画是如何激励我坚持写作的》.