I’ll turn 48 on October 28. It’s a big day for me. Actually, it’s the most important birthday I’ve ever had.
Because my mother died when I was 24, a week or so after she turned 48. I’ve lived half my life knowing that the day would come, in November 2019, when I’d be older than her.
I’ve done my best to live a life I was proud of — but several years ago I realized that I wasn’t in a very good place. Physically, I was unwell. I’d let a setback stop me from writing for most of a year. I had a job I hated. My husband and I were deeply in debt.
I adopted two habits around that time that seem so small that they’re nearly insignificant. So tiny that they’re barely worth doing. But when I tell you that they changed my whole life, I really can’t overstate how much.
In the last five years I’ve:
- Started and completed a Masters of Fine Arts program.
- Written and sold two novels to a major publisher.
- Started a business that I love — that let me quit a day job that I hated.
- Gone from a $9 an hour job to earning six-figures a year as a writer.
- Stopped needing a CPAP when I sleep.
- Regained my mobility.
- Lost 120 pounds.
- Paid off all of our consumer debt (except my student loans.)
And it, no joke, started with these two little habits. And when I say little, I mean, really, really little. When I started implementing them every day, it was like they were the kindling that fueled the fire that I badly needed lit under me.
I’m not saying that I spend these twenty minutes a day and that’s it — everything that I wanted in my life just landed in my lap. That’s not how it works. (I’m pretty sure you know that.)
I’m saying that these habits primed my pump and started things flowing in the right direction and what happened after was — astounding. I’ll talk a little bit about how.
10 Minutes of Daily Fiction Writing
I was already a writer. I’d been one for a long time. All my life. I’ve been earning money as a writer since I was twenty years old. I’ve been writing nearly every day of my life since I was in the sixth grade.
When my mom died, one of the greatest impacts on me was the realization that she was 24 when I was born — and she hit pause on her life. And then she died as soon as her youngest child graduated high school. I wanted my kids to see me pursuing my passions and they did.
When I adopted this habit, I’d already been published by Penguin.
But that didn’t work out the way I thought it should. I thought it should make me famous. I thought I should be a bestseller and I shouldn’t have to struggle anymore. I thought I should be a real writer now and have contracts and never have to look for an agent again.
I absolutely did not think that my publisher should drop me when my books didn’t sell, that I’d have to fire my agent because she didn’t like any of my other ideas, and find myself right back at the bottom of the heap again. Only this time instead of being a dreamer, I was a big, fat failure.
I stopped writing. For the first time in my life, I just didn’t have a story to tell.
I blogged instead. I wrote recipes and about thrift shopping and productivity for right-brained housewives. But I didn’t write fiction for a year.
It was actually the idea that if I wasn’t going to be a novelist that I might as well go on ahead and become a proper classroom teacher that startled me back into writing.
I thought —Oh, God. I don’t want to. I’ll write for ten minutes today, and then give up tomorrow. Because I’d had this idea in the back of my mind for a long time for a retelling of Robin Hood and I didn’t want to waste it.
Ten minutes has been my goal for a long time. A kind of low key, unofficial goal. All of my life, really. The thing is, I’d never really needed it before. I’d never needed any kind of outside influence to make me write before.
But I did, right then.
So I kept doing that. Every day, I told myself I’ll write for ten minutes today and if I can’t do it tomorrow, I’ll quit and I’ll call the school district.
The ten minute days strung together. And they got easier. The story did what stories have done for me all my life — it saved me. One Saturday I looked up and realized I’d written ten pages. And they didn’t suck.
I’m a full time writer now and I obviously spend a lot more than ten minutes a day writing. But it would be very easy for me to spend all my time writing for Ninja Writers or blogging. I still make sure I spend at least ten minutes a day writing fiction. Every day.
Let me tell you the rest of the story of how this tiny goal changed my life.
Back then, I still had that job I hated. The one that paid me $9 an hour. And I had a blog, that I actually really enjoyed. When my Robin Hood story started to come together, I decided to start a series of blog posts about how to write a novel.
Because I was writing in these little chunks, the method was very clear to me. It was easy to write about it. Even though I was writing a lifestyle blog for right-brained moms, that series of posts was the most popular thing I’d ever written.
It became the seed of Ninja Writers. In February 2016 I started a new blog. In May I turned those blog posts into a course. The rest is history. A year later I started an MFA program that I graduated from last August. I wrote another novel that I sold to a different major publisher in the summer of 2017.
It all started with a 10 minute habit.
10 Minutes of Daily Exercise
I took a ten day trip to New York City with my oldest daughter around the time my first book was published. She’s an artist and it was a dream trip — we went to museums and attended Book Expo America.
I came home from that trip in so much pain that I couldn’t pull my own pants up. For months, I couldn’t stand up out of bed by myself. My husband had to help me do everything.
At the time, I weighed nearly 400 pounds.
I desperately needed to feel better. I went to a doctor who told me that I needed to lose weight (of course.) He didn’t give me any real clue how to do that beyond eat less and move more.
I had to do something. Anything. For some reason, I latched on to the idea that I’d exercise for ten minutes a day for 100 days and then go from there.
For the first couple of weeks, literally any movement counted. Because I was so miserable, I wasn’t moving at all. So if I got up and got my own glass of water instead of asking someone to bring it to me, it counted. If I threw a ball for my dog, it counted. If I walked to the mail box or went to the grocery store or anything at all.
After about three weeks, I went to the gym for the first time and got in the pool. I swam 100 meters and thought I might actually die.
By the end of the 100 days I could swim 3000 meters.
I didn’t lose much weight. Maybe ten pounds? But that wasn’t the point. I could move again. My pain lessened dramatically. I felt better.
A year or so later, my mother-in-law became very ill, very suddenly. She was in the hospital for months and I spent hours sitting with her. I caught a marathon of My 600 Pound Life while I was in her room and it hit me that I could very easily see myself one day weighing 600 pounds.
No one ever thinks they’re going to weigh more than they do today, but I could see the path, all of a sudden. It terrified me.
And I saw the very serious problems my mother-in-law was having that were the direct result of choices she’d made in her 40s (specifically, heavy smoking, poor diet, and being sedentary) and I realized that I could do something now to make sure I showed up at 70 differently than she had.
I went to the doctor and was diagnosed with sleep apnea and got a CPAP, which changed my whole life — because suddenly, from one night to the next, I was sleeping well.
And I started the process to have weight loss surgery.
Once I’d lost weight, I didn’t need the CPAP anymore and I was diagnosed with arthritis in my hips (which was causing all the pain after my trip to New York.)
It all started with exercising for 10 minutes a day.
There are a few habits that I’ve tried to make stick over the years.
I’ve done them off and on and I enjoy them, but they haven’t become part of me, the way these two have.
I’d like to try these again. Maybe trying to understand why they didn’t stick and what I hope to get out of them will help.
Keeping a Daily Log
This one comes from Austin Kleon. I buy a little Moleskine daily planner every year with the best intentions. And I last about a month. Sometime in early February, I skip a day and I don’t know — something about a blank day just throws me all the way off.
I end up skipping another day a few days later and then another day and I never get back on track.
I think it’s possible that I struggle to make this stick because even though I tell myself that it’s just a log — just a list of what I’ve done that day — Kleon is an artist and his is arty and mine really isn’t. I’m very non-visual. And I keep thinking maybe I should be journaling more.
Only I don’t really want to journal. So eventually it starts to feel like a chore. And who wants a chore? And what’s the point anyway?
I’m going to actually try finishing out 2019. Maybe starting on January 1 is too much pressure. I have an office now, for the first time. Writing in my log last thing before I go home could become a ritual.
What I think I’ll get out of it:
I wonder if the reason why this has never stuck is because on the surface it seems like the purpose of it is to help make a person more productive.
I don’t actually need to be more productive. I’m kind of hyper-productive as it is. Like, sometimes people look at me and kind of blink and back away and say never mind, I’m not doing what you’re dong.
Usually, I have at least twice as much going on as any sane person would.
I need to be, maybe, a little less productive.
Perhaps a daily log could help me with that. Keeping a log might help me to stay focused on the projects that matter and not take on more and more and more, like I tend to do.
Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.
This one comes from Michael Pollan’s 7 Rules for Eating. And I love it because it’s simple and makes sense. I don’t like a lot of rules, so when I have one, this is my kind.
One so simple that it should be a habit.
And yet, here I am still struggling to not binge even thought I’ve had most of my stomach removed. And yet, here I am still eating highly-processed foods that I don’t even like. Here I am, still trying to figure this shit out, going into my fifties.
I’ve started working with a nutritionist that I plan to meet with once a month through 2020. I hope that will help.
What I think I’ll get out of it:
Well, I think that I’ll eat food I like instead of a bunch of over-processed crap that I don’t even like. Maybe my nutritionist can help me figure out what that’s even about.
And I’ll feel good. That’s important to me.
But way up on top of my list — I’m just ready to be done with this eating disorder bullshit. It’s been long enough. I’m ready to forgive my mom for passing it down to me. I’m ready to make damn sure I don’t give it to my daughters.
10 Ideas a Day
I saved the best and my favorite for last. I love James Altucher’s 10 Ideas a Day habit. And I’ve done it off and on for a couple of years. I’m not sure why it’s never really become a habit habit for me the way that the other two have.
It’s easy: You just make a list of ten ideas every day.
I’m an idea person. An ideator. I get so excited by ideas — mine or other people’s, it doesn’t even matter. I’m energized by them. They are 100 percent my personal currency.
I think that might actually be why I haven’t incorporated this into my every day life. I do it for a while and then I get caught up in one of the ideas and I don’t need any more ideas for a while.
I hired a business coach a couple of months ago and he wants me to contact someone once a week to try to partner with them, so that we can get in front of each other’s audiences. But I’m not great at that. Because every time I do it, I do it too much.
Like instead of doing some little thing, I get excited and ideas start flowing and next thing I know, someone’s sending me a contract to write ebooks for them.
And I can’t do that once a week, coach. I’m only one person.
The 10 Ideas a Day thing and why I haven’t been able to make it a real habit is kind of like that, I think.
What I think I’ll get out of it:
Altucher says that doing it every day makes you an idea machine and I want to be an idea machine!
I’m already an idea machine. But I want to be . . . I don’t know. A focused idea machine? An idea machine that actually writes her ideas down?
I have a feeling that doing this is a good way to get past the surface ideas to the really good ideas that bubble away down below, where they’re harder to get at. Ideas that you might not even know are there. And I want those ideas.
Shaunta Grimes is a writer and teacher. She is an out-of-place Nevadan living in Northwestern PA with her husband, three superstar kids, two dementia patients, a good friend, Alfred the cat, and a yellow rescue dog named Maybelline Scout. She’s on Twitter @shauntagrimes and is the author of Viral Nation and Rebel Nation and the upcoming novel The Astonishing Maybe. She is the original Ninja Writer.