The Grid Method: The Key to Starting a New Habit
Six years ago, on the day I completed grad school, I started my first novel. I worried, as many fledgling writers do, that I would start and never finish. Something would sink me. I’d get bogged down in worries about plot machinations or character motivations, and the stress of it would make me stop, and that would be that. In Lawrence Block’s classic book on writing, Writing the Novel: From Plot to Print, the crime master attests that when first-time novelists give up, they almost never get back to writing and complete a book. For me, the stakes were high.
But, how could I make sure I kept going, writing every day and never looking back, through hell or high water? I remembered reading somewhere about a “grid method.” (I couldn’t remember where I heard about it, but I’ve since determined that Jerry Seinfeld used this method to make sure he wrote jokes every day. I must have heard of it during my days a stand-up comedian.) I decided to try it, and my life hasn’t been the same since. The grid method is deceptively simple, and it works like this:
- Make a grid of at least 60 squares (see below).
- Tape the grid to your wall or your computer, or post it somewhere else prominent.
- Every day, after you’ve completed the task you want to turn into a habit (meditating, working out, whatever), X out a square on the grid.
Easy, huh? In fact, it seems a little too easy, I know. But it works. Why? Because, after a week or ten days, all those X’s lined up become a source of pride. Our brains will start to internalize that line of X’s, and the notion of breaking the chain will seem terrible to us. I did this with my first book, completing a grid of 60 squares. I could have kept going, but at that point I didn’t need the grid anymore. I’d become a person who writes every day. It’s just what I did. I had changed.
It makes sense that it took me around 60 days. Studies show that it takes about 66 days to form a new habit. So, if you’re going to try this, I think a grid of 66 squares (six squares across by eleven squares down) seems perfect. A calendar might also work, but I’ve never tried it. I like the simplicity of the grid. No dates, no numbers. Just boxes and X’s.
I completed that novel, by the way. I handwrote it on legal pads, and finished it exactly one year after I started it. I’ve since written four more novels, and now a book only takes me about 3 months to complete. Rarely does a day go by when I don’t write—weekends, holidays, whatever. It’s a part of me. And I owe it to the grid.
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