Assume the Position

The key to reaching most goals is pretty simple to understand but difficult to execute, and that is Willpower. Whether you’re writing a novel or trying to diet or exercise, or you want to be a better spouse or student or son or daughter, Willpower is the key. But it feels like this magic-sauce is always in such short supply.

There’s an excellent book on willpower that I recommend every human being to check out. It’ll change your life in whatever ways you want to change your life. But this is the first step in self-improvement or reaching any goal: examining yourself and seeing what weaknesses you want to work on.

I was born a mess, so I’ve been trying to smooth the rough edges for a very long time. Much of what I stumbled upon through trial and error I later discovered to be tried and true techniques. But this isn’t about all of that nonsense, it is about a very simple technique that will help you out if you are writing a novel or dieting, exercising, any number of things. It’s all about Assuming the Position.

The most difficult part of any repetitive task that we would really like to avoid doing is getting started. It’s tough to force yourself to go for a run when you’d rather watch TV. Or force yourself to work on your novel when you’d rather play around on Facebook. So the trick is not to tell yourself that you’re going to do these things. The trick is to do something much simpler, which is to place yourself into position to do these things.

Writing can be painful. Opening up your work in progress and getting it on your screen is not painful. But we avoid doing the latter because we dread doing the former. Stop thinking about the writing. Just open up your work in progress. Let it sit in front of you. Maybe you read what you’ve already written and you decide to make a sentence snappier. Maybe you think of a later scene you want to jot down. It doesn’t matter. Just open your document and be with it. Don’t think too far past that.

There’s an old saying that writers hate writing, what they love is having written. The same is true of me when it comes to dieting and exercise. I don’t like giving up donuts, but I enjoy the way I feel when I haven’t eaten them. I don’t like doing situps or pushups or any kind of exercise, but I like having exercised. So I approach these things like I approach my writing. I lay down on the floor. I’m not thinking of doing situps, I’m just thinking that it takes no effort at all to Assume the Position.

And then, once I’m there, or once I’m staring at my open manuscript, or once I’m hovering over the salad bar, I think to myself: Damn. I’m here. I got this far. I don’t know when I’ll motivate myself to get this close again. Or when I’ll find the time. So I might as well…

It works wonders for me. I know it’s a hokey thing to blog about, but I’m taking the chance that it might work for someone else out there. Keep it up, NaNo’ers!

17 responses to “Assume the Position”

  1. There is another book that this post made me think of. I’ve read it and studied it several times and found great power and motivation from its’ principles. The title is a bit deceiving, because it can be used for anything at all, not just money. It’s called “Think and Grow Rich” by Napoleon Hill. The Original manuscript is even free online at:

  2. So true, Hugh! Some days this is the only way I can get started. My inner writer is a terrible whiner: “but I wrote yesterday! What do you mean I have to do it again? I can’t think of anything to say”. So I tell her “okay, don’t worry about writing anything new, just edit what you wrote yesterday”. She opens up the file, all unsuspecting, and before you know it, editing has turned into writing.

    Sadly, sometimes the resisting and faffing around on the internet part takes hours. Still need to work on that!

  3. The hardest part about running is putting on the shoes. On days when I really, really don’t want to run I tell myself, “Just put on the shoes. You can take them off after you put them on. Nobody’s watching. Nobody cares if you just put them on and take them off again. Just put them on.” Shoes are on? Running. Shoes never get on? No running :)

    1. Exactly! It really applies to so many difficult tasks that we want “to have completed” but might not want “to do”.

  4. “The Nerdist Way” by Chris Hardwick was a great help to me. It dealt more with using the nerd (obsessive) tendencies towards working on what you love.

    I’ve found that it is all about building a system. Even in my (current) professional life as a chemist… we’re pushing standard work and katas in how we approach the job. It is surprisingly useful in the writing life.

    Now if I could only get my wife and kid to understand ;-)

  5. I never thought of it this way.

    Really, I hate writing, I love finishing the blasted book and having it published. I love that people like to read it, and crow about how awesome it was. I love world building, character design, even plotting. All the stuff that begins a book. But the writing… tedious, stuff that often takes more brain power then I think I have.
    Maybe I also need to start thinking of my physical fitness in the same way. The build up is great. The finished product is great. Just have to get through those middle parts.

  6. I love the writing, but I struggle with the getting there, as you say. There are far too many other things to be doing.
    What I do – and this seems to work so far – is to set myself a “must do” minimum that is very small.
    I’m not allowed to do anything else until I have written 100 words. Just 100 words. If that is all i write in a day then so be it.
    That’s what? Five minutes writing? I can easily do that. Of course, once I’ve finished that 100 words I’m already at the screen, all the previous barriers have been passed and I’m going for it.

  7. Thanks for this. I’m 5000 words away from meeting my NaNo word count, but I’m probably another 20,000 words away from actually finishing the novel. The task seems so daunting, especially in light of the fact that I’ve written many novels but never finished a single one. I made a vow with myself that this year would be different. But I confess: I’m starting to drag, starting to question whether it’s worth it to finish because the novel is crap just like all the others…blah, blah, blah.

    This came at just the right time. This is what I needed to read. Better than any NaNo pep talk. Good words to live by.

  8. Brilliant post Hugh; spot on observations.

    At the start of the year I was getting very frustrated and knew I should be writing but just didn’t have the ‘energy’ to do it. Even my wife saw my frustration. I was speaking to a friend who said he used to write in a cafe (yes, the old cliche), and I thought I’d try it. So far it’s worked wonders because I know I’m going to the cafe specifically to write, with no TV/kindle/gaming console distractions around me.

    Lately I’ve been thinking about Nike’s motto, ‘Just Do It’, and that’s what I’ve been trying. For me at the start my greatest fear was, I had some good ideas that would make good stories but before I’d even written the first word it was already a failure. So now I ‘Just Do It’ and try not to worry about it being the greatest masterpiece the world has ever seen.

  9. Yes. I have a similar sort of technique to get myself going first thing in the morning.

    Each day, when I finish my writing for that day, I leave the last 200 – 500 words uncorrected with all the little red lines under the typos, odd spacings and so forth all there waiting for me the next morning.

    Then, the following morning I have to, just have to, sort out those typos, spelling mistakes, extra spaces, rogue capitals and so on, and then before I know it I’m adding a word or two, a sentence or two, a paragraph or two… and then I’m off, up and running.

  10. Assuming the position only works if your brain also works. It is necessary – but not sufficient, as we say in logic and math.

    I’m learning that there ARE some things you can do when you’re in the chair but the neurons aren’t firing – they have to do with gathering all your pieces, making extensive notes, and asking yourself a lot of questions. Getting a clean copy of a scene and marking the dialogue with a yellow highlighter helps. Lists of questions are easier to answer than being creative, especially if you see the world out from the eyes of one of your characters.

    Then, if and when the brain cells kick in, you are sitting there in a good position, with all your homework done – and the creativity has something to work with.

    For the longest time I would only try to write if everything was actually firing in the top story; now I make more progress because I can use some of the downtime to prepare the ingredients (like on a cooking show).

    But ‘assuming the position’ is definitely required – and the body has finally learned that I’m going to be there, doing SOMETHING related to the WIP every day I possibly can be.

  11. Very inspirational. Yes, as a writer I know exactly what you mean. Thanks for lifting my spirits and hopefully I’ll get back to it. I have way too many characters and stories running around in my head and just not enough time sometimes to get them all down.


    I’m on book 4 of SILO.

  12. Hokey?? If it works then share all your hokeyness!

    I try to tell my friends the way to sneak in a workout routine into your life is to treat it like any other habit that you can’t live without. Such as brushing your teeth or taking a shower – it’s a part of taking care of yourself that just can’t be skipped, otherwise you’d stink to hell and your teeth would rot. The same goes for working out…your body will pay the price for neglect.

    The same goes for writing, or drawing, or playing instruments, or programming, or doing whatever it is that make us happy. They all take time and effort. If you don’t do the things that you love to do, that you need to do, your mind eventually pays the price of the neglect. Be it in the form of depression, mental-deterioration, resentment or self-loathing…it’s a form of stink and rot.

    Avoid the stink and rot!

  13. […] “The most difficult part of any repetitive task that we would really like to avoid doing is getting s…“ […]

  14. This was very encouraging today! Thanks, Hugh!

  15. This was a really great post. I came back to read it again. I have a writing marathon ahead of me, but I just wanted a reminder of how to get started.

    Now to apply this to the gym… ;D

  16. […] hardest part for me is getting started. A trick to getting motivated is “assuming the position” (the link is to Hugh Howey’s blog where I first read about this). This means opening up your […]

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