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Lessons from a 30-day creative challenge
Today I want to share what I learned in recording and posting an Instagram Reel every day for 30 days. What is an Instagram Reel? It’s just a 1 minute video. This is what they look like (you can see them all here):
So each day, I would:
Think of a topic
Write a brief script
Turn on my studio lights and camera
Record the video
Do light editing on the video
Create the cover image with a title
Transfer the video to my phone
Upload it to Instagram
Edit the transcript and write out the title
Post it to Instagram Reels, the main feed, and the Stories feed
If you are a reasonable person, you may be thinking, "Dan, I don't have time to do this every day. Please... PLEASE... don't encourage me to do this every day." I won't. But I do think there are important things to learn from the process of sharing every day. Here is what I learned along the way:
From Impossible to Easy
At first it felt impossibly difficult to create short content that was meaningful. But after a week, it felt possible. After two weeks, it felt easy. Now, feeling "easy" doesn't mean it isn't also item #34 in a busy morning for me. But I really appreciated how quickly this process went from arduous to accessible. In the process, I feel like I unlocked another form of expression and creativity.
Finding My Voice Made the Process Feel Relaxing, Not Angsty
There are a million things I can talk about each day, which can create angst as I consider what I should share. But after about a week, I began to realize that I enjoyed using these videos to talk about creative process and mindset, which is a much smaller subset of all the things I could possibly talk about. Once I limited the focus of the videos into these subtopics, I felt like I had a blue ocean of new ideas to play with. But more, I relaxed about the whole process, instead of worrying, "Oh, what will I share today?" Nowadays, I actually pick the topic for the video as I am turning on my studio lights to record it. It feels more playful than like work.
Repeating a Process Streamlines It
When I first started these, it would take 25 minutes from start to finish. After about a week or two, that time was sliced to about 5-10 minutes. Besides that being a huge reduction in time, the entire prospect became more approachable, because it was easier for me to say, "I have a spare 10 minutes" rather than "Do I really have a spare half hour?!" Also, because of the repetition, there was less decision-making along the way. I knew exactly what to do and it became autopilot after awhile.
Small Details Helped Me Reach More People
The first videos I did were more off the cuff and I just tried to share them without thinking too much. That was a nice way to get into the habit. But I quickly started realizing there were small things I could do that would help ensure the video reached more people, and truly serve those who were interested in it. One is to be sure to include a transcript so people could consume the video without turning on the volume. It's common for someone to be looking at Instagram in public, or around family, and not want others to hear. Instagram provides a free transcript almost immediately, and I made sure to place it so it wouldn't get in the way of any other buttons on the screen. I also began taking the time to review and edit the transcript. For some reason, Instagram always spells "want to" as "wantto" when I say it. Not a big deal, and I could ignore that, but I decided it was worth my time to review the transcript word by word. I also realized that by posting these videos every day, they began to all look the same in my feed, and someone wouldn't have any idea what topic I'm talking about unless they clicked on it. So I added the cover image with a specific title for each video. It took me a day to realize that the placement of this title matters too. At first I placed it too low, so it would get cut off on Instagrams main feed.
The Videos Provided a Welcome Creative Outlet
The prompt to record a 1 minute video each day gave me an outlet to express what I’m thinking about each day. I love the work that I do, and it's common for me to have lots of experiences or insights during the week, as days are spent talking to writers and creators. Not everything has to be a 1,500 word essay that I send out in a newsletter once a week. The daily videos provided me a new outlet to share things that otherwise would have gone unsaid. The result felt good inside. But it was also really fulfilling to see that the videos were helpful and inspiring to others.
Some of the Simplest Ideas Got the Most Engagement
This is a lesson I learned years ago with my newsletter, but it never stops surprising me. Some of the ideas that feel almost too simple to create a video about, ended up being some of the most popular. It's a wonderful reminder to not overcomplicate things and simply share what resonates.
Instagram's Algorithm Shares Reels to More People
This is another things I "knew" before I started, but it was fascinating to see it in action. Instagram has been encouraging people to share more Reels in order to compete with TikTok. One way that is encouraged is by ensuring that Reels are seen by more people. So if I looked at the stats for what I share in Instagram's other feeds (the main grid, and the Stories feed), most of the people who see those posts already follow me. But for the Reels, it was different. Something like 40% of the people who saw them were not followers, meaning I am potentially reaching new people and expanding my reach/audience.
Creating Constraints Turned a Big Project Into Something Reasonable
I've always said that creative work thrives with boundaries, and this was a good example of that. There were a number of constraints in place that turned this otherwise big idea "record and share a video every day for 30 days" into something that felt much more approachable. The daily deadline is one. The fact that these videos can only be one minute is another. Limiting it to just a 30-day challenge was a way for me to approach the concept, without feeling I was making too big of a commitment. All of this limited the potential feeling of overwhelm in the process.
It's Funny How Quickly A "Challenge" Becomes a "Habit"
After a few days, perhaps a week, creating a video every day became a habit like any other in my life. I don't worry about a "30 day teethbrushing challenge!" I just brush my teeth every day. Creating a video just kind of snugly fit into my daily life very quickly.
This Was Another Reminder That Creative Energy is My Biggest Creative Barrier, Not Time
Looking back at the videos I created in the last month is a great reminder that I do have the time to create more, as long as I give myself a solid plan. My youngest was sick nearly every week this month (which has been the norm for him since last September), and it’s been a busy month physically and emotionally. Yet, on top of my normal set of responsibilities, I also did these 30 videos. If you would ask me on any given day, "Dan, do you have time to do a video every day?" I would reasonably reply, "Um, no. I'm swamped." Yet here we are with 30+ videos done, and a new daily habit fully formed.
The Videos Solved a Lingering "Problem" With My Newsletter
When I launched my newsletter 17 years ago, there was a bonus section at the bottom titled "Meal of the Week." Yep, I shared a photo of one meal I ate from the past week. This was before Instagram and sharing photos of food online because the norm. As I got older, my diet became more... well, boring. The photos of the meals no longer seemed interesting. So I changed that section to "Inspiration of the Week," and to be honest, it was always a mixed bag. But once I started doing these daily videos, I realized that sharing a recap of them as the newsletter "Inspiration of the Week" served a true purpose that aligns with my mission. That part of the newsletter now feels really authentic to me, and is hopefully inspiring some people!
The Videos Gave My Subscribers a Clear Reason to Follow Me on Instagram
By sharing these videos in my newsletter, lots of email subscribers are now following me on Instagram. It turns out, in the past I have vaguely mentioned my Instagram in the newsletter, but rarely giving people a true reason to go follow me there.
A Big Archive Can Be Created Very Quickly
Seeing the 30+ videos posted shows me how a wonderful archive of material can be created very quickly. It's a great reminder that small actions each day can add up to something that feels bigger and more cohesive.
I'm going to keep sharing new videos every day. You can see them each day by following me on Instagram.