Writers Talk About Writing
How to Develop the Writing Habit
The hardest part about writing is not the work of stringing a sentence together — it's the commitment it requires, day after relentless day. If you want to build a writing habit, here's how to go about it:
1. Start small — really small. When people start a new habit they often feel a sense of enthusiasm and exuberance, wanting to knock their goal out of the park. Perhaps counterintuitively, I suggest you begin by making your entry point very small. Ask yourself what's the minimum time you could spend writing every day, if everything else in your life were going wrong. If the answer is "10 minutes" then don't make your goal any more ambitious. Even if your answer is "five minutes," go with that. There is no such thing as starting too small, as the Kaizen technique will show you. In fact, it's way better to start small with a goal you can actually achieve. This will allow you to succeed, and upon that success you can work up to a more challenging habit.
2. Have a trigger. In his marvelous book The Power of Habit, author Charles Duhigg, suggests that we start habits by having a trigger. In his case, he found that his mid-afternoon slump — and the desire for a break — had led him to create a cookie-buying habit that he wanted to break. After some examination he figured out a lower-calorie way to satisfy his need (by walking and chatting with colleagues). But triggers can also be positive. When I wake up every morning I go directly to my office and meditate for 10 minutes. Then, I spend the next 30 minutes writing for my book. The end of my meditation is the trigger for my writing. I'm not saying you have to meditate — although I think it's a good idea — but find some trigger for yourself to launch your daily writing.
3. Use reminders. Until the habit is firmly established — or at least until your trigger is well set — you may need to remind yourself to keep it going. Put Post-it notes on your computer screen or bathroom mirror. Send yourself emails. Put a note on your cell phone. Don't be embarrassed that you have to do this — we all need reminders — just do whatever works.
4. Identify your best time for writing. I endorse writing first thing in the morning, but then again, I'm a morning lark right now (I used to be a night owl.) We are all different so choose the time that works best for you. I heartily recommend early morning or late evening because both of those times are unlikely to be interrupted by phone calls or the demands of other people.
5. Be consistent. Write at the same time every day. Write in the same place. Use the same tools: a computer if that suits you, or a pen/pencil and piece of paper if that's what you prefer. Consistency is the best friend of habit.
6. Lower your standards. Many of us fail to achieve our habits because we've hobbled ourselves with ruinously high goals. We aspire to write 2,000 words a day, or perhaps we expect a first draft that is as excellent as something written by ________ (insert name of your favorite author here). This is dysfunctional! Instead, satisfy yourself with a crappy first draft and look for excellence only when you are editing.
7. Turn off your email, internet, and phone. When you sit down to write ensure that your email is set to "collect manually." You don't want to be disrupted by the little ding or flashing red light of an email, even if you can persuade yourself not to look at it. Studies have shown that even the presence of an email indicator is intensely distracting. Likewise, you should turn your phone to voicemail and eschew the Internet. When you write, write. Multitasking is a bad enough strategy for life, but can be a fatal one for writing.
8. Be prepared to slip up. There's nothing worse than expecting yourself to be perfect and encountering some sort of failure, no matter how small. This is dispiriting and the sense of defeat you feel might be enough to break your habit. To deal with the inevitable slip-ups — and trust me, they are inevitable — use if/then statements. For example, you might say: if I am unable to write this morning, then I will write at lunch time.
9. Have an accountability lever. We all want to save face. Psychologists tell us that if we make an agreement to run or exercise with a friend we are more likely to maintain our exercise habit. The same is true of writing. This, I think, is the secret to the success of my Get it Done group for book and thesis writers. Participants must email me five days each week, reporting how many words they've written each day or how many minutes they've spent editing. If I don't hear back from them, I track them down! Of course, you don't need to have me do this for you. You can also create an accountability agreement with a friend or colleague.
10. Reward yourself. Never underestimate the value of rewards. They are particularly important when you're trying to establish a new habit. I suggest rewarding yourself frequently but modestly. For example, you might buy yourself a special coffee or tea each time you finish your writing. When you've achieved a larger more significant goal — say, writing every day for a month — then give yourself a more lavish reward, perhaps a meal out with a friend.
Building any new habit can be challenging — especially if it's something you've always had difficulty with — but the steps above will dramatically increase your chances of succeeding at creating a writing habit.