Write Every Day in 2014: 14 Steps for Forming A Writing Habit
If you want to be a writer, the single most important thing you can do is write. And writing, oddly enough, isn't the hard part. The hard part is starting to write. The best way to keep yourself from getting stuck in the pre-starting phase is to write consistently enough that it never feels like you need to start up again.
Sadly, while many experts advocate a daily writing habit, it's rare that anyone goes past the advice to "just do it." The suggestion to will yourself to action—which I call the "Nike fallacy"—is so popular in American culture that we often leave it unquestioned. Yet study after study has demonstrated that willpower is not enough. If you want to develop a new habit, you need to use the right strategies.
This article will walk you through a strategy for developing a daily writing habit in 2014—and everything here is backed by the empirically-based study of habit formation. While I won't link to every study I mention, I will drop a few of the more useful books on the topic at the bottom of this article.
1. Don't try to change everything at once.
If you want to write every day this year ... awesome! If you want to do it at the same time you fix your diet, start exercising, quit smoking, and do daily stretches ... you're doomed.
Studies have translated the wisdom of simplicity into mathematical figures: You will develop habits about 33% faster and with as much as double the chance of success if you focus on just one habit at a time. And despite what infomercials have taught you, each major case study of people who have successfully made radical changes in their lives has shown that those changes didn't happen all at once: The changes started with a single change.
2. Give yourself time. Lots of time.
How long does it take to form a habit?
If you answered "21 days" or "28 days," you're completely wrong. Despite how commonly those numbers are thrown around as "common wisdom," there's a large body of evidence that directly contradicts the "28-day" claims.
The correct answer is this: It varies, dependent on the type of habit, but it takes an average of just over 55 days.
3. Define writing.
What sort of writing do you want to be doing? I'm not going to tell you what the appropriate definitions are for you. However, I know that if I were to let myself count academic writing, revising my creative work, doing promotions, or researching, I would never get any new writing done. So I've defined my target habit as "writing new creative work."
4. Define a reasonable minimum duration.
You know those people who haven't gone to the gym for sixteen years but spontaneously want to come in every day for two hour sessions? You know how they always burn out? The same applies to writing. Decide what counts as "writing" for a given day.
I chose 20 minutes as my target because it's enough time to get into the writing process but not so much time that I feel stressed out about it. Usually, I wind up writing more than 20 minutes. This minimum duration is about what counts for habit tracking, not about your imagined ideal. So pick something that doesn't seem too difficult.
5. Don't choose a word count goal.
If you only write 10 words a minute for 20 minutes, you will still write a 73,000-word novel by the end of the year. Focusing on word count can trap you in anxiety, as I discuss in my look at the neuroscience of writer's block. At any given moment, it's difficult to know how to write the next 500 words—but it's easy to know how to write as much as feels natural and appropriate for the next 15 or 20 minutes.
Studies have also shown that focus on process is far more effective for staying motivated than a focus on results—and that means "more effective" for both forming a habit and getting the results you're looking for.
6. Determine a habit trigger.
If you're going to program a habit, that habit must be a habitual response to a specific trigger. If you're the sort of person who works well on a clock, that makes this simple: You can just set a time of the day as your trigger. If you're like me, however, your schedule lacks the consistency to allow a consistent time-slot. Instead, add the habit to your regular sequence. For example, Stephen King is famed for writing two pages before breakfast each morning. For him, "I'm about to have breakfast" would serve as the trigger for writing.
If you're like me and think of your day in terms of sequence as opposed to schedule, then consider writing your habit goal like this: "After ___________ but before ____________, I will write for _____ minutes."
7. Write out your likely barriers.
Where are you going to mess up? Come on, you've been living with yourself for the last few decades. You've got a pretty good sense of what's likely to keep you from succeeding. Rather than pretending you can just "do better this time" or "will through it," acknowledge and accept these barriers. Are you likely to sleep in? Feel burnt out and unable to write? Will your kids distract you? Write out the most honest possible descriptions of your likely obstacles.
8. Write out strategies for overcoming those barriers.
Studies on successful habit formation have often been done in the field of recreational therapy or geriatrics, where enabling healthy routines can mean the difference between a high quality of life and a disaster. In those studies, the most successful intervention for habit formation is a simple write-up of, first, the barriers likely to be faced (like you just did with #7) and, second, specific planned responses for those barriers.
Oddly, it didn't seem to matter much what those planned responses were. Even if it was simply "I'll remind myself this is important and get to work," the intervention seemed to effectively short-circuit inaction. By planning the response in advance, habit-seekers no longer had to expend extra willpower or mental energy when the anticipated obstacles arose.
9. Keep coming up with strategies.
You won't be perfect. You won't predict all your obstacles. You will find all kinds of new ways to mess up over the course of this year.
Want to know why? You're a human. Sorry about that. My apologies if this is news to you. But now that we've gotten that out of the way, maybe you can stop berating yourself for not magically being perfect? Instead, simply do a new planned response write-up for each unexpected obstacle you discover.
10. Disconnect effectively.
For me, the specific habit goal is "After waking up but before plugging in the router, I will write for 20 minutes."
Yeah. Before plugging in the router. As I note in my article on how unplugging helps us plug away at our writing, getting offline is one of the most important ways to get productive. Otherwise, the compulsive email-checking, Facebook-checking, Tweeting, and web browsing can—okay, let's face it: will—get in the way.
11. Develop an annotation system.
Our retreats to the internet often start with legitimate excuses, like the need to do further research. Instead of doing research right away, use an annotation system to remind yourself that further research or fact-checking is needed. I also strongly recommend using similar notes-to-self for situations where you don't have the best word or phrase in place. This can prevent unproductive habits of perfectionism (like spending your entire writing session working on a single sentence that you may just end up deleting later anyway).
I use [brackets] to let Future Rob know that a word or phrase needs extra tinkering, and I use //double slashes to write myself notes//. Of course, you can always use your word processor's comments for even fancier and more visible notes (often CTRL + ALT + C or CTRL + ALT + M), use highlighting, put text in an alternate color, or use anything else that works for you. I use the [brackets] and //slashes// purely because they're easy to put in on the fly.
12. Track your progress.
There are two reasons that tracking is valuable: First, it keeps you accountable for the habit itself. And second, it gives you credit for the habit.
We have this funny tendency as humans to give ourselves lots of credit for things that are difficult (even if they don't do much good) and give ourselves very little credit for things that are easy (even if they're doing a great deal of good). Well, the point of forming a habit is that it gets easy. It starts to feel natural. Actually, it starts to feel harder not to do the habit. And if you're not tracking your success, it's easy to undervalue the habitual action and to lose the drive to fully ingrain it.
13. Go public.
My own experience has shown mixed results with publicly tracking my progress on goals, but science does not lie: Multiple studies have demonstrated that making your results public improves the odds of success by bolstering motivation and increasing the likelihood of peer support. Further, if you have friends who are trying to develop a similar habit and are further along in the journey, seeing their success can help remind you that success is ... you know, possible.
Don't have a community of writers to share with? Liar. You're here on LitReactor. Head over to my forum thread that was created for exactly this purpose.
14. Set your habit trigger in the final parts of the habit itself.
In studying the science of habit formation, my first target habit was daily meditation. I struggled for a while when trying to do morning meditation. Then I started doing evening meditation as well, and it all got easy. Why? Each meditation session flowed naturally into the next, and I was able to leave myself habit reminders at the end of each session. I left my yoga mat out at night as a reminder to myself to meditate in the morning, and I put a meditation book and a stick of incense on top of my pajamas when I put them away after meditation in the morning.
Dependent on when you want to write, there are a lot of ways you can make the next habit trigger part of the habit itself. You could write every morning and night. You could add a habit trigger to some other part of your daily routine (e.g., putting your computer keyboard in front of your coffee maker when you shut down for the night) or insert the trigger into the routine for the time of the day when you plan to write (e.g., setting your computer to automatically open your writing document when you boot it up if you want to write in the morning).
There are another way to add the trigger to your writing habit, and I recommend this only for those who are less OCD than I am. That said, it definitely works. All you need to do is end your writing session in the middle of a sen
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