“Habits are first cobwebs, then cables.” – Spanish proverb
This, friends, is the linchpin: if you can create the habit of writing, you’ve got a wonderful foundation as a writer.
If you struggle to get in enough time for writing, or keep putting it off, or can never seem to write when you planned to write … you need to work on creating the habit of writing.
Think about it for a moment — if you could write consistently for an hour (or two) a day:
- You’d write a whole lot over the course of a month, or a year. Your output would be prodigious.
- You’d meet writing deadlines, because procrastination wouldn’t be a problem.
- Your writing would improve, simply from the amount of practice you’d be getting.
- You’d feel great about your writing, which in turn would motivate you to keep going.
- You’d solve the problems of war and world hunger, from the brilliance of your writing.
Well, the last item might be a bit of a stretch, but I’ve personally experienced the first four. Writing has become a habit and a passion of mine, and I’ve been doing it for quite awhile. While not every word I write is brilliant and fascinating, I can proudly say that I’ve written a lot. For many publications. In the last year alone, as a blogger and freelance blogwriter and frequent writer of guest posts for many blogs, I’ve probably written more than 1,000 posts. That’s not to mention the writing I’ve done for my day job or non-blogging writing.
My habit is pretty simple: I have two or three things I really want to write each day, and I write them as early in the day as possible. That’s usually 2-4 hours of writing a day (sometimes more). I make writing my priority, and it’s paid off in many ways.
Writers are infamous procrastinators. But we don’t have to be, if we create the writing habit. Here are the steps that have worked for me, the steps I’ve used to create many other habits as well:
1. Set your habit in writing. If you don’t commit to creating this habit on paper, you aren’t really committed to forming the habit. If you want to form the habit, you have to be fully committed. Not on the edge, not “I’m going to try”, but “I’m really going to do this.” And you have to write it down, and post it somewhere you’ll see it. What is your habit going to be, specifically? When and where and for how long and what will you do? Write it down.
2. Do it daily at the same time, with a trigger. It’s best if you have a certain time of the day to start writing. I prefer early mornings, but you might like lunchtime, or right before bed. Just be sure it’s a time that won’t be pre-empted by other activities — if you often get called into meetings in the late afternoon, for example, don’t make that your writing time (unless you have the power to skip the meetings — then by all means, do so!).
Just as important as having one time for writing is having a trigger. What’s a trigger? It’s the event that sets off your habit. For example, when I used to smoke, I had a number of triggers: I would smoke upon waking, when stressed, after a meeting, etc. When I wanted to change that habit, I had to change each trigger so that I had a new habit to replace smoking. Upon waking, for example, I would exercise instead. To create a new habit, you need to strongly associate your habit with a trigger. For example, let’s say you want to write in the morning — you might awake, use the bathroom, make your coffee, and then start writing. So making coffee is the trigger for writing, and using the bathroom is the trigger for making coffee, and waking is the trigger for using the bathroom. And as you wake every day, you have no problem. Choose a trigger that you know you’ll do every day, and then do your writing right after it, without exception.
3. Commit yourself to others. As I said above, it’s crucial to be fully committed to forming this habit. To do that, it’s best to not make it a private thing, but to commit yourself publicly. Tell your family and friends, your co-workers, put it up on your blog, post to an online forum. Tell them exactly what you’re going to do, and promise to report to them on a regular basis (see No. 6 below). This public commitment will give you the motivation you need to stay on track.
4. Put complete focus on it for one month. One of the keys to forming a new habit is focus. If you place your full focus on forming that habit, you’re likely to succeed (especially in combination with the other tools on this list). If you are trying to create a bunch of new habits at once, your focus will be diffused. Don’t fall into this common but tempting trap. Really give all your focus and energy to forming this new writing habit.
5. Find your motivations. What are your reasons for doing this? What motivates you to sit down and write? What will keep you motivated when you don’t feel like writing? Knowing your motivations is important — and it’s best to write them down. See Top 20 Motivation Hacks.
6. Log it and be accountable. It’s important to keep a log of your new habit. That could be as simple as putting a red “X” on each day on your calendar that you wrote. It can be a spreadsheet where you log the time and date, with notes. It could be a goals tracker such as Joe’s Goals. Or you could put it on your blog — just a short entry each time you write, or a little note in your sidebar. Online forums are great ways to do this. However you do it, log consistently and immediately after you do the habit. And then share your log with the public somehow, even if it’s just with family and friends. You need to have that public accountability.
7. Set rewards. Rewards are great motivators. Do them more often in the beginning: give yourself a small reward after the first day, and the second, and the third, then after one week, then two weeks, then three, and finally after one month. Make a list of these rewards before you start, so you can look forward to getting them.
8. No exceptions. The more consistent you are with your habit, the more ingrained it will be. You want the habit to be very strongly associated with your trigger, so that each time the trigger happens, the habit happens. This is what makes it a habit. If the trigger happens, and sometimes the habit doesn’t, then you’re not really forming a habit. So, while it’s not good to beat yourself up about mistakes, it’s best to tell yourself, “No exceptions!” Because one exception often leads to a second, and then a third. It’s like telling yourself, “Just one cigarette!” If you don’t feel like writing today, tell yourself very firmly: “No exceptions!”
What happens if for some reason you screw up and miss a day? Well, don’t beat yourself up about it. Just analyze it and figure out why you missed a day, and find a solution so it doesn’t happen again. Then keep going. It may take a little longer to form the habit, but if you don’t allow exceptions from that point on, you should be OK.
9. Find inspiration. The best motivation is inspiration, in my book. When I’m forming a new habit, I like to read about others who’ve been successful. I’ll read books and magazines and websites and blogs on the topic. Do the same with writing — find inspiration, but just don’t let the reading get in the way of the writing.
10. Make it fun. Above all, if the habit isn’t fun in some way, you’ll lose motivation over time. It’s one thing to try to be “disciplined” but in the end, it’s motivation that matters. You can’t force motivation. So find a way to make it fun, either by playing some great music while you write, or having a cup of tea or coffee while you do it, or writing with tools you love.