This week’s post is part of the monthly Author Toolbox Blog Hop. On the third Wednesday of each month (except for November and December), check out the blogs of other great writers to learn about writing craft, process, and business.
For years, flossing my teeth was never going to happen. The morning of a dentist’s appointment, out that devil’s wire came, six months coiled in a cave, at last to wrap its silky fingers around my teeth. There was invariably blood. I could feel the ache for hours.
Something changed in me during winter of my junior year at college. I was sitting in the dentist’s chair, prattling on about the projects I was doing during the time off school–so much knitting, a final sorting of photographs from my first foray with an SLR camera, developing my own knitting patterns to post online, cooking, spinning yarn, and documenting it all in this first attempt at blogging. The hygienist, with perfect timing, inserted herself into my ramblings: “I’ve got a new idea for a project for you,” she said. “You should try flossing every day.”
What are habits, and how do they work?
Habits are behaviors that we repeat over and over again, with lessened or complete absence of conscious direction. Habits are useful for the brain, because if a need can consistently be met by a specific behavior, the brain doesn’t have to rethink how to solve the problem every time. Instead, it can use the blanket response of the habit behavior and end up with a positive result each time.
In times of stress, most of us use habits to calm ourselves. These include our nightly TV binges, the feeling of needing to go out for a walk, comfort food, nail biting, exercise, et cetera. We might call these “numbing behaviors” or “coping mechanisms,” and often in the moment, the habit does just that. We do calm down. We cope. Then we can rejuvenate.
Of course, if the brain a long time ago happened to hit on for its chosen anti-stress habit sugary, highly-processed foods, and those foods end up having a deleterious effect on our health, or if our anti-stress habit of TV shows is making us lament time we could have spent on something else (writing!), then we have what we call a “bad habit.” The habit that our brains set up in order to meet a real need we had ends up causing problems in other areas of our lives.
I think it’s important to remember here that what we call a bad habit isn’t, at its core, really bad: it’s a behavior set up by the brain in order to meet a real need that we have. Maybe we wish the brain had chosen something else (and we can help it choose something else), but “bad habits” are so hard for the brain to shake because they actually do us a significant amount of good. If we remove them, our brains will need a new way to address that need the habit filled.
The brain has incredible machinery for habit-forming, and if we are thoughtful, patient, and deliberate, we can engage with that machinery directly and build patterns of behavior in ourselves that meet our needs and don’t cause problems.
The Writing Habit
But we are writers, and for all the habits running concomitantly through our lives, perhaps few feel as dear to us as our habit of writing. Let’s talk about how to start this habit, how to cultivate and raise it, and how to keep it alive:
The Foundation: we cultivate desire
At the core of any real habit is a need. For some of us, writing already fulfills a specific need–it might be our tool for processing emotions, for self-expression, or even for monetary income. For some of us, its role might be more nebulous.
A need need not be existential. We can identify a core reason we want to build our writing habit. We desire writing to take a bigger part of our lives. This is intrinsic motivation at its heart: to ground ourselves fully in the why of our writing.
For me, this means frequently revisiting my motivations for what I’m doing. Why do I care? Why am I committing myself to exploring the world in this way? Often, it’s formed the heart of blog posts here on Words Like Trees. The name of the blog itself is a piece of that motivation for me. In keeping the why close to the surface, my desire to keep going is sustained.
The Growth: we write regularly, establishing rituals and schedule; the habit becomes something we expect to do
With desire burning, we must begin the behavior: we have to write, and we must do so regularly. The best is a little every day. It’s okay to start small, but if it isn’t recurring on a regular basis, it won’t become a habit in the brain.
Our goal is to expect to write. If we miss a day (and it will happen, although hopefully not in the early days when regularity is most important), it should feel like something’s missing. If we do miss a day, listen for that feeling, and that is the sign that the habit is forming.
Use these tools to help you build the habit:
Connect writing to a ritual: Write at the same time each day, and in the same place. If you can, make it a place reserved for writing. Get creative with rituals: maybe it’s a pair of dedicated sweatpants. Maybe it’s a handful of peanuts. For me, it’s a pot of tea: I make one at the start of every writing session, and I reserve full pots of tea for writing time. The ritual cues the brain: it’s writing time, it says. It starts the habit.
Put writing on your schedule: Do we do everything that’s on our schedules? Probably not. But we’re more likely to do something that’s on our schedule than something that isn’t. Write it on the calendar. Block the time. Don’t replace it with something else. Do all you can to honor the commitment you have made to yourself.
Set a timer: The timer is a signal to the brain that this time has been set-off for writing and for writing only. Consciously tell yourself: I’ll be only writing until this timer goes off. Ban yourself from any distractions until the timer rings. That means no email checking, no conversations. I do 55 minutes, then if I have time to do another session, I take a quick break, check that email, make another pot of tea. I start it up again.
At first, be rigid: What counts as writing? Does research count? Does mailing out submissions count? At the beginning, when I was really trying to establish my writing habit for the first time, I said no to these. Only in-the-document work counted as writing, because that was the core for me, and other things too easily became excuses. I kept notes about things I might need to research, and I would do this after the timer went off.
The Perseverance: we focus our willpower; it becomes easier with repetition
There is no magic number of days we need to complete a behavior for it to become habit, tempting as it is to cite one. It takes time to teach the brain. As the habit forms, as that automaticity builds, it does become easier, but in the first weeks and months, we have to focus our willpower. The tools listed above can help with this, as can the help of friends and family, external reward systems we set up for ourselves, and others.
The Sustenance: we grow the habit over time, and we are kind to ourselves
It’s better to start small. We can’t go from nothing to a daily writing habit of five hours. We begin with a small offering to our future selves: write for 30 minutes. Congratulate yourself. This is good. Later, increase the time.
I want to make a special note here about guilt. When we have a goal, the desire, when we are working to establish or build up our habits, it can be easy to feel guilty. Why aren’t we further along? Why did we miss that day? As much as possible, quiet that voice. It’s okay. Habits are a process, and missing a day here or there is not a problem. We are creatures of many needs–not just writing, and we must attend to ourselves with kindness, understanding, and if we do stop writing for a while, let’s get ourselves back to it as soon as we can, but without judgement. All of it is good.
For more on the writing habit, check out Tim Storm’s article How Your Attitude and Approach Toward Habits Can Revitalize Your Writing Practice. This article informed much of the thinking that led me to this post, and he writes more as well about the value of a sustained habit for our writing craft.
I did it. I started flossing every day. At some point, it was a habit. If I missed a night, I felt dirty. Ten years later, I’m still going. A habit can stick with you like that.
What are your tips for keeping up a writing habit? What works for you?
Happy writing. Thanks for stopping by. Best wishes,