Writing: a habit you don’t want to break – but how do you start and maintain it?
Writing: a habit you don’t want to break – but how do you start and maintain it?
By Sarah Elliott
We are going to explore why as writers, it is key to develop a writing habit, what stops us and how we can work towards solving this problem. But first, let’s see where you are.
Oh, did the fairy godmothers visit your crib and grant you incredible writing talent opening all doors for you and making you rich and successful for all time? No? Well, that means that the writing talent you have wherever (or however) you got it may need support if you want it to reap rewards (and not just financial ones).
Enter your writing habit, to complete this dynamic duo to help you attain your writing goals! Talent + writing habit = writing triumph!
Ever experienced sitting in awe at a musical performance? Perhaps you have longed to be able to play music like that and felt a tweak of jealousy. Because it’s alright for them, right? Up there being successful and all that. But wait, if we took a peak behind the curtain, what would we see? Hard work, commitment, passion, regular practice – a habit.
So, you want to be a writer
In the literary ring
Can you write like Shakespeare on Red Bull
Tell me just one thing
Can you type in a whirl like a hummingbird’s wing
If you need to (oooh, that’s fast)
Can you spell, can you edit
Can you rhyme and sell it when you need to?
Well you might as well quit
If you haven’t got it
(sing to the tune of the Bugsy Malone hit – So you want to be a boxer)
Harsh? Maybe, but how can we attain success without commitment and practice and let’s face it, a sprinkling of luck?
In his 2008 book “Outliers” Malcolm Gladwell wrote:
“…ten thousand hours is the magic number of greatness.”
Better get started then, but how? If you Google starting or maintaining a writing habit, you won’t be short on results. Whilst researching this piece, I’ve come across numerous posts, blogs and articles. They mostly all agree on the main tips and tricks to try along with traps to avoid. So we are in agreement that we need a writing habit to succeed (whatever that looks like to you) and we have easy access to basic rules or suggestions. Then why is it so hard? There wouldn’t be so much content about it if it was as easy as blinking your eyes. Hardly any content around that (I checked). Let’s break it down.
Habits, who needs ‘em?
We have established you want to develop and sustain a writing habit. What’s the big thing about habits anyway? How often or how many times do you have to do something before it is considered a habit? And what’s the point?
Let’s see what James Clear, author of Atomic Habits has to say about this.
“Definition: a routine or practice performed regularly; an automatic response to a specific situation”
At the beginning of his book, Clear shares the life-changing event that culminated in a series of choices leading to the publishing of his book Atomic Habits. He explains a critical lesson; whilst some changes may seem minor and of little importance, if you stick with them over a long period of time they can reap remarkable results.
You may be familiar with the saying that if you keep doing the same thing, you will get the same results. So if we want something to change we need to change what we do (or how we do it). Sounds so easy, doesn’t it? How frustrated we get when we are trying something new but nothing is changing. We did the big goal-setting thing. We stopped doing it one way and tried another, and nothing! Where is our big Hollywood ending?!
Did we try for long enough though? Ever heard of the Plateau of Latent Potential? It can be described as the gap between what we want to happen and what the actual reality is. Well, getting past this tipping point is the sweet spot. The point at which everything changes. It’s the exact moment, second even, when the final blow of the axe makes the tree fall. It isn’t that last blow that takes the tree down, it’s all the previous blows chipping away at the trunk. When this much-desired end result is achieved, some may call it an overnight success but what they haven’t seen is the behind-the-scenes work, endless patience and everything leading up to it.
I mentioned goal setting earlier on. It’s very popular and if we believe what we are told, all of the most successful people do it, supported by a whole entourage that of course includes a cheerleading life coach. The thing with goals though is everyone and anyone can set them but how do we reach them? Two writers set the same goal to secure a publishing deal and produce a bestseller. One achieves their goal, the other does not. Why? It’s highly probable they employed different systems.
“You do not rise to the level of your goals. You fall to the level of your systems.”
This does not mean that goals are useless. They are great at setting some kind of direction – a North Star even. But systems drive progress. They are the how to your what.
Goal: destroy the ring
Systems: build a fellowship, gain intel, follow a guide, keep going one hairy-footed step at a time!
Habits are part of systems. They are the building blocks. Tiny but mighty and that is why they are so effective.
One last thing to consider about habits. They shape your identity. Clear shares a fun fact about identity and those of you fluent in Latin may already know this.
“…the word identity was originally derived from the Latin words essentitas, which means being, and identidem, which means repeatedly. Your identity is literally your “repeated beingness”.”
– James Clear
Someone who tinkers with cars every day – likely to be a mechanic. Someone who sketches clothes every day – likely to be a fashion/clothes designer. Someone who writes every day – I think you know this one. So the question is – whom do you want to be? And how are you going to embody this? Small habits, big results if you stay the course. Think about that 1% improvement every day and how that stacks up over time. The Japanese philosophy of Kaizen is a useful example of this. Kaizen roughly translates in English to ‘good change’. For more on this, it’s worth checking out Kaizen: The Japanese Method for Transforming Habits, One Small Step at a Time by Sarah Harvey.
Trying to start a new habit but it just seems too much? Try habit stacking. Attach the new habit to an already established habit. For instance whilst you put the kettle on to boil, grab a notebook and write for three minutes. Small steps remember. Place a notebook next to the book you’re reading in the evening. Write a page or write for five minutes and gradually increase it. Julia Cameron, author of The Artist’s Way recommends getting up half an hour earlier and writing three pages every day. Getting up is a challenge for me so I bought an A6-sized notebook. I can write three pages in ten minutes. It works for me. Do what you need to make it work for you. But sometimes other things are at play…
Distractions, the bane of completing a task!
Don’t feel bad. We all get distracted even when we think we’ve put the distractions away. Once when needing to meet a writing deadline, I committed to not watching any television for a week. I managed that so you would assume that I completed the writing ahead of time. No, because strangely that week I just had to sit down and carry on with an online course I had purchased and abandoned almost six months previously. And I simply had to make that homemade toothpaste and hand wash. Oh and I really did need to buy ANOTHER tarot deck! Cue further distractions while I looked at reviews, comparison sites etc.
Accept cookies, alerts, pop-ups, pings and push notifications! Tech distractions are everywhere. There are even apps to stop us from getting distracted (Freedom, ScreenZen) including ones that reward us with little trees and flowers when we focus and complete a task (Flora, Forest, Plantie). How ironic that we rely on the device that causes us the most distraction to help us not be distracted. So we admit that we do get distracted but, according to Johann Hari, author of Stolen Focus: why you can’t pay attention it’s not completely our fault.
“University students now focus on each task for only sixty-five seconds. Office workers on average manage three minutes…We think our inability to focus is a personal failing…it is not.”
– Johann Hari
Hari discusses the rise of humankind’s inability to focus and how we are held in the thrall of distraction. We are surrounded by things vying for our attention. Hari (with help from Adam Gazzaley, professor of neurology, physiology and psychiatry) uses the analogy of your brain being a nightclub with a bouncer. The bouncer is filtering out everything that is being thrown at you: the traffic, a phone ringing, a baby crying, next door’s music, email alerts and the list goes on. The bouncer is responsible for reducing the excess so that you can focus, find your flow, think coherently and complete tasks! This bouncer is well-trained and well-armed, a master in martial arts but after a while when there is no end to the queue of distractions, the queue quickly disintegrates to a gaggle and distractions just keep coming like numerous Agent Smiths. Efficiency and task completion become a faint memory. The bouncer is your pre-frontal cortex and it is becoming more and more overworked.
What chance do we have if we are trying to write a novel and this is what we are working with? It’s not just digital distractions either. Procrastination. Fear of starting because we fear failing. Throw in home responsibilities, family and our immediate imperfect environments and it’s not exactly a recipe for success, is it? So what can we do?
We know that success is possible as demonstrated by the thousands of published writers out there. We can look at their success and study what they did or do. But this comes with a disclaimer. Everyone is different. What works for one person may not work for another even when circumstances seem very similar. The risk in trying to follow an exact set of rules is that when we do follow them but do not get the same results, we feel we have failed. This can be detrimental to our confidence and self-esteem. Sounds like we need more help. Whom can we call on to help us?
Getting it written
Bec Evans and Chris Smith in their book Written: How to keep writing and build a habit that lasts discuss a few key areas that a) made sense and b) worked for me!
- Welcome Mr and Mrs Distraction, do come in for tea and cake!
We need to accept the distractions and really get to know them. When we get to know them we can arm ourselves against them. Better the enemy you know. Come with a plan. You know that the cat will come into your space miaowing loudly and chasing random items around the room. Before you sit down to write, have a play with the cat and feed him or her. Suggestion: Next time you sit down to write, notice any distractions and make a note. Evans and Smith suggest having a distractions book. Identify the quick win. Which is the one you can neutralise with the least amount of effort?
- Hello writer dearest, how lovely to make your acquaintance.
Get to know yourself. Be honest. What motivates you? Do you need a reward; maybe something to celebrate your effort if not the outcome? Perhaps accountability is a motivator for you. Ask the question: are you more effective when you are accountable to others or to yourself? If you’re not sure, there is a quiz you can take: https://gretchenrubin.com/quiz/the-four-tendencies-quiz/ The Four Tendencies explain why we act and why we don’t act. Very useful to know in terms of planning our offensive.
It is worth taking the time to find out who you are and how you tick. I realised that the reason I was procrastinating about starting a writing task wasn’t really to do with distractions. It was fear of failing. Fear of letting myself and others down. What if they don’t like it? Or my submission doesn’t get accepted? I had to do like Susan Jeffers and Feel the Fear and Do it Anyway. This worked for me. Being truthful and unpicking the stories I tell myself.
A note on stories. Don’t believe everything you are told. Try it. See what works for you. Remember that it may not always work for you all of the time. Circumstances might change and you may have to switch tactics. A word of warning too. Don’t fall into the trap of buying into a hard and fast definition of what a writer is. E.g. Writers write every day (so if you don’t, you’re not a writer? Hogwash!). Writers rise at 5 am, their furious keyboard tapping providing percussion for the chorus of songbirds catching the worm. This is NOT me. I am most definitely a late-night writer and I have to own it now. I just have to make sure that I build in breaks e.g. no more than three late nights in a row, planned lie-ins, naps etc.
- Talking of time, tick tock, Vecna is waiting…
Experiment and try something new. There are a few options for how you plan your writing time. Evans and Smith explain:
- Completely spontaneous – when the muse hits you
- Structured – same time, place and length of time
- A big long binge in the form of a retreat
- Time boxing – fitting it around your schedule but planning exactly when in advance
A useful tip I’ve picked up is that whenever you have arranged to have your writing time, plan what you are going to write. This is especially useful when you have a few writing projects on the go. Only have fifteen minutes? Start a poem. Have longer? Really get into your novel chapters. Be specific. Think ‘I will write for twenty minutes on my blog after I’ve eaten my sandwich and taken my tea back to my desk’, rather than ‘I will do some writing in my lunch break’. Try it. See if it works for you. After all, we know what happens when we go to the supermarket without a shopping list!
I’ve worked in education for a long time and one of the systems we use is: assess, plan, do, review. You can incorporate this into your writing practice:
Assess – get to know yourself, identify those pesky distractions too
Plan – Get your A-Team on and be like Hannibal – “I love it when a plan comes together”
Do – Whichever, wherever, however and with whoever (should you so choose), try it!
Assess – Evans and Smith suggest asking yourself the following questions after each writing session:
- What went well?
- What didn’t go so well?
- What will I do differently next time?
You can reword this to whatever works for you. E.g. I love, I wonder, I want or WWW – What Worked Well and EBI – Even Better If.
Things change so it’s important to review and pivot if you need to. Let’s not forget that writing is hard. If it was easy everyone would do it.
So to conclude, some things to consider and experiment with:
- Routine – do you work well with routine? What routine works best for you?
- Environment – what does your writing space look like? Does it need to be the same all the time? Home? Away? Silence? Noise?
- Tools – what do you need in order to write? Notebook (plain, pretty)? Desktop? Laptop? Tablet? Post-Its? Does the font work for you?
- Community – do you write best alone? With an online community? With real-life people?
- Rewards – do you need incentives? External? Internal?
- Assistive tech – dictation tools, grammar/spelling aids, online coloured overlay, text to speech? Timers?
- Basic physiological needs – are you warm enough? Too hot? Get that Goldilocks effect going. Hungry? Thirsty?
- Do you need to wear your glasses? Where are they?
Okay, that last one is personal to me. But on a serious note, it is worth making sure you have the correct prescription for your eyesight. If you work on a screen a lot it can be useful to have glasses that have a filter to support this. Sometimes it is the basics that make all the difference.
So we have unpicked, unpacked and unravelled the mysteries of creating a writing habit. It is now up to you to forge your own path on this adventure we share as writers. May the muse be with you!
Cameron, Julia (first published 1992) The Artist’s Way
Clear, James (2018) Atomic Habits: An easy and proven way to build good habits and break bad ones
Jeffers, Susan (first published 1987) Feel the Fear and Do it Anyway
Evans, Bec and Smith, Chris (2023) Written: How to keep writing and build a habit that lasts
Hari, Johann (2022) Stolen Focus: Why you can’t pay attention
Harvey, Sarah (2019) Kaizen: The Japanese method for transforming habits one small step at a time
Gladwell, Malcolm (2008) Outliers: The story of success
- https://writershour.com/ London Writers’ salon – an online writing community
- https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_vD2FcInD7Q&t=9s – Pomodoro videos
- About the Author
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Sarah Elliott is a published poet, writer and self-published author (Warrior Wisdom Sun, 2022). She is a regular contributor to the Nottingham spoken word scene and can also be found hosting on London Writers’ Salon. When Sarah isn’t writing, she is either coaching and mentoring educationalists or chucking needles into people for acupuncture treatments! Sarah is currently writing a tarot-inspired collection of flash fiction in addition to a poetry anthology. The Substack newsletter titled A Writer’s Life chronicles Sarah’s writing journey, and you can also find her work on The Horror Tree website.
More from Sarah here: https://linktr.ee/Writingforlight
Sarah is a regular contributor to the Nottingham spoken word scene and her poems have been featured in an online magazine and a poetry anthology. Sarah writes a newsletter titled A Writer’s Life and has a second poetry book ready for publication in 2023.
Sarah enjoys fantasy and sci-fi and is fascinated by Tarot and astrology. Recently discovering a love for flash fiction, Sarah is currently writing a collection of flash fiction for fun and maybe more.