One of the best books I've read this year is The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg. He spent a few years studying habits, how people form them, and how they can un-form them, and then distilled his findings into this book. You'd think it would be about as exciting to read as watching grass grow but the way he writes and tells stories, it is fascinating.
You don't even really have to read the book to get the concept, though I highly recommend it because it is entertaining and he uses a lot of different examples that really set the idea in your head. (Though if you truly feel pressed for time, there's a cool study guide here that will give you the gist.)
And the best thing about it is that you can apply his techniques (which are all scientifically based) to anything. Like, um, oh, I don't know…your writing, maybe?
To start with, you need to understand our basic habit loop, which is how habits are formed. (And bear in mind, that we humans need habits, to, oh say, get us to work on time, feed ourselves, take care of children…you get the drift.) The habit loop is three steps, and once you remember these steps, you'll be able to apply them to anything in your life:
1. Cue. This is what signals your brain to go into automatic mode. You enter the library, and boom, you're ready to study. You smell food (or in my case, see it) and ta-da, you want to eat, even if you're not hungry.
2. Routine. This is the behavior that leads to the reward. You study for your test, eat the doughnut that appeared in front of you, drive to work the same way you do every morning.
3. Reward. What you get out of the routine. For instance, that sweet taste of sugar on your tongue, or a raise from your boss because you've been so timely.
You change habits by manipulating this loop. If you want to change a bad habit, you look at what cues you to overeat or smoke or drink and then you look at the reward. Once you've figured that out, you can change the routine (the habitual part) in the middle.
So what about writing? What struck me as I was writing about the habit loop, is how many writers have had routines or rituals to get them to start writing. I wake up in the morning, stretch, get my coffee and water, and head to my desk. I usually start by hand writing, in my journal or my novel notebooks, because–if I open my computer odds are I'll head to my email inboxes. Booyah–habit loop. The cue is opening the computer, the routine is checking email (just in case there's anything important, I tell myself), and the reward is the rush of news. I've cemented my first-thing-in-the-morning writing habit by changing the cue (not opening the computer). Other ways to do this might be to close down all your inboxes and tabs before you go to sleep, or set Freedom first thing upon rising.
The key is to look carefully at what your habit loop is, and adjust accordingly. Though I am a lover of, and consequently a firm proponent of writing first thing in the morning, because I like to do my most important thing first, I know others for whom this doesn't work at all. If you're a dedicated night owl, trying to force yourself into becoming a lark just ain't going to cut it.
Here's an interesting article on the habits of some famous writers. I love the Jodi Picoult quote, "You can't edit a blank page." And another article from Brain Pickings which has some choice quotes. And here is a whole Tumblr devoted to the routines of various writers.
So here's how to cement your writing habit:
1. Pay attention to what you currently do. The thing about habits is that they are automatic, so we often don't realize what we're doing. Next time you get yourself to the computer (which I hope will be today), stop and think for a minute what you did before you got there.
2. Identify if you have a good habit loop or a bad habit loop. Do you grab coffee and sprint to your desk when its your allotted writing time? Or do you grab coffee, talk to your spouse, decide you better put a load of wash in, then pet the dog, then make more coffee and by the time you get to your desk your time is up? First example=good. Second example=bad.
3. Look at your cues, routines, and rewards and modify accordingly. In the first example above, the writer is grabbing his coffee and getting right to work. The cue is the coffee, the routine is the writing, and the reward is likely that feeling we get when all is right with the world because we have written. In the second example, the coffee is a cue to fart around. The second writer might want to find a different cue, or change her routine so to be more like the first writer, with the coffee getting her right to the computer.
4. Read some of the links provided above for insight into how other writers do it. If your routine is not working, some fresh ideas might help.
5. Create a plan and work it. Figure out what a workable positive habit loop might be for you and then put it into action. It might take a few days or even weeks to make it happen, and you'll probably backslide along the way, but stick with it. The rewards are worth it.
So that's it, and I hope you'll try it. Do you have a writing routine that works for you? Please share in the comments, as it will help other writers to read about it.