Writing Habits
Charlotte Rains Dixon  

Cement Your Writing Habit (A Proven Process)

PowerofHabitbookcoverOne 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.

0 thoughts on “Cement Your Writing Habit (A Proven Process)

  1. Dyoung

    #2/3…….do you have cameras in my home?! How did you know I tend to ‘fart around’ in the mornings rather than write?!…..

    Seriously though….the sequence of habits is important. Thanks for defining each step!

  2. Charlotte Dixon

    Um, maybe because someone else I know does that.  Not me.  No, certainly not me.  Ha!  I've gotten much better at it once I've learned that the habit is a loop that can be changed.  Amazing!

  3. Dyoung

    Well- I need a new habit loop, so any suggestions would help! More than likely for me it will need to start with my sleeping patterns, because I really do want to write first thing in the morning. Rarely do I achieve that.

  4. Charlotte Dixon

    I go through phases with it. Most of the time, I’m on it, writing first thing. And then I feel so good all day. But I seem to have phases when I suddenly can’t get to the writing at all in the morning. Sometimes the simplest thing can shortcut the habit loop you’ve established. For me, it was not opening the computer and writing by hand instead. Now, because I’ve short circuited the habit of opening the computer and going right to email, most days I can write on the computer first thing. So I think its a matter of really paying attention to what you do in the morning. Is it that you’re not getting up early enough? Then look at your sleep and rising patterns (do you need to get in bed earlier the night before?). Or, are you getting up plenty early, but just not getting to your desk? Then look at what you’re doing instead and think about what the cue might be–and the reward as well. Once you figure that out, you can change the stuff in the middle!

  5. Zan Marie

    um…inboxes are me, too. they’re just *so* seductive. 😉

  6. Dyoung

    My getting to bed then up in the morning needs to adjust for sure. I’m not up near early enough. But earlier bothers me. I’m a night owl by nature…… It’s torment:)

  7. Charlotte Dixon

    The worst distraction ever.

  8. Charlotte Dixon

    I feel for you, as I think the world really is not designed for night owls. I used to think I was one, but that was before I had children and had to get up early.  Then the habit just stuck.  I know its not for everyone, but I love how much I get done first thing in the morning!

  9. J.D.

    All great advice. I haven’t checked out Chuck’s book yet, but I’m on it. Jodi Picoult has written some terrific novels. The dating game is not one I care to play, since I am married to a gorgeous woman, to whom I owe a great deal. Being a visual male (I don’t recall which planet) I remember the early version of Miss Picoult, sometime around when she trotted out her first novel in 1992, at the age of 26. She was breathtakingly beautiful. If the dating game were on and the curtains were pulled back, would I choose #1 a non-writing unknown beautiful 26-year-old not-Jodi, #2 the current Ms. Picoult, whom time has brought back to earth a bit, or #3 (were she alive) my favorite poet, Rachel Wetzsteon? Now that I write it on the screen, I can see the first is out. The next two make for a difficult choice. Both have sterling resumes: Picoult at Princeton and Harvard; Wetzsteon at Yale, John Hopkins, and Columbia. Rachel, God rest her soul, was so brilliant in her academic years, but there was an earthiness, a fire to her writing, they don’t teach at Columbia. Picoult . . . what little I have read, Ivy League is not the first thing that pops into my head. The most uneducated can lose themselves in her writing, or the brilliant can find plenty to occupy their minds. That’s a wonderful quote from Jodi. It takes a moment of genius to come up with that, yet it is so practical. Though I love that quote and I love Picoult’s talent, I’d choose Rachel Wetzsteon. Her poetry has more of that thing you can’t teach in school–at least she makes me think that. But I don’t have to choose. Even though I don’t want the date, I can read their books. Like those two ladies, I hope to put something of myself in my writing, even though mine are sort of dime mysteries. Good post, Charlotte.

  10. Charlotte Dixon

    God, I love the way your mind works, J.D.  It is truly fascinating.  But, besides that, what you wrote about Rachel's work reminds me of something my first writing teacher, Craig Lesley, used to say.  He'd talk about the moment when you are reading and the story seems to lift off the page.  I think you and he are talking about the same thing.  Its the ineffable, the undefinable, that makes a story go beyond just the elements of fiction combined on the page.  That is something that cannot be taught.

  11. J.D.

    I don’t know Craig. Maybe he has a book on the net. They say you can find anything here and what a blessing that is sometimes. Yes, Picoult has the ineffable, the very thing you and Craig were talking about. I would never in a 1000 years have guessed that Jodi came from stuff-shirted Princeton. Yet I know the quality of what she puts on the page comes from what she learned there and, then, from that thing inside her. You have it too, Charlotte. You have that voice. You just have to listen to it a little, when you’re alone, when there is a circus going on around you, when your house is hectic, but you are alone. That’s the voice, the one I’m looking for . . . except grab yours–I’ll take mine 😉

  12. Charlotte Dixon

    Oh, J.D., that's one of the nicest compliments I've ever gotten!  Thank you.  Wow. ……………………………..  Okay, now that I've paused to collect myself, Craig Lesley should have books available on the web.  His were published before Ebooks, though.  He writes some of the best Western fiction around, and I don't mean the genre.  I mean stories that are deeply rooted in the land.  I love his writing.  Thank you again.

  13. Dyoung

    What a deeply layered comment to the post. Very interesting points of view- which JD always has. You never disappoint in adding your thoughts. Thanks for taking an already excellent site to the next level. I still need to find your novel.

  14. Charlotte Dixon

    And thank you, Donna, for participating in making the discussion so lively.  J.D. won't do this, but I will, here's a link to his novel: http://tinyurl.com/nhf7qhl.  

  15. Dyoung

    Thank you for that information!

    I need to order that ASAP!

  16. Charlotte Dixon

    It is a really helpful book, and surprisingly readable, too!

  17. Dyoung

    I hadn’t thought of a mystery novel as helpful for my genre of writing – but I’m game!

  18. Charlotte Dixon

    I think it is good to read as widely as possible.  Probably you don't want to read mysteries all the time, but once in awhile won't hurt!

  19. J.D.

    Thanks to both of you. I’ve gazed into the future and I see you two having lunch.

  20. Dyoung

    Well- she was going to come for dinner yesterday, but she never showed:)
    Charolette- the grilled asparagus was DELISH!

  21. Charlotte Dixon

    I would love that.  Of course, I know I get to meet you in person in the near future, J.D., thank goodness.

  22. Charlotte Dixon

    Damn, I got sidetracked by one of the bright shiny objects!  What's on the menu for tonight?

  23. Dyoung

    Leftovers:( but nothing as good as grilled asparagus! That never lasts long!

  24. Charlotte Dixon

    I bet even your leftovers are divine.  I'll drop by for the grilled asparagus next time.

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