There was a point in the past year where I was writing 1000-word long articles on fashion. I used to contribute a weekly column to TheVine.com.au, but when they slashed their budget and got rid of all of their external contributors, my writing muscle started to atrophy. Without the pressure of a deadline and the carrot stick of reliable pay cheques, I found it difficult to keep my weekly writing habit. I was a feature writer who wasn’t producing any features.
That’s not to say I wasn’t writing every day, because I was. But I was copywriting and blogging for clients, and not producing anything with a byline. My work was always someone else’s.
The difference is this: feature writing requires planning, yes, but you get to experiment far more with the English language. The process with copywriting is methodological and strategic. Creativity generally comes second place with freelance copywriting, where clarity is top of the agenda. Because fancy prose is great, but plain English sells.
And as my creativity started to fade, so too did the quality of my pitches. I’d been out of the feature writing game for a while, and I was eager for someone to tell me what I was doing wrong. That’s when I got in touch with Esmé, a brilliant editor and writing mentor. Amongst many of the things that Esmé taught me, I learned that I needed to be consistently writing. Because that’s what writers do. They write.
Writers don’t sit around thinking about writing, staring out windows, wondering when the premise of their next magnum opus will punch them in the belly with the force of inspiration.
They write. Even when they don’t really want to.
Even when it hurts.
Personal essays are a new genre for me. I’m currently working on a piece which addresses a past relationship of mine, and what it means to remember. It’s a piece which is proving quite painful to write, because it requires me to occupy a space in my mind that I’m not entirely sure I want to just yet. But I am trying.
Building up a regular writing habit is much like trying to incorporate exercise into your routine. I would much rather spend five more minutes in bed, but I know that the exertion will likely trigger a euphoric high. And damn those atrophied muscles.
How to create a writing habit worth blogging about (like I am right now)
If you’re like myself and are trying to develop a regular writing practice – whether that’s for your blog, a book you’re writing, or even a simple weekly e-letter – I’d like to share some tips, tricks and advice. They're applicable to whole range of faculties too: diet, exercise, etc.
Below is a condensed version of what I’ve learned about creating a regular writing habit. There are more resources at the bottom, so be sure to keep scrolling.
There is no greater deterrent than an unrealistically mammoth task. According to science, our brain fears large tasks and fails to commit to long-term success because we visualise the pain of failure in the first instance. Imagine for me, if you will, that you’ve been convalescing for six months. You are summoned to run a half marathon. Your response? No. Freakin’. Way. You haven’t quite yet built up the strength to walk five kilometres, let alone run your guts out. Not only do you need to learn the basics first, but you need to perfect your technique and develop those quads before you can propel yourself across the finish line. And won’t all that pounding the pavement hurt? You’ll be fit, but god, at what cost?!
It’s the same with writing. Some days it hurts my head to even think about, well, thinking.
Your homework: Make your habit something easy to incorporate into your life. Begin by dedicating one morning a week to writing, then increase the duration and frequency. Can you squeeze in half an hour of writing when you get home from work? What about if you woke up early? Can you put pen to paper on the train to work?
I like to joke that procrastination is my non-drug. It’s an habitual behaviour that I’m learning how to shake with the help of accountability.
But let’s talk about actual drugs for a moment. Drug usage is perhaps the most extreme form of habitual behaviour, such is the strength of the reward for the actual action taken. But in an experiment testing the strength of accountability, scientists found that drug addicts who were asked to submit an essay were more likely to complete the task if they specified where they would write it, and where.
And you know what they say – give something to a busy person, and they’ll get it done. That’s why we have deadlines, which have been scientifically proven to create more productive students.
So how do we create that pressure caused by accountability, and inject it into our daily rhythms?
Your homework: Track your habits. A good place to start is by using Toggl, which is a free tool that lets you log your daily activities. Warning: it truly is a rude awakening.
We all understand that when we want to sit down to write, we feel an insatiable urge to do something else. Perhaps organise a sock drawer. Play with the cat. Learn how to fishtail braid your hair.
As I mentioned at the start of this post, I’ve finding it difficult to sit down and write about my personal experiences. But it’s not the actual motion of fingers to keyboard that are deterring action – it’s the pain of revisiting the past that’s stopping me. I’m aware of this. And I’m not entirely sure how to address this – perhaps I’m not ready? – but I do understand the psychology behind my own personal battle with procrastination.
Your homework: This exercise requires a bit of self reflection and examination. What is it that’s holding you back? Is it fear of failure? Is it because you don’t actually want to write, and you feel that you’re expected to? Try to understand the thought processes that create stagnation.
Create your habit loop
Creating good habits – and breaking bad ones – is a cyclical pattern. In his book The Power of Habit, Charles Duhigg writes about the discovery of a neurological loop at the core of every habit.
As he says:
To understand your own habits, you need to identify the components of your loops. Once you have diagnosed the habit loop of a particular behavior, you can look for ways to supplant old vices with new routines.
To use a personal example, let’s say you have particularly bad skin. You can’t help but picking at your face, even when you partner is telling you stop. You’ve even taken to places notes on mirrors that order ‘No picking!’. They don’t work. Every day you manage to get up, examine your face, and attempt to excavate the blemishes with your finger nails. It feels satisfactory at first, then it feels bad when the carnage of poor willpower is written across your jaw line. ‘That’s the last time,’ you tell yourself. Except it’s not. You arise the next morning to wreak havoc on your skin again.
You know what the routine is, but what about the cue? And the reward?
Find your cue and reward
With bad habits, a cue is generally psychological. For overeaters, heavy drinkers, and even face pickers, distress is a major factor. And the reward? Perhaps the momentary serotonin rush that accompanies a third slice of chocolate cake. The buzzy, dreamy feeling after a few glasses of wine. That smug inner voice that declares, 'Aha, pimple! I have won again!'
As with creating bad habits, the same applies for creating good ones.
Your homework: Create a cue and a rewards system. After my alarm goes off at 530 in the morning, that’s my cue to get up, make a cup of tea, meditate, then hit the computer for some uninterrupted writing time. My reward? Coffee and breakfast. This is my routine; it might not work for you. Find a cue that triggers action (the actual habit itself), then find something rewarding, that does hopefully not constitute another bad habit.
The things that we do – the small, habitual activities that make up our daily experiences – ultimately define who we are.
So who do you want to be today?
- Janet Polivy, C. Peter Herman, Rajbir Deo (2010). 'Getting a bigger slice of the pie. Effects on eating and emotion in restrained and unrestrained eaters', in Appetite, 55 (3), 426-430.
- Charles Duhigg (2015). How Habits Work. Accessed 18th October, 2015 at http://charlesduhigg.com/how-habits-work/
- American Psychological Association (2015). What You Need to Know About Willpower. Accessed 18th October, 2015 at http://www.apa.org/helpcenter/willpower.aspx
- Dan Ariely and Klaus Wertenbroch (2002). 'Procrastination, deadlines, and performance: self-control by precommitment' in Psychol Sci, 13 (3), 219-224.