5 Essential Things You Need to Know About Writing Habits

Are you stuck in the habit of not writing? Lynn Dickinson shares tips to help you create strong writing habits that will last for years.
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Are you stuck in the habit of not writing? Lynn Dickinson shares tips to help you create strong writing habits that will last for years.

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Ever wish you were writing more than you do? The good news is, you can! But if you’re trying to make yourself write, you might be approaching it all wrong. Maybe you need to light a candle instead. To help you be more productive, let's explore writing habits—so yours can be robust, productive and prolific.

We Are All Creatures of Habit: Nearly everything you do is a habit. Scientists have found that anywhere from 40% to 95% of what we do is habit—every day! That means that if you’re not writing as much as you’d like, you probably have a habit of not writing.

What does a habit of not writing look like?

Chances are, you frequently think to yourself: “I should write,” and your habit responds with, “I’m too tired,” or, “I’ll get up early and write tomorrow,” or, “I’m too busy right now,” or, “I just need to crush a little more candy first.” Sound familiar? You’ll write more if you develop a writing habit.

Habits are behaviors that “feel” natural. If you’ve got a true writing habit, you don’t have to make yourself write, it will feel odd to you if you don’t write. Most productive, professional writers have cultivated a writing habit that works for them.

Script interviews C. Robert Cargill, writer of Doctor Strange and Sinister, discussing collaboration, tips for consistently getting words on the page, and elevating your stories.

Why Your Willpower Isn’t Enough: Willpower is a great thing—but it’s limited. While some of us have more than others, our willpower is finite. No matter what we use it for, whether it’s to make ourselves do one more jumping jack, say “no” to that fourth piece of cake, or sit down and write; willpower only lasts so long, then it runs out. If you’re trying to use your willpower to keep you writing, you aren’t likely to write much.

A habit on the other hand, happens automatically. It’s a behavior you’ve performed so many times, it’s now stored in a different part of your brain, and when it receives the right cues, your body acts on it automatically. Habits don’t draw upon, or drain your limited willpower. That’s a very good thing!

You Can Intentionally Cultivate a Writing Habit: While certain “bad” habits, (such as the habit of not writing!), seem to form without us thinking much about them, good habits can be cultivated with a little attention, a positive intention, and a little knowledge about how habits work.

Why You Should Light a Candle Before You Write: Habits form best in clusters. When you think of your personal hygiene routines, you may recognize that brushing your teeth has become a habit. (At least, I hope it has!) But what you may not realize, is that your tooth-brushing habit is really a cluster of smaller behaviors that always go together, and which signal to your brain that it’s time to brush your teeth.

For example, you may walk into the bathroom around the same time each day, reach for your brush, grab some toothpaste, etc. Apparently, there are somewhere around twenty-two steps involved in brushing your teeth, and each one of those steps is a habit, in and of itself. Together they cue the brain to engage in the related behaviors that go with each other. That cluster of habits together is summarized as, “tooth brushing,” and yields a positive hygienic result. This is good news for writers.

Just pick the routine or ritual that works best for you, imbue it with some positive behaviors that you enjoy, such as always lighting a candle, turning on your favorite writing music, writing at the same time in the same place on the same days, etc. and you’ll have a cluster of supportive habits forming around the act of writing. Just be sure you like what you’re doing!

Make the ritual that surrounds your writing fun, pleasant, meaningful, positive and easy to do. Make it something you enjoy doing, so it takes less willpower to get you going. If you like what you’re doing, you’ll be much more likely to stick to your routine until it becomes a habit. Then, when you take that first step in the chain, such as lighting that candle, your brain will signal your body (and your creativity!), that it’s time to write.

Lock-In Your Writing Habit: Use a little of your willpower to enact the same pleasant writing ritual or routine every day. It may take you a couple weeks, to a month or so, before your brain stops drawing on your willpower and starts treating your writing like a habit. (Repetition is key. If your habit isn’t a daily one, it may take longer to take hold. Just keep it as regular as you can, and do it as often as you can.)

Keeping the Writing Faith: Daily Writing Habits of Four Successful Authors

Once you have a writing habit in process, protect it! Treat your writing habit as if it were sacred. Don’t interrupt your writing to check your email or hop onto social media every time your main character has gotten into a jam, and you aren’t sure what to write next. You can crush your candy some other time. Right now, you’re writing. That has to remain very clear to your brain, your body, and your creativity.

Remember, whatever you do repeatedly is going to become part of your habit—so be purposeful, intentional and mindful of what you do.

What About You? Writing habits are as different as the writers who cultivate them. Make your habit specific to you, make it work in your life, and if you’ve already done so, I’d very much love to hear your solution. Let us know what works—or doesn’t work—to get you writing by sharing a comment below. And if you haven’t already taken my 5-minute writer’s survey on this subject, please do! I’d love to hear from you.

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