On Writing: Tips for Building a Regular Writing Habit

I don't write a lot anymore... certainly not as much as I used to and often not as much as I would like... (Can you hear the sound of a broken violin squawk into life?)

However, I do still write a lot.

What? This doesn't make sense, Frankie.

You're right I should clarify: I don't write a lot of words anymore, but I do write a lot, in that I write regularly. To be precise I would define writing regularly as writing almost every day. As a rough estimate, I would say that I write on at least five out of seven days a week. I fit this around working three days a week while my son is at daycare, taking care of him on my own two days a week and also weekends when we're all together as a family. And I don't get up before my son gets up to write, nor do I (usually) stay up late writing, because I LOVE SLEEP.

Most of those days, the writing I do is short and sweet; a few hundred words of a first draft, editing a few pages of a book I'm working on, a couple of sentences about a new story idea I've just had, a poem or two (as part of my ongoing 100 day challenge of writing a new poem every day). On one or two days a week, depending mostly on my work schedule, I sit down and spend an hour or two writing and I'm greatly encouraged that when the stars align and the tea is poured I can still knock out between 1000 and 2000 words in sixty minutes. And I'm not including any of the work I do for clients (or even this blog, though my recent posting rate wouldn't contribute much anyway... Twang! Oh, I think a string just snapped off that violin!).

Anyway, (broken) violins aside, writing is something I both want and need to do regularly. Primarily, because I find it a calming and soothing activity, but also I'm still very focused on making writing books something that feeds my son's ever-increasing appetite as well as my creative appetite.

Speaking of creativity, these tips and suggestions for writing regularly can (hopefully) be applied to any creative habit or hobby or fun past-time you'd like to do more of. I've drawn mostly on my own experience of creating and maintaining a writing habit for nearly five years, and also from some reading I've done about the topic, because, you know, research rocks.

Have a little faith...

As many of you will know, my routine of writing fiction regularly began thanks to NaNoWriMo, but when I actually think about writing regularly in general (and specifically for enjoyment), I was already doing it long before then. I've been blogging since 2009 and very quickly got into the habit of publishing a new post 2-3 times a week, and most posts I would work on over two days thanks to my long-standing belief in "fresh eyes" doing a final proofread (i.e. leaving at least one night in between writing something and then publishin it). Every now and again I'd sit down to write a first draft of a story idea I had, but I rarely got past the third chapter and/or I would stop working on it regularly after a few weeks, and months and months would lapse before I picked it up again. I certainly think that all of this was a solid foundation for what then happened in November 2012 when I wrote 54,000+ words in one month, averaging nearly 2000 words a day. And I did indeed write every day. That intense introduction to writing regularly no doubt exercised my creative muscles, but it also told me that I COULD DO IT, because I had done it. I'm sad that it took a writing challenge and 30 years for me to finally take the plunge, but I'm so very happy that that is what it took and that it gave me a little faith in my ability to write regularly.

So let me just say before you read anything else, whatever it is you want to do regularly, you will do it. You can and you will.

Make time, and take your time

We build habits by consciously repeating an action. So yep, the first step in building any creative habit is just doing it. If your short on time, then schedule it into your day. That's all I did with writing. I made a decision to write every day for 30 days and I made changes so that I could. And then after 30 days, when I saw that I could, and perhaps most importantly, realised that (for the most part!) I enjoyed writing every day, I decided to keep going. I'm not saying I wrote every day from then onwards, but through four seasons of NaNoWriMo, three books, setting my own writing challenges like one short story a month for a year, and my #100daysofpoemsbyFrankie, I have continued to give myself reasons to write regularly. At some point in this process writing regularly became a habit that I now would find hard to break (see below for all the science on this) but I still try to mindfully re-commit to writing regularly because I'm so conscious that it's not a habit I want to break.

My point is don't expect to commit to a 30-day or even 100-day challenge and then think that that's a new habit formed (though it may well be enough - see below!) but rather be proactive and protective of the time you spend on that habit, because that too will become habitual.

Make sacrifices... or changes

I recently read an article about getting fit and some guru (whose name I forget though I can still picture her six-pack and crazy-muscley arms, of course) was quoted saying that if you have time for Facebook, you have time to exercise. I just sat back and said YES! YES! YES! This is how I feel about writing. If I have time to scroll through strangers' Instagram Stories, then I definitely have time to write a few sentences that may actually progress my creative goals.

I'm not saying banish Facebook or whatever your social media vice may be forever (and I certainly haven't!) but you have to make time for new things, and habit-building requires this to happen regularly and consistently which will mean something may have to give, or rather go. I would like to think that in the long run you'll be better off for making this change too.

However... swapping one bad habit for a (good) creative habit is hard

Aside from the nicotine addiction, there's a reason smokers still find it hard to stop smoking. The habitual action they have done for years (possibly decades) is something that they will really struggle to stop the urge to do again, especially if they're in an environment that reminds them of their bad habit. For example, if someone used to always smoke while waiting for the bus, suddenly waiting for the bus will feel very unnatural for them if they don't have a cigarette in their hand (and I know most bus stops/public transport are now smoking free, but this is just to prove a point). While some people can indeed swap a bad habit for a good one - especially one that uses both the mind and your hands like writing does (and you can absolutely write on your phone - see this post with my favourite apps for doing just that), for others the attachment of smoking with waiting for the bus will last a very long time and they may always feel a bit "lost" at this time. Indeed, research shows that once you develop a habit, you never forget it, even if you no longer do it, that is to say your brain will always remember and store information about that habit. I think (but haven't found the research to confirm it) that that's why I still have dreams about certain events from my childhood that I did repeatedly for years - walking home from school, putting crisps in my sandwiches (!) and playing in a certain park. That is why stopping one bad habit and starting a new one at the same time could prove much, much harder than just starting a new habit and then tackling the bad habit at a later date.

Start small, but think big

If you decide to set yourself a challenge or a goal in order to try and kickstart a new habit, I strongly advise you not to overstretch yourself. The brain needs time to learn new habits and it doesn't always enjoy the early stage of the process. If you've ever tried to to learn a new language you'll know only too well how clunky and awkward (or laughably wrong!) the foreign words sounded in your mouth to begin with, but with a little perseverence, repetition and faith in yourself you improved your pronunciation, your knowledge and your confidence.

If you're going to make writing your habit, I urge you to aim smaller than big sweeping goals like "write my novel" or "write 1000 words every day" because if you've never written regularly before this will be very hard. Heck, I do write regularly and it's still hard. Instead aim for "write one scene from my novel a week" or maybe "write for ten minutes five or six days a week" and see how many words that actually is. You may also find that you will write quite slowly to begin with so word counts can feel very discouraging.

That's not to say you shouldn't one day aim for 1000 words a day, and please, please, please don't ever give up on writing your a novel, but rather focus on building the habit that will enable this to become a reality rather than a huge, intimidating challenge. In short, make "writing a novel" your dream, but "writing for ten minutes a day" your goal. Give your dream lots of love, water and nourishment by giving your goal all your focus and energy.

Use goals wisely

To expand on the previous point a bit, I think it's important to spend a little time understanding what kind of person you are when it comes to goals. Do you already use goals or To Do lists to get tasks done? Does this work well for you? Do goals really motivate you? Do you need to share your aims and ambitions with someone else in order for them to really have an effect? Do you feel so disheartened when you don't meet a goal? Does this then result in you not trying anymore?

The research that says goal-setting works isn't as concrete as you may think, and personally I have a love-hate relationship with goals; sometimes they work for me (hello, NaNoWriMo) but other times they don't. I'm reluctant to say that you should always set specific goals for yourself (like word counts or time spent writing each day) because this will be more counterproductive for some people because goals intimidate and agitate them. 

If goals do work for you then great, go ahead and do what you need to do, but again don't overstretch yourself. Be sure to reward yourself when you meet them, but be happy and content to let them go if you don't.

Understand what it takes to build a habit

There are countless books out there that focus on helping you build a habit (any habit) and this may be useful for you, but I found a little will power and an overall goal is enough to get you started. What is harder, is further down the line when, for whatever reason, you have "broken" the habit and have to force yourself to get back into it... That's a lot harder. However, knowing the following facts about building and keeping a habit should help you cement the habit before you break it, if that makes sense, and this in itself will help you get back on track with it.

  • It takes over two months to form a habit. This means, you may need to actively schedule time to write, set reminders, be vigilant and strict with yourself for more then two months, before it feels easier. I would love to say that I know for certain that magically after 66 days, writing will be a habit you'll easily and naturally do but I don't personally recall when it got easier or more natural for me... and truth be told there are days when it is neither of those things. However, the research suggests 66 days is the sweet spot you should aim for and I am happy to suppport this.
  • Habits help your brain save energy. This is kind of bonkers, huh? But then if you think about it and think about some of the automatic tasks you do every day (taking a shower, making coffee, cleaning your teeth etc.) and you recall how you can think about other things, even do other things while doing these tasks, well it makes complete sense. What this means for your creative habit is that while it may seem a lot of effort and concentration in the beginning, once it becomes a habit, it will feel easier and more natural, and as so many people say, creativity breeds creativity, but that is a topic for another blog post.
  • Once established, habits are very hard to break. You know what it's like when you get into bed without cleaning your teeth? You get straight back up again and do them because Eeewwww and also, it just doesn't feel right because it's something you do every day. It sounds strange, but this is how I feel about writing if I go more than three or four days without it.
  • Repetition is key. If you repeat an action in exactly the same way each time you are more likely to build that habit. This means writing in the same place every day, at the same time every day, and possibly with other rituals attached - i.e. the same mug for your coffee, or the same soundtrack playing in the background. This will help your brain relax into the new habit quicker and these "triggers" will also act as reminders to write.
  • It will be easier if you enjoy it. This isn't based on science or research. This is me going out on a limb saying that while all this talk of habit-building and repetition sounds like quite the long slog and hard work, if you do embark on doing something creative every day, the chances are strong that you're also going to have a lot of fun. Creating is good for us in so many ways, so while the act of reminding ourselves to do it and taking time to do it may prove a challenge, the actual act of creating, writing, drawing, bagpipe-playing, whatever it is you want to do mor eof, well, that should actually be enjoyable. However, if this is not the case then don't pursue this habit. Try something else. Try lots of other things. And if trying lots of different things is what fills you with joy, then keep doing that (and in 66 days that will be your habit - wonderful!)

Do you write regularly? What helped you to build your creative habit? I'd love to hear more!

Sources and Further Reading: 5 Little-Known Facts About Habits, 6 Facts You Need to Know about Establishing Habits, Why Goal Setting Doesn't WorkHow Long Does It Actually Take to Form a New Habit, Five Proven Ways Creativity Is Good For YouFive Interesting Facts About Habits

The cards featured in the photo in this post are WriteNOW Cards - affirmation cards designed for writers to help you build and enjoy your writing practice - they're available to buy in packs of 10 or 50 here, and you can follow WriteNOW Cards on Twitter and Instagram.

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Frances M. Thompson

Londoner turned wanderer, Frankie is an author, freelance writer and blogger. Currently based in Amsterdam, Frankie was nomadic for two years before starting a family with her Australian partner. Frankie is the author of three short story collections, and is a freelance writer for travel and creative brands. In 2017, she launched WriteNOW Cards, affirmation cards for writers that help build a productive and positive writing practice. When not writing contemporary fiction, Frankie shops for vintage clothes, dances to 70s disco music and chases her two young sons around Amsterdam.
Find Frankie on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Pinterest, and Google+.

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