I’m still working towards developing a solid habit of writing every day. In January 2019, I wrote about Gretchen Rubin’s advice on habit formation, and Charles Duhigg’s explanation of the neuroscience of habits. I’ve used their advice to help me develop some good everyday habits, like walking, keeping track of my weight, flossing, and making sure the dishes are done before I go to bed.
Writing is a different matter. Today, I’m enlisting the help of Austin Kleon and James Clear.
Austin Kleon’s latest book, Keep Going, says the creative life is not linear. It’s more like a loop, or a spiral, in which you keep coming back to a new starting point after every project.
We need a daily practice that insulates us from the outside world. The only thing we can really control is what we spend our lives on. If you have all the time in the world, a daily routine helps you make sure you don’t waste it.
Observe your days and your moods to establish the best routine. When your days have pretty much the same shape, the days that don’t have that shape become even more interesting.
Make lists, like David Shrigley who makes a huge “to-draw” list, so he doesn’t have to waste time worrying about what to make; or Leonardo da Vinci, who made “to learn” lists.
Forgive yourself when the day doesn’t go well. Before bed, make a list of what you did accomplish, and a list of what you want to accomplish tomorrow, then forget about it.
I highly recommend reading all three of Austin Kleon’s friendly, encouraging books on creativity. They’re deceptively small books, jam packed with good advice and inspiration.
James Clear is the ultimate guru on habit formation. Between his website, his awesome weekly newsletter, his Habits Academy, and the Clear Habits Journal (suitable for bullet journaling but oriented towards his recommendations), and of course his 2018 book Atomic Habits, he has everything I should need to create that elusive daily writing habit.
His approach is brilliant in its simplicity. He boils the research down to four laws, each of which has a corresponding inversion for habits you want to get rid of.
The First Law: Make it Obvious
Make an implementation intention: “I will [behavior] at [time] in [location].” With repetition, you’ll get an urge to do the right thing at the right time. When your dreams are vague, it’s easy to rationalize little exceptions all day long and never get around to the specific things you need to do to succeed. I will sit at my desk to write at 1 p.m. every day.
Use habit stacking (Gretchen Rubin called this the pairing strategy): identify a current habit and build the new one on top of it. You build momentum and can actually create a chain of multiple habits that feed into each other. I use this for my walks: after I have a cup of coffee, I take the dog for a walk. After I read the comics, I’ll plan my writing session.
Design your environment to create obvious visual cues. Put the book you want to read before bed on your pillow. Make sure the best choice is the most obvious one. It can be easier to build a new habit in a new place, where you don’t already have cues telling you to do what you’ve always done. If you can’t do that, try rearranging your current space. I’ve drifted into a habit of doing other things at the desk where I write—crossword puzzles, taking care of email, paying bills. I’ll do those other things elsewhere. I’ll set up my desk with my favorite writing pen and brainstorming paper, and post my writing plan for the day where I can see it as soon as I sit down.
Inversion: Make it Invisible
Don’t rely on grit and willpower to break bad habits; create a more disciplined environment instead. Leave the phone in another room, uninstall apps that are wasting your time, take the tv out of the bedroom. It’s easier to avoid temptation than to resist it. I’ll turn off Mail and Discord so I don’t get notifications on the computer, and leave the phone on the charger in the living room.
The Second Law: Make it Attractive
Use temptation bundling: link the new habit to something you enjoy. I listen to podcasts while I walk the dog, for instance. I’ll listen to music and drink tea while I write.
Use the power of fitting in with the group by joining a culture where your desired behavior is the norm. The shared identity reinforces your personal identity as a person who does what you want to have a habit of doing. Imitate successful people. I’ll meet regularly with other writers, and pay attention to their good habits.
Reprogram your brain to highlight the benefits, not the drawbacks, of the habit you want. I get to make up stories and write them down! Create a motivation ritual, like taking three deep breaths and smiling or lighting a specific candle, to get yourself in the mind-set to perform.
The Third Law: Make it Easy
Don’t get bogged down in a question for perfection: start with repetition. All habits start as effortful practice before they become automatic behavior. Standardize before you optimize.
Take easy steps (this is the principle behind Katharine Grubb’s book, Write a Novel in Ten Minutes a Day). Use the two-minute rule: instead of vowing to do a whole session of yoga, just commit to taking out your yoga mat. Make starting the habit as easy as possible. I’ll commit to working on my project for 10 minutes at 1 p.m. daily, no matter what.
Reduce the friction that makes the habit harder. At the end of each writing session, I’ll make a note about where to start next time.
Use habit shaping to build on that 2-minute starter habit—add an intermediate 2-minute step, and so on—until you’ve achieved the full habit you intended to form. Once I’ve mastered the 10-minutes-a-day writing habit, I’ll extend the goal.
Use one-time actions with big payoffs: unsubscribe from emails and use email filters, delete game apps, buy smaller plates, set up automatic bill pay. I’ll deal with those nagging technical issues that get in my way when I sit down to write.
The Fourth Law: Make it Satisfying
Add a little immediate pleasure to habits that pay off in the long run and a little immediate pain to the ones that don’t. I’ll print out my written pages so I can admire them at the end of every writing session.
Use a habit tracker like Jerry Seinfeld does for writing jokes, and don’t break the chain. The tracker gives you a visual cue reminding you of what you want to do, motivates you by showing your progress, and feels satisfying. I’ll use my DIY MFA spreadsheet to track my streak. Gabriela Pereira’s book, DIY MFA is another great resource for writers looking to build good habits. She recommends collecting data on your writing life—time of day, location, other environmental factors, and what you got done—for 3 weeks, then analyzing it to figure out what works best for you. I did that, and now use a simplified version of the same spreadsheet as a habit tracker.
Just show up—don’t beat yourself up if you miss a day, but don’t skip the second day too.
Get an accountability partner and maybe set up consequences for what will happen if you don’t follow through.
There’s lots more in James Clear’s excellent book, including case histories and examples of how to apply these principles to all kinds of habits.
There you have it! That’s my plan. It’s almost November, time for NaNoWriMo, the best possible time to experiment with a new writing habit. Wish me luck, and please share your ideas in the comments below!