Writing unthinkingly: 7 steps to finding a writing habit that works for you

Write Track

It’s all too easy to put off writing. I’m just way too busy, now’s not the right time, there’s other stuff going on. We know that writers delay writing for years – decades even. Not because of laziness or fear of hard graft but rather because their project seems so overwhelming. This is where the science of habits can help.

Whilst there’s no great secret to writing – you just have to write – there are some tried and tested tips to learn from science which can help you get into the swing of writing regularly and tackle that project you’ve thought about for years.

Habits guru, and head of Stanford University’s Persuasive Technology Lab, Dr B J Fogg is interested in how habits of any kind become embedded in our lives – and we’ve incorporated many of his findings in our habit-forming digital products for writers. Fogg’s research shows that the more you have to remember to do something the more likely you’ll talk yourself out of doing it. He thinks the best way to get something done (and to stop putting it off) is to make it into a habit because a habit is something you do without thinking.

But, whilst we’re probably all too familiar with picking up bad habits, how do you develop ones you actually want – like writing regularly?

Based on our research into behavioural science, here’s our 7-step guide to writing ‘unthinkingly’ and developing a regular writing routine that works for you.

1) Name it

You might have had the idea for a book, story or screenplay swimming around at the back of your mind for years. The first step in achieving your dream is to make your project real by giving it a name. It’s only by making your dream concrete that you can work towards it.

2) Set yourself a tiny goal

Once you’ve named your dream you need to make it attainable. The biggest hurdle to developing a habit is getting started, and writers often fail because their goals are too ambitious. First thing’s first, just ask yourself what one thing can I do next to move my writing forward? Set yourself a tiny goal – just sit at your desk or think about your project for 15 mins a day – the key is to make the first step seem achievable so you’re more likely to do it and the task becomes less daunting.

3) Think daily

Comedian and writer Jerry Seinfeld believes the only way to improve with your writing is to do it every day. His approach involves using a wall calendar on which he puts a cross for each day he writes. He said: “After a few days you’ll have a chain. Just keep at it and the chain will grow longer every day. You’ll like seeing that chain, especially when you get a few weeks under your belt. Your only job is to not break the chain.”

4) Attach it to an existing behaviour

Habits don’t happen in isolation, you need triggers to prompt you to act, and reminders to get your ass in gear. One way to do this is to associate the habit you want to adopt with an activity you do every day on autopilot. So, for example, if you know that you have a cup of coffee without fail every morning, make writing for 15 or 30 minutes the thing you do as you drink it. That way you associate ‘drinking coffee’ with ‘writing’ and you do one activity after another without thinking.

5) Increase your behaviour to a realistic level

Once you’ve identified a tiny habit and attached it to an existing behaviour you need to grow it into a bigger habit. Let’s say your goal is to write five minutes every work day after eating your lunch. For the first week you just do your five minutes each day. At the end of that week you’ve written for a total of 25 minutes. You now need to increase the time, perhaps adding another minute each day, so by the end of the second week you’re writing for 10 minutes each day, by the third 15 minutes.

6) Monitor, adjust and experiment

As with all changes in behaviour, it helps if you log your progress – that way you can look back and see patterns. It also helps you know when the good and bad times are so you can organise your time more effectively. It’s important to tweak your goals as you go along – remember that nothing is set in stone. Evaluate, update and revise your goals as you progress. This isn’t about giving yourself an easy ride, but experimenting to find out what really works.

7) Use rewards (and never ever beat yourself up)

Writing regularly is hard – and that’s why you have to treat yourself to stay motivated. It doesn’t matter whether it’s a series of small treats for each day you’ve written or a bigger celebration for every chapter you complete. The key is to use small incentives to help you keep going the next day – and the next. Crucially, never beat yourself up for missing a day’s writing – that’s a sure-fire way to kill your motivation – but do return to your goals and tweak them if you’ve been over ambitious.

Sign up the Write Track Blog for fortnightly writing tips and to receive our free short ebook, The Liar’s Guide to Writing: 10 Scientifically Proven ways to Trick, Cheat and Lie your Way to Becoming a Better Writer.

Chris Smith is co-founder of Write Track with Bec Evans. He also runs a communications, content and digital marketing agency called Swarm and blogs about creative productivity for the Next Web and Huffington Post. Chris also writes screenplays and makes short comedy films – one of which was shortlisted for the London Comedy Film Festival.

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