There’s no real shortcut when it comes to creativity and writing. For all the gurus out there who tell you that you can write a good-quality book in 48 hours (or some incredibly fast turnaround), that’s not sustainable or even ideal. Yes, it is possible to come up with a decent outline and type madly into your word processor for two days, downing Redbull and losing sleep. And you could very well come out with an okay 60-page ebook in your niche. That’s great.
But for any longer book projects, especially fiction or nonfiction books that really engage and entertain your readers, you will be writing for long periods of time. And if writing is not your full-time job, then you’ll want to develop ways to slowly and methodically get to the finish line.
That’s where writing habits come in.
I recently read the book Atomic Habits by James Clear (highly recommended!) where he lays out how to develop healthy habits and break unhealthy ones. Two key takeaways to note:
- Incremental gains: It’s easier to establish a habit if you aim to improve in very small ways, like get 1% better today instead of suddenly writing 1,000 words out of nowhere for the next 30 days. If you start with just the act of showing up and writing for 5 minutes (doesn’t matter what), then you cultivate the seeds of the habit by sitting down wherever you do your writing and moving your pen across the page or fingers across the keyboard.
- Being specific on how: This is why New Year’s Resolutions fail. They’re nebulous and vague. Eat healthy. Exercise more. Lose weight. But no details on how exactly you will get to those outcomes. James Clear emphasizes that you’re better off with a systems approach than a goals approach. What this means is instead of simply telling yourself that you’d like to be a prolific writer, or that you’d like to eat better (goals), you look at ways of creating systems in your life that naturally lead to those outcomes. I.e, “eating healthy” becomes “Cooking meals at home from scratch three times a week” and “Being a prolific writer” becomes “I will publish a new blog post every Tuesday and Friday.” And you do this by first setting what scientists call an “implementation intention.” Here’s our formula:
“I will write at [time] for [length of time] at [location].
So if we think about these two things with regards to installing the infrastructure of daily writing into our lives, here’s what we come up with:
- Start with small writing sprints (smaller than that – like REALLY small, 5 minutes. Trust me… :)) I think people often forget that creativity is a muscle of sorts, and just like you wouldn’t jump off the couch and run your first marathon without doing some training first, you shouldn’t think it reasonable to jump off the couch and suddenly be able to write a book in 3 days. Start by setting your implementation intention, and then consistently showing up for a week. At the very beginning, this means simply sitting down and writing whatever you want for 5 minutes. Then stopping. The key is to force yourself to stop at 5 minutes even if you’re on a roll. For the first week you’re just focusing on doing your writing sprint at the same time and place. It becomes part of your daily life, like brushing your teeth.
- Then incrementally increase: Once you feel comfortable just showing up for your writing session, then start increasing the amount of time in increments of 5 minutes. Now do 10-minute writing sprints for a week. You could write whatever you like, whether it be keeping a gratitude journal, doing Morning Pages (as part of the popular Artist’s Way book by Julia Cameron), or writing short stories. At this point, it’s more important to keep your writing appointment with yourself than focusing on the output/content of your writing.
- Don’t break the chain: One popular habit-forming technique that works really well for creative pursuits is called Don’t Break the Chain, where you keep track of your progress on a physical calendar. Every time you complete your writing sprint, cross it off with a big X. After a few days you’ll start to form a chain. And a few more days after that, you’ll really regret breaking the chain, which pushes you to keep your writing appointment instead of blowing it off. Placing this near your writing space is a good reminder of your progress, and motivation to keep it up.
Developing a solid writing habit is like developing endurance and muscle-memory for when you want to take on bigger projects.
You’ll be ready for when you want to write your first novel, or your memoir, or perhaps that sci-fi trilogy you shelved because you can’t get past Chapter 2. You’ll have the writing habit set up in your life that fits with your energy levels and your day-to-day demands. You will have done the work to cultivate systems instead of dreaming of goals and never moving towards them.
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