We’ve all been there. We make a promise to ourselves that we’ll start running every morning, drink 8 glasses of water a day, or read every night before bed. Humans are privy to the benefits of positive habits, but that doesn’t mean we always…well, do them.
About five years ago, I wanted to start a daily writing habit — just thirty minutes a day — but I couldn’t make it stick. I procrastinated and found every excuse not to do it. If I managed to sit down for three days in a row, I would inevitably mess up on the 4th.
I finally looked into habit formation, and by God — it worked!
Basically, there are three parts to a habit : 1) The Cue, 2) The Routine, and 3) The Reward. Below, you’ll find how to either create these from scratch, or replace them in a bad habit you already have in place.
1. Create a Cue
Triggers are used in both positive and negative habit formation. Someone dieting might be triggered to cheat when it’s time to watch their nightly TV show (and grab a snack). Someone with a drinking problem could be triggered by ice clinking in a glass, the sourness of a lime, or just ‘5:00’ popping up on the clock. All habits have triggers, whether you realize it or not.
One option: replace a bad habit with your writing habit. If you do this, you can use your previous trigger, and begin associating it with writing. Let’s say your bad habit is eating a pint of ice cream every night. Dig deep to find its trigger. Maybe it’s when the sun goes down, or when you’ve finished taking your nightly shower.
Once you know your bad habit’s trigger, you’ll be more cognizant of it. The next time the sun goes down, you’ll objectively notice yourself craving cookie dough. Instead of grabbing the pint though, sit down at your keyboard. Do this consciously and repetitively over a number of weeks (usually two). After those few weeks, you will have replaced your bad habit, and your trigger will now cause a positive action — writing.
Another option: start a brand new habit. If you don’t have a bad habit to replace, you will still follow a similar routine as above, but now you get to pick your trigger. This is the fun part. For me, it’s lighting a candle. For other writers, it’s making or smelling coffee. Find something you enjoy doing — but something small.
Warning: A few writers choose bad habits as their writing triggers, like pouring a whiskey and sitting down at their keyboard. This isn’t recommended.
2. Pick your routine
It’s obvious for us — writing. But decide how long you will write. Half an hour? An hour? Three hours? Last I heard, Stephen King writes for eight, and he’s not doing so bad.
Make sure your routine doesn’t turn into: sit down and write for five minutes, and surf the net for the other 55. Don’t just create a bad habit.
3. Select your reward
Yes! That’s right! You get a reward!
For bad habits, some rewards are getting a buzz from your first drink, the sweetness of chocolate, or some other immediate satisfaction.
You should get some natural satisfaction at having written at all. And why not? You should be proud of your hard work. That being said, I’m still a big believer it adding something more tangible…
You may have heard of writers who use calendars. Every day that they write, they get to marker a big X on that day. The goal becomes to create a streak of boxes, and not to break the chain. They get a certain satisfaction from this.
Some other ideas include taking your afternoon walk, playing your favorite song, meditating, napping, cooking, reading a blog, checking your social media, or getting to tweet about it — whatever you can do on a daily basis, consistently, directly after writing.
For me, I watch an episode of something. I love television. I let myself watch one episode a night, but only if I write. If I watch TV at any other point of the day, I feel guilty for being lazy. But if I watch it after writing, I feel like I’ve deserved it. Guilt-free television.
Yes, there’s some self-discipline involved with this. You have to hold yourself accountable to not skip the writing and jump straight to the reward. No one said it was going to be easy at first, but if you stick to it, I promise it’ll get better.
So, get writing!