Important Habits Every Writer Needs to Establish

January 24, 2018

If it wasn’t one thing it was another. I’d been trying to finish the last few chapters of my book around my kids’ schedules and my client’s requests. Nothing was getting done. I needed to be more deliberate with how I wrote and planned my days. What I needed was a routine. Habits that I could put in place to ease my workflow and keep my sanity. It was the step in the right direction but, like Rome, habits are not built in a day.

Habits are those routine actions we make without thinking about them much. These routine actions can be beneficial or harmful, depending on what they are. Good habits reflect a healthy attitude and a general sense of well-being overall. Most good habits, like brushing your teeth or exercising three times a week, are great for anyone. But you aren’t just anyone. You’re an author and you have a different set of habits you need to establish.

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Habits an Author Should Establish

Besides the myriad habits we already have, authors should specifically develop three habits that will move them forward towards their writing goals.

Write every day. Look at it this way: writing every day is a lot like training for a marathon. At first, it’s hard. Your legs cramp up, you’re out of breath within five minutes and that 26+ mile race seems like a pipe dream. But, every day you go back out. You try again and again. After repeated practice, the running becomes easier. You run for longer times without a side stitch. Your legs don’t cramp up. And, eventually, you run the marathon.
Same is true for writing. It’s hard at first. You don’t know what you’re doing or if it’s any good. There are moments of despair. But you keep trying. And, eventually, you improve. But you can’t improve without practice. And that’s what writing every day does for you.

Read all the books. If you aren’t taking time to read, you’re missing half the tools of writing. When you read, you are taking in how words are fitted together, why story drives itself to its inevitable conclusion, and how characters impact you in ways you’d never thought possible. Reading informs how you write, and if you aren’t reading, then Mr. Stephen King is correct. You don’t have the tools to write.

Choose books that inform as well as entertain. Books on the writing craft (Strunk & White, Plot & Development, On Writing, etc.) are just as important as poetry (Polishing the Petoskey Stone by Luci Shaw, Shakespeare’s sonnets, anything by Maya Angelou) to your favorite fiction authors. Read always, keep a notebook nearby, and write down anything that strikes you.

Take care of you. Your writing isn’t going to happen if your body or mind is exhausted or depleted. So, set aside time every day to do something that keeps you healthy, like exercising, meditation, preparing (and then eating) a healthy meal. And don’t forget that you need to recharge mentally and emotionally, too. Turn off the computer (or put the pen and paper away) and spend time with family, go out to the movies, take a walk in the park, learn something new, play an RPG. Whatever gives you an energy boost – and is healthy and legal, mind you – and fills your energy levels back up. After all, you must take care of yourself if you’re going to have the stamina to write a novel.

Alive and Writing | important habits every writer needs to establishBesides these writing daily, reading voraciously, and staying physically and mentally healthy, you may also want to:

  1. Set Goals – a goal gives you direction and something to aim for
  2. Put Up Boundaries – let others know writing is important to you and that you need the time and space to practice your craft
  3. Keep a journal – have a physical space to capture your thoughts, snatches of conversation, ideas, or whatever.

You now know what habits to establish, you need to do them regularly.

Why Habits Fail

Before we chat about habit-building, let’s talk about the elephant in the room. You know, those habits you started but never established? Yeah, those.

One of the biggest reasons setting a habit fails is the habit is not a habit. It’s a goal. We chatted about goal setting in Episode 3 but in general, a goal is the end state, not the journey. The habit is an action that can help you on your way to that end destination.

Let’s look at a SMART goal and how habits can help accomplish it.

“By 2023, I will have twenty books of fifty thousand words or more published on Amazon Kindle.”

That’s my goal, by the way, and where I’d like my professional life to be in five years. But to get to that goal, I need to break it down into smaller, bite-size chunks that allow me to move towards it. I will need smaller tasks that can be accomplished in short-time periods but still aim me at my final, and big, goal. That is where creating a writing habit using the Habit Loop comes in.

The Habit Loop as Framework for Habit Creation

To recap, a habit is an action performed regularly, whether that’s daily, twice a day, once a week, etc. And to create a new habit – or change an old one – you’ll need a framework to build it on.

The most common framework is the Habit Loop, developed by Charles Duhigg, author of The Power of Habit. It’s a three-part system for developing a habit: cue, routine, and reward

The cue – or trigger – is what starts the habit and can fall under one of these categories: time, location, other people, emotional state, and immediately preceding action. For example, when you turn left to go to work when you mean to turn right to go to your son’s school. Or, you hear the music of an ice cream truck, and you stand up, searching your pockets for loose change. The turn at the intersection or music is the cue that signals your brain to get going.

The routine – or the habit itself – is the behavior you want to change or establish. Your new habit can be anything you want to automate or do regularly without thinking too much about it.

Rewards are how our brains decide if the preceding actions (cue and routine) are worth remembering. And a habit is established because the brain receives a positive reward (or feels good) at the end of the loop. Rewards can be tangible (e.g. ice cream), intangible (e.g. playing a video game), or have no value but what is given (e.g. points).
By understanding, and using, this loop of behavior, you can establish a habit that will help you reach your goals.

Creating a Writing Habit

As an author, I want the habit of writing (not a riding habit like Chautona in Episode 4) because it keeps me moving towards my ultimate 5-year goal but because the act of writing makes me happy. Good intentions, however, do not survive long in my household. Instead, a solid plan with some dedication and perseverance are needed to make daily writing a habit. Let’s create a Habit Loop so I can write every day and make it stick.

Cue – Time-based cues are the most common to trigger a habit but I find that it doesn’t work for me. I’ve tried. Instead, I will go with “immediately preceding action.” In this case, once I’m dressed down to my shoes.

Routine – The habit I want to establish is writing but that’s nebulous. Let’s make it more specific. I want to write until I reach 2,000 words. I know from past-experience that will take me about two to three hours if I’m prepped ahead of time.

Reward – Now for the fun part! Having to check off that done box in my planner is rewarding but so are cookies and coffee, which are tangible rewards. I could just as easily post an announcement on my Facebook page I’ve written 2,000 words (an intangible reward) or put a sticker on a calendar, a la the Chain Method (no value but what is given reward).

Now that I’ve decided on the parts of the loop, I can rewrite them into a single statement:

When I am dressed for the day down to my shoes, I will write 2,000 words on my current project and then have a cup of coffee with creamer.

Eventually, we want to get to where the intrinsic value of the habit is rewarding enough. My (eventual) habit will be:

When I am dressed for the day down to my shoes, I will write 2,000 words on my current project because it provides me with a sense of accomplishment and forward progress.

Now I have a Habit Loop created, I must make it part of my daily routine. And this is where things get sticky because I know I’ll fail. Not because it’s too big, complicated, or a goal rather than a habit. No. It’s because anything worth doing requires practice. I need to do this loop repeatedly and, until it becomes automatic, there will be days it won’t happen like I want it too. But, with focus and dedication and trying different rewards, I will overcome my stumbling blocks until I have a daily writing habit.

What kind of habit do you want to establish as an author? Let us know in the comment section!




Charles Duhigg – The Power of Habit

How to Create the Habit of Writing

Unlocking the Science of Habits

Habitica – The Habit Loop

Habit Articles by James Clear

Forget Big Change, Start with a Tiny Habit (video)

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