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Creating a Writing Habit

While I enjoy writing, it had always fallen into the category of ‘fun thing to do when I have the time’. Even when I’m trying to be more serious about my writing, and create a daily habit, it seems to be the thing on the schedule most likely to be pushed off until later when things are busy. And let’s face it, things are ALWAYS busy.

A month ago or so, I finished the audiobook for The Power of Habit: Why We Do in Life and Business by Charles Duhigg. It gave me some insight as to why, when trying to establish several new habits, I had done so well with doing my exercising every day, and so poorly with trying to write every day. I learned that an important step in the habit loop, or in the creation of a habit is the trigger, or cue. The thing that tells us it’s time to do the thing.

For exercising, my husband had declared that we would go to the gym together on Tuesdays and Thursdays as soon as he was home from work and Sundays first thing in the morning. Those are weight lifting days, so I decided I would jog first thing in the morning before I could be distracted by other activities on other days, or on work days when I can’t get up early enough, I would ride our exercise bike or take a walk after dinner. So even though the cue varied from day to day, I had several cues ready, and even a back up cue – if I had an appointment or something else that kept me from jogging in the morning, I had a plan to bike or walk after dinner. Having a back up plan is also mentioned as a key to success in the book. Without knowing the steps to habit formation, we had set ourselves up for success with exercise, and we have been more regular in our workouts for the past six months than we’d been in years.

For writing, my plan was – do it in the evenings, when there’s time. Obviously, that isn’t as good a plan. Now that I understand more about how habits work, I am completely unsurprising that this master plan has mostly failed. Also, before reading The Power of Habit, I tried making a more detailed plan for myself. I would blog on this night, I’d work on fiction these other two nights, I’d work on the staff newsletter for work on another night, and the work blog the other night. Not only could I never remember what I was supposed to be doing on what night, this also failed because I still only had a vague – do it sometime in the evening when there is spare time – cue and that just didn’t work for me. There is always something I need to do. So the writing got pushed aside. Again.

What I’m trying now: I downloaded a habit tracking app that lets you set a reminder alert. You could just use whatever alarm timer you already have on your phone I suppose. I first tried setting it for 5:30, thinking it would just remind me to write sometime tonight when I found the time. Just keep the idea if writing more forward in my mind. That didn’t fly. I’m usually just leaving work, or planning dinner, or in the middle of something at that time. I glance at the reminder, but quickly move on. So I thought about when I’m most likely to be able to stop what I’m doing and actually write. I reset the timer for 8:30. I might be finishing up on the exercise bike, or grading school work, or doing laundry, but I’m just as likely to be playing a game. I decided that the timer would now mean – finish up what your doing in the next few minutes and start writing. I also decided that I would only expect 30 minutes of writing. That way if I really did have important things to get back to, 30 min wouldn’t hurt that, and if I didn’t know what to write, I could flail for 30 min without too much stress.

Has it worked? Not perfectly, but much, much better. I was writing maybe a night or two a week before, despite feeling like I’d like to do more. Now I’m hitting 4 to 5 nights easily, and usually once I’ve sat down and started, I go way past 30 minutes. I’m definitely on a better track. It’s been about two weeks with this new system, and it seems to be getting easier over time. I’m looking forward to my writing time instead of stressing about it – like how I actually look forward to my jog. Who would have thought that could happen? So we’ll check in in another month or so and see how the habit has come along.

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