Writing Habits: Out with the Old, In with the New
New year, new writing habits!
One of the biggest hurdles that my coaching clients face when they sit down to write is distraction. The overwhelming feeling that there are other things that need doing. This might be the mundane necessities of life (laundry is a biggie), the musts of business (that looming inbox situation), or just the little distractions that we allow our brains to redirect toward when we should be writing (like the computer screen that needs to be cleaned).
There are quite a few tips and strategies that any writer can develop to cut down on the amount of time they waste not writing. But the first step is to actually take a moment to explore our writing practice (or lack thereof) in terms of habits and habit-building. Thinking about your writing as a habit to develop can be a very effective antidote to distraction-fueled avoidance. It helps you think critically about how you function as a writer and gives you a framework for successfully implementing behavioral change. What is an example of a habit in your life?
One we all share is tooth brushing. When you brush your teeth, you likely do not stand in front of the mirror hemming and hawing over which tooth to start with. You probably don’t feel paralyzed by the possibility that you will fail to brush. And I suspect that you don’t decide to vacuum due to a sudden and overwhelming fear of facing your toothbrush. Why? Because you have been brushing twice a day for your whole life. You likely have a specific oral hygiene regimen that you have developed to meet your needs and preferences. You know when you expect to be brushing your teeth and, when the moment arrives, you have a clear goal for the process.
Well, you might say, that’s different. It only takes a few minutes to brush your teeth, whereas writing should take much longer. Plus, you’re writing something new each time you sit down to your practice, whereas you face the same ol’ set of teeth every time. But bear with me. It’s not actually apples to oranges.
Think back to when you were a child. If you are anything like me or the children I’ve known, tooth brushing was not a habit that formed naturally. There were other things I would rather be doing. And, at night, I knew that tooth brushing was the precursor to the dreaded “bedtime.” (Shudder.) There were strict words, there were bargains, there was begging, and there was bribery. I remember my parents standing over me to make sure I actually did it, and later on we developed a system of show-and-tell accountability: I would open my mouth wide to prove the deed was done. And yes, nowadays none of this is necessary. I efficiently and effectively brush by myself, thank you very much. This is a habit that I formed so rigorously that I forget there was once a time when I was an inconsistent and untrustworthy tooth brusher.
Back to writing. For many writers, especially those who are writing for the first time, building an effective writing practice can be painful. Demoralizing, even. They wait to write until inspiration strikes, until they have a lot of time they can set aside, or they stop if and when they don’t like the words that are coming out on the page. The result, more often than not, is that no writing actually happens. Worst case, the writer decides to abandon writing all together.
3 Steps to Un-Learn Bad Habits
The brain is a funny organ. It is a creature of habit. So when trying to establish an effective writing habit, it’s critical to un-learn the writing habit that has been built over a lifetime. Whether it’s not writing at all, waiting for inspiration to strike, or giving yourself permission to let distractions derail your writing time, you already have specific habits formed around writing. You are not a blank slate! Building a better set of writing practices and habits requires you to simultaneously un-learn old habits and establish new, more productive ones.
Recognizing what your current habits are is the first step. Owning them is the second. Up above, where I suggested that you “give yourself permission” to get distracted? Yeah, I meant that! While it often feels like we are slave to our brains when we cannot (cannot!) focus on writing, it is often not the case. Think of other things that you know you must do, even when you don’t really want to. Responding to work emails, perhaps. Taxes. Prepping meals for the week. Things of that ilk. Big or small, we all have the ability to find mental fortitude when we really want to.
So, the second step of breaking bad writing habits is recognizing that you can choose to apply this same mental fortitude to your writing practice. That you can keep going even when the writing feels crappy, maybe even abysmal. That you can table your distractions and stay focused. And I promise that in subsequent posts I’ll give you useable tips and strategies for doing all this!
But the third step is key, too. It’s keeping in mind the payoff of the often-uncomfortable-possibly-even-sometimes-miserable practice of writing when it doesn’t feel good. And the payoff is this: once you’ve formed effective writing habits, it will be astronomically easier to have “good” writing days. Moreover, the “bad” ones will stop feeling so awful. Once you stop feeling like you have to fight through every second of your writing, you will find writing grooves. You will establish strategies to stay within your writing groove. And you will learn how to be productive even when you don’t feel “on.”
The payoff of establishing good writing habits is huge, and well worth the push of facing and overcoming step two of un-learning the old habits.
So stay tuned! Over my next several posts I’ll be sharing some tips and strategies for overcoming the mental hurdle of un-learning unproductive writing habits, and I’ll be talking about what “good” writing habits might look like for you!