The Power of Habit is Real

We’ve all heard this advice a million different ways: bum in seat, don’t wait for the muse, don’t worry about how bad it is – just get the words down. It’s been six weeks since I vowed to write for an hour every day, and I can tell you one thing: it works. It’s not as simple as writing gurus say it is though, which is of course why people find it so hard to follow (guilty). Here’s what I’ve learned so far:

 

Schedules help you make time, and help free up time.

 

Every functional freelancer I’ve known, or known about, has a solid work schedule. My father’s the best example I know. He gets up and sits down at his desk at the same time every day. Because he sets aside work hours and sticks to them, he has tons of time to muck about in the garden, go deep-sea diving, watch movies, play with robot LEGO, practice glassblowing, renovate the house, and so on. He gets the work done first thing in the morning, so he’s allowed to do whatever he wants for the rest of the day. If it’s a big job, he might work all afternoon too, but he still has evenings to himself because he works at a steady pace.

 

You have to be strict with yourself.

 

The second week of my new writing habit, after the initial buzz wore off, was the worst. I didn’t always want to sit down to write, but I did anyway. My brain fought like crazy, because I wanted to do something else, or couldn’t think of what to write.I didn’t give in to the tantrum. I sat down for that hour no matter what. After a couple weeks of fighting, my brain realized it wasn’t getting out of it. Ever. Even if I push the hour all the way to 11 pm, I stop doing whatever made me push it back and write until midnight. That’s the deadline, and I’m not allowed to miss it for anything.

Not being allowed to do something else for that hour meant if I didn’t write, I had to stare at a blank screen. I always ended up writing something. If I didn’t have anything to write, I wrote whatever came to mind. Sure it might be garbage, but at least my fingers were typing. I was sure, from all the advice I’d read, that if you force the physical habit, the brain will eventually settle into the pattern and start actually coming up with stuff.

My last terrible writing session was one where I wrote, “Am I Just Writing Crap?” and poured out all my frustrations. My take-away from that was if I wanted to avoid this situation in the future, I’d best plan what I want to write in advance. Even if I don’t write what I planned, having one will make sure I have something to do if the muse isn’t throwing new stuff at me.

 

Wordcount doesn’t matter that much. Neither does turning off the internal editor.

 

Spewing words out as fast as you can and never looking back is a load of crap. I’ve noticed a correlation between how fast I write vs. quality. I can write almost 2000 words/hour, but every one of them is unsalvageable garbage. Every blog post I wrote that quickly had to be redrafted from scratch. Sure it gave me an outline, but I can work with what I’ve got a lot better if I slow the fuck down. With practice I’ve been getting faster, but I know what a good pace feels like now, and it’s one with frequent pauses to reorient my thoughts.

Don’t forget that thinking time counts as well. So what if you rewrite the same sentence three times before moving on. It’ll be a less crappy sentence than one you blorped out without a care. This is why I decided on a block of time rather than wordcount. An hour a day is manageable, and not a total waste of time if I don’t get much out of it. If I had a wordcount goal instead, I’d be tempted to rush, or I’d spend hours agonizing if the writing wasn’t happening fast enough.

If I finish my planned writing early, I can spend the rest of the hour planning the next writing session. What matters is staying engaged with my writing projects. It’s become The Sacred Hour. I don’t answer the phone or log onto the internet. I make sure tea is taken care of beforehand. For this hour, I must be looking at this screen and nothing else.

 

It gets easier as the habit forms.

 

It took me ages to stop making excuses and put this advice into practice. After clearing the bad starting patch, I find myself angsting about my writing less because I’ve taken one source of stress out of the equation. If I will write is no longer a question, because I will no matter what. The question is now what I will write, which changes day by day.

I’ve been doing a similar thing with drawing, making myself do it for a half-hour minimum per day. I had a couple projects on the back burner forever, and finally managed to finish one of them. The other is in the planning stage, and in the meantime I’m using the “scribble journal” as a way to bang that half-hour out when I don’t have anything else to do.

If I total my designated writing hour, 30 min drawing, and 30 min exercise, that’s only two hours of my day. If I get into a groove with a project I’ll keep going on it, but not all day to avoid burn-out. I also leave something to do for the next day so I don’t start cold. I’m getting little projects done so fast, I’ve been finding myself at loose ends about what to do with the rest of my day. I can actually add more projects onto the pile, and even spend part of my day doing things just for fun. Since I got into the habit, I even managed to get this blog post done during my vacation.

Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmailby feather

Sarah Dimento

The only thing interesting about me is my interest in interesting things – and sometimes I make cool shit.

6 thoughts to “The Power of Habit is Real”

  1. I fail occasionally – or I can’t write because my brain is literally mush – but I have been doing this for years, and formally ‘turned pro’ 12/12/12.

    Steven Pressfield’s book, Turning Pro, was immeasurably helpful in this: it basically says you can bellyache or you can consider yourself a working pro – choose, and stop whining.

    Nice book. I am not published quite yet, but I’ve been a working pro 2.5 years+ now, and apologize to no one.

    Fish or cut bait is the way it’s often described.

    Welcome to the pros. (by a half-pro)

    Alicia

    1. Thanks. 🙂 It’s ok to fail occasionally of course – being less crucial once the habit is established. I’ve been extra strict on myself because it hasn’t become a proper habit yet. It’s too easy to dodge out early and say, “Oh well, I tried.” without actually trying much at all.

      I haven’t had much luck stretching my writing hour to two or more yet on a regular basis, but at least that hour a day is getting done. At this rate I might actually make my goal of finishing the first draft of my second novel this year.

      1. After you make the decision to write, the next two things that help – if you don’t have them already – are Freedom and Anti-Social – little programs that block the internet or the set of sites you select, respectively (for when you need stuff ON the net to write).

        My hardest decision many days is to start up the appropriate program – after which the mind focuses nicely, because it takes a bigger effort to surf (restart computer, type in password several times, wait).

        I WANT to write; my scattered brain sees Shiny! or Squirrel! and by the time I rein it in, there goes an hour or three.

        In fact, I’m off to block as soon as I can take that step (final edits are sort of boring).

        Like it’s easier to eat healthy food if it’s sitting there, ready. Easi-ER, not easy.

        1. I’ve been using my iPad, with a small bluetooth keyboard, to write first drafts. The writing app I use is clean and simple, minimizing distractions, and there’s enough friction between switching apps that I tend not to. Turning on the keyboard is a nice trigger to put my brain in gear for writing. There’s also airplane mode if I find I need to switch off the internet completely so I can focus. Oh, and I can write in any quiet corner I can curl myself in, which helps relax me enough to keep my internal editor quiet so I can just get the words down. I save working at my computer for editing.

          Of course, as you say, the decision to start is the hardest. I’ve been blocking out my time to help with that. For example, if I find myself getting distracted with internet browsing or whatever I tell myself, “Ok, you have until 1:30 to mess around.” Once the clock hits that mark, it’s time to close that internet window and open the writing app. I find I usually obey my own orders when I give myself some time-limited slack.

          1. I think I’m going to have to come down hard with the OPPOSITE solution: if I don’t write/edit/whatever by 2PM, I don’t get to that day.

            I keep putting off starting, then I’m at it until my energy literally runs out – and the rest of my life is getting sadly neglected, because, you know, the writing is more important.

            I never meant it to take my WHOLE life, even though that sounds good somehow.

            Whatever works – and be prepared for the ground to shift under you.

            1. I’ve had that problem, neglecting everything to work like mad on a project. Unfortunately it’s always been on stuff that doesn’t get me anywhere, like modding. I have to put firm limits on my hobbies, but if I get all manic and can’t stop thinking about said useless project, tearing myself away from it to work on something more important can be like torture.

              I actually managed to write an hour a day during a time where I’d rather be making 3D models. I’m hoping this means I’m learning how to balance my life.

Comments are closed.