How to Make Writing a Habit (That Sticks!)

Start Building Toward the Future You Want

You want to write because you know that it’s an incredible tool to build exposure and leverage your authority as an expert in your niche.

So you sit down to write, but you find yourself distracted. Or your find yourself putting it off, excusing this writing session for other tasks. Whatever the story is, you’re not getting any closer to meeting your writing goal.

This is a similar story for all of those people who wanted to exercise, learn a new language, play the piano, or pick up some other fulfilling task that will either help them meet professional or personal goals.

“Here’s what you’ve got to do,” the gurus say. “You’ve got to make writing a habit. Simply drum up the discipline, write for 21 days straight and voila! You’ve started a new habit and are well on your way to success.”

Sound familiar?

Here’s the rub: What happens when you lose steam and stop because that habit didn’t stick?

Everyone can recommend a strategy that has worked for them, but the fact of the matter is that there’s no “one-size-fits-all” strategy. You need to find a strategy that works for you.

Let’s do just that – let’s build a habit that sticks.

Why We Do What We Do Despite of Ourselves

Pulitzer prize winning author Charles Duhigg shares how to harness the science behind habits in order to build better businesses, communities, and lives in his book The Power of Habit.*

Duhigg maintains that there are 3 elements that create habits:

  • The Cue – what triggers the habit
  • The Routine – the action or habit in motion
  • The Reward – why we keep coming back

In order to change or create powerful habits, Duhigg recommends 4 steps:

  1. Identify the routine.
  2. Experiment with a reward system.
  3. Isolate the cue.
  4. Have a plan.

Whether to stop bad habits or implement good ones, changing your habits is all about experimentation and data collection so you can appropriately adjust your routine in the face of a particular cue and still get the equivalent of the reward you crave.

To illustrate Duhigg’s recommended strategy, let’s tackle one bad habit many authors are guilty of: procrastination.

Breaking Bad Habits

“We all know how procrastination and dilatory tactics help us to stay away from writing. We are only too happy to cover up our follies and blame ‘writer’s block,’ which is nothing but lack of discipline on our part.” – Ritesh Agarwal, Turn Off Your TV and Write Articles! Comments

We’ve all done it. We’ve all sacrificed a writing goal by making up some excuse:

  • “It’ll just take 5 minutes to check my messages – you know: voice mail, text, email, etc.”
  • “I’ll check my Twitter feed so I’m not the last person to know about something happening in the world.”
  • “I need to check my business’ Facebook page to make sure no one’s comments are unattended.”
  • “They just released the next season of [insert show name] and I need to get a running start before the Internet releases spoilers.”

No wonder we can’t get anything done! Ritesh’s outlook on procrastination in the quote above is absolutely right – it’s a lack of self-control on our parts and we’re quick to make excuses and blame lack of inspiration or writer’s block. Simple or elaborate, our procrastination may have been born out of a choice we once made (no matter how valid), but it may have transitioned into an unconscious habit we now make.

Here’s how you may break the cycle of procrastination using Duhigg’s steps. Let’s use checking Facebook, the common procrastination flavor of the decade, as an example:

1. The Routine:

You sit down to write. During your writing session, you tell yourself you’ll quickly check your Facebook page. You end up on Facebook for 15-30 minutes (maybe longer), taking out a chunk out of your writing time and interrupting your writing flow state.

Cue (????) – > Routine (Checking Facebook) – > Reward (????)

2. Experiment with the Reward:

Consider a variety of benefits you get out of the routine and then change the routine to see if you get a similar reward.

For example, people use Facebook for any number of reasons:

  • Socializing with friends, such as chat, posts, or just checking out what they’re up to.
  • Keeping up-to-date with pages you follow, such as deals, event announcements, promotions, etc.
  • Looking for the latest memes, a quick laugh, or a moment of inspiration.
  • Needing to assert your presence, such as uploading a selfie or updating your status indicating where you are.
  • Leveraging your insights or opinions on posts, such as hot-button topics like politics.

So the next time you feel the Facebook itch during your writing sessions, try doing the equivalent off Facebook for a set period of time, such as 5-10 minutes (many of these will take a little pre-planning on your part):

  • Call a friend or write an email to a friend.
  • Subscribe to newsletters from pages you follow and review these emails.
  • Bookmark the websites of your favorite meme creators or sources of inspiration and check these.
  • Take a selfie and post it to Instagram, post a Tweet, or check into Foursquare.
  • Find a different platform – such as a forum or blog of a topic you’re interested in – and engage in the discussion.

Note: These aren’t solutions to your procrastination problem! We’re experimenting to identify why you’re craving Facebook.

Once you’ve performed the new routine when you get the itch to check Facebook, consider how you feel, what you saw, or any other reflections that come off the top of your head. Write these down so you can track it.

Next, once 15 minutes have passed after performing the new routine, consider – are you still craving Facebook? If you are, then try swapping out another routine. If you aren’t, you’re ready for the next step.

For the sake of illustration, let’s say you discovered the reward you felt for checking Facebook was socializing with friends.

Cue (????) – > Routine (Checking Facebook) – > Reward (Catching Up with Friends)

3. Discovering the Cue:

Each time you get the craving to check Facebook in order to socialize with friends, fill in the blanks:

  • Where were you?
  • What time is it?
  • How do you feel?
  • Are other people around?
  • What were you doing immediately before?

After a while, you’ll see a pattern emerge in one of the above criteria, such as:

  • You’re at your desk, which is cluttered with to-do lists, notes, and other writing ephemera.
  • It’s between 9:30 am and 10:00 am every day, which occurs right in the middle of your writing time.
  • Frustrated.
  • There are people distractedly talking around you while you’re trying to concentrate.
  • You took a phone call.

Let’s say the pattern that emerged is that there are people talking around you, such as your kids or coworkers, which triggers you to check Facebook to reap the feel-good reward of catching up with friends.

Cue (People talking) – > Routine (Checking Facebook) – > Reward (Catching Up with Friends)

4. Have a plan.

Get ahead of the habit by implementing a plan.

For example, to circumvent the cue of people talking around you, control what you can hear by wearing headphones and listening to music that will help you focus. Try isolating yourself into a quiet space – some authors have even gone as far as creating a writing space in the toolshed of their backyards!

Also, have a contingency plan! Try using an if/then statement (“If I have this cue, then I will do this”). For example, “if I hear people talking, I will write a note to myself to check Facebook at a feasible and non-disruptive time.” Here’s another example: “If I feel unmotivated, then I will read an article by an author who inspires me.” These statements will create positive cues that will also help your brain prioritize tasks and choose writing over checking Facebook.

I know – these 4 steps seem rather intricate and experimenting can take up to 2 weeks, but understanding the cause of your bad habits that prevent you from reaching your writing goals is well worth it. Next, let’s talk about getting your writing habit to stick.

Making Writing a Habit: How to Crave Writing

In order to make writing a long-lasting habit, Dr. BJ Fogg of Stanford University asserts that planning for behavior change (creating good or breaking bad habits) is entirely systematic by creating “tiny habits” using the following three steps:**

  1. Get specific with your goals by not targeting the eventual outcome, but by specifying how you will adapt your behavior to achieve that goal.
  2. Make it easy by making the goal tiny. Set a routine quota for the minimum amount of work, such as write 100 words/day.
  3. Trigger your behavior by creating a prompt or cue to make your behavior become an automatic response, such as after my morning coffee, I will write my quota for the day.

It’s important to reiterate that Fogg’s “tiny habits” method targets designing behavioral change in small increments rather than focusing on the desired outcome. Over time, your “tiny habits” of this will expand into bigger behavior and larger output.

Finally, make it even easier to write by creating shortcuts. These could include setting out your work the night before, creating a to-do list, drafting a rough outline, or using writing prompts like the article templates. These will help you eliminate the “what should I” or “what was I going to write about” delay in the morning. That way you don’t have to hem and haw over the choice and you can just jump right to it.

Let’s Wrap These Habits Up

If you’re not sure where to start to create long-lasting habits, consider this quote by Stephen King:

“A man who can’t bear to share his habits is a man who needs to quit them.”

Isn’t it time to start building new habits you would love to be proud of and share with the world?

What are you waiting for?! You have the tools! Start systematically approaching your habits – good and bad – to achieve your goals today. And before you go, share what habit you’d like to break, what shortcut you’ll create to make writing easier every day, or what’s your secret to writing every day. We’d love to hear from you!

Want more resources like this? Check out these 5 articles that will help you on your way to make writing a rewarding habit:

References:
*Duhigg, Charles. The Power of Habit (New York: Random House, 2012).
**Fogg, BJ. “Fogg Method,” http://www.foggmethod.com/

PS: Want an easy way to make writing a habit? Start every writing session right with Article Templates!

9 Comments »


1
Jeannie writes:

Does a “cue” help establish habits better than list-making? More thoughts/success stories on this –

Comment provided April 18, 2014 at 10:09 AM

[Reply]

Hi Jeannie,

List making is certainly a great habit as it helps you prioritize your day with a step-by-step plan, echoing the principle of if/then statements we illustrated above. Using a list can even be the cue necessary to launch a good writing routine. As for success stories on habits, check out Duhigg’s (http://charlesduhigg.com/) and Fogg’s resources (http://www.foggmethod.com/). Both provide great information that show how their methods work and Duhigg provides extensive case study information in his book The Power of Habit. Definitely worth checking out!

~Vanessa

[Reply]

2

Thanks for the post and also for providing the resources given under your reference. Retaining good habits stimulate strength and self-confidence to spread happiness with others. That’s why bad habits tend to maintain secrecy for self-destruction.

Comment provided April 18, 2014 at 10:04 PM

[Reply]

3
Mike writes:

Thanks for the post. The tips really helped me to get rid of my bad habits :)

Comment provided April 19, 2014 at 8:11 AM

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4
patricia gaines writes:

Thank you for this article. Did you write this especially for me??? I certainly needed it.

Comment provided April 20, 2014 at 4:18 PM

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5
Randall Magwood writes:

Writing is definitely a habit for me. I have a list of marketing chores to do everyday, and writing 1 article per day is at the top of the list (after i get my daily workout in of course :)

Comment provided April 20, 2014 at 9:31 PM

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6
Djoser writes:

I love the idea of this. I sometimes get mindfreeze and need to push through to get my habits right.

Comment provided April 21, 2014 at 4:34 PM

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7
Anoop Bhandari writes:

Wow nice this is what I am looking for as I just started a blog and want to creat a new stuff in that just the real quality content and the material you gave to me through htis article is very much needed to write a quality article

Thanks

Comment provided May 15, 2014 at 4:33 AM

[Reply]

8
Divya writes:

This article is worth reading for a newbie blogger like me. As I read it everywhere that real quality article or content always grab huge traffic but no one tell how to write the quality content after going through this article I really come to know at least what good and real content means.
Keep the good work going.

Comment provided May 15, 2014 at 4:36 AM

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