Harness the power of habits for writing productivity

Have you ever heard a writer say – I’d really like to break my pesky writing habit? Likely not. Writers generally agree that writing habits work: Momentum drives progress. Each day becomes easier to overcome resistance and start producing. Additionally, with regular progress, planning becomes more predictable.

Surprisingly though, despite motivation, as writers, we often know markedly little about research in habit building. In lieu of research, unhelpful myths circulate, such as: If I could just write for 21 straight days, then my habit would be in place. Thankfully, there is worthwhile research on habit building, so let’s look at a few key principles and the framework underlying any habit. 

Guiding principles of habit building (and the myths they replace)

Principle 1: Micromanage the Microhabit

Rather than directly starting with the end goal, begin with its kernel, or microhabit. The rules of microhabits are simple. They must be specific, easy, and completed in 1 minute or less. Consider a common writing habit goal of: I will journal daily. This is actually not very specific, nor easy, nor completed in one minute. Comparatively, I will write one paragraph in my journal before breakfast, is better. However, even more attainable is: Daily at the breakfast table, I will write one sentence. 

While obviously a one-sentence-writing-habit is not the final destination, an established microhabit can be extended, incrementally, into the actual goal. Over time (perhaps adding one sentence weekly?) you can transform such a habit, almost imperceptibly, into sustainable daily journaling. (At this modest rate, in one month, you are writing paragraphs daily). Most importantly, the scale of microhabits allow them to start at any moment. Like now.

Microhabits defy another myth of habits, which is, To cultivate discipline, I need a lifestyle overhaul. This concept underlies “bootcamps” and “cleanses” and other habit-changing extremes.  Accordingly, to enact change, you may envision a fully transformed version of you, in which you floss, eat only farm-sourced foods, complete 10Ks for charities, change smoke detector batteries before they beep, AND write. But, as Michael Bungay Stanier in The Coaching Habit, explains, such overhaul attempts rarely fit into life, and often lead to failure (i.e., New Year’s resolutions?), while microhabits lead to meaningful, and sustainable change.

Principle 2: Target the Trigger

Another problematic myth is: To form a habit, I should fixate on the end goal. Yet, despite the pleasure of vision board gazing, conviction alone does not form a habit. Instead, drawing from B. J. Fogg’s work on “behavior design”, consider the triggers. The triggers are the tiny events that happen directly before the behavior (i.e., writing) occurred … or did not occur. Triggers set a chain of actions in motion, but are often outside of conscious thought.

Understanding your triggers requires conducting naturalistic research with you as the subject.  Returning to the hypothetical goal of daily breakfast-time journaling, perhaps in Week 1, you ultimately wrote for 4 of 7 days. Therefore consider the 3 days that you did not write.  What happened exactly before you chose a different direction? Did you check your email? Did you decide that you would be more focused with a nap? Did the phone ring? Once you know your negative triggers, you can be proactive to prevent them. Perhaps you set a policy of internet start time; or set an evening alarm to remind yourself to go to bed; or silence your phone at breakfast.

Equally important is to study the positive triggers on the days when you wrote exactly as planned: What action had just happened? Where were you? Who else was around? Where was your phone?  Use that information to try to duplicate your success. Maybe your positive trigger was a strategically placed sticky note on the coffee pot, or a “writing alarm” on your phone.  Once you can identify what triggers assist in your habit building, then you can capitalize on them. Alternatively, like any ritual, you can design one to support the behavior that you are aiming at. For example, I make a cup of tea before writing. I often forget to drink it, but it now cues me to write.

Principle 3: Relish the Reward

Finally, to close the habit loop, we need to consider all three parts in concert: the trigger—routine (i.e., writing) — reward. As explained by Charles Duhigg in the Power of Habit, the reward is essential for sustaining a habit. It may require some experimentation to get the right reward sorted out, because the most obvious rewards, like chocolate, may create other problems if overdone. Therefore, think beyond food. For example, reading a chapter from a novel work rewards me after a writing session. Because I’m often forced to stop at critical plot points, I’m left wanting to return – this creates a craving for my writing time.

Additionally, the process of tracking and watching growth over time is intrinsically rewarding.  (If you’ve experienced the happiness of your fitness band buzzing on your wrist, you know this to be true!) For writing, logs that automatically tally your minutes or words can be highly sustaining. Social reinforcements are also highly motivating, so having an immediate check-in (virtual or real) provides accountability and a cheerful word. Alternatively, going for a short walk can cap a writing routine, with the outdoor time providing a natural mood boost. Again, the goal is that the reward will become a craving that helps to enliven the cue.

Final Thoughts

Building a habit is essentially outsmarting yourself. Use your conscious mind to harness unconscious behaviors to meet your goals. That leaves your conscious mind with more time and energy to do the brilliant writing that you are meant to do.

Erin McTigue is an Associate Professor at Texas A&M University in the Department of Teaching, Learning & Culture, and co-directs P.O.W.E.R. Writing Services and the TAMU Reading Clinic.