Routine and Habit

So it’s Thursday morning and I realize that I totally spaced writing this week’s post last night, and – being me – immediately flip to “what do I write about?” because I didn’t even think about writing this week’s post yesterday.

Then the topic landed in my lap: I didn’t think about this week’s post because yesterday was the 4th and I wasn’t at work. In short, I wasn’t in my usual routine, so the triggers for the habit of writing the post didn’t happen.

This works with any kind of writing. My triggers for writing the Thursday post here are reading Sarah’s Wednesday post and being at work (because most weeks that’s exactly how it works). Usually I’ll take a bit of time during my lunch break and rough out the post then, although if it’s particularly busy nothing gets written until I get home – but I’ve thought about it and have a general idea of what’s going to be in the post.

Of course for fiction my triggers are a bit more outre (I seem to be incapable of doing anything in a normal fashion). There’s wanting to write it – particularly if it’s something that’s been itching at me for a while or I’ve got one of those characters who just plain won’t shut up (usually both) – not having the opportunity to write at will (I told you it was odd), being in a situation or environment where writing is in some way “bad” (like at work and supposed to be working rather than writing), and of course, when I’m supposed to be doing something else. This may explain why I have so much trouble setting time aside to write. Years of stealing writing time from things I should be doing have convinced my subconscious that “writing time” is “time stolen from something I should be doing”. If I ever get so lucky as to win the lottery and be able to retire from the day job to write full-time, I’m going to have to convince myself I’m an uber-housekeeper or something so that writing time can be “stolen” from housework.

It probably helps that I’ve identified this as a problem. I have no idea how to fix it, but knowing there’s a problem is a good start, right?

Anyway, this little oopsie on my part illustrates the importance for writers of setting up a writing routine and building writing habits into our lives. If we don’t do it deliberately, our brains end up deciding that whatever we do most often is the proper way to do it, and then you’ve got the delights of trying to change established habits (much more difficult than creating new ones in virgin territory as it were – and best done by creating a new habit in place of the one you want to get rid of).

And now, to finish out this rather short diversion, a few suggestions for writing habits:

  • If you’re going to use a time slot, pick one when you know you’re going to have a functioning brain. For those of us with day jobs, this usually means “when I get home from work” isn’t the best option (Yes, this is why I wind up writing by time-slicing between what I should be doing and the writing).
  • Make sure there’s a defined set of triggers that don’t overlap with anything else. Preferably as simple as possible: the fewer triggers you use to identify writing time, the less chance of interference. If you need to set up a sawhorse with a saddle in front of your desk to work, do it (yes, there is a professional author who does this. No I’m not naming names). If you need to use a separate computer with its own desk in a separate room, do it. I keep trying to dedicate my linux system to writing, but every time I get the bloody thing running something else happens to it. The whole point of dedicating the box to writing is that my writing computer have minimal distractions… If only it worked. Yeah. Right. And that’s a wonderful herd of prize porkers that just flew past my window).
  • Spend at least six weeks deliberately setting off the triggers and following the routine every day that you want to be in your writing habit. Why six weeks? That’s how long it usually takes to build a new habit. If you’re as scatterbrained as me, set up your calendar to warn you to do the writing things.
  • Give yourself permission to suck. Seriously. You want your brain to associate “doing these things” with “writing” (specifically, if you write fiction, writing fiction. If you’re a non-fic person, writing non-fic. Not stream of consciousness, not diary, and – particularly relevant to me because I can ramble on about damn near anything in a blog post but still be totally blocked on fiction – not blogging, facebook, twitter or any other kind of social media writing (unless you’re doing this to establish yourself as a blogger of course, in which case your target writing is blogging)). It’s important to use your routine establishment time doing the things you want to be in your routine, even if you do them really badly. (Yes, I know. Physician heal thyself and all that).

Good luck and happy habit-making.

6 comments

  1. When I’m not tied to an academic schedule, I tend to research in the mornings and write in the afternoons. If I have to research in the afternoon (limited archive hours, for example), I get up earlier, do a little “morning stuff” to fool myself, then write until I need to get ready to go hunting. I’ve gotten to the point that I carry an ideas notebook with me during the academic year so I can jot down plot points or non-fic ideas and connections when they attack.

    1. Knowing your peak times for things definitely helps – and so does working around the complications. The notebook is an excellent idea (I tried that, but if I had the note book, I had nothing to write with. If I had the writing stick, notebook wasn’t accessible. Story of my life, that one).

  2. Six weeks, eh?
    No wonder I have trouble getting the writing habit reestablished every time I lose it.
    Now all you have to do is guarantee me six weeks of having a functioning brain!
    Or maybe what you’re saying is that as long as I TRY for six weeks, at the end I’ll be able to continue writing fiction regardless of the condition of the brain. That would be loverly.

    1. Abe,

      Yep, 6 weeks is about the ideal timeframe to create a habit. And yes, if you try for six weeks, even if what you’re writing stinks on ice, your brain will associate the triggers you set up with writing fiction and you should be able to produce despite brain-deadness (within reason. Blood out of stone problems do occur).

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