My writing habit this past winter was more disciplined than I knew at the time. I wasn’t writing every day, but I was writing several times each week. Once the Tennessee weather warmed up in early April, my project brain emerged. Spring projects left writing in their wake. There were flower beds to weed and mulch, garden boxes to plant, a deck to refinish, a big planter box to build, patio furniture to paint, cushions to make and indoor cleaning and purging to do. My gratitude for spring turns me into a whirling project maniac.
After a few project completions, almost like a random aha moment, I noticed except for my journal, I hadn’t written anything in days. Weeks? I write every morning about the day before, like an activity log but with commentary. I’ve written like this for years. It’s a well-established groove in my brain. But other writing? Writing for publication? I could only find a few words on different docs here and there. Good grief.
I want writing to be a naturally flowing extension of myself. I don’t want to sit and stare at the screen of my computer and realize I’ve got nothing. Nothing except noticing my fingernails could use some work or how the veins pop out on the backs of my hands, like my mom’s. When brilliance at the keyboard is elusive and spring projects are calling me, it’s more satisfying to throw myself into the projects. No time to waste time. Pretty soon I’m walking past my keyboard, occasionally throwing it an apologetic grimace.
The writing death-spiral begins. I can’t write if I’m not at the keyboard. It gets easier every day to pass it by. If I’m not writing something, there’s nothing waiting on me. Like anything else, the less I do something, the less I want to do it. It’s a simple truth behind gaining or losing a habit. More of a behavior leads to even more of that behavior. Less of a behavior leads to even less of that behavior.
There are millions of words written about how to form or break a habit. I am not claiming special expertise. I’ve read different theories on how much time it takes to make or break a habit. Twenty-two days, thirty days, two or three months among them. I think all can be true. The magic seems to happen when I make changes in my environment or routine to support the new habit. If I don’t, success is doomed. Will power alone is a consistent fail.
Take going to the gym. I go to the gym or get some kind of workout five or six days each week. It’s not only a physical health thing, it’s a mental health thing too. Sweating helps manage my tendency toward anxiety and climbing too far inside my own head. To get it done, I take workout clothes to the office, change before I leave, and go directly to the gym. If I can’t leave the office on time, I may miss the class I wanted to go to, but I still am set to go to the gym. This routine doesn’t happen perfectly every week, but it does most of the time.
When I started wearing an activity tracking watch, I decided I also wanted to aim for 10,000 steps every day. It’s not so hard on running days, but on days I don’t run, my step count hits the 4000–6000 range. I decided I’d get on the treadmill or go outside in the mornings and walk a mile or two. So I did. Twice in the first week, feeling motivated by the novelty. Twice over the next 2 ½ weeks, lacking enthusiasm. Maybe once or twice after that before I gave it up because my mornings didn’t have enough time.
Physical activity is my happy place so it seems weird I wasn’t able to be successful. I would like to get those extra steps. But here’s the thing. I wasn’t changing my morning routine to support a new habit. I didn’t get up earlier. I didn’t spend less time checking email. I didn’t find a different time to write in my journal and read for 15 or 20 minutes. I didn’t get clothes out, make my lunch, and re-pack my gym bag the night before. I made no accommodation in my schedule to carve out an extra 15–30 minutes. Sadly, magic did not show up with the extra time I needed.
My writing habit has followed the same course. I want to write five or six times every week. I want to write for at least an hour. I know the best time is in the morning before my brain becomes less impressive. But I kept relying on inspiration to get it done. Even if I was inspired every minute of every morning, like getting more steps, I wasn’t making room for it. I was thinking a lot about writing. I was getting irritated with myself a lot about writing. What I wasn’t doing was changing the routine of my morning to support writing.
I have to remember:
- Writing environment matters. I can write at my desk or at my kitchen island. (I don’t know why sometimes the kitchen island feels more writing friendly, but sometimes it does.) I can’t write in my office at work unless it’s for work product. I’ve tried to write after everyone else leaves, thinking without the distraction of cats or laundry or beer in the fridge I’ll be more productive. No. I can’t make the mental shift.
- Write every day. I know writing every day, or most days is what writers have advised since the beginning of time. I have no idea why in my mind I would be able to write one or two days each week and be super productive. Oh, the myths of my mind….
- It’s a job. The idea of writing is romantic and artistic. It’s almost lofty. The reality of writing is artistic but artistic like a beautiful sculpture or painting after hours and hours of wailing and gnashing of teeth. The work of it has to be scheduled and has to be done. Those words don’t hop on the page by themselves or fly out of my fingers by wickedly brilliant magic.
- Do it. Set a word or time goal and write. Pick a time of day and do it.
It rolls up nicely into one self-directive: I must do the daily job of writing 400 words or for an hour at least six mornings every week at my desk or in the kitchen. Boom.
How will you self direct your writing habit?