So you’ve decided to get serious this year, man up, put on your big girl panties and write. Every single day.
Both a worthy and lofty goal, especially if you were less than successful with the same resolution last year.
But how are you going to do it? How are you going to do it differently? Whose advice are you going to follow? Who are you going to believe?
All important questions, grasshopper-san. Let’s see if we can answer them.
- For starters, get over the notion that it only takes 21 days to form a new habit. Not going to happen. Not scientifically, not theoretically, not even in our wildest dreams. So stop investing in all those 21 (or 30) day fix programs. You’ll most likely miss a day, quit prematurely, or just feel miserable when that 22nd day comes and nothing has changed.
This notion of 21 days’ habit formation comes from a 1960 quote made by plastic surgeon, Maxwell Maltz. He observed that it took a minimum of 21 days for patients to recognize their own faces after, say, getting a nose job or for phantom limb symptoms to disappear after getting an arm or leg amputated.
That pivotal quote, published in Psycho-Cybernetics, was, “These, and many other commonly observed phenomena tend to show that it requires a minimum of about 21 days for an old mental image to dissolve and a new one to gel.”
Two things wrong with using that quote to base your 21 day habit formation off of:
- He said “minimum.” The number is not absolute. And there is nothing wrong with you if it takes longer.
- He was talking about an “old mental image to dissolve.” That is not the same thing as actively trying to change your behavior.
So how long does it take? According to a study published by Phillippa Lally in the European Journal of Social Psychology, it can take anywhere from 18 to 254 days, depending on the person, habit, and circumstances. But more importantly, it takes more than two months.
Ask any parent who has to train her kid to brush his teeth 3x a day, wash his hands before eating, and use the toilet instead of his diaper. If it only took 21 days, we’d have a lot less stressed mommies and daddies in the world.
(For more on this awesome news, read How Long Does it Actually Take to Form a New Habit? (Backed by Science) by the inspiring behavioral psychology, habit formation, and performance improvement blogger, James Clear.)
- Now that you’ve decided you’re in for the long haul, set time aside every day to write. Yes, every day. Yes, on Christmas and your birthdays. And on days when you have no time. (Hey, if it works for Stephen King…)
Do you have to spend the same amount of time writing every day? No. If all you can spare is 15 minutes, then that’s all you do. It’s not the amount of time that matters, it’s the act of doing it.
So how can we do it more easily? Especially when we don’t “feel like it” or have time.
- Create a reward system, not only for those days when you don’t feel like it, but for every day you accomplish your goal. Rewards can be big or small, and they can increase in value or size depending on how hard it was for you to sit your ass in that chair or how long you spent in it: a piece of chocolate, a new book, a massage, an hour to binge watch your favorite new show on Netflix, a dollar in your savings account, 15 minutes in the sunshine, 15 minutes on Pinterest. The choices are endless, the preference individual. Spend some time creating your own reward system.
When you start cultivating this new habit, you’re going to feel resistance. You’re going to not feel like doing it. It’s inevitable, and it’s a good thing. I swear.
Todd Herman from thepeakathlete.com says, “Your resistance is a sign that your system is reconfiguring itself toward success.”
If you’ve read The Desire Map by Danielle LaPorte, and I suggest you do, then you have come across this quote and its explanation.
But if not, she explains the phenomenon of resistance as, “when you enact a significantly positive lifestyle change (new fitness practice, breaking off a toxic relationship, taking on a new job), your brain temporarily floods your body with feel-good neurotransmitters, such as serotonin and dopamine. It’s your brain’s way of giving you a high-five. The happy-drugs start flowing, fueling your good intentions with seemingly boundless energy. Your commitments seem effortless. This is going to be easier than you thought. You’ve so got this covered. And then, in a cruel-but-necessary act of nature, the party train grinds to a halt. Your neurotransmitters collapse back to their normal output levels (and thank goodness, because otherwise you’d go crazy, in a literal, clinical sense). And like a rushing river that dries up to a trickle, the rah-rah ferocity dissipates.”
This is when you most need to meet that resistance head on, acknowledge it, talk to it in the mirror, embrace it and say, “This resistance and not-feeling-like-it is actually good for me because it means my brain is changing, my habits are starting to stick, and I’m gonna kick its ass. Because that’s what I do.”
- Literally schedule the time you’re going to write in your planner or calendar.
- Track your progress to stay accountable then figure out what trips you up and what makes you rock.
This can be done in a number of ways and is again individual. You can use tables, flowcharts, or journal writing. Some things to track might include what time of day you wrote (did you have to squeeze writing in at 11:45 pm because you put it off until the last minute or did you wake up before everyone else so you would have time alone?), what other things were going on in the day (was it your anniversary? were you on a business trip or vacation? was it a day you had nothing else planned?), what you worked on, what you accomplished, what you didn’t accomplish that you wanted to or were supposed to, and how you felt about your writing session.
- Tap into how you want to feel when you write.
We all visualize ourselves walking into a bookstore and seeing our books on the shelf, or signing copies of our NY Times Bestseller, getting that publishing contract, meeting our agent to negotiate a six-figure deal, etc., etc., etc. But have you ever visualized yourself actually sitting there doing the work, actually writing? Try it. Right down to how you want to feel when you do write: happy, excited, creative. Is it easy, fulfilling, fun? Smile to yourself because you absolutely adore your main character. Cry when your characters cry; laugh when they laugh; get mad when your antagonist takes everything away.
- Meditate on that feeling often. Revisit the scene of you writing — the feelings you feel — every night before bed, every morning when you wake up, every time you sit down to write.
- Write about that feeling in your journal. Make it real with as much description as possible. Describe it as if you are a character sitting at her desk writing. How does she feel? What physiological changes are happening in her body? Where does she feel it? In her heart, her stomach, the tips of her toes?
- Create a writing ritual. Jen Sincero calls this mooching off another habit. It’s when you take a pre-existing habit and attach a new habit to it. The old habit, that you’re already doing, becomes a trigger, so every time you do it, you will use it to create a new habit. For instance, every time you sit down with your first cup of coffee in the morning (or tea), you decide to write for however long it takes you to drink it (or reheat it a million times until you finish it). At some point (maybe not in 21 days), your brain will automatically associate drinking coffee (or tea) with writing. Now, no matter what time of day it is, whenever you reach for your coffee, you’ll start to feel like you want to write. And eventually you just will write. This becomes the ritual.
This will only work if you choose a habit you already do every day and make a conscious effort to attach writing to it, so choose wisely.
- Make a sacred space for your writing. This can be a desk, a kitchen table, your bed, the couch, or even a seat on the subway. It’s all about inspiration and how you feel when you are there. You don’t have to have a luxury office in the turret of your Victorian home to write. I have a desk, but I never use it except to pile junk on it. It’s in my bedroom where I throw everything I don’t want to see or haven’t had time to put away yet. My bedroom is not inspiring. I feel closed off when I’m in there, which is great for sleeping, but not for feeling connected to anything. Instead, I write usually at my dining table. It has a comfortable chair and it’s at the center of my apartment where I can look out the window or be in the same room with my cat who likes to sleep in the chair next to me. In the summer, I like to write on my balcony because it’s sunny, full of flowers, and my cat likes to hang out there too. Besides, I get to look at the Victorian house across the street and dream about having my own office in a turret someday.
Fill your sacred space with inspiring quotes, pretty stationery, exotic trinkets, or anything else you need to feel comfortable and creative. (Don’t underestimate the value of good chair. In fact, I think the whole design of your space should revolve around it.)
- Read! Voraciously. Read for pleasure, read for inspiration, read for execution. Take notes and record your thoughts in your journal.
- Take time for other activities that enhance creativity but have nothing to do with writing. Stephen King walks every day. Laurie Halse Anderson runs. You may want to dance or lift weights, kayak or fish. You may want to take up coloring, sewing, baking, painting, scrapbooking, model building, or anything else that focuses your mind on the task at hand. This gives your brain quiet breathing space in the background to work out issues in your writing without you having to think them to death. You may even find meditation or even just focusing on your breath helps.
Above are some tools that I think are pretty user-friendly and free. You don’t have to invest in a program, a scheme, or even a book. You just have to invest in yourself and do the work.
Was 2016 a blast or a bust? What are you going to do differently this year?
What techniques have helped you create a writing habit? What advice would you give someone who wants to do the same thing?