How to build a regular writing habit

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The novelist John Irving said that “Good habits are worth being fanatical about.” Here’s some practical advice for any kind of writer on building a writing habit.Have a dream

“Good habits are worth being fanatical about.” John Irving

Writers are dreamers – we conjure up imaginary worlds for our ideas to run free. We also dream about our own lives, winning the Pulitzer, Booker or Nobel prizes, writing a novel, or perhaps just finishing a poem.

The starting point for developing a habit is to have a dream and to name it. This means you’ve gone from having a vague fantasy to having a goal, something you can work towards.

Try to make your dream as concrete as possible. A very common goal for writers is to produce something full length like a novel, play, collection of poems or short stories. This is a great starting point – it’s also pretty damn daunting. The next step is to make this attainable.

Daily quotas

Habits guru Gregory Ciotti recommends breaking your goal down into quotas. He says, “Quotas make each day approachable, and your goals become achievable because of this.”

“A small daily task, if it be really daily, will beat the labours of a spasmodic Hercules.” Anthony Trollope

It helps if your quota is measurable in some way, for example writing a certain number of words, or writing for a length of time. These quotas can be set as sub goals so you can measure your progress and tick them off as you go along. This also gives you the opportunity to refine your quotas if you are unable to meet them, or if you’re in the lucky position of exceeding them.

Remember you’re setting yourself achievable quotas, based on your own skills, experience and time available.

Sticking to a habit

Fabulous, you’ve got it all sorted then, you know what you want to achieve, and the steps you have to take to get there. Unfortunately you have to buckle down and do it.

Here are our 7 top tips to help you turn that dream into a habit:

1. Set a small goal: The biggest hurdle to developing a habit is actually getting started. Set yourself a small goal and do it, and then do it again.

“Thankfully, persistence is a great substitute for talent.” Steve Martin

2. Don’t break the chain: Also called the Jerry Seinfeld approach after the hugely successful comedy writer. Seinfeld believes that being a better comedian is about writing better jokes and the way to write better jokes is to practice and develop a writing habit. His approach involved using a wall calendar on which he put a cross for every day he wrote. He said:

“After a few days you’ll have a chain. Just keep at it and the chain will grow longer every day. You’ll like seeing that chain, especially when you get a few weeks under your belt. Your only job is to not break the chain.”

“We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence then, is not an act, but a habit.” Aristotle

3. Process not outcome: I advised you set a goal to get to going, however once you’re underway it’s important that you focus on the process and not on the outcome.Gregory Ciotti talks about the research of visualisation which shows that people who visualise their practice do better than those who dream of the end result. You might be chasing after a literary prize but the best way to catch it is to dream of running.

4. Triggers and reminders: Habits don’t happen in isolation, you need triggers to prompt you to act, and reminders to get your ass in gear. The master of trigger psychology is BJ Fogg. I wrote about his tiny habits programme which focussed on attaching a goal to an existing behaviour to make it stick.

5. Agree to a contract: Sometimes enforcement is the only option and a genius idea from Aimee Bender is to buddy up and agree a contract. This isn’t some kind of metaphor but an actual signed contract between two parties committing the writer to write. If you’re serious you better sign on the dotted line.

“You’ll naturally learn both concentration and endurance when you sit down every day at your desk and train yourself to focus on one point.” Haruki Murakami

6. Monitor, adjust, experiment: I don’t know which goals will work for me so I play around with them. I find if a goal isn’t working, it’s easier to adjust the goal than change my whole lifestyle, education, experience and talent to meet it. This isn’t about giving yourself an easy ride, but experimenting to find out what really works. Tracking my progress is vital in doing this as it gives me the evidence to reset and refine the goal.

7. Party on: Yay, you’ve developed a writing habit – congratulations, you rock! It’s a long slog to finish that project of yours, but you’re on your way. So treat yourself, have a party to keep motivated. Just like you visualise the process you also need to celebrate the process. It doesn’t matter whether it’s a series of small treats for each day or week you’ve written or a bigger celebration for every chapter or poem. Go on, have some fun, you deserve it.

Read the blog: Gregory Ciotti

Read the book – Jeremy Dean Making Habits, Breaking Habits – How to make changes that stick

Bec Evans About the author: Co-creator of Prolifiko, Bec has spent a lifetime reading, writing and working with writers. From her first job in a bookshop, to a career in publishing, and several years managing a writers’ centre, she’s obsessed with working out what helps writers write.