Writing routines, plans and strategies work for writers because they reduce the mental energy involved in finding the time to write or making yourself focus. They help you do the thing you want to do with less stress and anxiety – and long term that helps you enjoy writing more. So, stop with all the trying – it’s time to automate yourself instead.
When Barack Obama was President, his morning routine was exactly the same every day.
His alarm clock went off at the same time every morning. His daily workout regime was identical. His breakfast would never change (even as President he’d never be given a choice). He even ordered that his wardrobe be kitted out with identical clothes to dress from.
He did this because he wanted and needed to get these morning activities done, but didn’t want to waste a single gram of mental energy doing them.
Thinking, choosing, prioritising and deciding all require mental effort. Obama designed this radical routine to avoid him having to spend energy on making inconsequential choices.
And no, whilst the things you might need your brain power for might not be quite as meaty as Obama’s. There’s something you can learn from his approach to automating his morning.
When we coach writers, they often say this kind of thing to us:
- I won’t let myself become distracted today – I’ll try really hard.
- I’ll do my best not to check email or look at my phone.
- I’ll find time at some point to get down to work – I’ll make myself do it.
- I’ve got to get down to it today – I’ll force myself to keep going.
Trying hard, doing your best, making yourself do it – is hard, exhausting and often not particularly pleasant.
It makes writing more arduous than it should be which in turn makes you less likely to do it. Trying hard can be a negative, self-defeating cycle.
Some things are worth spending mental energy on and some things not. Writing routines and plans are important in the creative process because they help you do things on autopilot or remove obstacles in advance.
Like Obama and his identical selection of presidential knitwear, the more you avoid spending energy on things that don’t matter the more time and energy you’ll have to spend on the things that do.
It’s good to be a trier, but not if what you’re trying to do gets in the way of what matters more. Like the writing itself.
Find time without the trauma
One thing writers often struggle to find is time. And that’s understandable – you’re busy, you’re tired, you have other priorities.
When you time-box you plan a writing session in to your schedule in advance and treat it like any other meeting or appointment.
When you book out time you put up clear red lines around your writing time so they become obvious to you – this means you’re more likely to protect them.
You know you have the writing time coming up so you don’t waste precious effort trying to find it any more. It’s a pre-commitment strategy that’s incredibly effective. Time boxing has removed the self-blame and guilt involved in all that trying (and disappointment).
Another option is to write daily at the same time and in the same place. If you’re a morning person, try booking in a regular time before the emails flood in. If you’re a night owl, reserve a period of time you can call your own later in the day.
Over time, writing at the same time builds up your routine and removes the need for you to make time because you already have time.
As a bonus tip, try fusing the action that you want to do (like write for an hour each day) to something that you already do routinely and without much thought: like your morning coffee, evening cocoa, daily exercise, afternoon dog walk.
When you do this the thing you want to do becomes psychologically glued to the thing you always do and so, it becomes more normal and less stressful.
Find focus without the fuss
Whether it’s notifications, emails, interruptions or social media – distractions are everywhere. It’s easy to let some or all of these things get in the way of your writing – and to let procrastination take hold.
Often there’s the temptation to try hard to not look at your phone or do your best to stay away from email. But that approach rarely succeeds – it’s also debilitating and tiring.
Many of us don’t know exactly what distractions have the most impact on us so the first place to start is to keep a distraction diary to record what kind of interruptions really get in the way of your writing time. Just keeping a simple log can help.
Next, create a battle plan. Say, your nemesis is email and your distractions start early each morning when you look at your phone in bed. Brainstorm all the different ways you can address your email checking habit before it distracts you.
- Do you need to keep your phone on your bedside table?
- Can you write with the phone turned off or in another room?
- Could you go somewhere different to write if you can’t focus at home?
- Perhaps you could turn off the internet entirely if you need to go cold turkey?
The more ideas you develop to manage your distractions before they impact you, the better prepared you’ll be to cope with them and the less you’ll need to try hard not to look at your phone (because it won’t be there).
5 ways to make writing more routine-like
- Remember that any activity you need to make choices around will deplete your mental energy.
- Develop as many systems as you can to help you carry out activities ‘unthinkingly’.
- Your mental energy is finite – reserve it for your writing, not for thinking about when you’re going to write.
- Don’t rely on willpower alone to help you stick with a long-term project – use a system instead.
- Stop ‘finding the time’ to write – plan in your writing so you don’t need to think about it.