Writing routines: Why systems beat willpower – every time

All writers are different – they approach their projects in different ways and are motivated and demotivated by different things. But they are the same in one way: they all need a plan and a system. Because without a system you’re just relying on your willpower – and that’s really hard. So, here’s two practical, actionable methods you can use to get a writing routine that will help you write unthinkingly. 

Why writing routines beat willpower

Start slowly and build your writing routine

According to the boffins at Stanford University’s Behavioural Design Lab who study how people adopt new habits – starting small and building up over time is a great way to trick yourself into taking on a new behaviours.

They say that the best way to learn new behaviours isn’t to jump in with both feet but rather to start small – ease yourself into it – and build up over time.

We believe that developing a writing routine – where you write unthinkingly rather than spend lots of energy ‘trying to find the time’ to do it – is just the same as developing any new behaviour.

When you ease yourself into a new activity like writing regularly, the key thing is to not take on too much too soon.

Setting Big Hairy Audacious Goals is great – but they need to be approached slowly. Otherwise they’re just too darn hairy and scary!

Read: You don’t need more willpower, you need a better writing system >>

Slowly increase your writing time

How small is small?

Small can mean micro-mini – at least the start.

For example, let’s say you set a goal to write for just five minutes every weekday.

At the end of that week you’ll have written for 25 minutes – great!

You now need to increase the time, perhaps adding another minute each day, so by the end of the second week you’re writing for 10 minutes each day and your writing time has doubled.

To find your writing routine, the trick is to increase the time incrementally that you never notice.

Also, when you stretch yourself (just a little) in each session then this keeps up your interest levels and your engagement in the task.

Once you’ve met your target for the day – it’s super-motivating. If it’s all too easy then you’re more likely to get bored.

Read: Why just get it written’ is rubbish writing advice and tiny steps work >>

> Take action

Identify your first tiny writing session – reading our blog on scheduling would be super-helpful here.

If you can only find five minutes then great – make it five minutes! Remember, The key is to start small and build up.

Now, once you start writing have this process in mind and deliberately try to stretch yourself in each session.

Slowly incraese your writing time

Create a ‘when-then’ writing routine

One way to help you plan your writing sessions is to attach something that you want to do – like achieving your next writing step – to an action that you day routinely and everyday.

Doing this will help you turn your writing session into more of a routine and a habit.

This will help you develop a system to write so you stop ‘trying to find the time’ to write and just write – unthinkingly.

So, we’re going to talk about the power of ‘when-then’ plans to help you hit your writing goals and keep you moving forward – step-by-step.

When-Then… What??

It’s all too easy to make promises and plans isn’t it

More often than not – those targets go unmet and those dreams go un-realised.

And that’s because according to psychologists, you haven’t got an actionable ‘when-then’ plan that attaches your goal to an everyday part of your writing routine.

So what do we mean?

Anybody who writes anything lengthy knows that a writing routine and a plan is vital to ensure that their lengthy writing project sees light of day.

A ‘when-then’ plan is all about helping you to associate your wish to do something – like write – with an action that you take every way without thinking.

An example of a ‘when–then’ plan might be:

  • WHEN the alarm clock goes off in the morning, THEN I’ll spend 45 minutes on my blog.
  • WHEN I get back from my evening run, THEN I’ll write 500 words of my book.
  • WHEN I go out for my morning coffee, THEN I’ll spend 30 minutes on my report.

Get a writing routine by 'when-then' planning

One action becomes the trigger for the next and over time, the two events become fused together in your mind.

Read: The persuasive power of ‘when-then’ planning to make you a more productive writer >>

For a writer, what’s powerful about the ‘when-then’ planning is that it makes it clear and obvious when you’re not doing the thing you’re supposed to be doing too.

The regular activity acts as a cue and a reminder of your writing commitment and that means you’re more likely to keep going.

Read: How to trigger your writing routine >>

Here are the 4 golden rules of ‘when – then’ planning

  1. Be specific

Decide how often you want to write and how long you want to write for. But try to be as specific as you can. Don’t just say you ‘want to write’ or commit to writing ‘a few days of the week’. You can always increase/decrease the time you write for later down the line

  1. Find an everyday trigger

Look for activities or events in your daily routine that you do regularly that you can associate a writing session with. These should be ordinary, everyday type activities. Don’t think too big or grand and don’t pick triggers that are too infrequent or random.

  1. Make a commitment

Make a written commitment and if possible, share that commitment with someone else. But remember, don’t be vague. If you say you’re going to write when you get home from work make sure you do just that every time – not a few hours later. Remember, the two actions have to become fused together in your mind to make them feel like a routine.

  1. Plan for eventualities

The best-laid plans are always going to go off the rails at some point – you are only human. But the key is not to let it happen often and to have a back up ‘when-then’ plan do you don’t lose momentum. If I miss an evening of writing, then I’ll clear the decks and write tomorrow lunch.

> Take action

What will you be doing immediately before taking your next writing session? What is your ‘when-then’ trigger to write?

Find your writing routine

Read more secrets of writing productivity

Keeping focus: How to kill your procrastination gremlins for good >>

Accountability: How to keep writing using rewards and people pressure >>

Tracking: How to use reflection to optimize your writing routine >>

Writing goals: How to achieve your big writing dream in small steps >>

Scheduling: How to find the time to write in 5 easy steps >>

About the author: Co-founder and writer in residence at Prolifiko | Ex-philosophy lecturer | maker of unpopular short comedy films.