Why we were wrong about writing habits (but right about writing routines)

neon brain image

We’ve gone on for years now about the benefits of having a writing habit.

We used to say that in order to write automatically, you need to associate your writing session with something else you do habitually every day and hey presto – you have a writing habit. But now we’re not so sure.

It’s time to fess up – and we have author and blogger Nir Eyal to blame (sorry, thank) for helping us understand that perhaps, we should have been talking about writing routines all along.

Comparing apples with, um… not apples

Now don’t get me wrong – we haven’t been doling out bad advice (perish the very thought).

Gluing an activity you want to do more of, to something you do already, works a treat to help you trigger a habit – for all sorts of behaviours.

If you want to quit an unhealthy habit and start a healthy one, stop associating your afternoon work break with having a sneaky fag and start associating it with having an apple and a walk instead.

That’s how habits build and you start to ditch things and do things without really thinking.

That’s still true.

But writing is different. It’s a different type of activity and one that requires much more deliberate thought – and that means you need a writing routine rather than a habit.

Habits vs routines

Now, before you think we’ve lost ourselves down a deep dark hole of semantic psychobabble, there really is a big difference between a habit and a routine.

Let me explain.

Researchers like Eyal, and those clever folks at Stanford University’s Persuasive Technology Lab where much of this work originates, define a habit as something you do automatically – without any deliberation.

Habits are super-powerful in helping you to do things but they tend to involve behaviors that don’t require much – if any – thought.

Routines are different because they require thought and deliberation.

“Routine, in an intelligent man, is a sign of ambition.” — W.H. Auden

We use routines purposefully and knowingly to help us do things which we would otherwise struggle to do on a regular basis – normally because we find them effortful, tedious or just plain old boring in some way.

In fact, if we didn’t feel that way about the activity we probably wouldn’t need a routine to help us remember to do it in the first place.

You don’t need a routine to help you do stuff you absolutely love doing do you?

Designing for routine

Anybody who writes regularly knows that it can bring great joy, happiness and long term fulfillment. We’ve written about all the ‘flow’ benefits of writing before.

But anyone who writes regularly will also tell you that if you do it seriously, it’s rarely a doddle.

Nir Eyal writes about this in his article. He says:

“Although I make time for it every day, writing is not a habit. Writing is hard work. If I waited for an ‘impulse’ to write I’d never do it. To get better at writing requires concentration and directed effort to make sense of the words as they go from research to my head and then to the screen.”

So, like many other activities, writing requires thought, effort and deliberation and this means that by definition – it can never be a true habit.

“Routine is not a prison, but the way to freedom from time.” ― May Sarton

However, that’s not to say you can’t organise your life to you give a writing routine instead.  So how do you do that?

The first step towards getting yourself doing something regularly is to recognize what action you need to achieve and then purposefully design a routine around it.

We’ve written before about the benefits of scheduling (something we were definitely right about!) so I thought a recap might be useful.

Go for green

When you’re developing a writing routine, it’s just as important to find out the times you can’t write as those you can.

So, this is our super-simple traffic light technique to help you get into the swing of writing so you make time for it in your daily schedule.

  1. Red means no way! Go through your diary and work out which periods of time in your week are totally out of bounds for writing. These are your red times and they could be times when you’re at work or college or times you might have to do childcare. Now, forget about these times. Don’t even try to write in them until their status changes.
  2. Amber means proceed with caution: Next, look for the times in your week which are possible writing times. These are your amber times. You might have a few distractions during these time slots or you might be little tired but there’s probably something you can do in those times – like editing, research, plotting or character development. Think about what you can do in these times.
  3. Green means go for it: Lastly, find your green times. These are your go-for-your-life no-holds-barred writing times – times in your week which are clear for writing and that you can always commit to.  Crucially though, don’t keep your green times secret. Tell family and friends that green times are writing times – help them to understand that these times are precious to you and need to be respected. No interruptions!

Why it works

When you’re writing, lots of people spend too much time ‘trying to find the time’ and ‘trying to get into a routine’ rather than actually writing.

By identifying the no-go times, the possible times and the no-holds-barred writing times then you immediately take away a layer of weekly or daily decision making that can lead to delay and procrastination.

Purposefully designing your writing around a routine won’t make it a habit – it’s still going to involve lots of head scratching and effort.

But it will make it easier and simpler to fit writing into your life and so, make it it more likely that you’ll sit down and write.

Which ultimately, is the goal you want to achieve.

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