These 7 secrets to creating effective writing habits are one thing I discuss in my book, How to Develop a Successful Author Mindset. Strong writing habits are only habituated over time, and these secrets will help you reframe your mindset around new habits.
We all have several habits we might like to change. Smoking, eating too much or eating the wrong things, exercise, or the lack of it, biting our nails, the list goes on. This is what you need to know if you are going to change anything.
Secret #1 Habits cannot be removed, they can only be replaced.
You can create new ones out of nothing, but old ones are easier to change if you alter the trigger, action, and rewards. It is quicker to convert an existing habit into a new behavior if you know how triggers and rewards work.
Secret #2 A habit needs a trigger.
When you reach for a cigarette, your trigger could be many things – a person, an event, or something someone said. When changing an old habit, you need to define what your triggers are for it. What event(s) happen immediately before the habit action? My first cup of coffee in the morning triggers me to sit in front of the laptop. From there, the writing happens. I am inexorably pulled there when I make coffee.
If you are creating a new habit, you can decide what thing will be the trigger. Will it be stepping into a certain room, a particular event, or a time of day? Whatever you choose, you need to stick with consistently as your trigger of choice for the first few weeks minimum.
Triggers can be avoided if you are trying to alter an existing habit. If driving down a certain road past your favorite fast-food joint triggers you into buying unhealthy food, then pick another route to drive.
If sitting on the couch triggers you to start binge-watching, sit somewhere else if you have to sit. If you know that the minute you climb into bed you are triggered for sleep, don’t take your studying to bed, because you know it won’t work.
Secret #3 Powerful habits have powerful rewards.
A habit is quickly set if the reward is strong. Smoking, which gives you a powerful feeling of relaxation, habituates quickly, as do drugs and alcohol. Sensory pleasure habituates faster than other kinds. The more immediate and physically rewarding the more powerful is the reward and the faster the habit sets.
Rewarding yourself with a tasty meal, or a nap, or a piece of chocolate, will work better than rewarding yourself with the thought that when you write you are improving, for example. Abstract concepts do not make strong rewards; you have to link them visually and physically somehow. For example, I know every time I don’t buy a coffee, I am saving $5 toward my next holiday. So I will put a jar with a picture of my next destination on the counter, and place tokens or even a real $5 bill in the jar each time I want to buy a coffee but don’t. Simply knowing or thinking about it isn’t enough.
Rewards can also be specific to you, based on your unique likes and dislikes. So think about what you love to do, eat, drink, etc. Use these as rewards.
Secret #4 Habits take time to habituate.
The strength of the reward chosen will influence this. But also, contrary to what we are told in many self-help books, it doesn’t take 28 days either. That is a myth engendered by the length of time it took a plastic surgeon’s patients to get used to their new faces. The concept has been misused ever since. A habit could take from a few days up to a few months or even a year to fully habituate. You know when it has because you perform the desired action automatically, hardly putting any effort or thought into it.
Secret #5 It’s not how much–it’s if and when.
When first trying to set a new habit, don’t focus so much on the quality of the action. Just do it in the simplest, least objectionable way possible. Start with a time frame which you find it hard to talk yourself out of. A few minutes a day, perhaps. Nothing that feels too big or like too much effort. Once the action becomes more automatic, you can start adding extra reps, minutes, complexity, and so on.
Secret #6 Decisions are harder, and willpower lessens the more tired we become.
Time of day is important. So when starting something new, try doing it earlier in the day when you have more energy, motivation, and willpower. You are best first thing in the morning and again after lunch or a nap. Keep that in mind for setting the time frames. It would be easier to move the habit later in the day once it is fully habituated than to try getting it going from scratch every day at 9 pm when you are more likely to want to rest or sleep.
Secret #7 If you miss one, you don’t lose the game. I see it a lot with friends who are starting a new diet.
They eat one cream puff and think it’s game over, and that’s the end of it. If you miss one day of writing, you haven’t lost much. Habits are created on a law of averages, so as long as you on average, mostly do a thing it will still habituate. If you miss too often, you are simply making it harder for yourself in the end, but not making it impossible. I would set a lower limit–that is, perhaps allowing two or three missed days at the very most per week. Anything more than that and the habit will take ages to set, if ever.
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