Developing a writing practice is easier said than done. If you’re struggling to get your writing routine off the ground, maintain your practice, or get started again after a break, here’s how psychology can help you cement those critical habits.
We’ve all heard about the importance of writing regularly, whether that’s every day, a few times a week, or during those precious weekend hours. Just like your body’s muscles, your writing muscles need exercise if you want to stay in tiptop wordy shape.
Thing is, writing regularly is easier said than done. It takes dedication, and that takes willpower, and honestly, it’s far less painful to watch funny cat videos all day. But you’re a writer, that rare breed that breathes creativity, that longs to empty your soul on to a page, that wants to write. How then can you make doing just that easier on yourself?
Well, you can start by making writing more of a habit. And here’s how, friend.
Habits are, by definition, automatic, subconscious, and require less effort to carry out than normal behaviours. When you encounter a situation, you repeat a certain action, like washing your hair in the shower or biting your nails when you’re nervous or bored. You don’t have to think about it; you just do it (kind of like me entering a bookshop whenever I pass one...).
The simpler the action, the faster and easier it is for the habit to form. Writing each day is more demanding than, say, drinking a glass of water with your meals, and so it takes more dedication. But—thankfully!—there are ways to make it more straightforward. I go into incredible depth on this topic in the Writember Workshop, but for today we’ll just cover two learning processes that can help you create a regular writing practice.
For the first of our learning processes, we have:
The concept behind classical conditioning is pretty simple: you learn a new behaviour through forming an association between two things.
What are these ‘two things’? In this case, you want to form an association between a particular situation and writing. In other words, when you encounter this particular situation, then you will write. What that situation could be will depend on you and your preferences, which we’ll cover in a moment, but the constant here is the association you’re going to build with writing.
Got all that? Okay, on to the next step! Grab a sheet of paper or a notebook and think of where and when you write currently.
- Where do you write? In a particular room in your house? On your bed? At a desk? In a cafe or library? Note down the most common places you like to write on your paper or notebook.
- When do you write? On a morning? On your lunch break? On an evening? Whenever you can or whenever the feeling takes you? Jot down all the times you usually write too.
Fair warning: If you like your current system of where and when you write, this part of the post probably isn’t for you. If you’re okay with changing things up, however, then read on...
Now look back over your writing spaces and times and take note of any patterns. Do you have lots of different places you like to write? Lots of different times you write? If you’re noticing a lot of variation or inconsistency, this could be what’s making a regular writing practice so difficult for you.
At this point, you have a few options. Pick the one that suits you and your writing style best (and remember that you can use any combination of these options as well).
Creating a ‘Writing Space’
Here, we’re going to address the issue of where you write. If you found from the exercise above that you write in several different places, with no pattern or consistency to them, you might want to consider creating a dedicated space for your writing.
Why? If you have somewhere that you can use purely for writing and nothing else (internet, I’m talking about you), then you can condition yourself to write when you sit in that particular place. In other words, when you write, you write only in this one place, and when you’re in this one place, the only thing you do is write. Over time, this will create a powerful association between the place and writing, which in turn will make wanting to write a more automatic response when you’re there.
While we’re on this topic, if you want to dig more into the psychology behind the perfect place for writing, you should hop on over to Creating the Optimal Physical Writing Space and start absorbing the knowledge.
So where could your writing space be? Anywhere you could dedicate purely to writing (and nothing else)! It could be a desk or a certain armchair, a particular room or office space, a favourite cafe or library. Whatever works for you. If you find that dedicating only one place to writing is too restrictive for you, create a couple of these ‘writing retreats’, but bear in mind that the more places you write, the more diluted the effect is going to be.
As with everything in life, there are pluses and drawbacks to this option:
- Advantages: When you’re in your writing space, getting the words on the page becomes so much easier, as does resisting the internet and other distractions. You can also let others know that, when you’re in your writing space, you’re not to be disturbed.
- Disadvantages: If you condition yourself to write only in this one place, what happens if you’re staying elsewhere or it’s unavailable? Also, what if you don’t have anywhere that can be used solely for writing?
That’s where option two comes in.
Creating a ‘Writing Time’
Here, as you no doubt guessed, we’re going to address the issue of when you write. If you don’t have a particular writing space available or you like to move between several, then conditioning yourself to write at a particular time may be more suitable for you.
There are a few ways you could do this: 1) choose a specific time and dedicate that to writing, or 2) keep a log of your most productive writing sessions and pick out a common time to dedicate to writing.
For example, I write more between 8 and 10 p.m., so this is my writing time. If your only free hours are on a morning or over your lunch break, try those. Get those words down during your writing time and guard it fiercely.
Let’s round off this option with its pros and cons:
- Advantages: ‘Where’ doesn’t matter—you could be anywhere in the world and still write at your chosen time. Also, by tracking how productive you are and dedicating those hours to writing, you can supercharge your progress.
- Disadvantages: What if an unplanned event gets in the way of your writing time or you can’t spend that time writing for whatever reason? Remembering to write at a specific time also means monitoring the clock, something you might not like to do.
And so we come to option three.
Creating a ‘Writing Situation’
Here, we’re going to address something completely different and look at situations instead of times. What do I mean by that? Rather than writing at a specific time, you condition yourself to write (and only write) before or after a certain regular event.
For example, you might have your writing time just after you wake up, after you get back from work, or after taking a walk. Alternatively, you might write before eating a meal, before reading a book/watching TV, or before going to bed. These events tend to happen around the same time each day, but don’t have to, giving you greater flexibility.
So what are the bonuses and the downsides to this particular option?
- Advantages: The situation acts as a cue, which helps you to remember to write and leads naturally into your writing session. It also gives you greater flexibility if you don’t like being restricted by the clock.
- Disadvantages: Finding one consistent situation to schedule writing before or after can prove tricky. Choosing to write before a situation requires careful time management as well, so that you don’t run out of writing time too soon.
There you have it—three ways to help condition yourself to write. Remember: you don’t have to stick to just one option. Feel free to mix and match them (like one or two writing spaces coupled with a writing situation) to make the perfect combination for you!
Wish you could write more often? Here’s how psychology can help you create a regular writing practice.
What if classical conditioning isn’t your cup of tea? That’s where the second of our learning processes comes in.
In operant conditioning, a behaviour is increased through reinforcement and decreased through punishment. To ensure the success of your new writing practice, you want to increase your likelihood of writing regularly and decrease your likelihood of slacking off.
Sound good? Then let’s look at how to do that.
Simply put, reinforcing a behaviour makes it more likely to be repeated, while behaviours that aren’t reinforced tend to die out. Reinforcers can be positive or negative, but we’re going to focus on the positive here—rewards.
There’s an inherent reward to writing regularly: you watch your word count rise, your skills as a storyteller improve, your characters and your plot progress, and much, much more besides. It feels good to see the fruits of your labour, to know that you’ve achieved something.
Sometimes, though, having an additional reward motivates us when the immaterial satisfaction of a good writing session isn’t enough (because who doesn’t love a treat?).
Initially, try rewarding yourself with something when you sit down to write, regardless of how much you get written or the quality of it. It could be something small and frequent, like a tasty treat each day, or something larger and less frequent, like taking a night off to watch a film after a week of writing regularly. Find what motivates you and use that to your advantage.
And once you get used to writing more often? Then you should join us for the Write Chain Challenge, start setting yourself daily goals (e.g., writing 200 words) and reward yourself for achieving that! Baby steps, my friend. Baby steps.
Of course, reinforcement is only one side of the coin. There’s another way to use operant conditioning to help you form good writing habits...
In contrast to reinforcement, punishment makes a behaviour, like skipping a writing session or giving up on your new writing practice, less likely or eliminates it altogether.
Now, when I say ‘punishment’, I don’t mean being cruel to yourself. Even when it gets tough, writing is something you ultimately enjoy doing—why would you do it otherwise?—and going overboard on punishments is one of the fastest ways to destroy that joy. Don’t do that, friend.
So how can you use this form of operant conditioning without going overboard? While rewarding yourself for successful writing sessions, you can also add in penalties for missing a session, like taking on more chores than usual, denying yourself a treat or having someone reprimand you. Not too harsh, eh?
If this kind of penalty feels too superficial to you, another penalty for not keeping to your new writing routine (without good reason) could be the way it makes you feel. If you skip a session or two and feel let down, disappointed or frustrated, use that to make sure it doesn’t happen again in future. It could be just the incentive you need to continue your practice and solidify a powerful writing habit.
How Long Does a Habit Take to Form?
Unfortunately, there’s no definitive answer to that. The myth of repeating a behaviour for 21 days for it to become a habit is just that—a myth. Actually, research by Lally, van Jaarsveld, Potts, and Wardle suggests that it takes on average 66 days for a behaviour to become as automatic as it’s ever going to be. That means it’s going to take some dedication to make writing a habit, but you know what? That’s okay, because the things that matter to us are worth the struggle.
On the plus side, Lally et al. found that missing the occasional day didn’t disrupt a blossoming habit, so don’t think you’ve blown it if you can’t write one day for whatever reason. Just get back to work the next day and you’ll be well on the way to forming that writing habit.
Keep writing, my friend. You’ve got this.