Moving from non-fiction writing to predominantly creative writing has taken a massive toll on me as a writer. During my peak performance in 2018, I could write something like 500,000 words in the year, and that’s just counting blog output.
In 2021, I hope to write one million words.
Recovering from the loss of output will take a lot of effort to get used to. That’s to be expected; you can’t put out work like a machine if you’re still getting used to your method.
Fortunately, I have an interest in cognitive psychology, especially as it relates to productivity.
One book that shaped my work is Charles Duhigg’s The Power of Habit. Duhigg gives several examples of the power of habit and the role it plays in both our choices and our unconscious brain function.
There are things that we don’t know we’re doing that are setting us up for success or failure.
Writing a million words in a single year is a lofty goal, but it is possible with consistency and preparation. The first step in this preparation is setting up a habit of writing.
Habits are loops. Tapping into those loops makes the difference between success and failure in the long-run. Fortunately, habits can be made for yourself if you’re careful about it. Bad habits can be erased, and we can put new good habits in their place. The secret is knowing where to start.
The Cue (Step 1)
One of the most effective ways to build a habit is to exploit the fact that a cycle has a beginning point.
Find that cue. If you can’t write, or struggle to write, figure out a particular schedule that works for me.
I set up four points in my day that I use as a point for writing: after I get home from my morning walk and make breakfast, after lunch, after I check on news and current events in the early afternoon, and again after I get ready for bed.
These aren’t exclusive times for me to write, but they’re chunks of time that I dedicate to writing every day.
By setting the same cues consistently, I’ve dedicated certain times for myself where I always write.
I don’t always have successful writing sessions. Sometimes I’m off my game or dealing with something during my normal writing time, but they’ve arced in the right direction over the time that I’ve been deliberately habituating myself to writing.
The Action (Step 2)
However, the point of forming a habit of writing isn’t just being in the seat repeatedly and then walking away. It’s to be productive with the time one dedicates to writing and to have the diligence to see it through.
Both can be pressure points for writers. I’ve often struggled with discipline and going through long periods of time where I don’t write, especially when I was a full-time teacher with loads of excuses. The secret is to remember that the habit requires all parts of the loop, so one needs to write in some form while they’re developing the habit.
One problem that a lot of writers talk about is writer’s block. This happens to everyone at some point or another, but it’s not a universal limitation.
To overcome a writer’s block, I strongly suggest using exercises or other activities that can provide an outlet for a creative dearth. One tactic I use when I’m having difficulties writing is to use Lorem Picsum to grab a random image, and then I write from that prompt.
You can also do any writing. Write an email to a friend, write non-fiction if you’re a fiction writer or fiction if you’re a non-fiction writer. Heck, type out lists of groceries or life events or books you want to read.
The goal is always to be productive in whichever form of output you’re seeking to optimize, but the behavior of writing is key. If you sit at a keyboard and create something, you’re going to do better in the long-term than if you don’t, regardless of whether the output aligns with your short-term goals. Sit (or stand, or recline) and write! There’s no substitute, even if you have to make it up as you go along.
The Reward (Step 3)
The last part of the cycle is reaching the reward at the end. Rewards are fun, and they keep you from burning out. But there are two particular parts of the reward process that build habits:
- The reward further encapsulates writing within a broader context of behavior.
- The reward makes the pursuit of the habit pleasurable for the sake of the reward, which is useful if you have a frustrating writing session.
Ending the loop with a reward lets the habit be self-contained. A clear beginning and end to the process gives you a chance to delineate the spaces. If you write and then wander off to go about your next task, you’re likely to associate writing with that task.
If you are like me and write multiple times a day, having a clear ending makes it much less likely that your writing will meld into other tasks.
One thing you absolutely want to avoid is leaving writing unhappy. That doesn’t mean that you have to love what you wrote, but you need to think about the mere act of writing (to whatever threshold you have set) as a good thing that warrants its own reward.
Whenever I finish writing, I give myself a positive affirmation after I check the word count, something like: “I am a thousand words closer to my goal. That matters most right now.”Whenever I finish writing, I give myself a positive affirmation… "I am a thousand words closer to my goal. That matters most right now." Tweet
The purpose of this is simple. Positive affirmation not only builds pride in your work (of the healthy “I’ve made a thing” sort, not the arrogant “I’m the best thing since sliced bread” sort) but also gives you a very clear and measured link between performance and success.
Writing is notorious for being a field where people can labor away at it for years and not make good, but the secret to being a successful writer is continuing with the writing until eventually something breaks through. Just ask Stephen King. You can’t count on overnight popularity or financial success.
My personal “vices” for rewards beyond just positive affirmation: Tootsie Rolls, a half-hour (or hour) of guilt-free leisure time, or if I’ve been really good I might let myself get a soft pretzel. Cinnamon sugar is extra.
Lather, Rinse, Repeat
Once you start a habit, the next step is to do it until it gets drilled into your daily patterns.
I write four times a day, but that’s not necessary for everyone. It works well for me because I’m trying to develop my skills in creative writing or keep them sharp as a professional, to say nothing of my addiction to word counts.
Here, the multiple sessions are for output. I accrue ideas throughout the day, and regurgitating them every few hours is how I maximize my output as someone who needs to be writing all the time. I’m not building a general writing habit by writing more than once in a day, though each individual writing break is a habit of its own.
For habit, it’s the cross-day patterns that matter. If you keep a habit for a month, you will probably keep it forever. The exact time a habit takes to form varies, but the month-long process is a general rule.
Having an approach to the process that lets you consistently keep going time and time again lets you build those habits.
Being deliberate about the cues and rewards for habits helps make them rise above scattered behaviors, which can be self-perpetuating but can also easily fall victim to the chaos and changes of daily life. As a writer, you need to be entering that cue-act-reward pattern consistently across a long time.
This is why King gives advice to write 2000 words a day, though he himself confesses to not always doing so. Getting butt-in-seat time where you write, regardless of output or quality, is how you build the habit.
And once you have the habit, you can worry about everything else.