You don’t need willpower to write
You need to build good habits.
Once upon a time, a long, long time ago (OK, 1998), I found myself learning Welsh. For the record, despite the spelling of my name (long-standing typo), I am English rather than Welsh. But I had started freelancing as a music journalist and one idea that I’d successfully pitched to the Melody Maker was that I’d spend a week on tour with the Super Furry Animals. It was going to be my first article focused on a band rather than the gear they used, and I was extremely excited.
Given that all the Super Furries speak Welsh, I thought that it would be only polite for me to learn a few words, to show a bit of respect for their language and culture. I then realised that I’d need to learn more than just “Hello” and “How are you?” because they’d reply in Welsh and I’d look daft if I couldn’t understand. And thus started my 25-year language learning journey.
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The first 23 years of that journey were pretty haphazard, with some periods of intense learning and others of complete abandonment. By the time December 2020 arrived, I was feeling as if I’d made no progress at all for at least a decade.
Now I’m chatting with Welsh friends in the pub, understanding about 80 per cent of what I watch on S4C, and writing in Welsh on WhatsApp. Both my understanding of spoken Welsh and my ability to express myself have noticeably improved. The difference? I began practicing my Welsh every day, a habit that I’ve stuck to since 28 December 2020. In that time, I’ve missed only one day (and I could kick myself about that).
My current writing habit also goes back to December 2020 and has been extremely robust despite the pandemic and an international house move. I aim to write at least five days a week and I’ve been pretty good at sticking to that – any gaps have generally been caused by holidays, major life changes, or outside forces beyond my control.
But when I mentioned the importance of habits in a writers’ Facebook group the other week, I got a very cross response from someone who said they were fed up with hearing “self-discipline” as the cure-all for writing more.
In fact, habits are the very opposite of self-discipline. Instead, they are the things that we do every day almost without thinking. Some of those things are good: Having breakfast. Brushing your teeth. Showering. Eating lunch. Some are bad: Slouching at your desk. Eating too much chocolate. Not eating enough fruit and veg. Not exercising enough.
(I say ‘your’. I obviously mean ‘my’.)
And you don’t need self-discipline to get started either. What you need is to understand how habits work and to use that knowledge to create new habits.
Work smarter, not harder.
A good way to start is by asking yourself what kind of person you want to be. What will your new identity be? You want to be a writer? You want to be the kind of person who exercises? Who eats less chocolate? Who keeps their accounts up to date? Then you have to be the kind of person who writes, who exercises, who eats less chocolate, who does their accounts regularly.
Next is the question, “What would someone who is a writer do?” Break down your new identity into tasks. A writer writes, yes, but exactly what does that mean?
For me, it means:
Setting time aside five days a week to work on a writing project.
Developing my writing skills.
Doing the pre-writing work of world-building, character development, etc.
My biggest challenge has always been setting aside the time, and that just happens to be the one thing upon which everything else depends. I knew that if I could crack that nut – ie create a habit of making time to write – the rest of it would be relatively easy.
To do that, I followed Clear’s four rules:
Make it obvious
Make it attractive
Make it easy
Make it satisfying
1. Make it obvious
Clear suggests that you outline exactly what you’re going to do, when and where:
I will [BEHAVIOUR] at [TIME] in [LOCATION].
I will [sit down and write] at [7pm] in [the lounge].
In 2020, my husband was just starting an online master’s, which made the shape of my habit very obvious. He would spend his evenings studying so I spent my evenings writing. I will confess that his habit made creating my habit an order of magnitude easier.
2. Make it attractive
There are many ways to do this. ‘Temptation building’ links the new habit to something that you already enjoy, so for example, I enjoy sitting on my sofa, so writing on my laptop whilst sitting on my sofa is a tempting thought. You can also use rewards, such as watching an episode of your favourite TV show after spending some time writing.
3. Make it easy
The easier you can make it to do the thing, the more likely you are to do the thing. So what’s stopping you from writing? I don’t mean the existential angst stuff, I mean the practical stuff.
Do you hate writing in Word? Find an alternative. Does your chair give you backache? Get a new chair or a lumbar support cushion. Is your work space too dark of an evening? Get a light. Do your kids demand your attention when you’re trying to write?
OK, so I saw an awesome suggestion about that from someone online a while back – she has a writing tiara, and whilst Mummy is wearing her writing tiara, she is not to be disturbed. It’s a great suggestion because, firstly, not everyone has an office they can shut themselves away in and, secondly, tiara. Apparently it works a treat.
Another thing that makes it easier is priming your environment – prepare ahead of time so that when it comes to doing the thing, you can just get going. So if you’re planning to write on your laptop after dinner, get your software open, close social media apps, and get any notes or research ready before dinner.
The easier you made it, the more likely you are to do the thing.
4. Make it satisfying
Writing is a bit of a nightmare when it comes to making it immediately satisfying, because it can take years to finish a project. And delayed gratification isn’t a great foundation for a new habit.
This is where habit tracking comes in. I have an app called Streaks which I use to track all my habits. And it is really satisfying to see how well I’ve done at practicing my Welsh, writing, flossing, etc. over the last couple of years.
If tracking doesn’t work for you, try self-bribery instead. I used to have to rewrite press releases into news items for work, and honestly, it’s the single most boring writing job there is. I used to promise myself chocolate when the chore was finished and, being very chocolate-motivated, that worked well.
I’m now finding that the writing itself is satisfying, which is, I suppose, the ultimate way to satisfy Rule 4.
The Two Minute Rule
Possibly the most important idea that I took away from Clear is the Two Minute Rule. He points out that you can find two minutes at any point in your day, so if you are trying to start a new habit and finding it hard, promise yourself you’ll show up for just two minutes.
Write one sentence. Read one page. Jot down one idea.
That’s it. That’s the beginning of your habit. Just show up every day for two minutes.
A friend of mine has been working on a novel, writing 50 words a day. At that rate, it will take him five years to get a first draft, but it took me six years to write the first draft of my novel because I wasn’t writing regularly for the first five and a half years of that project. So whilst it seems ridiculous, he has created a habit and he will, eventually, have finished his novel.
There’s obviously a lot more to habits than I can distil in one post, so I really very strongly recommend that you take a look at Atomic Habits, or any of the other habit books out there. If there’s one thing that has the power to genuinely transform your writing life, it’s creating a strong writing habit for yourself.