By Miranda Birt
Who here has heard habit trumps motivation? I’ve mostly heard this phrase at conferences, in interviews, on YouTube, and anywhere else a person can listen to writing advice. They all say the same thing: “if you want to be successful, you need to make writing a habit.” I think it makes total sense. However, I’ve been struggling to form a consistent writing habit for a while now.
It’s just so easy to let chores, errands, and even writing blog posts get in the way of working on my novel or submission pieces. Self-proclaimed master procrastinator, right here.
It can take anywhere from 18 to 254 days for a person to form a new habit and an average of 66 days for a new behavior to become automatic. Where to start?
Well, a lot of people have the answer to that too. Who’s heard “have a dedicated workspace” and “write at the same time every day” or even “light a candle when you write?” I know I have. But the “what” has never been enough for this doubting Thomas; I need the “why.”
Thankfully, I read a book last year called Atomic Habits by James Clear that goes over the science of habit-forming, along with a lot of other fascinating information. I won’t really be able to sum up the whole 320-page book, but I’ll give you the spark notes.
Our brain looks for processes to automate. For plenty of biological reasons, the brain’s ultimate goal is to not think at all. So your attention can be reserved for essential things—like lions, or tigers, or bears. If you’ll allow me to over-simplify, this essentially means we can program our brains to respond to various cues that will help us get into the writing mindset.
Brain. Execute function: writing. Subroutine: novel.
And it’ll just go to town. Sounds too good to be true, right? Well, maybe a little. But here are the parts of a habit to help it along:
· Cue: Triggers your brain to initiate a particular behavior.
· Craving: The motivational force behind every habit. A cue is meaningless without a craving to back it up.
· Response: The actual habitual action performed—in our case, writing. The response depends a lot on motivation and how much “friction” is associated with the behavior. The more effort the action, the less likely we are to do it.
· Reward: The positive result that the response delivers; what satisfies us, what teaches us that these actions are worth doing in the future.
James Clear says you want an obvious cue, such as a dedicated workspace, a specific time of day, or a particular scent. Make the activity “attractive,” give yourself a craving, so you want to do it. Then respond by writing whenever you witness the cue, to strengthen the association. Finally, make sure you reward yourself after you finish writing. So good-feeling neurochemicals like serotonin and dopamine make you want to do it again. Eventually, the process will become as automated as something like writing can be.
Now having finished the blog post, it’s time to go candle shopping. And finish my laundry. And do some yoga. And . . .