I learned the importance of routine—the hard way—when I had my first child. My opinion went something like this: she’s got the rest of her life to be shackled to a routine, so why shouldn’t she enjoy being a free spirit now?
Here’s how that turned out: she didn’t sleep through the night, she stopped taking naps at a shockingly young age, and we were both always exhausted and cranky.
At my wits’ end, I went to the library, checked out a book (I forget the name of it now) on helping toddlers to sleep through the night, and took the first piece of advice I came to: establish a routine at bedtime.
I did just that and you know what? Three nights later my daughter was sleeping through the night and we’ve never looked back.
I’ve been a fan of routine ever since. I love the routine of the school year, of extracurricular schedules, of work schedules, of mornings and evenings. I’ve learned that we are happiest and most comfortable when we’re adhering to a routine.
The same is true for many writers, and this writer in particular. Having a routine means that every single day, barring some calamity, I sit down in my chair and write.
But here’s where I struggle: I’m not always able to write at the same time. Sometimes I write in the morning, sometimes in the afternoon, once in a while at night. What I need is a writing habit that will help me increase my output and give me the extra time I need for marketing and promoting the books I write.
A habit, according to the website Routine Excellence, is “an action you do frequently and automatically in response to your environment.”
I’ve been doing some research into habits: how they’re formed and how long they take to form. I’m here to share some of that research with you.
First, how are habits formed?
Habits, once formed, are automatic; in other words, we engage in habits without thinking. We may brush our teeth right after breakfast every day, or we may grab our reusable shopping bags every time we go to the grocery store (this habit took me some time to establish). These things we do without thinking—they’re automatic—and they free up space in our brains for other thoughts.
Habits have three parts: trigger, activity, and reward.
The trigger is an environmental cue–something that tells the brain that it’s time to engage in certain behavior. For a writer who wants to write first thing in the morning, the trigger might be pouring that first mug of coffee. That tells the brain it’s time to turn on the computer, sit down, and write. Often the best trigger is another habit (like making coffee in the morning).
The activity is simply the behavior that will hopefully become a habit (writing at the same time every day).
The reward is going to be different for each person, but the reward is essential or the behavior is not going to become a habit. When you write early in the day, your reward might be a sense of accomplishment for work completed before, say, nine o’clock in the morning.
Second, how long do habits take to establish?
The old conventional wisdom was twenty-one days. The new conventional wisdom is sixty-six days. Neither is technically correct. The truth is that it takes people different amounts of time to form habits based on their goals and their rewards (in one study, anywhere from eighteen to 254 days).
If a person has a reasonable goal for creating a habit, the habit is more likely to develop quickly. For example, a writer with an initial goal of writing for ten minutes or writing one paragraph is more likely to be successful than a writer who starts with an initial goal of writing two thousand words a day. Once that first goal is reached, though, it becomes easier to set a higher goal.
If a person chooses small, meaningful rewards following the behavior, that will also increase the likelihood that the habit will form quickly. But what is “meaningful”?
“Meaningful” simply means that the reward has to be connected somehow to the behavior and it has to be available only when you perform that behavior.
For the writer, the sense of satisfaction that comes with writing a scene or even a really good sentence is a great reward: it’s connected to the behavior of writing and the writer can only experience that feeling through the act of writing.
So how does all this help me?
Now that I understand how a habit is formed, here’s what I’ve decided to do: I’m going to take one small step in the direction of forming an early-morning writing habit. I’m going to get up at the same time every day. Right now I get up at different times depending on when my family members need to be out the door, and that’s not working. After I get up, I’m going to turn on the coffee maker, then I’m going to turn on the computer. Once I have that coffee, I’m going to sit down and write. My reward has always been the same—that feeling of accomplishment that can only come from writing.
Do you have a writing habit? Care to share your secret?
Amy M. Reade is the USA Today bestselling author of The Malice Series, consisting of The House on Candlewick Lane, Highland Peril, and Murder in Thistlecross, all of which are set in the United Kingdom. She has also written a cozy mystery, The Worst Noel, and three standalone novels of gothic suspense: Secrets of Hallstead House, The Ghosts of Peppernell Manor, and House of the Hanging Jade.
Amy is a recovering attorney living in Southern New Jersey. She is active in community organizations and loves reading, cooking, and traveling when she’s not writing. She is currently working on a second cozy mystery and a historical mystery set in Cape May County, New Jersey.
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