Prepare to start your writing habit
When starting any new good habit or rekindling an old one, a positive mindset is the first key to success. While this may sound elementary, you have to want the outcome of the positive changes. When you start a writing habit, you need to want to write a book. If this is something someone said you should do, you are less likely to be successful. Write down “I am writing a book!” Tell a friend or even post it on social media. Approach your new venture with enthusiasm.
You also need to feel like even if it’s hard, you can do it. (You can!) We all have reservations about starting something we’ve never done before. It’s about employing the beginner mindset. When you approach writing with enthusiasm for the learning and growth before you, your road will be easier. Expect that your first draft is just that—your first draft. You’ll have the opportunity to make it better as your writing skills improve.
Visualize the result
Once you’ve decided to write a book, the next step is to visualize the result. What do you want to do or feel once you write it? Is the process of writing or the fact you’ve written it the most important thing? Writing a book is a significant accomplishment! Do you need people to read it once it’s out in the world to feel successful? How do you feel about your future self?
Consider creating a vision board. You’ll want to explore your lifestyle and what I call your “heart goals.” Because there are easier ways to make money than writing a book, your vision should be bigger than just to make money. You may want to explore your creativity, challenge yourself, heal, help others heal, or do something better, faster, or with greater ease. Each of these desired outcomes comes with a positive emotion. Tap into that. Your vision is essential to pull you toward your destination and inspire your actions.
The next step in starting a writing habit is setting your goals. There are several ways to quantify what you want to accomplish. You can use “butt in seat” goals like, “I want to sit down to write three days per week for 1 hour each session. The benefit of this type of goal is creating the habit of writing and rewarding yourself for just showing up. You eliminate any pressure to write a certain amount in a given amount of time. If showing up is your biggest issue, this may be a good way to approach it.
You can also set word-count goals. Word count goals reward showing up and getting productive. If you want to get the first draft of your book written in one year, and your target word count could be anywhere from 25,000-80,000 words during the year.
As you may have noticed, the key to using goals is to set measurable, quantifiable goals within a specific period of time. You can learn more about setting SMART goals here.
Break down the writing goals
Writing a book in a year is a laudable goal. But if you’ve never written a book before, it can feel like a big, fat, hairy behemoth of an undertaking. Your goal may be to write 500 words per session or 1000 words per week. It may be more or less depending on how fast you write and the time needed to write.
To give you some perspective, NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) challenges writers to write 50,000 words in a month. It’s a crazy-hard challenge to write an average of 1,666 words per day. Conversely, 500 words per week may not be enough momentum to keep you motivated and engaged. Unless you’re a full-time writer, a good target may be 1,000-2,000 words per week. Your average may be slower if you are researching, outlining, or doing something like a character sketch or faster if you are writing from memories. You may need a few writing sessions behind you before you understand your writing pace. Reset your weekly goals as needed.
Create the right space for writing
To be most productive, find or create the best space for writing. An optimal writing space will be uncluttered, with good lighting, a comfortable chair, a power outlet, and access to a hot beverage. It will also provide a space clear or as clear as possible from distraction. Everyone has a different tolerance for distractions. Some prefer the low-level chatter of a coffee shop. Others insist on library quiet.
Turning off notifications on your computer can boost your productivity, and stashing your phone in another room will keep ubiquitous pings from interrupting you. If others share your space, like family members, signal your writing time with a closed door, an announcement, or some other symbol to cordon off space and time. Assure yourself that the world will continue its orbit while you write, and all requests for your time and attention will be honored after you write.
Choose the right time
Along with choosing the right space for your writing habit, it’s also important to choose the right time. While there may be non-negotiable times like work, find times that maximize your mental energy and minimize the distractions. When are you your best? Are you an early riser or night owl?
Conversely, if you hate early mornings, your kids crave your attention after school, or your brain shuts off by 8 pm, these are your clues of times to avoid. Just because you can fit the time into your schedule doesn’t mean you should schedule writing when you are more likely to fail. As James Clear writes in his book Atomic Habits, it’s important to reduce the friction in creating the habit by making it easy, not harder, to schedule and keep the time.
Most of us have more time in our day than we utilize efficiently. It may be the ½ hour after lunch when we scroll through our Facebook feed or the hour before dinner when the chicken is in the oven, and we’re playing Candy Crush. Be a detective for wasted time to create space for writing.
Preparing for obstacles
Just as scheduling the wrong time can throw unwanted obstacles in your way, anticipating obstacles can help you defeat them. Obstacles can show up in a couple of forms—external and internal.
External obstacles will be things like having to work late or childcare plans falling through. It’s when things outside of your control change. If you anticipate the possibility, you might get takeout for dinner (or have leftovers in the refrigerator), so you don’t waste time cooking or cleaning up or have a backup babysitter or friend help out for an hour.
Internal obstacles often derail the desired habit either in the beginning or later down the road. The feelings are varied and insidious. I’m too tired. I don’t feel like it. I don’t know what to say. I don’t know how to say it. What if people think I’m stupid? Nobody will read it anyway. I’ll never finish (I never finish anything I start). Who am I to write this? I should be doing X. I feel guilty for taking time for myself. And, the list goes on.
If you’ve tried to start a writing or other habit and one or more of these have popped up for you before, explore why you feel that way and create a plan to combat it. As an example, if you are too tired, set your timer and write for 5 minutes. Give yourself permission to stop, and congratulate yourself for showing up despite feeling tired. You’re 50 words closer to your goal. If you are self-conscious about your writing, hire an editor or coach or find a trusted writing partner to provide feedback to fuel your confidence.
Start your writing habit
Schedule time each week for writing
Look at your calendar last month. Did you go to your doctor’s appointment, play tennis with friends, or get to your family party? (Well, maybe not during COVID.) You did because it was on your calendar, and you made it a non-negotiable part of your week. When you schedule writing on your calendar, other commitments or activities will naturally fall around it and not over top of it.
So, the first part of the habit is to schedule time each week. If you schedule monthly, it’s easy to see how conflicts can arise over the course of the month. Schedule daily, and you can get caught up in the minutiae of the day and find no time.
For instance, choose a day, like Sunday, to open your calendar and pick three days and times to write. Decide that you will not only schedule writing for the week on Sunday, but you will also schedule your week as you are waiting for your coffee to brew or right after you do the breakfast dishes. It will take 3 minutes to set yourself up for success.
Start writing time with a cue
Clear also suggests starting your habit with a cue. A cue is a signal to your brain that it’s time to write. Akin to Pavlov’s dogs, if you employ a cue each time you start your writing time and associate it with a positive feeling, you’ll be more eager to do it over and over.
Just like scheduling writing after you put coffee on to brew, you can light a candle, put on your favorite instrumental music, do a one-minute meditation, or wear your lucky writing socks. You may also say aloud, “This is my writing time. I’m showing up today to reach my goal of X.” It doesn’t matter what the cue might be, only that you use it each time as a signal to your brain that it’s time to write.
It’s important to not only cue your mind to write but to reward yourself for the effort. There are many ways to reward yourself that reinforce your writing habit—ones that don’t create other negative habits. It could be as simple as checking off a to-do list or marking an X on your calendar. It’s been shown that activities like this give you a shot of the mood-enhancing hormone dopamine. Add a smile, an audible cheer, or affirmation, and you double the effect. You can also reward yourself by marking your progress on a chart, going for a walk, calling a friend, or scrolling through your Facebook feed.
Just as the cue is consistent, the reward should be intentional. I will do/get X for showing up and making progress. Perfection shouldn’t be your guide for the reward. Consistent effort deserves recognition and reinforcement.
We know that it’s easier to maintain a good habit (or continue a bad one) when we are around others with similar aspirations. Going to the gym with a buddy results in going to the gym more regularly. It not only helps you get to the gym, but it also helps to reach your fitness goals. Whatever you feel about the organization Alcoholics Anonymous, many people are sober because of the group’s consistent support.
Writing is often pursued alone. But you can find a writing partner, a writer’s group, or a writing coach to support your writing, cheer you on, or give you feedback that encourages you to power through the tough times in pursuit of your writing goals.
So what should you do if you stumble? If you don’t schedule your week or show up for a writing session or two or 10?
First, don’t beat yourself up.
Second, start from where you are.
Think about what caused the interruption. Were they internal or external obstacles? Were the cues or the rewards not strong enough? Do you need a more compelling reason and a better vision for the road ahead? Do you need to be in a group with other writers?
Writing can be a joyful expression of creativity. It can also be hard. Very hard. If your goals are lofty, start with smaller ones. Light a candle and sit in front of your computer for 2 minutes. After that, get up. Congratulate yourself for showing up. Do that again for two weeks. Show up for 2 minutes and no more. Add a little at a time as you feel comfortable until you’re on track.
You may be putting a lot of pressure on yourself to write the perfect sentence, the perfect story, the perfect message. Your first draft shouldn’t be perfect. It’s often messy and disorganized with questionable grammar. Let it be. You’ll edit later. It’s really ok. Write like no one is watching (because no one is looking at your first draft anyway). Forge ahead with grace for yourself and the process.
Set yourself up for writing success. Start a writing habit with a positive mindset and visualize the outcome you want to achieve. Break down your goals into manageable, achievable pieces so that big goal isn’t so overwhelming. Plan for obstacles so they don’t derail your progress.
Schedule your writing time each week and make it an untouchable part of your calendar. Start your writing with a cue to signal your start time and give yourself a reward or gold star for showing up.
Find a person or group who shares your writing goals to cheer for you and supports you when it’s difficult. If you stumble, explore why your habit didn’t stick, readjust, and start again with compassion.
If you’re ready to launch your writing habit and you are looking for a writing group to provide support and encouragement, join our Writer’s Accountability Group! Find out more here.