The Power of the Little Writing Habit

I love writing. It’s a chance for a little creative output, to clear my head and express what’s on my mind. But life intervenes, and lately I’d largely stopped writing on a regular basis. There were always more pressing things: lines sitting on my to-do list clamoring for attention, small children demanding attention, the siren call of a warm and cozy bed. I gave in to these, letting my writing habit slip away. At first it was easy, and I felt like it was entirely rational. After all, these things were important; spending time with my family and being productive are two incredibly large parts of who I am.

But, so is being a writer.

As time went on I missed my time with my words more and more. I felt stifled, repressed. The words and ideas lay on my mind’s proverbial back burner, simmering away, until that simmer became a rolling boil that I could no longer ignore.

So, I decided I had to find a way to keep writing, no matter what life might throw at me.

At first I tried to set aside large blocks of time on the weekend to write, or set larger goals of finishing an article, writing a short story, or finishing the next section of my science fiction book. It seemed to work at first, but increasingly it felt inadequate. My creative mind sat largely idle for most of the week, building up pressure until it was unleashed. And more often than not, life intervened and I missed most or all of my writing time due to pressing family concerns or more “urgent” work that came up, which would cause that pressure to build even further.
I realized after only a short time that my strategy wasn’t working, and I think there’s one major reason.

Big goals are, by their nature, fragile and inflexible. If I set the bar so high (2-3 hours of sustained writing on a Sunday afternoon), it’s far too easy for things to get in the way and throw me off course. And if I don’t meet my criteria for success, I’m going to feel discouraged, that little inner voice of mine kicking in with it’s negative thoughts of “Give it up, you’ll never be a writer.” And you know what? The voice is right. As Aristotle once said, “We are what we repeatedly do.” If I didn’t find a way to keep writing, then my identity as a writer would be lost.

Fortunately, I think the answer comes in the rest of that same quote from our ancient Greek friend: “Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.”
I had to make writing a habit.

But how? I’d already established that it was difficult to reliably get large swaths of time on the weekend. But then I remembered something I read in bestselling author Gretchen Rubin’s book on habits, Better Than Before (aff link), which was (to paraphrase): “The habit of the habit is more important than the habit itself.” What she means is that the act of doing the habit, or some rough approximation thereof, is far more important than completing the full measure of the act itself.

I would be better of writing a single word, each and every day, than I would be trying to write in large chunks of time. This was where I got the idea of my little writing habit.

The next morning, I woke up a mere 15 minutes before I usually do. I rolled out of bed, stretched, drank a glass of water, then walked into my office and sat down at the computer. At first, the words didn’t flow easily; I’m by no means a morning person, after all. But as time when on, it felt good. It felt really good. The words came easier, and I quickly got into a rythm. Before I knew what had happened, the little bar in Scrivener turned green, and I had hit my writing goal. I even went a little beyond that, before calling it good for the day. I still managed to get ready and out the door on time, and I found that for the rest of the day I felt strangely free. Is this what it feels like when I get even that little bit of time to clear out my creative juices? I don’t know, but I liked it.
So the next morning, I did the same thing. And the day after that, and so on. As it stands I’ve done this four days in a row, with nearly three thousand words written out. I’ve finished another short story, completed an article for one of the technical publications I write for, and even finished another chapter in my book. And now, I’m writing this very post.

This is the power of little habits.

There will be days when I only hit my minimum word count. And there will probably be days where I can’t write at all. But you can be sure I am going to keep up this ritual. Get up, sit at the computer, and write. Because, as Stephen King writes in his wonderful work On Writing (aff link):

There is a muse, but he’s not going to come fluttering down into your writing room and scatter creative fairy-dust all over your typewriter or computer. He lives in the ground. He’s a basement kind of guy. You have to descend to his level, and once you get down there you have to furnish an apartment for him to live in.

I’ve found my muse again. And it feels wonderful.