How to Build a Writing Habit When You’re Strapped for Time

Finally become a doer instead of a dreamer…

In January, I started an Edit & Pitch Your Novel course, a Christmas present from my parents (once I talked them out of the Instapot). I finally had a plan and the motivation I needed to edit my middle grade novel. After all, I had to share excerpts with other writers and public embarrassment goes a long way to getting me to produce my best work.

Each day, I diligently crammed the coursework into my two child-free hours between kindergarten drop-off and pick-up. Then, on Friday March 13th, I went to school to pick up my kindergartner and his teachers were scrambling to put together packets of work for the children. Our county was one of the six bay area counties ordered to shelter in place, the first order in the country. The teachers put together enough work for two weeks. That turned into four and you know the rest. My two children have now been home 24/7 since mid-March.

While I was glad to have more family time and my children safe at home with me, I didn’t want to lose the momentum I’d built up during my writing course. For once, I was writing consistently and improving.

It was time for drastic measures. I had to find a way to keep writing. That’s when I stumbled across James Clear’s book, Atomic Habits and it changed my entire attitude toward the writing process. I didn’t need to take drastic measures after all. I only needed to make tiny, incremental changes to finish editing my book.

Consistency is Key

If you’re like me you’ve always entertained the secret dream of publishing a best-selling book.

If you’re also like me you’ve watched days and even years pass by while your novel manuscript sits in a folder on your desktop.

Why? Because you don’t have 2 or 3 distraction-free hours to sit down and wait for your writing muse to strike. I’ve learned the hard way that writing a book, or at least a good book, requires an author to build a consistent writing habit. If you want to become a better writer you have to practice. You won’t sit down and write a best-selling novel on the first go. Or at least most of us won’t. You’ll have to write and rewrite and then rewrite some more.

The first step in building a writing habit when you’re strapped for time is to redefine your notion of a writer.

When you start to think of a writer as someone who is consistent and reliable instead of a gifted genius, you’ll start to see yourself as a writer when you get up each day and get something down on paper. Get the J.K. Rowling success story out of your head. It will keep you in dreamer mode.

To put yourself in ‘doer’ mode you need to take small steps each day to move forward.

“Every action you take is a vote for the type of person you wish to become.” – James Clear, Atomic Habits

Start Small (and I mean really small)

Start small when you set your daily writing goal. And I mean really small, minuscule, and even microscopic. Not to make it easy, because writing isn’t easy, but to make it doable.

This idea of taking tiny steps comes from BJ Fogg, a Stanford behavior scientist and researcher. In his Tedx talk, Forget big change, start with a tiny habit, he gives each audience member a piece of floss. He has everyone floss one tooth and then celebrate. Flossing one tooth only takes a few seconds. It’s easy to fit into your day. When you’re consistently flossing one tooth a day, you’ve established a habit. It is only when your behavior becomes automatic that you should increase your flossing time.

“Difficult behaviors require a high level of motivation. When a behavior is easy, you don’t need to rely on motivation.” – BJ Fogg, tinyhabits.com

This is the idea behind setting small, doable writing goals. If your goal is to write a best-selling novel it will require a high level of motivation. It also depends on several external factors out of your control. You won’t experience immediate success and it can be hard to stick with something so future-oriented.

Sitting down to write for a few minutes a day, on the other hand, is much easier. If your goal doesn’t require a high level of motivation, you’re much more likely to accomplish it.

“Simplicity changes behavior.” – BJ Fogg, tinyhabits.com

When my children came from home from school in March, I had to adjust my writing expectations. Rather than give up, I set myself a goal of editing one chapter each morning before my children woke up. I had to get up an hour earlier, but an hour was doable. In the past I’d tried to wake up at 5am to write, but never stuck with it. This time, I targeted 5:30 and found I could to this without too much pain. It was only 30 minutes before my normal wake-up time. Once did this consistently for 3 months, I moved my wake-up time to 5:15.

If you want to build a writing habit keep it simple and start small.

Set Yourself Up For Success

In order to achieve your small, daily goal, you want to make it as easy as possible.

“The antidote to impulsiveness is forethought. Planning ahead ensures you will follow through.” – Nir Eyal, Indistractable

Set yourself up for success by planning and preparing your workspace ahead of time. Remove any obstacles that might prevent you from sitting down to write.

  • Put your phone on airplane mode or in the other room
  • Prepare your materials the night before
  • Plan your writing time and make sure spouses, children, and animals know not to interrupt you.
  • Write down your writing objective the night before so you know exactly what you want to achieve when you sit down to write.

When I set myself the goal of editing one chapter a day, I prepared my workspace before I went to bed. First, I put my printed manuscript on the kitchen table. I’m easily distracted when I have internet access so I printed out my novel and edited on paper. Next, I set up my editing station in the kitchen instead of at my desk because it somehow felt more fun and less like work in the kitchen.

Consider an environment change for different parts of the writing process. When I’m brainstorming and planning I often take my journal with me on a walk. As I walk, I plan out my title and subheadings in my head. When I come up with a really good way to word my ideas, after playing around with the words in my head, I write them down. I do my research at my desk with internet access and I often write or edit at the kitchen table. I also keep my journal next to me in bed so I can write down ideas as they come to me at night.

When you’re doing internet research, consider setting an alarm to get you back on track in case you’ve followed a trail of interesting links that carry you far away from your research objective.

Create the right environment for achieving your writing goals by removing any potential obstacles and setting up your workspace ahead of time.

Track Your Progress

It’s normal to achieve a small goal and then fret because you wish you were halfway done with your book when you’ve only written three chapters. Stop looking at how much you still have to do and start focusing on what you’ve already accomplished. Dan Sullivan, founder of the Strategic Coach Inc. and author of the book, The Gap and the Gain, writes:

“If you’re finding that no matter how much you’ve achieved, it isn’t making you happy, a simple mindset shift is all it takes to go from feeling like your goals are forever out of reach to continually feeling that you’re making progress, inspiring the confidence to create bigger goals and a sense of fulfillment and satisfaction that leads to a happier life.”

Sullivan advocates focusing on what you’ve gained and not on the gap, what you still have left to achieve.

Celebrate your small wins. Honor your consistency. This is the opposite of a lot of the personal development advice you’ll hear. Many self-help gurus will have you write down your big goal over and over again. This always leads to dissatisfaction. Your long-term goal is too big. If you constantly focus on your long-term goal, you’ll feel discouraged because it still seems so far away.

Try instead to track your progress. These small wins add up and keep you coming back for more.

“After an accomplishment, our brain releases dopamine (the neurotransmitter responsible for pleasure) which normalizes our brain to desire the action again.” – Habit Forming Advice, Backed by Science, From The Man Worth $820 Million

When I started reading on Medium I read Shaunta Grimes’ advice to write 10 minutes a day and to put a gold star on a calendar each time I did.

At the time I ignored this advice because 10 minutes seemed too short to accomplish my big goals. But you know what? Shaunta was right. And her habit tracker is one great way to celebrate your small wins. Choose something visual and try not to break the chain.

I use a habit tracker I read about on James Clear’s blog. I make an ‘X’ on my calendar each time I achieve a goal. I use a yellow highlighter so I can still read all the family events below my ‘X’. One line of my ‘X’ represents my editing goal and the other is for 30 minutes of exercise. When I accomplish both goals, my ‘X’ is complete. Each time I see my calendar, I’m motivated to achieve my small goals to I don’t break the chain.

Now, after 5 months of consistent editing, I’m finally ready to release my novel manuscript to Beta readers. I never would have accomplished this had I continued my cycle of big writing episodes followed by long periods of burnout while I left my manuscript alone to gather dust.

A visual chain will keep you on track and prove to you how far you’ve come. How will you track your writing progress?

Celebrate Your Wins

woman celebrating

“To create a real lifelong habit, the focus should be on training your brain to succeed at small adjustments, then gaining confidence from that success.” – B.J. Fogg

Success breeds confidence. The more you write, the better and more confident you become. Are you ready to become more confident in your abilities? You don’t have to publish or share everything you write. Often, just by allowing yourself some stream of consciousness writing time, your brain will make connections and this will lead to more organized ideas.

If you want to create a satisfying life, learn to enjoy the process. Nir Eyal points out that humans are evolutionarily programmed to always strive for more. Accomplishing big goals won’t suddenly bring happiness or satisfaction because we’re programmed to constantly look for new challenges. It’s how we survive as a species.

When we stop and recognize this programming, we can let it go to some extent and experience periods of satisfaction with our progress.

“When you fall in love with the process rather than the product, you don’t have to wait to give yourself permission to be happy. You can be satisfied anytime your system is running.” – James Clear

Takeaways

You can build a writing habit even if you’re strapped for time. The key is to make it small enough to fit into your day. Remember to start small, set yourself up for success, track your progress and celebrate your wins!

When you write consistently, you’ll experience the benefits of progress, growth, confidence, and the satisfaction of moving forward toward a bigger goal.

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