Here’s a bold and worthy kaleidoscope: writing is formalized thinking which inspires action which encourages more thinking—an exploratory positive feedback loop that requires presence, elicits insight, and leads to wisdom. And wisdom maximizes health, wealth, and happiness.
Using this frame, it’s easy to see why writing well is one of the most valuable skills an individual can possess.
Writing enhances and develops your ability to communicate (including verbally and emotionally), spans personal creative outlets to interpersonal and business relationships, and is a history of sorts—a human knowledge touchstone. Writing grants immortality.
Acquiring and refining a skill takes time; it requires practice. The only way to practice well is to make a habit of it.
Let’s explore what it means to develop a writing habit in three ways:
- The meta-skill of habit formation.
- The practices that lead to the acquisition and refinement of the writing skill.
- Exploiting your writing to generate wealth through credibility and authority.
Purpose, meaning, and goals
When starting a new habit, it is crucial to be aware of why. Your habits make you, after all.
Some people dream of writing a novel, a television or movie script, a collection of short stories or poetry, a Broadway show. Some are content to contribute essays and articles to prominent—and hopefully well-paying—publications. And others simply like the idea of being a writer—a lifestyle full of travel and exploration followed by quiet, nature-centric locales.
But almost everyone wishes they were a better writer, that is, they believe they should be a better writer, regardless of any grandiose achievements or motivations of leisure.
We believe this because writing is one of the primary skills we use to think and communicate. Mechanisms by which we blueprint a better world. The science fiction of 50 years ago is just science today because we write and think ourselves into the impossible and make it possible.
Extrinsic motivations like publishing a book, increasing your pay per word, or spending three months a year overlooking a pristine winter lake are nice but fleeting. Only intrinsic motivation lasts.
Behavior change: outcome, process, and identity
When it comes to habits, goals are useful for setting a direction, but that’s where their utility ends. We need a way to make progress that is meaningful—towards a better version of ourselves. Otherwise, the habit won’t become part of who you are. It will remain a thing you did for some time before your motivation weakened or your focus was diverted.
If generations of philosophy, religious traditions, and personal development methods have taught us anything, the best way to make a change is to start from within.
That is, we decide to be a writer—we make it part of our identity—and we prove it to ourselves with small actions that compound over time.
There are many stories that our inner critic likes to whisper at inconvenient moments about why we are unqualified. Why our aspirations are ill-conceived. Perhaps some of these sound familiar to you.
- “I have to be an original writer.”
- “I have to be a great writer.”
- “Writing is too difficult.”
- “Writing is too big of a commitment, and I don’t have time.”
Your mind is great at modeling both a loyal friend and a wicked enemy. Use what bolsters you and let the rest go. Do not make the mistake of thinking these thoughts are true or represent you.
You are born unique—a perfect and singular representation of complexity itself. No matter what you do, you do it uniquely. Your experience over time only adds to that. And yet, originality seems a myth.
Ideas grow like anything else. Simply by interacting with them they are both original and memetic. We all borrow what came before us and we all leave a mark of ourselves for what will come after.
Creativity is a better frame and focus than originality. The good news is that the more you create, the more creative you become.
As for commitment, a 1% change over time is better than a seemingly large change done a few times and then abandoned to “start over” at some later date. We’re looking to set up a system that prioritizes consistency and instantiates your identity.
You are a writer. Inner critic be damned.
Now that our focus is on the right thing, who we want to become rather than what we want to get, the rest is more practical.
To prove it, we’ll be using the Four Laws of Behavioral Change from James Clear’s indispensable treatise on the subject of habit formation, Atomic Habits.
- Making writing obvious (cue)
- Making writing attractive (craving)
- Making writing easy (response)
- Making writing satisfying (reward)
It’s time to write
A cue is anything that signals, “it’s time to write.” A specific time of day, a particular location, a feeling, a sound, a smell, another habit, and so on.
Defining and setting up these cues ahead of time will trigger your brain into writing mode. The trick is that you want to unconsciously associate specific cues with writing—in the same way you might associate lunch with 1 pm or waking up with a cup of coffee.
Even more, these should be hot triggers, not cold triggers. You want them to be things that you can act on right away. The cue to write isn’t very useful when you’re not in a position to write.
One way to kickstart this is to set an implementation intention. Write it down and put it somewhere you can see where you want to do your writing.
“I will write for 10 minutes every morning in my office as the first action after opening my laptop.”
The difference between keeping your intent hidden in the privacy of your own mind and bringing it to life through the written or spoken word cannot be understated. It is a powerful way to help embody a cue.
Another way to cue a new behavior is to stack it on top of a habit you already have. You can see that at work above with the “…after opening my laptop” declaration. It may not seem like a habit, but I open my laptop every morning in my office right before I check my daily schedule.
Here’s some more habit stacking at work:
- After I meditate in the morning (current habit) I will complete that sovereignty practice by doing 10 minutes of self-inquiry as writing (new behavior) in a ‘Morning Pages’ journal.
- After my shower at night (current habit) I will write for 5 minutes (new behavior) in an ‘Evening Pages’ journal.
But it’s not just the office, or the morning, or your intention implementation, or the tail end of an already established habit. Ultimately, you want the entire context in which you write to become the cue.
Fill the environment you want to write in with things that remind you of being a writer. Make it obvious to yourself that you’re a writer who writes. Keep pens and paper at hand, fill your shelves with books, clear your desk of distractions, keep writing application icons front and center on your desktop, and keep a writing-specific “do not disturb” sign handy to place on your door when you write.
The bottom line, designate a place to write, a time to write, pair it with habits you already have, make the cues in your environment evident and visible, and seek consistency over perfection.
Writing is irresistible
Temptation bundling is a technique used to link something you want to do (something that tempts you) with something you need to do (like write).
Here’s how I do it to work in my Twitter addiction:
- After my morning meditation (current habit), I will write for 10 minutes (habit I need).
- After writing for 10 minutes (need), I will pick a single sentence and add it to my meditation insights thread on Twitter (want).
This idea can be reversed as well to create a motivation ritual. That is, do something you like to do right before you do something you need to do.
Organization, structure, systems, and the building and maintenance of collections are things I find immensely satisfying. Before I start writing my Morning Pages, I open the tool I use to house my writing and perform a ritual of sorts to set everything up.
Currently, it looks something like this:
- Open to my Daily Notes.
- Indent and pull in some linked references to prompts I find helpful.
Such a simple thing but after that, I can’t help but write.
Another great way to make writing more accessible is to leverage communities and writing groups that are already engaging in the habits you want to create—this is perhaps the most substantial reason people congregate.
Everyone struggles to maintain consistency and focus when they’re alone, but when you have a group of peers all working toward a common goal or within a common frame, our individual desires for praise, approval, and contribution win out over distraction, monotony, and self-doubt.
Local writing groups are ideal but there are plenty of communities online, both free and paid.
- NaNoWriMo — every November they put on a challenge to write a book in a month but also provide community throughout the year.
- Writing.com — one of the oldest online writing communities.
- Writelier — formerly 200 Words a Day; a community specifically for developing and maintaining a writing habit.
- Write of Passage — an online course for learning to write online that includes a high-quality community of mentors and learners.
- Write on Reddit — subreddit for writers.
- Writing Community on Twitter — a popular hashtag for writers on Twitter.
How and what to write
Now that we have made writing obvious and attractive enough, there should be one response, writing. Let’s make it as effortless as possible to write something everyday.
- Start with a small daily goal. The aggregation of marginal gains, or small incremental improvements, makes sure it’s simple to do but powerful over time. Commit to writing for 10 minutes a day to start.
- Use the two-minute rule. If starting small just isn’t small enough, dial it down to two-minutes. Keep a journal by your bed and write for two minutes every morning before you get up to start your day.
- Break down the writing process into smaller activities. Don’t get overwhelmed by the assumption of writer’s block. Set aside 10 minutes. The first 2 minutes are for idea generation. Write anything that comes to mind in a list. Then use the next 2 minutes to pick a topic and write a few bullet points about what you already know, pull in some notes, or Google the topic. Then spend the final 6 minutes writing to fill in the gaps.
- Don’t start with a blank page. Use an effective note-taking system to combat writer’s block. Most of the time, you should write about things that you have already done some thinking about—things that you have some notes on. The writing process, then, is compiling, making connections, and uncovering what you’re missing.
- Use Morning Pages. The original conception of Morning Pages was three pages of stream of consciousness writing done first thing in the morning. Those are the only rules. Scale it down to a page or a paragraph if you have to. You can even provide yourself a few prompts to mimic and work in some gratitude à la The Five-Minute Journal.
- Start a blog or microblog. Use Twitter, Facebook Notes, or Tumblr to keep a journal of sorts or test ideas in public. Likewise, use WordPress, Medium, or Ghost to write longer pieces. Sharing your writing with the world is the best way to get feedback to improve both the ideas and your writing.
- Start a newsletter. Use Substack or TinyLetter to keep a more intimate and opt-in version of a blog or microblog. This is often an even better way to get feedback before committing to longer-form public writing. And promising a cadence, like once a month (start small), is a great way to voice your intention and motivate yourself to follow through.
- Carry a notebook (or a quick capture app on your phone). Start writing down your thoughts and ideas whenever they strike. Not only does this make writing later easier but it reinforces your commitment to writing.
- Use (invest in) writing software. Purchase tools like Roam, Evernote, Novlr, Bear, or Scrivener to prove to yourself how committed you are to writing. Pick one. It may not work on its own but combined with everything else, it helps lock in future behavior and makes the experience of writing more pleasant.
Writing is rewarding
Give yourself a reason to write again tomorrow.
- Use a habit tracker. Use gamification to boost that feeling of progress by keeping a daily writing tracker. Use a binary yes/no, record your word count, the time spent, etc. Whatever you record, use it to see progress but don’t fixate on the numbers. Try not to break the chain and if you miss a day, get back on track the next day.
- Write to gain authority and credibility. The more you write about a topic online, the more people see you as an authority on that topic, and the better chance you have of rising in the Search Engine Results Pages (SERPs). You can eventually leverage this to direct people toward a paid product or service.
- Write to learn and develop ideas. We already know that writing is thinking, but feedback is like thinking on steroids. Other perspectives can quickly grow your knowledge and competence within a given subject.
- Share your writing. Write people letters, read them poetry you’ve written, send thank you notes. There’s little more inspiring and motivating than making other people smile.
- Sell your writing. Pitch your writing to publications. The worst that can happen is rejection. The more you do it, the better you get at handling rejection (even writers you idolize face it), and the faster your writing quality improves. Or better yet, compile your writing on a subject and offer a paid course or ebook using Teachable or Gumroad. Productize yourself—learn, build once, sell indefinitely.
How long will it take to build a writing habit?
Some say it takes 21 days to build a new habit. Others say give it a solid month. One study suggests it can take anywhere from 18 to 254 days to make a behavior automatic. The truth is, it doesn’t really matter.
Being a writer is for life. Focus on the process and your ongoing results, not whether you’ve made it to some illusory finish line.
- Writing is thinking.
- Goals clue us in to who we wish to become and give us a chance to celebrate milestones.
- You are a writer. Inner critic be damned.
- Systems and habits allow you to prove your identity to yourself with small actions that compound over time.
- Make writing obvious.
- Set your intentions.
- Stack writing on top of an already established habit.
- Design your environment for writing.
- Make writing attractive.
- Use temptation bundling: do something you want to do right after you write.
- Create a motivation ritual: do something you want to do right before you write.
- Join a writing group or community.
- Make writing easy.
- Start small.
- Compile usable notes.
- Write publicly using a blog (WordPress), a microblog (Twitter), or a newsletter (Substack).
- Invest in an app and carry a notebook.
- Make writing satisfying.
- Use a habit tracker.
- Write to learn and develop ideas.
- Write to gain authority and credibility.
- Share your writing.
- Sell your writing directly or in the form of a product or service.
- It takes time. A lifetime. Enjoy it.
More posts about habits?
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