01-13-22-ICL Pick Up a Writing Habit
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Let’s Pick Up a Writing Habit

Like many, if not most, professional writers, I spent far too much time sitting, and often ended each day wishing I’d gotten more exercise. I wanted more exercise. I needed more exercise. But the busyness of the day got in the way, and I simply didn’t get more exercise. I needed a habit of exercise. So one day I looked for a real way to add that habit to my day. I realized the only way to manage it was to do it first.

So every morning for the last few months I’ve gotten up, climbed on my exercise bike and spent some time biking while mentally going through what I would accomplish during the day, and doing a little pondering of all the things I’m grateful for (since that was another thing I wanted to do more). As I got settled in this new habit, I began to put more and more time into it. And after many months, it’s going strong.

01-13-22-ICL-Quote Pick Up a Writing HabitFor many of us, the habit we really need to build is writing on a steady, regular basis. We want to write, we might even hope to fit some writing into every day, but ultimately too often we go to bed with the glum knowledge that we didn’t get any writing done. So we hope for better tomorrow. But my exercise habit taught me that hope doesn’t often produce a habit, action does. So, thinking of my new (and much loved) exercise habit, I have a few things to share about building a writing habit.

Build It Around a Pre-existing Event

For me, the easiest way to build the habit was to slip it into a point into the day at the spot when I was most energized. As I am one of those dreadful morning people, that meant I needed to exercise in the morning. But it wasn’t enough to simply decide I’d do it early. I had to slip it into my schedule. So now I get up, slip on clothes I can exercise in, go turn on my electric kettle for my morning tea, and go bike. When I’m done, I turn the kettle on again (as it boiled while I was biking), wait a very short time for it to boil again, and make my tea. The new habit slotted right into pre-existing patterns of behavior. Prior to the new habit, I got up, dressed comfortably, made tea and started writing. I now do all of that, but with the new exercise habit slotted in.

The key is to choose a specific pre-existing event that you know you’re not going to skip and slot in the writing habit around that event. Say you’re not a serious morning person. Maybe you’re a night person with kids. So the new habit gets slotted in right after putting the kids to bed. Kiss the darlings good night and instead of shuffling off to do whatever you usually do, go write instead. Having it connected to a pre-existing event that will not be cancelled, you will find it much easier to get a new writing habit started.

Start Small, Work Up

At first, I really didn’t want to put much time into biking. I write in the mornings, and I didn’t want to cut into my writing time. Plus, I thought I’d be bored as I tend to find exercise boring. But since my brain is liveliest in the morning, I found that the time on the bike passes quickly as I run through my plans for the day, and work through my mindfulness plan for being more grateful. And I discovered that the rest of my day fell into place with no loss of writing. My writing time lasts a little longer, but everything still gets done. I didn’t lose the best part of my energy. The new habit just fit. And because of that, I grew comfortable with adding more and more time to the exercise.

So, as we decide to get going on our writing habit, it’s also a good idea to start small. Honestly, I started my biking time at ten minutes. It wouldn’t be exactly a huge activity bonus, but I knew, without question, that I could do most anything for ten minutes. But before I knew it, that time had doubled, then tripled, all with barely any strain. I didn’t get antsy to go do something else, I simply got caught up in the new habit. So if you’re worried that you simply don’t have time for your new writing habit, start small. What’s the smallest amount of time you absolutely know you can steal away? Don’t worry if it seems ridiculously short. You have to start somewhere and it’s the habit we’re shooting for here. The time will take care of itself.

Repetition, Not Rigidity

01-13-22-ICL-Quote-Hope-does-not-produce-a-Writing-HabitI am a professional writer. Writing is how I make my living and pay my bills. It’s the bulk of our income. And yet, I do not write every day. Some people do and that’s great. I do not. I write five days a week on my main projects. On the weekends I may do a little side project writing, but mostly I do not. I find having days when I am not writing helps me avoid burnout from all the work I do. And even though my writing habit isn’t daily, the weekends I devote to things that are not writing do not derail my writing habit. Part of the reason why it doesn’t derail me is because weekends naturally tend to have a different flow, so it doesn’t feel like I’m failing in my writing habit by filling the weekend with other activities.

Knowing this, I’ve not been too hard on myself with my exercise habit either. Because the schedule my exercise habit is tied to changes on weekends, sometimes I end up not on the bike first thing in the morning on the weekends. But I do not allow that to derail the habit overall. Missed days aren’t failure. They aren’t proof that I haven’t picked up the habit. They are simply missed days, and I return to the usual habits on the next day. It’s important not to accept rigidity in your new habit because that sense of failure is the enemy of the habit. As soon as you feel as if you simply cannot make this habit work, it begins to unravel. So don’t be derailed by the normal, natural breaks that happen because life is ever changing. You’re in it for the long-run, not simply to tick off days in a row.

Why a Writing Habit at All?

For some, writing whenever they find time works. I assume these folks are self-starters who are able to balance all the moving parts of their lives. Personally, I know myself well enough to know that the things that matter most need firm slots, repetition, and habits. For me, success comes from looking for the spot to insert a new habit, connecting it to a pre-existing daily event, starting small, and giving myself grace to skip the habit as long as skipping doesn’t become the habit. It’s the way I get things done. So, what about you? Need a good habit?

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With over 100 books in publication, Jan Fields writes both chapter books for children and mystery novels for adults. She’s also known for a variety of experiences teaching writing, from one session SCBWI events to lengthier Highlights Foundation workshops to these blog posts for the Institute of Children’s Literature. As a former ICL instructor, Jan enjoys equipping writers for success in whatever way she can.

4 Comments

  1. I started writing a half an hour a week on Sunday morning. It’s all about starting somewhere. Now I freelance and fit in my own projects when there is time. I don’t do as much on my own as I’d like, but I do like earning some money too. It’s all about striking a balance between all of the things you need to do and setting priorities. If you don’t prioritize the writing, you’ll always come up with other things to do. Glad you prioritized your exercise as health is important.

    • Hi Debbie. You’re right, starting somewhere is essential. And I know how you feel about your own projects, that’s really the thing I need to set some time for since I crank out so much work-for-hire. It’s so hard to prioritize things not connected to a sure paycheck. Thanks so much for chiming in on the conversation!

  2. very practical approach, and well-received. An omission, however, is an allusion to the physiological/psychological benefits of physical exercise.. the old oxygen to the brain thing! Thanks, and happy cycling.

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