In the weeks leading up to Christmas, I did a lot of reading on writing habits and writing productivity. Two-and-a-half years ago I posted about how I was noticing the benefits of a daily writing habit and yet I still haven’t really made daily writing a long-term thing. I’ve managed it for a few weeks or months, but it always follows the same pattern to failure.
I start off with a reasonable goal, say 500 words a day, with the intention of working my way up from there. So keen am I to write at this point that I find myself easily writing a couple thousand words a day. Intoxicated by my success, I quickly increase my daily goal before the simple act of writing every day has become a habit. Then something happens to impair the development of the habit. I might go away for a weekend and not have time to write, or find I just don’t have the motivation to write 2000 words one day, and so I don’t write at all. Because I’m still at the stage of using a combination of willpower and enthusiasm rather than habit and routine, every day that goes by without writing makes it harder to start up again.
There are really two different kinds of issues here. One is that something disrupts my routine, and when I return to it I go back to my old routine which did not include writing. The other is that I feel intimidated by the writing, because I’ve tried to do too much too fast, and establish a routine of writing so many words a day before I’ve established the routine of sitting down and writing every day.
In his book On Writing, Stephen King talks about starting with an attainable word count and working your way up, but I’ve only recently come to really understand what that means. I used to think it was because when you’re out of the habit of writing it takes more energy to achieve the same output. Now I realise, though, that there’s another aspect to it: when you’re out of the habit of writing, you need to make getting into the habit easily attainable.
Right now I’m working on writing just 250 words a day. In this time, the most I’ve written in a single day is 2604, with many days in the past month at over 1000 words. I’ve also had some days with fewer than 300 words. Those days are not my best work. They’re the days the words struggle to come out, when I’m not really feeling it and haven’t really gotten into the story. But that’s okay, because it’s not about quality writing, it’s about the act of writing. You might disagree with me on this point, but I’m not arguing that writing well isn’t important, but that the more expectations you place on your daily writing habit before it’s been established, the harder it will be to establish it at all. If every single word I’ve written in the last month is so awful it needs to be deleted, so be it. By that time I will (theoretically) have reached the point where writing every day is so second-nature that taking steps to ensure the quality of that writing is attainable.
Sticking to 250 words a day, and only focussing on getting those words down, meant that I was writing on days I spent the entire time on airports or in planes, I was writing on Christmas Day and New Year’s Day, I was writing on days when I felt completely uninspired, I was writing every day. In short, it addresses both of the root causes of my past failures. 250 words is so short, so easy to do, that it can be done in the same amount of time it takes to drink my morning tea. Indeed, it has really just begun to replace my previous morning routine of drinking tea while checking social media and blogs. 250 words is also unintimidating, so I can do it on days I don’t really feel like writing. If I have the time and inclination, I write more. If not, well, I haven’t skipped a day and made writing the next day more difficult.
Susan Dennard talks about the importance of routine in her productivity pyramid over on her website. She has an entire series on productivity, but this post she made on The Write Life is a good summary of the six elements of her productivity pyramid. I want to highlight something she says about the power of routine, because reading it was really a lightbulb moment for me:
Because if creative time is a routine part of your day, then it’s not scary. It’s like making dinner or driving to work–and unless you make dinner in the Hunger Games or drive to work through the Walking Dead, then those shouldn’t be scary parts of your day. They’re just a matter of daily course. Period.
I’m not at the point where I wake up, make a cup of tea, and sit down to write without thought. I still need to make myself get out of bed and not lie there reading my Twitter feed on my phone. Even so, I’m already finding that writing has become less scary, because talking myself out of bed to write is exactly the same thing as talking myself out of bed to shower, or have breakfast, or all those other things that I do in the morning before going to work. While not yet habit, writing has become something I expect to do in the morning before work now.
And this, for me, is the real value of developing a writing routine. It’s not that it forces me to block out time in my busy schedule to stick my butt in the chair and my hands on the keyboard (though that’s a huge benefit, too), but that it stops me from being scared of writing.