So, you want to create a writing practice, and you’ve tried WOOPing that practice into shape, but… something’s not working. No matter what you do, you find yourself on the couch watching TV instead of writing. Learn how to harness the Power of Habit to finally get writing.
Let's talk about habits
You know how I read and then I tell you about it?
Yeah, buckle up because in this blog post we’re diving deep into Charles Duhigg’s The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business.
Why are we discussing habits in the middle of a series about creating a writing practice? Because creating a writing practice is all about creating a writing habit: something you do automatically.
You may need to create a new habit, but, chances are good that whatever time you’ve picked for writing already has something going on. You want to write in the evenings after dinner, which means you have to stop watching TV and go write. You already have a habit of watching TV after dinner, and now you want to change that habit.
You know you want to do something different, but you’re on the sofa again. How did that happen? Duhigg quotes a Duke University paper that suggests more than 40% of the actions people performed each day weren’t actual decisions, but habits.
Think about that: just shy of half of all the actions you do each day, you don’t decide. You just do. Driving to work, cleaning up the kitchen right after eating, brushing your teeth right before you go to bed? Chances are you no longer decide to do those things. You don’t even think about doing them. (Ever get to school or work and wonder how you got there?) You just do them.
So, we need to know if there’s a habit already in place for the time and location you’ve chosen for your writing practice. If there is, then we need to know how to change it. If there isn’t, then we have the simpler task of creating a new habit.
Which means we get to talk about:
PS: You can use WOOP to create a new habit, but if it isn’t working for you, this is an alternative. WOOPing an existing habit may be troublesome because, as we’ll see soon, you can’t kill an existing habit, merely modify it, but you have to know how.
What is a habit?
Duhigg breaks habits down into three parts that he calls a “habit loop:”
First, there is a cue, a trigger that tells your brain to go into automatic mode and which habit to use. Then there is the routine, which can be physical or mental or emotional. Finally, there is a reward, which helps your brain figure out if this particular loop is worth remembering for the future.
For example: Turning the TV off at the end of the day is a cue to do whatever you do before bed. (Even our cats are cued by the TV turning off…) The clock showing 3:00 signals it’s time to get the kid from school. Feeling lonely triggers the need to “just check” Facebook.
The routine is the set of actions, some quite complex, that you automatically perform.
When I say complex, I mean seriously complex: watch a kid learn to drive to see just how many behaviors can be routinized until you can drive to work without paying any conscious attention at all. A few of those behaviors include:
Finally, a habit loop ends with a reward: a dopamine hit from seeing your best friend “liked” your kid’s photo on Facebook or satisfaction that you’ve taken care of yourself by brushing your teeth.
Why are habits formed?
o, now we know what a habit is, why do we create them? And why so many of them?
The TL;DR version is: our brains are lazy.
Our brains are energy-sucking beasts that are expensive to operate. Shunting some actions to habit frees up brain energy.
Our brains are also really really really powerful: we’d get overwhelmed if we truly stopped to pay attention to each and every piece of data our brains collect and then make a conscious decision about which data to pay attention to and then make another conscious decision about which data to act on.
When you drive from home to work, you probably no longer notice your neighbor’s Suburban parked in their driveway, the plum trees lining the streets, the fountain in your other neighbor’s yard, the peeling paint on the other other neighbor’s front porch, or the playground in front of you. But you WILL notice when a ball rolls into the street and a child chases after it. If your brain paid attention to all those other unchanging things, you’d probably be unable to stop in time.
So: habits free us up to, really, just get anything done.
How do we create a habit?
So you’ve chosen a time and location for your writing practice. And you’ve reviewed what usually happens during that time and it’s a big ball of nothing. Maybe you’ve just changed your school or work schedule so you now have an hour free that didn’t exist previously. Maybe your kid just got his license and now you don’t have to sit in the karate parking lot anymore. Whatever. You have a fresh clean space to work with. Lucky!
To create a habit, we create a habit loop:
The first time you do something, your brain pays a lot of attention to it: it’s looking for something consistent it can use as a cue, so you not only need to create or choose a cue, you need to ensure you can repeat that cue.
A cue can be the time of day: after I get home from work, I will go write.
It can be a physical action: Whenever I make tea and light a candle, I will go write. (This one also includes senses: when you smell mint tea or a beeswax candle…)
It can be a feeling: I feel lonely, so I’ll go write a letter (that I may never mail) to someone I love. Or hate. Or admire. Or fear…
It can be a combination of things: I felt something was funny and I just laughed, so now I will write on the notecard I keep in my back pocket what it was that made me laugh.
You can also stack a new habit onto an existing one. I already brush my teeth every morning. I’ll use finishing up as a cue to go to my desk to write.
Once you’ve chosen a cue, then you need to choose the actions. “I will go write” isn’t precise enough for most of us.
Something like this is:
I will sit down at the kitchen desk, select a writing exercise and write by hand for 7 minutes in my green notebook. Then I will open my WIP on my computer, read the last page I wrote, and then start writing from where I left off. I will finish when I’ve written 500 words, or when I’ve written for 3 hours, or at 3:15 when the kids come home and I want to greet them.
You’ve created your routine, now you get to choose your reward for putting in this effort. This, essentially, is the doggy treat you give your brain being such a good girl. (Who’s a good girl? You are! You know you are!!) This reward encourages your brain to shunt all these new behaviors to a habit so you no longer think about whether or not you’re going to do it, you just do it.
Rewards can be anything, so long as it works for you: a piece of especially fine chocolate, five minutes spent completely by yourself outside, the satisfaction you feel when you cross off today on your calendar and note that you did not break the chain, the pride you feel for doing something that’s important to you. The knowledge that you are now 500 words or three hours closer to your goal.
When you finish your writing routine, make sure to take a moment, especially in the early days of creating your habit, to recognize what you’ve done. That will reinforce to your brain that this is important, and it gives you time to feel the good feels that also reinforce to your brain that this is important.
A final note on creating a habit: if you decide to do something as a reward, like have that chocolate or go outside, then GO DO IT. Otherwise your brain (and I’m not making this up) will now think that you’re a big lying liar who lies and that this whole habit thing isn’t really all that important to you. Your brain basically says, “I’m out!”
How do we change our habits?
OK, now let’s say that you’ve looked over your schedule and you see that the best time for you to write is right after dinner, when you usually sit down to read or watch TV. You’ve been doing that every night for the past month, year, several years. (Gotta keep up with The Walking Dead…) That’s a big ole habit that you need to change.
But, it turns out you can’t get rid of a bad habit; once you’ve created a cue-routine-reward loop, you’re stuck with the cue and the reward. (This is one of the reasons why it’s so hard to beat addiction. I tried to summarize why, but then decided I ain’t touching that with a ten-foot pool. Go read Duhigg’s book for details.)
Changing habits, it turns out, is simple. It’s not EASY, but it is simple. Identify the cue, replace the routine, keep the reward.
So, take a look at the habit you want to change. What is the cue? It may not be obvious, so be prepared to watch yourself for a few days and take notes. In our TV-watching example, the cue may be the time of day, or putting away the dinner dishes, or feeling tired.
Next, figure out the reward you receive. This can be tricky to suss out, so again, be prepared to take notes. If necessary, do experiments. (Duhigg has a great example in his book about how he lost weight once he changed a get-up-and-get-a-cookie-in-the-afternoon habit.) Is the reward you get for watching TV immersing yourself in a great story? Relaxation? Finally quieting your busy brain?
Once you’ve figured out the cue and reward, you now insert a new habit: your writing. When you put away the dinner dishes, stop, look around, and start your writing practice. If you love getting immersed in story, hopefully you’ll find that in your own writing!
Get some help
Changing habits can be hard; it turns out you also have to believe you can make that change. Turns out believing you can change is easier when you’re surrounded by a community who is all working towards the same goal.
Creating a new habit is hard in a different way: you’re building a new set of neural pathways and that takes time.
In either case, you’re much more likely to succeed if you find a writing partner or group with similar goals so you can cheer each other on.
Knowing how habits are formed can help you move your writing practice from the “someday” category to the “Wow, I don’t even remember sitting down to write and yet here I am banging out more words” category. (Yes, that is a long category name. No, it will not fit on a file folder tab.)
On a final note: you can combine your new knowledge of habit forming (you’re welcome!) with WOOP to create your writing practice. The process of how to develop the practice isn’t important. What’s important is regularly getting words down on a page. How will you do that?