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GYWD #11: How to Build a Writing Habit

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In this episode…

A lot of folks struggle to write consistently. And there are plenty of reasons for that. But a common denominator of inconsistent writing, whatever the reason, is the fact that for many people writing is simply not a habit. The problem, sadly, is that if someone can’t make a habit of writing consistently, they are unlikely to be very productive and reaching their writing goals will be more difficult.

In this week’s episode I share some thoughts about building a writing habit, or as I like to call it, a weekly writing routine. With some strategic planning and a little experimentation, everyone can create a weekly writing routine that will help them be a more productive writer.

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Transcript

Welcome to the Get your writing done Podcast. I’m Trevor Thrall, author of the 12 week year for writers. A lot of us struggle to write consistently. And though there are all kinds of reasons for that, one of the common denominators is that for many people writing on a regular basis is simply not a habit. The problem is, if it’s not a habit, then writing consistently and productively is just going to be a pipe dream. So today, I want to share some thoughts about how to build a weekly writing routine. Because with a little strategic planning, and some experimentation, I think all of us can create writing routines that will help us be more consistent and productive.

Back when I was starting as an assistant professor, many years ago, I stumbled upon a daily routine that kind of stuck and remained pretty much unchanged until the pandemic. So I get up and head off to the office on campus. And on the way I would get myself some coffee. And depending on which campus we’re talking about, I might pick up a peanut butter, toasted peanut butter bagel with honey, for breakfast, and then I would get to my office, I would get settled in, boot up my computer, my monitors, I would typically turn on some classical music, get the mood just right, then I would sit and drink my coffee, my bagel, while checking my email, getting that out of the way, checking the news, make sure nothing, you know, blew up overnight. And then when I was done, you know, pushing the crumbs off the desk, I would start my work. And you know, I’d either pick up where I had left off the day before on whatever article I was working on. Or if it was one of my teaching days where I had earlier class, I would start prepping for class, you know, just depending on the day. And I did this every single day of the week, not Saturday and Sunday, but all the workdays and it’s funny because it never occurred to me at the time that I was doing something strategic. And I certainly wasn’t doing it in order to put unquote, be productive. You know, I had to teach most days when I was starting out. And so you know, I had to be on campus, and we had young kids, so it wasn’t really that easy to get anything done it at home. So so I’d go to the office. And, you know, some felt like a good idea just to make a debit since I was gonna have to be there anyway. And, you know, the fact is, I actually also always loved my office, because, you know, I had the right pictures on the wall and had a window and had a comfy chair, and I got my computer set up just right. And, you know, it’s kind of how my books and views my space, you know, I felt like there’s my little kingdom. So I was always very comfortable there. So I, I really enjoyed spending time there. And the funny thing is, I actually, I felt like I was a bit boring because I my routine was so unchanging. I sometimes wondered if I was just like a drone, because I did the same thing over and over. But in hindsight, as I learned more about productivity and more about writing, I realized that my daily routine was a huge source of my productivity, such as it was back in the day. Because it turns out that showing up every day, and putting in some work, eventually does add up to some progress. And because it was routine, it was a habit. I did it without thinking. I didn’t wake up every morning deciding whether I should go to the office or whether I should go do my writing. I just, I just did it. And so this routine, I had helped make my writing a consistent thing, a predictable thing, an automatic thing. And that, that making your writing something consistent, something predictable. Something automatic, is exactly the goal of the weekly execution routine in the 12 week year. For those of you who need a refresher or are new to it, that weekly execution routine in the 12 week year is is what you might think of as execution infrastructure. It’s not the work itself. It’s the stuff that helps you do the work. So for example, it includes the weekly review. Looking at the week, prior and how you do your scorekeeping, it’s looking ahead at the week ahead of you and confirming your weekly plan and making sure you know what you’re doing. It’s the daily huddle every morning to identify what you’ve got to go do that day. Make sure you’re doing the most important stuff. And then of course, it’s your weekly white writing group where you’re holding yourself accountable, working with others to brainstorm, through problems, all that good stuff. So the weekly execution routine isn’t the writing. It’s the stuff as I like to think of, it’s the stuff that helps you make your writing inevitable or automatic. So let me let me use an analogy just to make this sort of more straightforward for, for those who need analogies, like me. So I often talk about this in terms of going to the gym, if you want to lift weights. So imagine that you call your gym buddy, and arrange a regular time, you know, every other day or something like that, to meet at the gym, we’re gonna meet in front of the bench press, when we get there, right, every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday.

And then imagine it’s a Wednesday, and you get dressed in your gym clothes, that you bought yourself, because they make you look good. Then you hop in the car, and you drive to the gym, then you swipe into the gym, and you walk down to the weight room, meet your buddy in front of the bench press where you always start your lifting. And at that point, you’ve also taken out of your pocket, a little notepad that has a list of all the exercises that you guys do and the different weights that you need to set for each of the machines. Now, assume that you’ve just done all of those things. And you’re now standing in front of the benchpress. With a little list of you know, all the weights and exercises in your hand, what are the chances that you’re going to lift weights, I would say they are pretty dang good. So that routine, all those things you just did all those pieces of the pie that you’re going to do every time you go to the gym, they are not the lifting of the weights, they are all the steps that make it happen, that will make it inevitable that the lifting of the weights happens. And so the weekly execution routine within the 12 week year, is the sort of the highest level of that routine, the routine that keeps your routines moving, if you will. And so what we want to do as writers, is we want to create that kind of weekly routine, not for the gym, but for our writing. And I’m sure that there are as many ways to do this as there are writers under the sun. But I think, you know, everyone needs to follow probably some of the same big steps. Because once you agree that having a routine is the key to sort of productive and consistent performance. The next question is, well, how do you build such a thing? And, and so, you know, from the 12 week year perspective, the weekly execution routine is the first and sort of highest level answer. But just like the weightlifter needs, sort of the the gym specific routines. Writers also need writing specific routines to help make the writing automatic to make it a habit. And fortunately, at this point, we know a good bit about what it takes to build good habits. And I’m going to borrow here. And if you haven’t read already, you should certainly check out James clear his wonderful book, atomic habits. But, you know, James clear summarizes the literature on habits in this book. And it turns out that there are sort of four keys. If you’re trying to build a new habit, and cement that habit, kind of four keys are going to help you make that happen. The first think of these as like the laws of good habit creation. So the first is you have to make your new habit obvious, it has to have sort of the action that you want needs to lower the trigger needs to pop out in front of you sort of an obvious fashion, so you don’t miss it during a busy day. The second piece is that you need to make this new habit attractive. This is easy if your habit is eating chocolate, because chocolate eating chocolate is always attractive, it’s a little harder, if it’s something that is called work. So you need to make your work more attractive in this case. The third law is that you need to make it easy to do this habit. Instead of making it difficult for yourself, you need to make it as easy as possible. And the fourth law as you have to make doing this habit satisfying. So once you’ve done it, it has to have it has to provide some kind of satisfaction to you or as a human creature, you are not going to want to do it again. And the you know, so those are sort of the the Four Laws of habit creation, if you will, but but before I sort of dig into those specifically, and what, how to think about those in terms of our writing habit. I think it’s really important just to sort of state the sort of overall goal that we’re trying to do here. And the overall goal is to create a routine, a system that makes it as easy and fun as possible to write with as little need for you to make decisions or exert willpower in the moment as possible. That’s kind of our prime directive, if you will. And I think under that Prime Directive, there are kind of three things

to sort of do, right, the the three things baked into that Prime Directive, sort of three, three lesser directives. So the first is that you need to plan things ahead of time, to make them easy and attractive, and obvious and satisfying. You can’t do that in the moment, that’s going to be very difficult, it’s much easier to plan ahead of time to set things up, right? Okay, so you’re not gonna just, you know, accidentally find this ritual, you’re going to want to plan it ahead of time, especially because all the research finds that if you’re facing a hard task, and you’ve given yourself a decision to make about whether to do it or not, it’s going to be hard for you to do it. But if you if you take the decision making out of it, right, if you just make it a habit that you’re going to go sit down and start the computer, that you’re going to be much more likely to fall through things. So you want to plan these things ahead, set the system up ahead of time. The second big directive under the prime directive is that you want to follow the same routine, over and over again, as you’re trying to build this new habit, you don’t want to think you’ll want to try doing a new habit 63 different ways, you want to practice doing it the same way, right practice makes perfect, you want to practice this thing, the same way over time, because practice may or may not make perfect, but the other saying is that practice makes permanent. And that’s what we’re looking for here, you want to do something the same way over and over again. So that it becomes really, really automatic, don’t need to think about it comes very easy for your body just do that motion again. And the third sort of major directive under the prime directive is that you then want to pair your writing routine, with this broader weekly execution routine in order to track your writing to optimize your writing routine, and to celebrate your your productivity, to celebrate the wins to sort of make sure that you are giving yourself the right rewards for following this routine. So Prime Directive, creating a system that makes it as easy and fun as possible to write with as little need to make decisions or exert willpower in the moment as possible. So you want to take all choice out of this out of the day of the second, you want to do the same routines, the same rituals over and over and over until they’re so automatic, you don’t have to think about them. And there’s no question about whether you’re going to do them and how you’re going to do them. And the final thing is you want to track your writing process, so that you can optimize it, you know, problems, shoot if you troubleshoot if you need to, and celebrate when inevitably you hit your goals. So, so those are the sort of the prime directive and sort of the three sort of big things. Now, let me just sort of talk through the four different laws of habit creation, and some of the things that you might be thinking about doing as you think about building your own writing routine. So let’s start with the first one, which is the law of making obvious. What are some writing strategies to help you help you do that? Right? Well, the first thing is, you know, from a 12 week, your perspective would be, obviously, you’re going to make sure that your writing sessions are all duly noted in your 12 week plan and in your weekly plans. So you know, you’re going to be looking at your plans on a regular basis. And we’re trying to make sure that you see the fact that you’re going to be writing as many places as possible, so that writing is always front and center in your brain. So great. We’re gonna make sure it’s in all your plans. Yes. The second thing about making it obvious to me is that, and this is tricky for for folks with tough schedules, I get it. But for me, there’s nothing better than writing at the same time, every day or every week, how you know, whatever your schedule is having a being as consistent and regular as possible. Because, you know, the benefit of my old schedule was that every morning was the same answer. It was always obvious because the first thing I did was go to my office, which is where the writing was, it was like, it was like getting smacked in the face with a shovel every morning, hey, I’m in the place where the writing happens. Bang. And so it was very obvious, right? When you go to your office on campus, where you do Professor work, so that’s gonna be obvious, right? So. So, writing, doing your reading at the same time and place every week can be really huge.

In the digital era, it doesn’t hurt to set reminders. Right, that’s easy. I have a reminder on my phone to take my medicine in the morning. I have reminders to go to meet There’s no reason you shouldn’t have reminders to get to your writing session, set them up ahead of time so that if you forget, for whatever reason you’re busy, you’re going to get a reminder in advance far enough to make it to your writing, Even if you’ve forgotten. And if you’re somebody who writes best with other people, you have reading groups that you’re going to go to, you know, that’s another great way to make it obvious setting social, you know, dates to go write, you know, emailing and checking in with your writing buddies beforehand to make sure you’re all going things like that. Definitely can also help make things more obvious. So those are just a few ways that you can make your writing more obvious. You can also post signs all over your house, if you want. That’s great, too. I know for NaNoWriMo, for National Novel Writing Month, you know, the NaNoWriMo people will sell you cards, postcards, no door hangers, stuff like that, that sort of tell everyone around you. This is National Novel Writing Month, I’m busy writing a novel. That’s another great way to make things obvious, right? And stuff like that. Okay, so that’s the first law. The second law is making an attractive.

Now, this is another thing where sort of when I think back, I realized that’s what I was doing without realizing it. So for me, making attractive means a few things. First, it means having a cup of coffee in the morning, and some food. I do not write well without coffee, or food need that. So that was you know, I have to I mean, you know, coffee lovers, you’re with me here. But there is very, very few things that can equal the first few sips of a hot cup of coffee in the morning. That puts me in a wonderful mood. And because it’s tied to writing, I’m always excited to get to writing because it means I get to have my coffee. And you know, back when I allowed myself who’d like peanut butter, things like that. I loved having a peanut butter bagel also. So it was just, you know, a fantastic combination. For me. Making it attractive. Also, for me, having a great place to write is huge. You know, like I said, I’ve always loved my offices on campus. I’ve I was proud of my office, I stuffed it full of things. I love them a Knick Knack person. So I have like, you know, my little you know, my little figurines, my posters and my doodads I’ve gotten from students over the year. It’s it’s my, it’s my shrine, you know, or not shrine, but it’s, it’s the place where I have my, my, my greatest power. I’m comfortable there, I feel smart and capable there. For me, it’s great. And it’s quiet. And as I’ve mentioned before, I you know, turn the lights off sometimes, and I hide to make sure no one bothers me there, it’s, it’s usually a very quiet place. It’s a fantastic place to write. Now, I’ve also had a phenomenal success in time at coffee shops, I love the chitter chatter. If you’re a coffee shop noise lover, there’s a great app called Coffee tivity, which just basically plays you looped sounds of coffee shops, which I also play at home, sometimes I just love. So, you know, I’ve done great work at coffee shops, but again, I’m kind of a creature of habit. So I would go to the same table, same time, same coffee shop, because kind of had all the things you know, set up just right for me. So whatever it is for you, whatever a great place is for you. That’s, you know, obviously a good idea. And then if you’re a social writer, you know, having a great writing group to write with or somebody you go to the coffee shop with or whatever, you know, that can be great for accountability, you can also be just great for you know, making it more fun to do it. I mean, that’s, that’s the name of the game, or we’re looking for anything that makes it more fun to do this job. This is the reason people run with others. It’s the reason we go to gym with others as a reason we do all sorts of stuff with other people, because that’s just more fun. Writing is tricky that way, sometimes it’s not easy to write with other people around. I’m one of those I don’t, I can’t go write with people near me. Usually that doesn’t work for me. But I know it does for a lot of people. So if that works for you, I highly recommend. And then sort of the last piece for me on this is is your setup. I’m a person who loves technology, but I also love pens. I also love paper. I love computers, I love music, I really kind of love setting up my writing setup. So that I feel like I’m in the kind of the cockpit of the ultimate Creation Station. And so, you know, I really love having great tools to work with. And so for me, it’s it’s, it’s making it attractive to have the right keyboard or to have the right mouse. I get it. I get jazzed every time I see these cool tools. So you know and and I’m also one of those people who’s probably tried all the tools because sometimes you get bored of one or that starts bothering you and it loses its shine and you’ve got to Komari that thing doesn’t give you joy anymore. So it’s good And then you get a new one and there’s more joy. So, you know, that sounds shallow, I suppose to some, but you know what, it’s my writing, it only matters if it’s attractive to me, it doesn’t matter if it would help anyone else. It only matters if it helps me. So same for you by whatever tools it is that make you want to go bang out something on the keyboard. Okay, third law making it easy.

Now, I wish we could all make writing easy, this is tougher, but we mean sort of something a little bit different here. Nothing is going to make any specific sort of sentence of real value easier to write necessarily, but as I’ve talked about in other episodes, and as I write about in the book, one of the most important things for having a great writing session for making it easy once you’re there, is doing the preparation beforehand, required to make it a great writing session. So for me, for example, right? If I’m writing nonfiction, which is my genre, I typically have to do research before I can write things down, right? The same way a journalist has to do the reporting before he or she can sit down and write the story, I need to do the research. So for me, if if my writing session is about writing the first draft of something, I it requires, it demands that I am done doing whatever research is associated with that. That’s a pretty easy example, I’m not going to make it easy on myself, if I don’t have the research done. Or if I just don’t even know what I’m going to work on. If I don’t have a plan for that day, which I admit has happened to me more than a few times in life. If I show up, I sit down and I open my computer and go Hmm, now see, where was I? Right, that’s gonna be not so easy a session, I’m very unlikely to be super happy about how that session goes. So that’s to me, that’s called making it hard. So making it easy is about planning the sessions in advance, not making no decisions about what to do, because anything that again, requires too much thinking requires too much brainpower. That is stuff that can slow you down, create friction, make it less likely for you to get done the things you want to get done. That’s, that’s gonna make it harder, getting all that stuff prepared. Having everything ready. You know, I also talked about sort of Nissan plus that getting all your stuff ready, having all your tools at hand, right? All that stuff makes it easy, right? And so similarly, if you don’t know where, when and how you’re going to write, you’re also making it harder if you have to, if you’re, you know, how many times have you not known where you’re gonna go to lunch with a group of people and y’all go, Hey, where are we gonna go? No. And then you have It’s a brutal discussion, we end up somewhere nobody wanted to go? Well, that’s, that’s hard. Right? What’s easy, is if you know exactly where you’re going to be, right, when you’re going to write what you’re going to ride, how maybe even how you’re going to do whatever project it is that you know, specifically that you’re working on. When you’ve got all that figured out in advance, that writing session is easy, it’s gonna go great, it’s gonna go very smoothly, right. And like a last one, just here’s a simple one. But the farther you have to travel, the longer you have to travel to get to where you’re writing spaces, the worse, right? I mean, I’ve actually had, I had a situation where my campus office was 40 minutes away, for some period of time. It took me a lot of gumption to stick to my schedule, when when the alternative was sitting at home. And so, you know, that was that was an interesting period. I have an interesting situation now that sort of related that, to get to the gym, I drive back to campus. But unfortunately, my campus parking passes for a parking lot on the opposite side of campus from the gym. So then I have to walk 15 minutes to the gym, and then 15 minutes back as a half an hour. And so if I’m sitting there having a bit of a hard day, and I said, Well, it’s time to go to the gym, and I start thinking about the 15 minutes back and forth each way on top of going to lift weights, it gets hard. So in fact, what I’m about to do is I’m about to switch my parking pass to the parking lot that’s a little further from my office, but right next to the gym. So make your writing location, here’s the moral of the story, make your writing locations are quick and easy to get to. And, you know, these are things we don’t always have control over. But, you know, I would suggest that, you know, there’s a difference between the best best coffee shop that you might perfectly love to write in, but it’s an hour and a half away. And you’re never going to get there versus a coffee shop that’s a little closer, maybe not ideal, but so much quicker and easier to get to that you can actually imagine doing it on a regular basis. So I think that’s sort of accounts to Okay, and then finally, the fourth law making it satisfying. And I think there are

so a lot of ways to think about doing this. A lot of them depend on how aligned your writing is with your vision. How excited are you about your writing in the first place. So a few things can help. Right. And because if you are revisiting your vision on a regular basis, and you’re seeing that your writing routine is day by day getting closer to where you really want to go, that is not just satisfying, but that’s invigorating and inspiring. So that’s a huge win. Another thing that I certainly find satisfying, is tracking my progress. When you are steadily moving the percentage meter up on your book, or whatever it might be, your word count is growing, that is a constant hit of whatever drug it is that your brain likes. Dopamine, I don’t know what it is. But it’s a constantly hit of the drug that makes you feel good, right. And so seeing that you’re winning every day is is going to be very satisfying. If you have a weekly writing group, as I recommend in the book, sharing wins with a writing group, maybe your loved ones, you know, every time you finish a chapter, publish an article, do something like that, you got to share it, you got to celebrate, right. And and the last sort of piece of that is, in fact, celebrate. When you hit your 12 week goals. When you publish that book, when you get something accepted for publication, celebrate. I don’t know how you celebrate, by yourself dinner, whatever it is, take a walk in a park, whatever is your version of satisfying something that’s going to remind you why it’s all worth doing. Right. So I think those are, those are some good ways to embed your habit by you know, making yourself feel good. After you do it. I will just say that I like many, many, many, maybe most other writers have, have often connected finishing things to eating and drinking. And that’s fine, if you know, but I also know that I like many other writers have decided that’s a little too dangerous a game to play over the long run that that maybe less caloric, and otherwise not so good for you celebrations are are healthier. But I’m an old guy. So if you’re younger, whatever, go crazy. Okay, so let me sort of wrap up by taking a slightly different cut at at the process of building a weekly writing routine. And if you’ve been listening to these podcasts, you’re maybe starting to recognize that I’m a very block and tackle sort of person. I like recipes, formulas, steps, systems, and so on. And so well, I love the four sort of laws kind of approach that we just sort of walk through, I think that’s it’s great for brainstorming, the different tactics you’re going to use to kind of build the right kind of routine for yourself.

It wouldn’t be me if I didn’t sort of end by sort of saying, Alright, here’s the six steps. So let me just sort of summarize all that by sort of laying out sort of a process to do that, from certain sort of soup to nuts. So Okay, step one. Step one for me is making sure that your 12 week plan clearly articulates what you’re going to write over the next 12 weeks. And that your weekly plans, identify when and where you’re going to write. So in other words, that the specific writing blocks, the strategic blocks that you’ve kind of blocked out for writing each week, you want to know exactly when that’s going to be where it’s going to be, and what you’re going to write at each of those things to the extent that you can, because again, what we’re trying to do is we’re trying to take all of the brain work and move it to the before period, so that the day of all you need to do do is go do execute nothing, just do write the thing because today you is better at thinking of hard things for tomorrow you to do tomorrow, you doesn’t want to have to do anything else other than do. Okay, so the first step is make sure your 12 week plan lays out what you’re going to do, and that every weekly plan says when where and what you’re going to write step two, and some of these are not necessarily linear entirely. Step two is to schedule your writing consistently, at the best times for you. And I’ve talked a lot in other podcasts and in the book about how to make time for writing. And every one of us has a different amount of time available. What it means to write on a regular basis is going to vary depending on your schedule. Is it once a week, is it twice a week is it every morning, whatever it might be making it as close to the same days the same times in the same places is the is the better because that’s going to make it the most habit like the most automatic, the less change there is better, you want this to be a routine in all senses of the word. So step two is schedule, create a model week, and create daily or weekly, whatever it is writing schedule that is as consistent and regular as you can make it. Step three, create a weekly routine for preparing and showing up for your sessions. So, for example, one of the things I do at the end of a day of writing, is I write myself a note for next time, what do I need to do based on where I am now. And this helps me get started quick, when I sit back down. That’s one little piece of my routine. Another piece, as I said, is making sure I’m, I leave at the same time I drive the same way, I go to the same office, I go with a piece in a cup of coffee, I have a routine for getting myself ready to go. And for showing up, write a plan, how am I going to get there? When am I going to get there? With what am I going to get there? Right? So create yourself a routine and you know, make it a happy routine. Right? So step four, then is to create a welcoming space for your writing. Again, it might be that you don’t have any control over this space, maybe it’s a coffee shop, but pick the one that works best for you. Step five, create a ritual or rituals for having a productive and happy writing session. So you know, you’ve, you’ve got a routine for getting there. Now, we need a routine for actually sort of being productive and having a happy reading session. So what are the little things that are going to make it fun and easy and attractive for you to be in the writing session? So does that mean putting on your music? Maybe it’s a headphones, maybe it’s, you know, maybe there’s sort of, you know, a lot of us have these kind of pregame rituals with React first have to clean the clean my office first, then I have to check the email, I have to whatever it is, whatever that is for you. Make it a ritual, right? Make it a sacred ritual. This is how I get stuff done. This is it take your most productive days that you’ve ever had, figure out what it was that worked about those things. Experiment with, this is why I say that, you know, we have to do some strategic thinking. But there’s also obviously a lot of experimentation, right? I didn’t, I my setup looks a lot different from the way it did 20 years ago. That’s because, you know, I learned what worked best for me over time. So step five, is create sort of that ritual or rituals around the session, how that’s going to go best for you. And then Step six is 100%, you need to then follow a weekly execution routine, right? That’s sort of overseeing your whole writing routine in order to track how your writing is going. Is the routine working the way it should, you know, making sure that you’re, you’re managing your schedule that’s outside of writing so that you’re not, you know, so that you can defend your writing sessions and all that sort of stuff, and that you can update your plans for writing as things change, and so on and so forth. So, that’s sort of a six step recipe for I think, building a really effective weekly writing routine that helps you make your writing inevitable, but also fun, easier, attractive, right? And eventually a habit that will make you as productive and consistent as you have ever been. Alright, until next time, guys.

Happy writing!

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