September 17, 2009

Forming the Daily Writing Habit

Are you in the habit of writing daily?

In our experience of working with over 1700 people in the Academic Writing Club over a number of years - writing daily is the one habit that is most likely to ensure your success
in completing your writing projects. Daily writing also increases creativity and makes you enjoy the writing more (or in many cases, hate it less).

Habits, at least good ones, aren't created overnight. It takes time and persistence to create a new habit.

Read on for some tips to forming a daily writing habit, compliments of our very own Academic Writing Club Coach, Rene Hadjigeorgalis.

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Forming the Daily Writing Habit
by Rene Hadjigeorgalis, Academic Writing Club Coach
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1. Start small.

Habit formation is most effective when you start small and build up over time. Most habits that we have were formed gradually over time - we didn't even realize that we were establishing them in the first place.

For example, at one point in time, I was a heavy coffee drinker. But I didn't wake up one day and start downing 5 cups of coffee a day. In fact, the first time I drank coffee I didn't even like it. Yuck! But I was in college and trying to get the hang of the whole cramming thing, so coffee I drank. Before I knew it, and quite unconsciously, I was drinking coffee every day and several times a day.

How does this apply to writing? When trying to establish a long-term daily writing habit, it is helpful to think of your first foray into this new territory as simply your establishment stage. In the beginning, it is most helpful to focus on establishing the habit than getting lots and lots of writing done. This is one reason for the advice to do brief daily sessions. Once you have established the habit, you can build up your time per session, or the number of sessions from there.

Okay, you say, but this coach really needs a reality check. There is some writing that must get done NOW, so how can I limit myself to a brief daily session?

Here is where compartmentalization comes in - divide your time between your habit-establishing (HE) brief daily session and the must-get-done urgent writing. Do your HE writing every day, first thing out of the chute, and limit it to 15 minutes. The rest of the day is then free for all of the flaming, hair-on-fire writing that you need to do.

Ideally, over time, there will be less of these last minute marathon writing sessions as you develop a daily writing habit.

2. Do your HE writing at the same time each day.

There are two reasons to do this. It is always easier to establish a habit if you do it at the same time every day. I personally prefer mornings, but I have also done well doing my writing right before I go to bed. There is danger in that, though, since the desire to put on pajamas and
collapse into bed may overcome the best of writing intentions in the evening. This is not to say that you cannot write on the fly, sometimes in the morning and sometimes at night - but recognize that it will be more challenging to establish a daily habit this way.

3. Set up a ritual and triggers.

It is helpful to set up rituals and triggers when you are trying to establish a habit. Going back to my coffee example, I always had to have a cup of coffee when I sat down to write. This was my trigger - an event which I always associated in my mind with drinking coffee. If you do morning or evening writing, establishing a ritual/routine around your writing can also be helpful.

In my morning ritual, I wake up, empty the dishwasher, fix a cup of tea, and sit down to write. The tea is my trigger because it is the only time of day that I drink it and I have associated it with writing. Writing is also part of my morning ritual - over time, not writing in the morning has become akin to not brushing my teeth. Yuck!

4. Only form one new habit at a time.

The more new habits you try to form at a time, the more dispersed your focus will be. It is hard work to form a habit, and you will be most successful if you focus on just one new habit at a time.
5. Commit to your one new writing habit.

But I am committed, you say. I put my money where my mouth is and I signed up for the Academic Writing Club. While that is a great first step, the gym membership industry would find fault with this logic. Writing daily is something that you need to commit to with no excuses and no matter what.

It doesn't matter if you are tired, busy, have dust bunnies to kill, need to paint your ceiling, have visitors, need to caulk the bathtub, or just can't concentrate because you believe your faculty colleagues are really aliens from the planet Zortex in disguise. Remember - this is only 15 minutes of your time during this habit establishment phase. Even if you just open the laptop, stare zombie-like at your manuscript, and add a period, you will be making great progress in establishing the habit of writing.

6. Give yourself 28 days.

It is a lot harder to establish a habit, particularly one that might cause you some distress or discomfort in the beginning, if you think you are doing it for life. However, you do need to give yourself a reasonable timeframe of daily writing to lay down the habit.

I find that 28 days is a good marker. When times get tough, just remind yourself that you are only doing this for 28 days and it is only taking 15 minutes a day out of your schedule. If that is too daunting, go week by week. I will do this for 7 days, then 7 days more, etc.

The idea is to remove the negotiation from your brain. You have made the commitment, so you don't need to make any internal arguments with your hippocampus about whether or not you will write today. It has already been decided.

7. Document your progress.

The Academic Writing Club is a great place to do that. Just log in and let us know how your HE writing is going. Another idea is to use a journal (paper or online) where you begin each post with the day number, i.e., DAY 17: xxx. You can write anything here or you can just record that you
did it. When you document make sure you give yourself some kudos for each day that you follow your habit. If you use the Academic Writing Club, you can even get kudos from the other participants.

In the end, habits are not easily formed, but once established they are not easily broken. Try some of these tips and see how they work for you.

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