Photo via Visualhunt.
It’s happened to all of us. You have this great idea, or these characters that won’t leave your thoughts alone, and you start writing in earnest only to trail off and leave the project unfinished. Or you decide that you’re going to write for at least 30 minutes every day, but after a week of daily successes you have to miss a day (you’re sick, you’re running late, etc.). Before you know it you’ve fallen off the wagon and you’re not writing at all.
Or maybe you committed to writing one blog post a week, and somehow it’s been four weeks since your last post… like me. Oops. How do you pick up the habit again?
The people who succeed in their goals aren’t the ones who never make mistakes. They’re the people who don’t give up. So, when you recognize you’ve made a mistake, don’t waste energy beating yourself up or assume it’s too late to start again. It’s never too late! Give yourself permission to let go of the guilt—and then buckle down and do the work.
This is not only true for re-establishing habits, but also for perfectionism. You’re not a writer if you don’t write. But if you write, you’re a writer, even if it isn’t published. Don’t worry about how it sounds when your ideas come out of your head. Just focus on putting the words to paper (or screen). There’s a reason why every writer revises—even the best of the best don’t get it perfect the first time!
Remember why you write
It’s easy to lose your focus when you don’t remember why you’re even doing this in the first place. Why are you writing? Is it to complete a novel? Is it to submit articles and see your name in print/online? Is it to practice so your skills improve, rather than to show anyone else? Is it for fun? Different goals require different kinds of habits. Knowing why you want to write helps you build more effective writing habits.
Visualize the end goal
Once you know WHY you want to write, it’s time to visualize what that goal looks like. For me, I write this blog to get in the habit of writing more often. I love to write, but it’s easy for me to let other things take priority. And I want to be in the habit of writing because I want to complete and publish my novels.
So the goal that I’m visualizing is that I’m a published author with multiple novels for sale, with an author blog that posts regularly and receives a number of comments in return. Having this clear image in mind when I’m tempted to let things slide makes it easier to follow through with my writing habits. It also helps keep me from getting discouraged when I lose sight of why I’m doing this.
Sometimes it helps to think about how I’ll feel too, both positively and negatively. Let’s say I become the published author I’ve visualized. Imagining myself this way makes me feel accomplished and proud of myself. I feel energized and want to accomplish even more, knowing the hard work pays off.
But what if I don’t reach that goal? What if I don’t write? I’ll wonder why I’ve been so busy with things that don’t have long-term results. I’ll feel embarrassed for always wishing but never doing what I’ve wanted to do for years, and I’ll regret not having pursued my dreams. I’ll have nothing to show for all the thoughts and stories in my head that occupy my time.
This yucky feeling is usually enough for me to set my course straight again when I’ve let myself get distracted. Kind of like how watching the show Hoarders makes me want to clean and organize my house.
Discern what went wrong
Our lives aren’t static, and sometimes even good habits that are well established break when our lives begin to shift. Other times it’s pretty obvious that our bad behavior is at fault. What went wrong in your case? In mine, my weekly writing time, which is the only morning during the week I’m kid-free, gradually was taken over by other responsibilities that had to be done before the kids came home from preschool.
In the past I’ve lost steam on a project because I didn’t take enough time before writing to figure out what I was writing about. After the few scenes that captivated my attention were written down, I didn’t know what to write next. It was too hard to work it out after writing myself into a corner and I had this other shiny idea pestering me, so instead of pushing through I gave it up. A little extra note taking ahead of time would have saved me a lot of wasted words later.
Do you know what caused you to stop writing? Give it some honest thought, though without condemnation (remember, we are forgiving ourselves).
Now that you’ve identified what went wrong, you can pinpoint what the catalysts were. Are you ignoring your alarm and letting yourself sleep a few extra minutes, leaving not enough time to write before you head out for the day? Try going to sleep earlier so you’re not so tired in the morning. Or maybe set your alarm far away so you have to get up to turn it off.
Maybe you’ve decided to write after you finish your homework in the afternoon, but by then you feel like consuming (watching TV, reading a book, checking social media) instead of creating. Try finding another time during your day in which to write. Even night owls aren’t necessarily the most prolific at night.
Are you spending too much time on your phone or the Internet, or letting notifications interrupt you when you’re supposed to be writing? There are apps you can use to silently observe and then report how much time you’re spending where, or to block certain sites temporarily, or to silence distracting notifications. Use Google to find what you need.
Attach your writing time to a trigger
Habits work best when they’re automatic. Each of us only has a certain amount of willpower at our disposal, so the less we have to use it to get stuff done, the more we can accomplish. What’s something you do automatically already? Attach your writing time to that, and it’ll be easier to make your writing a habit.
Let’s say that every weekday you come home from school and hang up your backpack, grab a snack, and sit at the table. You don’t even think about it, you just do it. How about keeping a pen and paper nearby so you can write while you snack? Or maybe every Sunday afternoon your family hangs out at the library. You could be reading or playing computer games while you’re there. Or you could take your laptop with you and use that built-in weekly time to write.
Be held accountable
It’s easy to let things slide when there aren’t any consequences. So, make some. Some people work well with deadlines, because they take the word literally—you cross this line and you’re dead. With a serious enough consequence, they’ll work hard to avoid it. I know someone who gave their friend a lot of money to hold. If they met their deadline, they got their money back. If they didn’t, the friend got to keep it. Talk about motivation!
Other people work better with a partner, who checks in on them occasionally to make sure things are being addressed little by little instead of piled up at the end (350 words a day over the course of a month is a lot easier than 10,000 words due tomorrow).
Some people work best when it’s a competition. Try racing your friends to see who writes the most words in 10 minutes. Start your short stories on the same day and see who finishes first. How many days did it take, including revisions? Find a way to use a new vocabulary word in your writing; have someone read it over to make sure you’ve used it correctly. There are lots of ways you can turn your writing goals into a game.
Still others work best when they can see a dangling “carrot” that they want and use the reward as an incentive. This can be as simple as a sticker on a chart for each day you write (it feels good to see them in a row with no spaces) or as big as a shopping trip at the mall as a reward for a completed project.
Do you recognize yourself in one of these? Is there another way you can keep yourself accountable?
I hope I’ve encouraged you to keep up your writing habit. If you find yourself out of the habit again, you’ll have the tools to get back into it. I’ll be using these steps for myself, too!
I’m a perfectionist procrastinator, meaning I put things off if I can’t get them done perfectly the first time. I’m learning to give myself grace and accept that “good enough” is better than “not done at all.” I’m also a poor judge of how long it’ll take me to do something, so thinking, “Well, I’ll just get this out of the way first and THEN I’ll write,” ends up being my downfall. That’s how I fell behind this time. Grace, grace, grace! I’m forgiving myself and starting over. How about you? Have you struggled with your writing habits lately? Any victory stories about how you overcame such obstacles? Let us learn from you!