When I wrote my first book in 2013, I was newly married and working a full-time job. While writing, that dream of every writer’s heart whispered to me every morning: What if this is what you could do to make a living?
As I’d done for decades, I silenced that voice of hope with a quick and definitive, “Yeah, right. Nobody’s even going to read this thing.”
However, I’d just read Steven Pressfield’s The War of Art. Spurred to fight Resistance, I wrote my 50,000-word book in six months by waking at 5 a.m. every weekday and writing for an hour — whether or not I felt like I had anything worthwhile to say.
I accomplished that by changing my mind-set. What I had once approached as a pastime turned into an obligation. Where once I’d wait (far too long) for inspiration to strike, I found W. Somerset Maugham’s words to be true: “I write only when inspiration strikes. Fortunately it strikes every morning at nine o’clock sharp.”
When I experienced the truth that a writing life is built upon writing—a novel concept, I know — everything changed.
When my hobby became my habit, my identity changed to match my expectations.
I no longer said, “I want to write.” I said, with confidence, “I am a writer.”
It wouldn’t be until years later — after I’d become a full-time freelance editor, author, and ghostwriter — that I’d learn the four-step habit-building process I’d unintentionally worked through.
And that education, ironically enough, would come through a book project I had the glad opportunity to assist with early on in its development.
Atomic Habits (for writers)
The subtitle for James Clear’s Atomic Habits, a New York Times bestseller, is An Easy & Proven Way to Build Good Habits & Break Bad Ones. Its tagline is “Tiny Changes, Remarkable Results.” Through many well-researched examples, Clear presents reason after reason why a 1 percent change for the better every day is more beneficial than striving for one defining moment, or, worse, stagnating.
He also offers clear steps on the process of building better habits. Essentially, you need to discover your cue, craving, response, and reward. (Atomic Habits goes in-depth on each of these steps, and I recommend picking up the book for a fuller understanding.)
How to create and maintain a writing habit
To transpose his ideas to the writing world, let’s consider how each step could look in your writing life. Each quote below is from “How To Start New Habits That Actually Stick,” an excerpt of Atomic Habits.
1. “The cue triggers your brain to initiate a behavior.”
Your cue could be the place you write, the music you listen to, or the tools you use.
My cue was just getting myself from my bed to my office chair in less than ten minutes every morning. If I could get myself in front of a keyboard before conscious thought (a.k.a. Resistance) entered my brain, I could convince myself, Well, I’m already here. Might as well write.
Author and podcaster Sean McCabe automates lights in his office to change to a certain color when he’s scheduled time for himself to write.
I highly recommend using one or all of these cues: writing in the same place, at the same time every day, while listening to the same kind of music. As you establish your writing habit through repetition, your body and mind start to correlate that place, that time, and that music with, Well, it must be time to write.
Now, pause here to consider what your cue could be.
2. “Cravings…are the motivational force behind every habit.”
Clear notes, “What you crave is not the habit itself but the change in state it delivers.”
In other words, I didn’t crave getting up at 5 a.m., at least not initially. I craved the sense of accomplishment from being a writer working toward a long-sought-after goal. To be honest, I also craved the moment I’d be able to tell friends and family, “I wrote a book.”
Your craving may be the same, but it could also be to make money or a living through your words, or to earn respect for your opinions or skill.
Now, ask yourself, “What change of state am I seeking as a result of my writing?”
3. “The response is the actual habit you perform.”
Writers ought to have only one response to their cues and cravings: writing!
Of course, being a writer today requires far too many extracurricular activities, like promoting your list or pitching agents, but the habit you must perform without fail to become a writer and stay a writer is to write.
Yet, I’m willing to bet, most of us struggle to do that consistently for a host of reasons.
That’s why following Clear’s four stages of habit-making — which loop back upon themselves — is so helpful.
4. “Rewards are the end goal of every habit.”
Once your cue has led to your craving, your craving has led to your response, your response leads to your reward. You finally get to enjoy the fruits of your labors.
These rewards can take a few forms.
Maybe it’s the endorphin kick when you finally figure out your plot or when one of your characters surprises you on the page.
Maybe it’s the realization that you’re doing what you’ve always said you’d do.
Maybe it’s being able to talk about your work-in-progress because you finally have a work-in-progress.
For me, my reward was Pavlovian. I used Scrivener’s word count goal feature to meet my daily word count goals. Every time I’d cross that number, Scrivener would give me a pleasant ding and a pop-up of congratulations.
Eventually, I craved hearing that noise.
For all of those early mornings, my habit loop wasn’t about writing a book and whatever rewards could come from publication. Rather, my habit loop was much simpler: I just wanted to hear that chime, signifying that I’d met my goal.
And, by just getting 1 percent better every day, I eventually wrote a book, published it, and then turned that work into a career in writing.
That whisper of fear I once had has been replaced with a daily shout of joy: This is what I get to do for a living. (And I have incredible clients to thank for that.)
If you’re ready to transform your writing hobby into a writing habit, I hope you’ll experience the same kind of identity shift.
You’re not going to write.
You are a writer.
By Blake Atwood
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Using Scrivener to set a word goal is a great idea. I have my FitBit set to vibrate when I reach my step goal, and I find it similarly motivating.