How To Develop a Writing Habit (And Jump on the Writing Train)

Think of Writing Like Smoking or Drinking

A writing habit is not much different from every other habit or addiction, both good and bad. We need to crave it like a cigarette or a beer (or even exercise). And the pattern of triggers for smoking or drinking also apply to writing.

In , James Clear writes that every habit has a cue, a craving, a response and a reward. But the first thing is the initial CUE, which leads to other cues. To write every day, you need cues to establish habits that trigger other habits, which then lead to you sitting down at your desk and writing. I like to call this The Writing Train.

If you want to write fast, you need to know how to get on The Writing Train every single day. The trick is mastering your habits that lead you toward writing, not away.

How to Use Habit Cues to Catch the Writing Train

The Writing Train is a set of habit cues, one leading to the next, which take you straight to your computer and your work in progress. How can you head onto the right train and make sure you don’t get off at the wrong stop along the way?

  1. Use Positive Writing Cues

Find an obvious cue or trigger that tells your brain that you’re going to write. We are all Pavlov’s dogs, and we need cues to get us salivating.

If the cue isn’t obvious, we may jump on the wrong train, leading away from writing, rather than toward it. The cues are different for all of us. Maybe it’s a movie soundtrack, a run, a craft book, or a hot cup of tea with milk. What makes you want to write?

2. Avoid Negative Non-Writing Cues

Negative non-writing cues are any cues that distract you away from your goal.

Is your phone near your bed? Does it wake you up and then you look at social media or the news even though you intend to write first thing? Put it somewhere else to stop that negative cue — otherwise you’ll get on the Social Media Train, instead of The Writing Train.

Do you open your computer to write, but then, immediately go online? At night, turn it off the wifi into your computer and open your document so that you’re ready to go in the morning.

Maybe it’s a person, Sally the Gossip, who’s always waiting at school drop-off, and you were planning on writing, but man, there she is, blabbing away. Maybe you love this Sally. And now you’re heading for coffee or to Home Depot with her to buy a hammer. Not now! Do anything to avoid the Sally-the-Gossip-Train!

3. Use Multisensory Cues

Get the whole body involved: we need a range of auditory, visual and physical cues to change our habits.

Set an alarm not only for the morning, but also for when you intend to start writing. Create a big celebratory writing sign which you place near any potential distractor, non shaming, just a joyful reminder. Set the coffee maker and put out your favorite writing mug. Put out running clothes if you run before writing. Stick a post-it on your car dashboard that you plan to write in the car before you walk inside. Make sure you have cues for whatever your intended writing plan is.

4. Plan (Far) Backwards for The First Positive Familiar Cue

Figure out where the first positive cue could be. It might be the previous night. This way you’ll get on the right train at night that leads to your best writing in the morning.

Head backward to the first familiar good habit that you can build on. Go all the way back to whatever habit will not set you on the wrong train. For me, this is putting my kids to bed. It’s familiar, positive and habitual.

After I put them down, I might jump off my Writing Train. I could stay up too late, go on social media, or stream Netflix so that it’s hard to run in the morning and running always helps my writing. So, this means after I say goodnight to them, I have to prepare to sleep on time, which means I need to stop screens early and read a novel. This way, I can wake up early for my morning routine, which includes running and writing.

5. Plan Every Step In Your Writing Train

Here’s a potential problem: events and people can derail you. Your perfect, smooth-running Writing Train can lurch to a stop. Try to plan for these distractions and consider each step so that you stay focused.

Here is my ideal Writing Train. . .

At night, I turn off screens, put out my running clothes (visual cue) and go to bed on time. In the morning, I wake up early, take a cold shower, meditate, stretch, then head out the door to run (or walk if I’m tired). I don’t bring a phone. If I do, I’ll look at texts, email and social media, or listen to music, books or podcasts. I need to bore my brain enough that it starts thinking about my story. Once I’m feverish to write and my story is alive within me, I head home. After I arrive, I make my tea with milk, then head upstairs to my office. I turn off the wi-fi on the computer and immediately start writing. Showering after running throws me out of creativity mode. I don’t shower (yet), not while I’m burning with the desire to write. Instead, I stay on my Writing Train.

Now it’s time to plan your own personal Writing Train. I hope you’ll find it useful and that you achieve your writing goals in the coming year.

Good luck! (And here’s a little tea for inspiration.)

Author of TRAFFICKED (Penguin, 2012) and THIS IS NOT A LOVE LETTER (Disney-Hyperion, 2018), creative writing teacher and mom of two fabulous girls.

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