How to Develop a Writing Habit in Three Simple Steps

From the headline, I bet you think I have an amazing writing habit. Well, you’d be wrong. I seldom write anything longer than an effusive email. But I know how to create good habits. In my work as an executive coach, I help clients develop new habits that add tremendous value to their lives.

If you talk to Stanford Professor and researcher BJ Fogg, he’ll tell you that habit formation not only can be simple, but it should be simple, especially if you are trying to building a long-term healthy habit. We can all build unhealthy habits. The short-term rewards for unhealthy habits (eating sweets, smoking, watching TV) stimulate pleasure sensors in the brain in a way that is inherently habit-forming. But the long-term rewards of healthy habits often provide no immediate benefit or pleasure, and in fact sometimes cause short-term discomfort, rendering them anything but “habit-forming.”

I think of writing as a neutral habit. It can provide both short-term and long-term benefits, but there is no certainty that either will be true. Indeed, writing can be either painful and frustrating or joyful and freeing in the moment. Maybe that is why many people intend to be prolific writers, but so few succeed.

Perhaps the formula below will help you — and me. And please note I’ve stolen liberally from Prof. Fogg, Charlie Duhigg of the New York Times, and others.

1. Get Motivated and Specific: Associate a Writing Routine with Short-term Pleasure and Long-term Gains

Associating writing with positive emotions and experiences seems easy. Authors are heroes to many of us. People who blog a lot tend to get more work and get invited to speak at conferences. They gain notoriety and are held in high esteem. That all sounds great.

But writing is hard. The act itself is solitary. And after all that effort people might not read your stuff. Or when they do, they might leave you negative comments. If you write something personal, you may feel exposed or vulnerable. Don’t worry — I feel your pain. As humans, we naturally fear loss or negative emotions much more than we crave gains or positive emotions.

That’s why this part takes a little bit of a leap of faith — and some smart life hacking. Commit to a very specific (and attainable — see #2) writing habit, and share your work with people who support you. Get positive feedback from people who love you. And take in their encouragement.

2. Keep it Simple: Write a Little. Get Feedback. Write Some More.

The title of Fogg’s book “Tiny Habits” kinda says it all. To develop a new habit, it’s best to start small. The likelihood of successfully developing a new habit is inversely proportional to the difficulty and complexity of the target behavior. Want to write a novel? Great. So do a lot of people. Why do most people never do it? Because they set out to write a novel as their first writing project.

To develop the writing habit, start by writing a blog post once a week — or once a month. Or maybe go start even smaller. Tweet once a week. Or once a month. Find the smallest, simplest form of writing you can do (one that still provides you some pleasure — see #1), and commit to a regular cadence.

3. Develop a Trigger: Associate Writing with Something You Already Do

In Tiny Habits, BJ Fogg talks about anchoring new habits in old ones. “After I brush my teeth, I will floss one tooth.” Most successful writers have a routine too. Writing doesn’t happen in isolation. It is part of a predicable routine, nested inside other engrained habits. Many successful writers use the same room or the same time of day, or sit down with their second cup of coffee in hand.

Whatever it might be, look at your existing routines and spaces and pick a place where writing seems to make sense. Maybe it’s when you come into the office on Monday morning before the week gets too crazy. Maybe it’s Sunday night after you put the kids down. Whatever it is, pick a thing you already do and make writing the next thing you do after that is complete.

So, here’s my own plan…

I’m actually writing this post right now in an effort to upgrade my own writing habit. I’ve written short social posts and shared images habitually for a while now, so perhaps I’m ready finally to be a more regular blogger. Gosh, maybe I’ll even write a book someday. Maybe. For now…baby steps.

  1. I’m associating more writing with more meaning and purpose in my life. I’m putting my thoughts on the page to reach more people. To develop more meaningful relationships with smart people who can benefit from my gifts.
  2. To keep it simple, I’m going to write and publish just two blog posts a month, in the morning every other hump day.
  3. I’m setting up a series of triggers: Every other Wednesday morning I have a standing 9am meeting in my calendar called “Build Relationships Through Writing.” I wrote it that way to associate my desired end benefit with the target behavior. My specific trigger is to sit down with my second cup of coffee of the day, and write an article based on notes I keep throughout the week in my phone.
  4. Oh, and one thing Fogg doesn’t directly discuss, but appears in the Charlie Duhigg’s Power of Habit, is the “reward.” In Fogg’s habit loop the reward is technically #1, but I need a little more immediate gratification than that. So, as soon as I hit “publish,” I will allow myself a third cup of coffee. Buzzzzzzzz…

PS. Accountability also helps… Please check back in two weeks. If I don’t publish something two Wednesdays from now, feel free to give me a hard time. Because when the carrots of fame and fortune fail, there’s always the stick of guilt to get us going.