Publish or perish. In the doctoral world, success is based on written communication. This writing starts early – the culmination of nearly every course you take in grad school ends with a 25-paged paper. For the sake of survival, it is important to develop good writing habits – or even better, a writing addiction.
Peg Boyle Single’s blog post addressed two writer’s myths – the belief that one must have large, focused blocks of time and waiting to be in “the mood” to write – can actually impede the writing process. Realistically, having several uninterrupted hours to write is a rare luxury in the life of a Ph.D. Furthermore, impending deadlines do not wait for mood swings. The solution, Single suggests, is to dedicate a regular time to write each day. Her article talks about the rationale behind this and offers tips to help cultivate the writing habit.
Although books on the subject offer anecdotal evidence on the benefits to everyday writing, there are several studies that provide empirical evidence that regular writing does, in fact, lower performance anxiety and increase writer proficiency. A classic case study by Boice (1981), for example, helped six academics get over their chronic writer’s block through the use of scheduled writing days and specific writing activities. In all six cases, “small but consistent amounts of writing over extended periods of time” (p. 206) minimized anxiety, the need for perfection, and writer’s burn out. In another paper, Zimmerman and Risemberg (1997) reviewed several empirical studies on the self-regulation strategies of successful writers. Among the list of strategies was, of course, writing on a regular basis.
It took a series of trials and errors before I was able to establish a fairly successful writing habit. At first, I started by establishing a word count for myself every day. This didn’t work, because often my days involved many hours of reading before I had gathered enough information in my brain to synthesize what I’ve read. By then, the day would be over. Then, I tried to make myself write for at least 30 minutes a day. This, too, failed. Again, it felt as if I did not know enough to be able to write for this amount of time on a daily basis.
Finally, a book called “Writing Your Dissertation in Fifteen Minutes a Day” by Joan Bolker reframed the way I thought about writing. In her book, she goes beyond writing as a habit, and talks about creating a positive writing addiction: “Positive addictions can focus us; they have their own built-in motivation, complete with withdrawal symptoms.” Thus, it was less about what you write, and more about just writing. A lot. Periodically! …and going into withdrawals when you don’t write.
After reading her book, I remembered the habit loop described by Charles Duhigg in his book, “The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business,” which can be used to create and/or change the habits that we have. Duhigg talked about the three parts of the habit loop: the cue, the routine, and the reward (p. 13). The cue is a trigger – a psychological button that starts the behavior. The routine is the behavior itself, and the reward comes after you’ve completed the routine. In order to shape bad habits into positive ones, one had to adjust something in this habit loop. For example, if a nail biting habit is triggered by an uneven edge on one’s nail, carrying a nail file to eliminate that cue can change the habit. Similarly, the use of a rubber band to snap one’s hand when they felt the urge to bite their nails reroutes the routine of biting, as well as the reward – a snap to reset the neurons.
In order to cultivate my writing habit/addiction, I had to have a cue, a routine, and a reward. My habit had to be reasonable (not the 1000 word count, or the 30-minute writing block) and doable, so that I could experience success at it every day. My habit loop was fashioned after already existing cues in my daily routine – the cue to pee after I wake up (yes, this is funny, I know, but at the same time, it works for me). After I relieve my bladder, I sit at my computer and write for 10 minutes. Just 10, because 10 is extremely doable. Afterward, my writing habit ties into an addiction of mine as a reward – COFFEE! After I write, I go and get my coffee, because I’m not fully human until I get coffee. …and you know what? This habit loop works for me!
Some lessons I learned about creating a writing addiction:
1. Make your goal something you can ALWAYS accomplish, no matter what.
I have, on occasion, brought the laptop into the bathroom with me. For me, there is no excuse for not making my 10-minute freewrite, and I often go over this time quite easily.
2. It’s about writing. JUST writing.
Don’t worry about what you are writing. Just WRITE. I’ll say more about freewriting in another post, but for now, just stick to writing – even if it’s, “I can’t think of anything to write so I’m going to just list my favorite ice cream flavors.” JUST WRITE IT.
3. Tie writing to a cue or an addiction.
This was key for me – because I love coffee so much. The fact that coffee is a reward for writing makes writing even better for me – and now, it doesn’t feel right to have coffee without writing, first (yes, folks – I have a bona fide writing addiction)! Perhaps your cue is sitting at your computer, or it’s the notepad you put at your table while you are eating breakfast. It’s much easier to form a habit when it revolves around your other habits. I have, before bed, often written writing prompts for myself to address in the morning. That way, in my groggy before-coffee state, I can still manage to write something (although whether that something is intelligible is up for debate).
4. Give yourself an incentives and rewards.
I need my coffee in the morning. However, I also use something else – I put a few of my friends (thank goodness for Aubrey!) in a Facebook group, called, “Write before coffee.” You are welcome to join it if you like, and you are not required to do any posts if you don’t want to. Here, I’ll post my freewrites – as terrible and as awful as they are, for personal accountability. I’m expected (because I said I would) to write each day – so I do! However, when I talk about my own research in my freewrites, I include only a partial post there – because I’m bound by ethics. …but I post each day – because I have witnesses!
5. Make it a habit – periodic, persistence, tenacity
On a blog post in Forbes Magazine, Jason Selk debunks the myth that habits form after periodically doing them for 21 days straight. Instead, he claims that a habit doesn’t stick until you face a challenge during your routine that potentially breaks your streak. When this happens, the act of overcoming these challenges and persisting despite the challenge will help the habit stick. In his blog, he says that the more times one “fights through” these challenges, the more likely the habit will form and stay. Be tenacious!
6. Don’t give up. Find something that works!
It took me almost three years (and a lot of coffee) in order to cultivate my writing addiction. I had to go through a lot of trial and error to figure out a routine that worked for me. Don’t give up, but DO change things up if things are not working. In “Write Good or Die” Kristine Kathryn Rusch says, “No amount of ‘forcing’ myself got me to change my habits. I had to figure out where the problem started, and nip it in the bud.” Knowing what keeps you from forming a habit is just as important as the habit, itself. Find out what those challenges are, and strategize on ways to overcome them.
7. Be patient and gentle with yourself.
Habits don’t form overnight. However, each time you write, spend a moment to say to yourself, “I FINISHED!” and let that glory soak in. When you don’t accomplish the habit, say, “I will do it now. Challenge accepted!” or, reassess your goals and see if you need to make them more reasonable. However, don’t beat yourself up. You ain’t got time for that! Success, after all, is a series of failing betters.
What are your habit-forming strategies? Care to share in comments below?
Happy writing to you!