Growing up, I was a horrifying child of habit with my mother despairing of getting me to try anything different. Peanut butter and jelly every day from grammar school to high school graduation; my books alphabetical by author on the shelves; and when I wasn’t wearing a Catholic school uniform on the weekends and vacations, I had multiple pairs of the same jeans which I would wear with multiples of the same shirts in different colors. At school, I needed my pens in a certain way on the desk and my textbook always in the left-hand upper corner of the desk, otherwise I had trouble focusing. Looking back on it, I’m glad few people knew about OCD back in the 80s otherwise I would have been taken to a therapist post-haste for evaluation.
I’m sure there was a lot of psychological stuff going on since at the time I felt there was plenty in my life not in my control and these were things I could control. Add to it that I was heavily influenced by being in Catholic school each day – a world in which ritual dominated literally every hour of my schoolday – so how could I not think about adding it rituals in other areas of my life?
Nowadays, I read a lot of nonfiction (yes, I read books other than romance, really!) and while I love history and biography books, I also enjoy social psychology books for the insight they offer on the world we construct for ourselves. As I try and carve out habits of writing, one book that has an application in so many areas is the The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business by Charles Duhigg.
Scouring various forms of behavioral research, Duhigg examines our approach to life, interpreting how and why we create habits. Businesses use social psychology to construct environments which play upon these desires and the health care industry is equally attempting to harness this knowledge to help us combat unhealthy behavior. (i.e., Need to fight your family propensity toward diabetes? Here’s how to map out a 30 day plan to exercise your way to good health.) One of the main points which stood out to me as someone trying to write regularly while also being a full-time (and sometimes more) worker, is that you have to approach any habit creation with steadfast determination, particularly because it takes easily 30 days to rewire the neurotransmitters in your brain so that the new behavior sinks in enough to be a less effort-laden routine.
For me a habit is very much a pseudo-ritual done a similar time of day each day and delivered with the same parameters. When I come home each day, I sit on the same place on the couch and usually eat one of around 12 possible dinners (I eat other stuff, too, but have a set of go-to foods). I read for a certain number of minutes, go upstairs around a certain time, wash up in the exact same order, and have recently trained myself to go to sleep by getting in bed and not reading or looking at a screen since that helps me fall asleep a lot quicker. There’s certain amount of wiggle room in this routine, but I’ll admit to getting a little pissed or at least out of temper if a wrench gets thrown in the works.
So with this revelatory piece of self-knowledge (please don’t judge me), I readily admit that for me to have any hope as a writer, it’s non-negotiable that I figure out some kind of routine or habit around writing. Part of my problem is that I have two routines: the school day routine and the vacation routine. For most people who have two weeks of vacation a year and a smattering of long weekends, a vacation routine is probably less of an issue, but, as an educator in a private school, I’m blessed to have off from early June to mid-August with a couple chunky times around the holidays and in early March where I have another two week block to myself. As a result, I need two writing routines in my life – one for when I am working and have significantly less time and one for when I have off and I have a lot of time.
Until I read Time to Write: More Than 100 Professional Writers Reveal How to Fit Writing into Your Busy Life by Kelly L. Stone, I honestly thought that there were only a couple types of writing routines and I worried that I didn’t fit any of them. Most recommendations geared toward working slobs centered on training yourself to get up a few hours before work and writing until you need to get ready.
Uh, I know you don’t know me, but 1) I am not a morning person and 2) I am almost Golem-esque in my worship of sleep. If there was a Sleeping Olympics, I’d be a gold medalist in both the Nighttime and Napping events, so writing has to be part of my normal waking hours. Stone’s explanation of the weekend writer, the after work writer, the during breaks at work writer, came as a huge relief for me as I realized there were available routines I could try to help me focus on writing.
But truly the best recommendation she had for me was her chapter on the “Writing Action Plan”. Relying on an individual’s vision of success as a writer and some practical ideas from established successful authors (one of the strengths of the book is the tidbits from name authors inserted throughout the text), Stone recommends applying the SMART acronym to your writing goals: they should be Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic, and Time-limited. Long-term goals should also have the subset of short term goals fueled by mini-objectives. Take a look:
Long term goal: Write a 60,000 word category romance novel geared toward Harlequin’s Blaze line by August 20th.
Short term goal: Write 1000 words a day (4 pages)/5000 words a week (20 pages).
Mini-objective 1: Purchase new Blaze books each month and read them to determine pacing, characterization and writing style preferences.
Mini objective 2: Read editor recommendations and preferences on Harlequin Writer’s Community forums to get a sense of key decision makers and their preferences and pet peeves regarding submissions (by May 1st).
Previously my long term goal would have been “Publish a romance novel” but that’s hardly helpful when I’m looking at laundry piles and professional reading obligations. Another terrific perspective with tons of practical advice added was the Kindle book Write Every Day by Michael Haynes. In under 70 pages, Haynes manages to cut right to the chase of writer anxiety, giving excellent suggestions on how to ramp up your writing into a viable habit through various types of accountability, both to yourself and to others. I loved, loved, loved his suggestion that deciding on a word count every day – no matter what kind of writing – so your brain and fingers get used to generating ideas and articulately put them somewhere was genius. Per his suggestion, I set a goal of 500 words per day and have been keeping a spreadsheet to see if I’ve been meeting it (and most days, I do). Haynes also walks the walk on his blog where he regularly discusses his monthly writing goals and fearlessly lets you know whether he’s met them or not in that time period. This is a writer who deserves an award for not only providing a great model but also for being so open as to share his process, warts and all. I know it makes me feel better and inspires me, all at the same time.
My biggest obstacle toward regularly writing is the elusive danger of “procrastiwork,” a term usually defined as important work you do but it’s not the work you should actually be doing at that time. While I didn’t know the name for it, this model was my default setting all through college and graduate school when I had any kind of reading or writing assignments (mostly for writing) and I would decide that my house desperately needed cleaning and why didn’t we have anything made in the fridge? After I got married, my husband adored my graduate school career simply because he came home every day to a pristine house and homemade meals cooking in the oven.
Procrastiwork doesn’t have to be a negative – many creative types think it actually helps them unleash new ideas – but is important to keep a handle on it. I find that while I’m cleaning and doing the laundry, I often am going through ideas in my mind for my writing project so I am more ready to sit down and crank out the word count when the final swipe is made on the kitchen counter. As long as procrastiwork doesn’t morph into a genuine avoidance, its power can be harnessed for good, and I’m hoping that my new series of goals in my writing plan helps me stay on track and keep it to a minimum.
In the end, creating habits isn’t easy work but it can be productive work that hopefully pays off with each writer finding herself closer to the original vision of success which had her begin writing in the first place. I’m certainly going to try some of these proven strategies to make writing the peanut butter and jelly sandwich of my adulthood.