If you are a human being, you are well aware that creating healthy habits is harrrrrrd. It’s very easy to make the other kind of habits, the ones you can’t seem to shake. But sticking to good habits? Not so easy.
Writers are no exception to this rule, which is strange because we love to write. Writing is our passion, our calling, our outlet. So why is it that days, weeks (ahem—months) roll by and we continue to wish that we had time to write, all while snuggling on the couch for another Netflix marathon?
I could easily dive into the “real” reasons we don’t write (hint: it’s not that you don’t have time), but for now I just want to talk about how you can take action and start building a habit.
You want to write? Great. You want to also watch TV? Fabulous. You like sleeping in? No problem. You can make writing a habit without giving up on things like sleep, fun, and spending time with other humans.
Here’s how you do it. (I promise, it’s pretty painless.)
1. Create a space in your home for writing
This doesn’t mean you need a full blown writer’s nook up in your attic (though that would be amazeballs). It means that part of the reason we don’t write is because it’s not present in our daily lives. We can change that simply by picking a wall, a closet door, a chair, a shelf on our bookshelf, and dedicating it to writing. Print out encouraging quotes, type up your writing “why,” buy some pens and a pretty notebook that is only for writing (not your grocery lists), and then arrange it someplace that you see every day.
Once writing starts taking up physical space in your life, it’s more of a tangible reality and less of a mythical daydream. It stares at you while you watch Netflix. It eyes you as you pass on the way to the bathroom. It summons you just by its presence.
What worked for me was a nifty writing checklist, a cheap spiral notebook, and goal calendars hanging on my wall. I discovered I could write without opening my laptop. I could snag my notebook on the way out the door to the park and sneak in a few writing minutes while my daughter played.
I had a daily reminder (that was much more effective than my daily guilt trips, by the way) that I WAS a writer.
There was the proof: look at my writing space! It was beautiful. I WANTED to use it. I wanted to write. I wanted to spend a little time there each day.
2. Set small goals connected to specific objectives
I used to say “I want to write a novel” and then I’d turn on Netflix. I thought I was just lazy. Turns out I was overwhelmed.
Sit down and write a novel? Where to even begin? As my daughter likes to say, “That will take FOREVER!!!”
Things didn’t change in my writing life until I set much smaller goals for myself. I decided first of all to use a planning system for my writing (recovering pantser here). I made a checklist. Then every week I set small goals like “Complete step two on the checklist.”
But even more powerfully, I connected those small goals to my end objective. I wanted to finish my first draft in a year so I could revise it the following year and then pitch it to agents. This was my big goal. And I knew that every tiny step I took, even if it was just finishing one step on a checklist, was getting me closer to reaching that goal.
3. Plan it into your day
This is all fabulous, you might be thinking. But I’ve done this. Set goals, converted my garage into a writing space worthy of J.K. Rowling—and still I don’t write.
Here comes the third step. You have to make room in your DAILY life for writing. It can’t be your weekly life, because if you miss one, there’s a huge gap. It needs to be daily.
You need to move things around, let things go, and make a plan to write every day. This doesn’t mean that you will write every day or that you should feel bad if you don’t write every day. It just means you need to make the space for it.
And I don’t mean you have to get up at 4 am. I mean that you need to think outside the box and make writing a priority.
Here are some ideas I’ve used: Write while your kids are in the bath. After work, drive to a coffee shop and write for half and hour before you go home. Write for ten minutes after your kids are asleep, but before you snuggle up to watch TV with your spouse.
However you fit it in, if you put it on your to do list but don’t make a plan for when it will happen, it won’t happen. (This is probably why I never exercise...hmmm.)
4. Make a checklist
This might not appeal to the less organized writers, but as I mentioned before, making a checklist with small, measurable steps was incredibly motivating (you can see the checklist I made here).
Suddenly, I didn’t need to sit and write. I needed to sit and create a character sketch. Or write one specific scene.
The more specific your checklist is, the more likely you are to sit down and write. I think this is because you can see what you need to do. You don’t have to sit down and try to get into the zone and fiddle with your email for twenty minutes. You just sit down, look at your list, do the next step, and close your laptop. Then you put a checkmark and before you know it, all those check marks start adding up.
And once you start seeing progress and being successful at writing regularly, a strange thing happens. The guilt evaporates. The excitement sets in. And you start doing it without having to make yourself. You just do it because it’s what you do.
You’re a writer, after all. Why on earth wouldn’t you write?
5. Find accountability with other writers.
This last step is the most important. The myth of the lonely writer is a myth (er...yes.) It’s not based on reality.
ALL successful writers had (or have) a support group of other writers and editors. (The exceptions are the ones who went mad. Which usually isn’t a personal life goal.)
I’m not talking about your loving spouse who reads all your work and is your biggest fan. I’m not talking about your BFF who likes to sort of write sometimes.
I’m talking other writers who are as committed to the writing life as you are. Who are ignoring the negative voices and plunging onward toward their dream of getting their book out into the world.
You already know why this is important. It’s because two are stronger than one and a threefold cord is not easily broken. It’s because we get weird ideas in our head about how we will fail and how all our words are stupid and we need an outside perspective.
It’s because when you know someone in the world is expecting you to finish your book—and that they are hard at work finishing their book—magic happens and you stick with it even when you feel like giving up.
Where do you find other writers? Check your local library for a writing group. Connect with other writers on Instagram. (Check out my #sharingwithinkandgrace hashtag and also try #writerscommunity. Also feel free to stalk me on Instagram and look at all the writers I follow. They are lovely people.). Find a Facebook group for writers (check out the Inklings Writing Group). Start your own writing group.
I need to put a disclaimer here: complete these five steps with caution.
Side effects of completing all five steps might include: Solid progress on your book. A feeling of peace and gratitude. A lifting of stress and guilt. The startling realization that you are actually a writer. Daydreaming about when your book gets published. Enjoying regular activities more because you aren’t constantly feeling like you “should” be writing (because, um, you’ve already done that for the day).
Keep writing, my friends.
Ashly is a book coach and editor who believes that stories give us much needed hope—and we need as many stories in the world as we can get.
She lives with her husband and daughter in the magical lands of the Pacific Northwest and spends her days supporting writers and working on her fantasy novel.