I recently received an email from a reader named Abbi P. who asked, “I’ve been having some trouble developing a daily writing routine, so I thought I would ask you if you had any advice to build good writing habits so I can make that a priority and be able to write everyday…thank you so much!”
Thanks for the question, Abbi. I’m certain you’re not the only one asking it.
Abbi mentioned in her email that she swims, and that takes up a lot of her time. That’s interesting, because one of the best ways to improve your writing routine is to approach it in the same way we would build a healthy exercise routine.
I’m going to be honest. I’m not a super fit person. I’m not a health nut or a fitness guru.
But I have ridden my bike across the state of Ohio in two different directions. In 2014, I rode from Richmond, Indiana to Wheeling, West Virginia, crossing Ohio on route 40 in three days, approximately 270 miles.
In 2018, I rode from Lake Erie in Cleveland to the Ohio River in Cincinnati, a distance of 326 miles in five days.
I’ve learned that developing the ability to write consistently is no different from developing a healthy exercise routine.
There are three keys: start small, define your time, and protect your time.
Your goal as a writer is to develop a consistent routine. If you invest small amounts of time tin your writing consistently over a long period of time you’ll yield huge results.
Writers make the same mistake most people make when they start exercising. They do too much too soon.
Your goal is to create a sustainable routine that you can do consistently for a long period of time.
Writing or exercise, that first day, it feels great. You’re really doing it! Finally! Look at you! It’s fun. So you push too hard and you do too much.
Look at you…you’re exercising. You bought them fancy shoes. Got your earbuds.
Let’s see how you feel tomorrow.
In the case of exercise, lots of people push too hard on the first day and they injure themselves. The second day is agony. Mentally and physically, they never bounce back from that, and the routine never develops. They exercise for a few days in a row, then take a couple of days off to recover, which turns into a week, a month, and a year…
When I started preparing for either of those bike trips, months in advance I started leisurely riding my bike three times a week for just fifteen minutes. That’s it. Of course I could go farther than that, but even if I wanted to, I didn’t. I could have handled more days, but I didn’t do it. I didn’t push hard, it was just a nice easy ride. I had to get my butt used to the seat. If I pushed too hard, I would ruin it. It was more important to me to develop a healthy, enjoyable routine that I could sustain, than to make any real strength gains in those first few weeks.
Little by little, I added time. The second week I biked for 20 minutes, then 30. Then I started pushing for particular time and distance goals. Within three months, I was riding a 17 mile loop in less than an hour twice per week, and once a week I would do a 2+ hour ride.
But I had to discipline myself and limit my impulses in the beginning to get to that place. If I had gone all out on day one, I never would have gotten there. I would have discouraged myself.
The same is true of writing. Writing is just like a muscle. If you push too hard all at once, you’ll burn out.
Train your brain that writing is fun and easy by starting small. Your first week, just write for 15-30 minutes. Make yourself stop at 30 minutes. I know you could do longer, and in the future you will, but start with something that you know you can sustain. Start by just getting used to a routine, and getting your butt used to the seat.
Developing a healthy routine will serve you better in the long term than anything you’ll specifically produce in those first couple of weeks.
Slowly, over weeks, extend that time and the number of writing sessions. In the second week, do three 30 minute sessions. Again, stop yourself, even if you feel doing more. It’s much better to leave yourself wanting more, than feeling burned out or overextended.
Writing is hard work. Your brain is a real organ which consumes calories. Your brain only accounts for 2% of your body weight, but it consumes about 20% of your caloric intake. (Dr. Marcus Raichle, Washington University via Time) The harder you work your brain, the more energy it requires.
Jerk brain. Stealing all those good calories.
There is a real, physical toll on your body when you do creative work. It requires training and preparation. With training, you’ll be able to produce more rapidly and for greater periods of time. But you have to train yourself first.
Just like with exercise, if you do too much too fast, you will turn the process into agony and never develop the routine. Sensibly limit yourself and start small.
Define Your Time
As you develop your ability to write and produce, define specific times for your writing.
Just like your boss at work puts you on a schedule and expects you to show up at certain times, discipline your writing to specific times as well. Actually put it on a calendar.
If your goal is simply to “write 4 hours this week,” and you sort of wait for opportunities to do that, you are very unlikely to achieve it. The week will fly by as they always do, and it will remain undone.
If you define that you will write for 1 hour each evening from 8pm to 9pm Monday through Thursday, you’re much more likely to follow through.
As best as possible, maintain this routine week to week. However, if the routine can’t be consistent, take the time to define it each week.
If, for instance, you work the type of job where your work days and times change each week, that’s Ok. But as soon as you get your work schedule, sit down and make your schedule for your second job—the job of being a writer.
When you define specific times, then you can hold yourself accountable and make changes as necessary.
Getting to the end of the week and asking, “Did I write for 4 hours this week?” is too general and unhelpful. It’s too late to correct it at that point. It’s just going to pile shame on your shoulders.
However, if on Tuesday you can look at your calendar and it says, “Write from 8am to 9am,” you can evaluate your success that same day. Did you do it? How did it go? If you were not successful, what are you going to do differently for your next writing session?
As you build endurance, 60-90 minute writing sessions are a sweet spot for many writers. It’s enough time to really “get into it” and achieve that creative flow state, but not too long to start feeling exhausted (as long as you’ve started small and built up to it).
A common mistake that I see is writers who try to fit a lot of hours into just a few sessions. They’re going to write from 6pm to 10pm on Thursday, and 8am to 4pm on Saturdays. It’s really difficult to work up to being productive for an extended period of time like that.
Remember that writing is work. It’s hard work. Yes, you could show up and pull the lever or make burgers for 8 hours, but you can’t be creative for that long—at least not without training and practice.
If you use my Novel Matrix method, you can write a complete draft of a novel in 100 hours. That means that if you can write for 5 hours per week, you can produce a draft in 20 weeks. That’s not bad!
But that five hours has to come from somewhere. I assume you’re not spending a great deal of time staring at a wall in your life right now. Even if you were just watching TV for that time that you convert to writing time, that’s still a change and a sacrifice that you’re going to have to make. Your mind and body will rebel against that change. Defining your time will put you in a position to be strong and to master your mind and body.
As your journey as a writer progresses, there will be other tasks you need to do—like platform building, querying agents, or even business administration. As that happens, assign specific tasks to the time that you’re defining. Don’t just show up on Thursday evening to do “writing work” and then see what happens. Assign specific tasks to the time. From 8pm to 9pm you write, then don’t do anything but write during that time. If from 9pm to 10pm you’ve decided that you’ll do platform building, only do that during that defined time.
Protect your time
The issue with writing is that while it’s extremely important to you, it’s never urgent.
It can really always wait.
When push comes to shove, that other thing that pops up will always take priority. You can just write another time, right?
Defining a schedule is only as good as your ability to protect it.
Let’s say you have a regular job and you’re scheduled to work on Tuesday night. Your friend calls on Tuesday afternoon, “Want to go to the movies tonight?” What do you say? Hopefully you say, “I wish I could, but I have to work.” Then you go to work.
If writing is important, you need to treat it with the same discipline.
If writing is important, you have to protect that time that you defined.
In your heart, I bet you would agree that your writing is even more important than your job. Then treat it with at least the same regard. When something comes up, your attitude needs to be the same, “Sorry, I have to write.”
This is hard. You even have to protect your time from your kids, your spouse, your church, your employer. You are simply not available on those days you’ve chosen. It doesn’t matter how good, how important, or how urgent it seems.
Just imagine they’re offering you cigarettes. Then remember what Nancy Reagan said… Just say no.
Accept in your heart right now—you will miss out on other things. Your family will miss out on other things—even really good things. But this is important.
You are choosing that your writing is important, and you are protecting that.
When you’re getting started writing, it’s more important to position yourself for longterm success and develop a healthy, sustainable routine, than it is to accomplish anything big right away. Writing is a long game.
Your brain is part of your body, and it’s arguably your biggest calorie consumer. It will take time to train your brain to write for longer and more frequent periods of time. Start small and build slowly. A good routine is more important than your initial productivity. Too much too fast will burn you out.
Define specific times for your writing. As your endurance grows, decide how much time per week you want to invest in your writing, and put it on your calendar. Don’t rely on weekly totals or generalizations, put specific times on your calendar, just like you would for a work schedule or a doctor’s appointment.
Protect the time you’ve assigned. When you define your time, that time is as important as a work schedule would be. If other opportunities arise, no matter how urgent or important they may seem, all you can do is say, “Sorry, I’d like to but I’m writing during that time.”
If writing is important to you, then make it important. Your future self will thank you.
Go easy on your expectations. Start in a way that you know without a doubt won’t stress you out, then build up from there. Smalls amount of time, consistently collected over months and years, will yield big results in the long term.
Consistency is more important than the amount of time you put in.
In a year’s time, you will produce far more with just thirty minutes three times per week than you will with two hours here and there as the mood strikes.
You can do this. Remember that writing isn’t easy—there’s a real physical and mental toll to this work. Respect that, train yourself, and apply the same sensibilities you would to developing a sustainable exercise routine.
I can’t wait to see what you produce.
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