There are some simple habits that will transform anyone into a prolific writer. But first, let's talk about why it's worth it to become one.
Within 6 months of developing a daily writing habit, I made more progress than I did in the previous 3 years combined. When I reflect on my career as a writer, there's one habit that stands out above the rest.
I didn't know what was going to come from it. I was only focused on the writing itself, not any of the potential byproducts. The worst-case scenario was that I'd be equipped with a habit that would serve me well for the rest of my life.
Regardless of what you intend to create, writing every day can change anyone's life. As Julia Cameron says in The Artist's Way, "In order to retrieve your creativity, you need to find it."
Writing is how you retrieve it. The ROI on a daily writing habit goes far beyond accolades and accomplishments. It gives you something to look forward to and gives you a reason to get up in the morning. It provides you with a semblance of certainty in a life that's uncertain. You really have no idea exactly how it will change your life. But that doesn't mean it's not worth doing.
Looking back on my writing life, I've observed 5 simple habits that will transform anyone into a prolific writer.
1. Design the Right Environment and Link it to Your Habit
The right environment encourages you to embody greatness, inspiring personal revolution, and evolution gently urging you toward achievement, greater success, and the life that you were meant to live, toward the greatest expression of your soul. - Xorin Balbes
Your environment determines your behavior. By designing the right environment, you can make your writing habit as automatic as brushing your teeth.
Before I go to sleep each night, I clear my desk. I set out my notebook, a pen, and book to read. The minute I sit down at my desk the next day, I have everything that I need to write.
Why does this work? It's because of activation energy. The less steps there are between you and your desired behavior, the more likely you are to follow through.
Think about it this way. You keep your toothbrush in the bathroom because that's where the sink is. It's easily accessible and the toothpaste is right there.
Imagine how much more effort it would take if you had to get your toothbrush from your kitchen, the toothpaste was in some closet, and the mouthwash was in your laundry room. Because all those things are in the bathroom, your environment and your behavior get linked.
When you set the notebook, pen, and book out the night before, it's exactly the same. Your environment and your habit of writing get linked.
2. Twenty Minutes of Mindfulness
As somebody who has to get shit done despite having ADHD, 20 minutes of meditation sounded to me like the closest thing to hell imaginable. But when Steven Kotler said it was essential to peak performance and flow, I was convinced.
Within 3 days of starting this habit, I was reading 75 pages and writing 1,600 words within the first hour and a half of the day. That's a solid ROI for something that takes 20 minutes.
Writing requires focus and attention. Mindfulness is how you train your attention span. It calms the nervous system and slows down the swirling of thoughts in your head.
If you're a fidgety skeptic, I recommend the box breathing meditation. It's really simple:
- Breathe in 5 counts
- Hold 5 Counts
- Breathe out 5 counts
- Hold 5 counts
Before box breathing, I was struggling to sit still for two minutes. Now I can do 20 with little effort.
One other thing you can do is to leverage a habit loop. I do this by:
- Setting my coffee to brew (cue).
- I meditate for 20 mins (routine).
- When I'm done I pour myself a cup of coffee (reward).
Don't underestimate the power of mindfulness to improve your attention span.
3. Read Before Your Write
I always read before I write. Most of my ideas for topics to write about come from something I'm reading. Reading before you write allows you to collect the dots, recognize patterns, and spark insights. To me, reading without writing is like cooking without any ingredients.
I recommend you avoid reading articles on the internet. You don't want to start the day with something that requires such a shallow level of attention. What you consume will impact what you create. If all you consume is status updates and tweets, that's all you'll be capable of creating.
4. Set a Clear Writing Goal
If creating more flow is our aim, then the emphasis falls on clarity and not “goals.” Clarity gives us certainty. We know what to do and we know where to focus our attention while doing it. When goals are clear, metacognition is replaced by in-the-moment-cognition and the self stays out of the picture. - Steven Kotler
You want to set a target that's completely objective. One of the easiest ways to amplify the clarity of any goal is to put a number in front of it. That's why writing 1,000 words a day is so effective. It doesn't matter what that number is as long as you have one. Writing 5 paragraphs a day would be just as effective.
5. Ninety Minutes of Uninterrupted Creation
So much can be accomplished in one focused hour, especially when that is part of a routine, a sacred rhythm that becomes part of your daily life. - Dani Shapiro
Everything above is worthless if your writing time isn't completely uninterrupted. Complete focus on one task is another flow trigger. Flow leads to a 500% increase in productivity. Both the quantity and quality of your words will increase when you're writing in flow.
Leave your phone out of the room or turn it off.
The easiest way to keep your phone from distracting you is to leave it out of the room. If you're at a day job, leave it in your car. Or turn it off altogether. If World War 3 starts, you'll know by the bombs going off outside your window.
You should consider EVERYTHING that has nothing to do with writing a distraction. That includes email, social media, Slack and anything else that is competing for your attention. Half the battle of managing your attention is reducing the competition for it.
Write with a distraction free tool
Most word processing software is not designed for writers. It's designed for creating documents. Therefore it's usually bloated with features like fonts and formatting, all of which are distractions. I use Notion to write all my blog posts and manage creative projects.
Tell people to fuck off (yes literally):
A few weeks ago, I was at the local library. Despite having my headphones on, some woman kept interrupting me.
Interruptions kick you out of flow. Because flow works in a cycle, it's not like a light switch. You can't turn it on and off. So, the moment you get interrupted the cycle starts over again. So I got a sticker for my laptop that reads "If I'm wearing headphones, don't f#$3 with me. I'm flowing."
While it sounds obnoxious, it's a clear boundary. As Stephen King says, "If you expect to succeed as a writer, rudeness should be the second-to-last of your concerns. The least of all should be polite society and what it expects. If you intend to write as truthfully as you can, your days as a member of polite society are numbered anyway.”
There are no shortcuts, hacks, or magic bullets that will make you a fearless and prolific writer. There is only the work. Nothing above is rocket science. It's simple. But we resist simple because we're searching for the mythical magic formula that will catapult us to literary stardom.