You can’t depend on motivation to build new habits

We struggle to build new habits.

Over, the last year building Swiftpad and talking to so many writers, it’s obvious, the struggle is very real for writers. The word we use for the inability to build a writing habit, is Writer’s Block. But is writer’s block a real thing? Or just a convenient excuse that allows writers to say, “I don’t feel like doing any work today”?

As you’ll find out soon enough, I’m obsessed with productivity frameworks, behavioural psychology and cognitive science. I’ve spent many years of my life participating in workshops and reading books on these subjects. This was done mainly to become a better designer, but it’s changed my life in many other ways. My answer to the questions about writer’s block above is — it’s neither. It’s not a lack of ideas, or motivation, or a result of laziness. Writers I meet simply lack the tools and knowledge to build a writing habit.

I want to change that.

You can’t think yourself out of a writing block; you have to write yourself out of a thinking block.
— John Rogers

In the last year, I’ve used the Tiny Habits template to learn to play a musical instrument, the Ukulele. I went from a completely sedentary lifestyle and not being able to run for a minute, to running my first half marathon a couple of months ago. And I’ve spent over 80 hours practicing mindfulness in 2018. Technology helped a lot by allowing me to track and quantify my progress. I must acknowledge the subtle rush from earning a new badge in Apple Health, maintaining a streak on Calm or improving my PRs on Runkeeper.

My goal for 2019 is to write more. I couldn’t find an app to track my progress in a way that I had become accustomed to while building other habits. So I built WRITAA.

There’s already so much research out there that can help us hack our brain and behaviour to achieve our goals. But as writers many of us would rather spend the next week reading the latest book from our favourite genre author rather than reading a research paper by a behavioural scientist.

Knowing this unsurprising fact about writers, in the the next few posts, I’ll be sharing with you some of the most useful hacks I’ve learnt over the years that have helped me build new habits and become more productive.

To start, I would like to introduce you to Tiny Habits, by BJ Fogg, the Director of Stanford’s Persuasive Tech Lab. The simple thesis of the Tiny Habits method is that to create new lifelong habits, you need to aim for automaticity, not motivation. So forget the Writer’s Block. Discovering and tuning your Writer’s Clock is what will help you become the prolific and productive writer you want to become.

To achieve this — you, yes YOU, will need to design behavioural changes that are both easy to do and can be seamlessly slipped into your existing routine. Habits you struggle to keep will never stick.

That’s why when you tell yourself that you’ll write regularly once you start waking up at 4 a.m., you already know it’s never going to work because of what I call habit co-dependance. It fails because the trigger behaviour (waking up early) is not an existing habit as per the rules of the Tiny Habits program. You’re sabotaging the success of one habit that you want, and I assume, are very motivated to build, on your ability to successfully build another habit that you may not be as motivated to build.

To build a writing habit, use these three simple steps of the Tiny Habits system:

The first is to identify your specific desired outcome: Which I’m assuming for us writers, is either to write more or to write better. Research (yes research!) has proven that writing more is the best and surest way to write better. Hence, our end goal is to write more.

Your next step then, is to identify the easy-win behaviours that will put you on the path to that goal: These are the real tiny habits. The secret ingredient. The key here is to really make this a TINY habit. We set insurmountable goals for ourselves and constantly fail. If your current goal is to write a novel that’s 150K words, you’re damn right you’ve got writer’s block! Write a sentence, a synopsis, a scene summary, a character sketch, a paragraph…

Some examples of tiny habits from BJ Fogg — floss 1 tooth, do two pushups or drink one sip of water. You see how this works?

So, open the Writaa app, start a session and write for three minutes — is mine.
Yup, that's 3 minutes! I didn't type three instead of thirty by mistake.

The third step is, to locate a trigger: something that you already do as a habit—and graft the writing habit onto it: An example from BJ Fogg, is putting an apple on the counter every time you start the coffeemaker in the morning. “Notice I didn’t say eat the apple,” he says. I like scientists with a sense of humour. Some examples of triggers for writers could be — finish a meal, kids leave for school or finish my morning coffee.

I know someone who lost over 50 kilos in a year. His tiny habit was to wear his running shoes for five minutes as soon as he got home from work. Just wear them. Not walk, or run or workout. Just simply slip them on and sit there if he didn’t feel like doing more. Then he could celebrate.

Which brings me to…there is one last step to the Tiny Habits system. To celebrate. This could be a little happy dance you do or throwing your arms up and screaming yay! You must give yourself a little pat on the back when you’re done.

So let’s do this.

Come join me in the challenge, by completing this mission statement:
When I do _______________, I will start a new writing session and write for 3 mins.

And then I’ll scream Yahtzee!

Print it and put it up on your wall.

I would highly recommend that you sign up for Tiny Habits and actually add your writing habit there.

Next up an introduction to entropy and how to keep your writing habit >>

Build a writing habit.

Stay productive, write more and stick to your writing schedule.

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