Monday, September 4

12 Tips on How to Create a New Habit

12 Tips on How to Create a New Hsbit

For me, the key to creating a new habit—or re-establishing an old one—is Seinfeld’s method. This involves putting a calendar on the wall, preferably one that shows a whole year on one page, and drawing an “X” through every day you practice the habit.

After a few days you’ll have a chain of Xs.

Perhaps you’re different but for me there’s something satisfying about seeing the chain grow every day. After you get several Xs in a row you won’t want to break the chain. And as long as you don’t, you’ll form a habit. The trick is getting those first few Xs.

Why does this work?


I’m sure there’s another answer, something more profound, but I’ve found that on any particular day it doesn't seem that it's crucial to do ... well, anything.

For example, I lost 20 pounds and became much more fit because I’ve begun exercising every day. Which is great! I no longer sound like The Little Engine That Could when I climb stairs.

But for any particular day, if I don’t exercise that day, it would make no real difference—or at least that’s the way it seems. BUT if I have a chain of Xs on my wall then I have something visible, tangible. Something I don’t want to break. That helps keep me accountable and gives me motivation.

Even though each day's exercise can seem pointless, my wall calendar shows me that it isn’t. Each day forms a link to the next day, and the next, and so on.

Writing is similar. Being a writer isn't a sprint, it's a marathon. Marathons require resolve. Willpower.

Habits and willpower


Essentially what I'm talking about is the importance of forming a habit. A habit is important because it has inertia.

When a habit is formed it feels physically uncomfortable to break it. This morning I did NOT feel like jogging. I thought about not going. After all, it's just one day, right? But that decision felt wrong. The thought of breaking my habit, of breaking my run of Xs, felt uncomfortable.

So I got my jogging gear on and walked to where I start my jog. And as I walked I began to feel better. Happy. Invigorated. Eager. It was an average run. But afterward I felt TERRIFIC! I had such energy. My body was a limp rag, but I felt great. I'd exercised, I'd connected the Xs for another day.

That made me wonder: how are habits formed and how can I help this process along?

How to Create a New Habit


I want to thank Scott H Young over at Lifehack for his wonderful article, 18 Tricks to Make New Habits Stick. I’m not going to talk about all 18 of SY’s tips and tricks, just those that especially resonated with me.

In what follows the habit I have in mind is a WRITING habit. I’m sure I’m not the only one who has found it difficult to establish—or re-establish!—the habit of writing every day. That said, these are general tips and will help form just about any habit.

12 Tips for Creating a New Habit:


1. Commit to 30 days

Forming a new habit takes time. It would be mind-blowingly fabulous if one could pop a pill and—slam, bam—jump out of bed and write for hours at a time each and every day. But of course it doesn’t work like that. Forming a habit takes time. Probably not EXACTLY 30 days, but I think if a person does something—anything!—every day for 30 days there’s a good chance it will stick.

2. Do it every day

First off let me say that many successful writers DO NOT write every day. And if you don’t want to write every day, that’s fine. It might be more difficult to form a writing habit if you only write every second day or every few days but if that’s the only time you have, go for it.

That said, writing every day is the best and easiest way to create a writing habit. Even if you can only carve out 5 minutes a day, it’s worth it!

3. Write at the same time of day

This is what really helps me. I find that if I crawl out of bed and dive into my writing straight away—before I have my coffee, even before I brush my teeth—it works best.

4. Write in the same place

Make a place for writing, make that pace especially conducive to writing, and then write in that place every day.

What does it mean to make an environment conducive to writing? For me, two things:

First, remove anything that will distract you. For example, disconnect from the internet, get away from Netflix, email, Facebook, etc.

Second, add things that will help keep you on track. I tape inspirational sayings to my monitor. For example, “If you’re not making mistakes, then you’re not doing anything.”

5. Bribe your inner child

This tip comes from just me and use it at your own risk! When trying to establish, or re-establish, a habit I often bribe my inner child by giving myself permission to drink an unlimited amount of coffee! You might not like coffee, that’s okay. Lee Child drinks enormous amounts of green tea.

The key is to pick something that won’t distract too much from writing (I find that getting up and making the coffee is a distraction, but since it doesn’t take up oceans of time it’s okay) AND isn’t hideous for you health-wise (for example, delicious ice cream). Recently I’ve begun brewing Kombucha and enjoy drinking that as well.

6. Start small

If you want to write for eight hours a day, don’t try and write for eight hours on the first day! Build up to it.

When I was in school training for the high-jump I could only get over the high bar if I started low and worked my way up. It was a psychological rather than a physical barrier.

I think the same is true for just about any activity. Start small and increase the duration and difficulty bit by bit. For example, when I began exercising I jogged slowly for 10 minutes and called it a day. Each week I increased the duration and difficulty until I achieved my goal. And (* knock on wood *) it worked! Writing is no different.

7. Remind yourself

The app I use the most is the Clock app. I set reminders for myself, reminders to deposit a check, to meet with friends, to leave for an appointment, and so on. I’ve also started to set reminders for my writing, when to begin, when to end.

8. The more the merrier

If you can find a group who want to create habits, people willing to share their victories and setbacks, this can be an enormous help. Facebook and even Google Groups are great for this.

That said, be careful to....

9. Hang out with people who have the same goals as you

Chances are, you’re trying to form good writing habits because you’d like to write more.

If you visit with people who don’t have good writing habits it will be harder for you to form those habits. Conversely, if you visit with people who have the kind of habits you want, you’ll find it easier to develop them. At least, that’s been true for me!

10. Use a trigger

Scott Young suggests creating a kind of ritual to mark the start of your activity, he calls this a trigger.

It helps if the trigger is something you don’t do any other time. So, for instance, if you’re like me and are nuts for yogurt you could splurge and buy yourself the pricy yogurt you usually pass up. You could then use this as a trigger by enjoying some yogurt just before your writing session begins.

Keep in mind that you only need to use the trigger to establish the habit. Sure, it would help to carry it through but you don’t HAVE to. Once a habit is established it seems to create its own inertia and become rather difficult to snuff out.

Using coffee as a trigger wouldn’t work for me because it needs to be unique and I drink several cups throughout the day.

If you try using a trigger I’d LOVE to hear about your experience, what you used and how it worked.

11. Visualize

Visualize yourself doing whatever it is you want to accomplish. I picture myself sitting at my desk—butt in chair—completing a chapter of my manuscript.

I also visualize my finished book. I see myself holding it, I feel the immense satisfaction of having my baby published and out in the world.

12. Forgive yourself

Chances are in the beginning you’ll miss a day or two or three. The key is not to give up. Hardly anyone succeeds at anything without failing first. One thing is absolutely certain: if you don’t keep trying the habit won’t form. Don’t let failure discourage you. Keep at it!

At the end of 30 days you might decide you don’t want to form the habit after all. That’s okay! The important thing is that you stretched yourself and tried something.

Further reading:


For more on habits and forming new ones see Owen Shen’s article, Habits 101: Research and Techniques.

Photo by Brooke Lark on Unsplash.

2 comments:

  1. I'm always glad to see a few blog post from you. Congratulations on your weight loss; I too am fighting the battle of the bulge.

    I am using a system based on Jerrold Mundis' book *Break Writer's Block Now!* The hardcover (88 pp) is out of print, but you can get a copy at Amazon for a few bucks. Before the Kindle edition was released, a used copy would go for over $100.

    The first step is to set a schedule with a certain number of minutes each day. Start at a small, easily achievable interval and work up to the maximum that you are willing to commit to every day. Jerrold recommends that we take the weekend off, so my schedule is like this:

    Week 1: 10 minutes a day, Monday through Friday
    Week 2: 15 minutes
    Week 3: 20 minutes
    Week 4: 25 minutes
    Week 5: 30 minutes

    Thirty minutes is my maximum -- I can write more than 30 minutes, but I don't want to commit to doing that every day -- so that's my maximum. From that point on, I write 30 minutes a day, five days a week.

    To work this plan, I set the timer and then write until the bell goes off. At that point, I stop, even if I want to go on.

    And by "write" I mean entering text, marking up a manuscript, outlining, mind-mapping, or anything else related to the work at hand. It doesn't mean blog comments, emails to friends, just my work.

    If for any reason I miss a day, I go back to the beginning, with ten minutes a day and gradually work my way up. If I go on vacation, same thing. When I get back, start at ten minutes and work up. If I'm feeling any kind of resistance, start over again at ten minutes and work up.

    That's the system. Jerrold provides a little bit more in his book, but not much more -- it's a pretty slim book.

    Some of the stuff seems counterintuitive to me, such as stopping even when I'm clicking away, but it works. Or at least it works for me. So often, I'm just waiting for my opportunity to put in my minutes. On the weekends, I enjoy taking a break, but I also enjoy jumping back into my writing. When I sit down, I'm itching to get started again.

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    1. Thanks Steve! Valuable information. I appreciate your comment. :-)

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