How to Create a Writing Habit (Free Learn Ulysses Video)
Note: This is a free video from our in-depth writing course, Learn Ulysses.
When it comes to any sort of creative endeavor, one of the biggest challenges — and I’m sure you can relate to this — is consistency. Showing up.
How do you develop that creative habit?
If you’re at all like me, you probably have way more ideas than you have time to flesh out those ideas. The problem is not lack of ideas. It’s that it’s difficult to consistently show up and do the work, it’s difficult to develop that creative habit.
I have been writing and publishing pretty consistently since 2007, and I’ve been writing professionally since 2011. In my experience, as well as in countless talks and research that I’ve done with other people — and from reading and all this other research and stuff like that — I’ve got five tips, five suggestions that are going to have the greatest impact for you to be able to make time to write and create more regularly. Basically, how to develop a creative habit.
If you do even one of these, it’s going to help you tremendously. You’re going to have a great advantage over where you’re at already. But if you combine a few of them together, then that’s when you’re really going to be off to the races.
Pinpoint the Time (Seriously, Do It)
Okay, let’s dive in, first one. This is huge. This is it. If you listen to nothing else I say, listen to this. Set a time for when you are going to do your next bit of writing. If you do this, you are far more likely to get it done than anything else. This is the number one thing that’s going to help set you up for success. Setting that time is going to make you far more likely to actually follow through and actually do it.
If you’re waiting for just a time when you feel it, you’re waiting for a chance when you’ve got some free time, maybe some evening when you come home from work and you’re not tired. If you’re waiting for that, it’s probably never going to come.
Do this: Open up your phone, look at your calendar. Find a 15-minute window, just 15 minutes. That’s all you need. Find a 15 minute-window sometime in the next week, and block that off as your writing time. Now, don’t change your mind. Don’t reschedule it. Don’t wimp out on yourself. You can do it, I know you can. Set that time and commit.
Decide Where You’re Going to Write
Tip number two is to set the place. This is next level. This is ninja productivity here.
If you’ve scheduled your writing time on your calendar, or… honestly, this goes for any creative work at all, but we’re talking about writing today. You schedule that time, you’re already going to take things to the next level, but if you also can decide where you’re going to be? It can be your kitchen table. It may be your local coffee shop, maybe your home office. Doesn’t really matter where, only that you know where.
You’ve already got a time when, now you’ve got a committed place… where? Now you’re really making things concrete, and you’re removing that ambiguity. You’re setting some expectations, and with that clarity is going to come the follow-through. That clarity is going to help you take that action, so set the time. Decide on a place, and that’s professional grade right there.
Go In with a Plan
Okay, third one is to have that plan, have that agenda, so you can get right to work right now. This should sound familiar, because we talked about this with the editorial calendar.
It’s the same idea when you’ve got that note that, “This is what I’m going to write about. This is my creative plan for this 15 minutes.” You know your writing topic or whatever the agenda is going to be. When you’ve got that clarity ahead of time for what you’re going to be writing about, it removes so much of the initial struggle so you’re able to really actually get to work.
You’re able to do it, and then… “I did it!” You feel success. You were successful. You showed up and you actually did the work, instead of feeling like, “Man, I set aside those 15 minutes. I was there. I was at the kitchen table, and just kept bashing my head against the table, because I couldn’t think about what to do.” You just feel frustrated, right? You feel discouraged, but if you have that plan where you know what you’re going to write about, and you can just get to work, you can muscle through and get the writing done.
Putting It All Together
If you combine the where and the when with the what, watch out. You’re off to the races. You will be unstoppable.
You know how long it takes to plan out the when, the where, and the what? You can do all of this — everything I’ve talked about so far — you can do all of it right now in 60 seconds. It would take longer to watch a Bud Light commercial, and in that time, you can actually give yourself a massive advantage toward advancing your creative goals.
In just 60 seconds, doing even just these three things on repeat, that’s how you build your writing habit. That’s how you build the creative habit.
Plan it: when, where, and what. You do that on repeat, and that’s how the habit is developed.
Okay, here are a few bonus tips, a few extras.
The Start-Up Ritual
Here’s tip number one: Have a “start-up” ritual. Just think about this. Think about when you wake up in the morning. Do you have a basic routine in the morning? What about when you’re taking a shower? Do you have a basic routine for shampoo, conditioner, whatever? I can take a shower without thinking about what’s happening, because there’s just a routine in there.
When I’m brushing my teeth, I have a routine. Or I always start over here for some reason. When you’re brushing your teeth, there’s a routine there. The basic routine just helps you go through a regular motion without having to think about it. You do it day in and day out, and you don’t have to think about it. You can just do that activity mindlessly.
What if you had a routine that you followed before you began your difficult writing task, something you could just get into without having to think about it?
What this does is, it primes you to do that difficult creative work. For me, I have a few simple things that I do. Since I’m always, almost always in my office, actually at this table right here…I’m always in here, doing my writing at the same spot, in the same location. I’ll put on some headphones, and I have some musical, instrumental music that I listen to. It’s the same music every single time, over and over and over. Every day, it’s the same music. That…it’s Pavlovian, right? It primes me. I open up the same app — Ulysses of course. I open up, so I’m comfortable in my writing app. I know right where I am.
And so just a few little things with my routine — sitting down, the music, the app, ready to go — this does a few things. It tells my brain, “It’s time to write. Here we go.” And I’m removing all the novelty from the process. There’s nothing special about the writing process. That 15-minute window you set aside? Don’t put all this pressure on it. There’s nothing special about it. What’s special is the work that you’re going to produce during that time. Remove all of the novelty from the process so there’s nothing left to distract you or pull your attention other than just doing the creative work itself.
This is all for the purpose of helping you get ready to go, and then focus on the work — having that writing routine, that start-up routine.
My second bonus tip is to set a low bar for success, a low bar for what your commitment is going to be. With any habit that you’re starting, you really want to start small, especially at the beginning. What I’ll do is, I’ll actually get on my watch and set a timer for five minutes. That’s it, just five minutes. And I figure, if after five minutes I’m still stuck, then I give myself a break.
And maybe I’ll just call it for the day. I’ll say, “You know what? I just couldn’t get into it today.” I’ll give myself a break for the day. But for me, in my experience, I’ve found that it takes me just about five minutes to get into the zone, and then I’m writing with flow. I’m good to go. I’ll set the timer for five minutes, knowing that if I can push through just those first few minutes, I’m doing pretty good and I will continue on with my writing session.
A lot of times, I’ll think, “Oh, if I can’t get a whole afternoon to myself to write, my favorite coffee, and my favorite soundtrack, it’s just not worth it.” Don’t be dramatic like that. It’s okay to set aside five minutes, 10 minutes, 15 minutes. A lot of us don’t even have the mental toughness to be able to focus for an hour or two on our writing at this time, so it’s okay to just set aside 5, 10, 15 minutes. You might not even have more time on your schedule than just that 15 minutes, and that’s okay.
That consistency is way better. I would say it’s better to do 15 minutes every day than to do two hours all at once, once a week. That consistency is going to be so helpful.
Keep Yourself Accountable
And here’s my last bonus tip, to help you build your creative habit: Have accountability. With accountability, you are much more likely to follow through on the commitment you’ve made to yourself.
You’ve got two ways to do this. One is public accountability, so share your work. Tell people what you’re doing. Even announce on Twitter or Facebook or whatever. Announce on your blog, “Here’s what I’m doing.”
I tell people, “I publish an article on Tuesdays and Thursdays,” and this is a form of public accountability. You’re expecting to go to my website on Tuesday morning and find a new article, right? It’s there, so I’m accountable to that.
Then there’s personal accountability. I use a habit tracker in here to monitor my regular progress. Did I write today? Did I edit today? And just tracking that…the public accountability and the personal accountability helps you to want to follow through.
Okay, whew! That’s a lot.
Let’s recap really quick. First thing, what is it? You need a time, pick a place, and have that plan. Have your editorial calendar ready to go — just that idea, the time, the place, the plan. And then bonus tips: Have a start-up routine, have that low bar for success, and then do something to keep yourself accountable.
If you just do one of these things, any one of these things is going to help you so much. If you do more than one, if you combine a few of them, it’s going to have a massive impact. Give yourself a little bit of time, and you will have an unstoppable creative habit.
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