A Habit is Born

Many of my writer friends and students are starting the new year with big plans for change. Some want to write more. Some want to send work out for publication more often. Some are determined to finish a project that’s been eluding them.

No matter the goal, they all face one same hurdle—routine. As they try to make a change and fit it into their lives, many find that it lasts for awhile, then disappears, swallowed up by busy schedules and ingrained habits.

That’s the good news and the bad news about habits—once you’ve got them, they stick. But it can be hard to get the stickiness to take hold.

Science is regularly discovering ways people can encourage new habits to endure. Among their suggestions are three that may be particularly useful to writers:

  1. Turn off all the notifications on your phone and laptop when you write. Not only do they pierce your concentration, they trigger other bad habits that you’ve already formed and probably want to keep—checking email, reading news, scrolling through Facebook. It’s quick work—just open your system preferences and click off your notifications, or set up a Do Not Disturb session. It’s a habit that’s easy to get into, and it pays big dividends.

  2.  Research shows that it’s easier to piggyback a new habit onto an old one than it is to quit one altogether. Let’s say you want to pitch your work more. Instead of rearranging your whole schedule, weave those tasks into your current routines. Send one query each time you’re replying to emails. Check one new set of submission guidelines when you’re catching up on your reading. You might have to spread some tasks out a bit, but so what? The end result will be the same—publication.

  3. Change your tune. Habits aren’t only about convenience and routine—they’re connected to our perceptions about ourselves, and our world. For years, novelist Manil Suri kept his writing a secret. He is also a mathematician, and subscribed to the false belief that scientists can’t also be creative. Not in the habit of calling himself a novelist, he didn’t do some of the things that novelists do, like send out short stories for publication or write query letters to literary agents. Before he could publish his first novel, The Death of Vishnu, he had to first change his thinking.

Even the smallest changes can sometimes seem impossible. If these suggestions seem overwhelming, you could try just one of them. And in that case, make it the third. After all, once you’re in the habit of thinking like a writer, other writerly habits are bound to follow.

Kelly Caldwell
Dean of Faculty

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