Many writers struggle to create better writing and reading habits. You don’t need to sell your house and move just to stop yourself from finishing the day in front of the TV instead of at your desk, but you do need to get out of your house, or at least stop going into your entertainment room at night. I recently discovered three secrets that have enabled me to break some old habits almost effortlessly, and I want to share them with you because in all the articles I’ve ever read about this popular topic, I’ve never seen this approach suggested in the way I experienced it.
The problem with conventional habit-breaking wisdom and the usual tricks is that they don’t address the root problem, which is that you can’t just decide to jump out of a rut when you’re living deep inside it. We call them “habits” because they’re habitual actions. They’re part of a sequence. They’re connected to everything around them, such as the environment they’re performed in, the emotions attached to them, and more. If your habit is to smoke a cigarette every time you sit with your laptop and an end-of-day cocktail on your patio, then the laptop, patio, cocktail, and time of day are all connected to that habit of smoking (of course, cigarettes are more than just a habit, but you get the point). When this is your habit, it’s incredibly difficult to sit down at your laptop and not want the cocktail or cigarette.
How I Made My Discovery
I recently returned from a long trip to Italy. For a little more than three weeks, I traveled all over and had an incredible time. However, one of the most important benefits of the trip only became clear when I returned home.
My partner and I have incorporated healthier habits into our lives with varying degrees of success over the years. We’ll be on a roll with healthy meals, then get busy and rely a little too much on take-out, and before you know it we’re eating out every other night. Likewise, we’ll start a good exercise routine only to skip a walk or yoga class in favor of squeezing a few more work hours out of the day. Suddenly, it’s been weeks since we exercised at all.
But after my being abroad and my guy being home alone for nearly a month, I returned to find us both making dramatic improvements without a struggle. He’s been tracking the nutritional value of everything and how his activities burn calories, which engendered better eating habits and more motivation. He even went for daily walks without me, something he’s never done! As for me, after eating the fresh and homemade foods of Italy for three weeks, the processed foods we sometimes fell back on seemed less desirable than ever. I came home inspired to follow what I learned about eating “Italian-style” and I’ve been a cooking fiend ever since. I’m also going to yoga religiously and generally moving around a lot more during the day 🙂
So What’s This Got to Do With Writing?
Before my trip, on many nights when my heart wanted to read or work on a story, my exhausted head begged for the mindless entertainment of the television. Some evenings I’d find myself flipping through channels, feeling like I’d rather do anything but watch TV…and yet, there I was on the couch. Ending the day with a few hours of TV became so routine that my cats went downstairs to wait for me around 8pm every night!
Since I’ve been back, however, I’m not walking like a zombie down to the living room every night. I spent some time catching up on my favorite shows (I’m not anti-TV!), but I’ve spent most nights writing or reading. I’m waking up bright and early and spending time over coffee thinking about the novel I’m working on and making notes, with plans to start revising next week. I don’t have to coach myself into doing these things. I don’t feel pulled to watch TV (even though I’m just as tired in the evening) or guilty about not heading straight for the office in the morning. That mental argument against doing [insert old habit here] just isn’t happening now. I feel free to choose in a way I didn’t before the trip, when my habits felt like a ball and chain I had to fight against with every decision.
It’s significantly easier for me to create new habits because I was able to give myself some real separation from the old ones. And even though he was here at home, my partner found the same to be true for him because in all other ways his routines and old habits were upset during my absence.
Making it Work for You
The keys seem to be:
- removing yourself from your environment
- reducing exposure to “triggers” for bad habits
- breaking your routines entirely for a time
These keys will help you break your old habits by dissociating them from their triggers and giving you distance from the routines and environment connected to your habits. You’ll find you’re more of a clean slate. And though a three-week trip in a foreign country may not be possible for you, you can adapt these keys to your unique situation. For example, if you want to make time for writing in the evening instead of watching TV, you might do the following:
- Take a week’s vacation and don’t watch any TV during your trip. It’ll be easier than you think if you fill your time with fun activities and quality family time. Being out of your environment is the easiest way to get out of your routines and avoid familiar associations.
- At home, avoid going into the room where your TV lives at all costs. Don’t change into your comfy couch-potato clothes at night. Better yet, plan to leave your house for the evening every day for at least a week. This is a great excuse to try writing at a local café, or to attend some writerly events!
- Try to spend at least a week completely breaking your routines—don’t do anything you usually do at all. Don’t eat at the same time, drive the same way to work, or do the same chores in the same order. Shake it all up. This is easier to do while traveling, but you can do it at home with a little planning, too.
You’ll note that this process doesn’t introduce your new habits (unless you take advantage of your time out of the house to write). The idea here is to first break the connections to your old habits. It might take some finagling but the rewards are well worth it—isn’t it better to inconvenience yourself for a week instead of spending a year trying on and off?
One last piece of advice: The more deeply ingrained the habit, the more time you may need. If you’re really struggling, consider a longer vacation an investment in your writing career. Or, better yet, apply for a writing retreat, where you’ll have the added benefit of support from other writers to get your new habits going.
Let me know how your efforts turn out! And if you’ve had success cultivating better writing or reading habits, do share with the rest of us by commenting below.
Founder of The Writer’s Ally, Ally E. Machate is a bestselling book collaborator, award-winning editor, and expert publishing consultant who loves using her insider knowledge and experience with the publishing industry to lead serious authors toward success. She and her team live to help make great books happen, whether that means showing a writer how to improve a manuscript, get an agent, or self-publish; or coaching an author on growing her platform to sell more books. Since 1999, she has supported hundreds of authors on their publishing journey and takes pride in serving as their books’ best ally.