Getting into the habit of writing


I’ve always wanted to be a writer, but even now that nothing stands in my way, I’m still struggling to get my current project finished. Can I use the power of habit to help me get where I want to go?

Gretchen Rubin would say yes. She wrote a whole book, Better than Before, about using habits to make your life better. Charles Duhigg, author of The Power of Habit, would agree.

Here’s the thing about habit: it lets you make a decision once and be done with it. No dithering about whether or not to brush your teeth or make the bed; the decision is already made. No arguing with yourself about whether to order french fries or a salad at lunch. No choosing between writing and doing something else.

Once a habit’s established, all you have to do is go with the flow.  

Know yourself

Self-knowledge is key to establishing good habits. If you’re creative at midnight but a zombie before 10 a.m., maybe getting up extra-early to write isn’t going to work for you. If you enjoy starting new things more than finishing what you’ve started; if you like novelty more than familiarity; if you prefer simplicity to abundance – use that knowledge to figure out the best approaches and incentives.

If you’re one of Rubin’s “upholders” you follow through on whatever you expect of yourself, so it’s most important to design your new habit wisely. If you fit her “obliger” category you might need to set up external accountability to keep you on track till your habit’s ingrained. A “questioner” needs a good reason for doing anything, so clarifying your ‘why’ is critical. (Check out her newest book, The Four Tendencies, for more on applying her theory to your life.)

The structure of habit

Habits can be changed if we understand how they work, says Duhigg. It’s pretty simple: cue, routine, reward. When we encounter the cue, our brain checks out, our basal ganglia take over, and we execute the routine and get the reward. Once the habit is established, we anticipate the reward as soon as the cue shows up, creating a craving – this is why it’s hard not to check your phone when it buzzes; your brain is already salivating over the little boost it expects to get.

To form a new habit, choose a simple cue. Identify a reward that naturally flows from the new routine – maybe the satisfaction of seeing your word count climb, or the pleasure of reading what you’ve written, or the attaboy your accountability partner gives you – and allow yourself to anticipate the reward, really feel it, to help build that craving.

 You can’t extinguish an old habit, but you can change it: keep the cue and reward, change the routine. If the cue is opening the laptop and the routine is checking social media or reading email, figure out the reward you get out of those distracting activities and find a way to link that reward to writing instead.

(In The Power of Habit, Duhigg lays out the neuroscience behind understanding how the brain does this, as well as how habits apply to organizations and societies. I highly recommend reading his book.)

Strategies for habit formation

Better Than Before lays out concrete steps to improve the odds that you’ll succeed at forming good habits and changing bad ones.

Monitoring – It’s an axiom: what gets measured gets done. Track your behavior, as in WW where you track your food, or your results, as in NaNoWriMo where you track your word count, and you’re more likely to succeed. I started using a spreadsheet when I read Gabriela Pereira’s DIY MFA. She suggested doing it for a month or so to figure out what time of day, location, etc. made you the most productive, but I’ve kept it up because it gives me a little boost every time I get to say I met my goal for the day. I have columns for date, daily goal, whether I met the goal, start/end/elapsed time, start/end/total words added, location, mood, and notes about who I was with and what I worked on.

Foundation – Good habits related to sleep, exercise, nutrition, and clutter make it easier to do everything else. If you’re chronically exhausted, it’s harder to make good choices. The siren call of unwashed dishes can make it impossible to concentrate (when I was a student, my apartment was never cleaner than during finals week when my subconscious was actively seeking distraction). 

Scheduling – If you can do it anytime, you might never get around to it, but choosing a time and putting it on the calendar gets it done. At the moment, my only consistent writing times are Friday mornings, when I meet some people at a coffee house after my workout. I do much better with exercise, because the yoga class I like is at noon on Mondays, and my strength sessions with a trainer and a workout buddy are scheduled on Tuesdays, Wednesdays, and Fridays.

Accountability – Reporting to someone else, or even to something else like an app, helps reinforce good habit formation. My writing critique group meets every Thursday, and every three weeks I need to produce a chapter for them to comment on. The 10 Minute Novelist group on Facebook has a 365-day challenge every year that gently nudges you to keep up the good work.

First steps – Try taking it one day at a time. Take a deep breath and jump in.

Clean slate – Look for a new beginning on the calendar (New Year, first day of school) or in your circumstances (new house, new job) and start your new habit when everything else already feels new.

Lightning boltTake advantage of an aha moment, like a book that changes the way you think, to kick-start a new habit.

Abstaining – It might be easier to never yield to temptation than to do things in moderation. Uninstall the distracting game from your phone, for instance. 

Convenience – Make it easier (or make the bad habit harder). Turn off notifications, close your browser and email programs, maybe even use one of those productivity tools that forces you to jump through hoops to open a distracting app. End your writing session in the middle of a scene so when you start next time you’ll have a head start. 

Safeguards – Anticipate and minimize the temptations that will derail you. Put distractions where you won’t see them. Write at the library where you can’t stop to put another load of laundry in. (There’s something about housework that’s infinitely fascinating when I’m stuck.)

Recognize loophole-spotting – I surpassed my goal yesterday, so I can take today off. I had a hard day (I did the taxes, I dealt with the plumber) so I deserve a break. It’ll be easier to write if I take care of this email first. I’m traveling so it doesn’t really count. As Duhigg said, your old habits are lurking under the surface. Don’t give them a foothold.

Distraction  – Give yourself 15 minutes before getting up from your desk, and see if the urge to go do something else fades. At the very least, you’ve spent another 15 minutes on your writing.

Reward – Don’t link your habit to an unrelated reward. You risk teaching your brain that you wouldn’t do the activity without the reward, converting it to unpleasant drudgery. You also risk stopping when you reach the finish line and earn the reward. 

Instead, find the intrinsic motivation that works for you and for the habit you’re trying to form. These might include challenge, curiosity/learning something new, control/feeling of mastery, fantasy/using your imagination, cooperation/working with others, competition, or recognition.

Treats – Allow yourself small pleasures just because you want them. This helps you feel cared for and contented, and strengthens your ability to maintain good habits.

Pairing – Link your new habit to something you already do. I always have coffee as soon as I wake up; I’d write more consistently if I took the coffee into my home office and wrote while I drank it.

Clarity – Figure out why you want the new habit. I have to do this with writing a couple of times a year. Writing a novel is hard; why on earth would anyone put themselves through the agony? In addition to clarifying your why, clarify the specific actions in the new routine. My Friday writing habit is pretty loose – show up at the coffee house and spend a few hours planning, editing, drafting, and/or researching, plus a little mostly-writing-related chatting – but it clearly excludes social media and reading for fun, so it works.

Identity – Defining yourself as a writer makes it easier to maintain writing-related habits. We tend to believe what we hear ourselves say. 

For a quick take on 10 tips for habit formation, check out this video:

 Co-posted on my personal website, Please visit me there for book reviews and more.


The Whole Earth Catalog

Before we had the Internet, we had this:


This copy was printed in 1971.

It’s where I learned about Buckminster Fuller, Gurney’s seed catalogs, and how a guitar is put together. I ordered the parts to build a clock from a supplier listed in the catalog. The “access to tools” subtitle gives you the original idea, which was to be a resource for  people in the back-to-the-land movement, but it’s more than that.

It’s a way of organizing knowledge.

I’m thinking about a website and the best way to organize various things I’d want to put on it, which made me think about the Catalog.

Here’s how it’s set up:

WHOLE SYSTEMS — cosmos, universe, earth, energy, geography, surface, clouds, laws, connections, form, general systems, human beings, being human, Jung, anthropology, thought, history, future, eastern future, Think Little, future biology, funky future, world game, world organism, evolution, human evolution, ecology, ecology issues, population, liferaft Earth, ecology action, ecology periodicals, more ecology, desperate ecology action, Four Changes
LAND USE – agricultural origins, land life, organic gardening, compost, biodynamic gardening, pests, soil, vegetable & flower seeds, trees & flowers, herbs, indoor gardening, exotic crops, wildlife, goats, livestock, rabbits, chickens & horses, energy, wind & sun, water & sanitation, wells, water, mining, tools, roads, surveying & blasting, trees & saws, land buying, Canada & Alaska, wild foods, mushrooms, land use, Soleri
SHELTER – natural structure, Gaudi & Wright, Japanese house, design considerations, architecture, mode, stained glass, dome geometry, domes, owner-built home, low-cost construction, carpentry, building, stoves, lanterns, tipis, cabins, adobe, stone buildings, concrete, Frei Otto, inflatables, plastic, materials
INDUSTRY – alloy, design, Chinese technology, inventory, engineering, inventions, village technology, knots, science, technology, handbooks, plastic, data, tips, modular materials, appliances, lab suppliers, plastic, welding & winching, nifty tools, government surplus, tools, surplus, precision tools, fine tools, tool use
CRAFT – woodcraft, wood, furniture, reed craft, frontier crafts, country crafts & antiques, craft design, philosophy & craft access, craft supplies, jewelry supplies, jewelry, glass, sculpture, candles & bonsai, pottery, kilns & throwing, potters & wheels, ceramic supplies, weaving, spinning, dyeing, looms, wool & yarn, knitting, sewing, embroidery & quilts, macrame, dye, leather
COMMUNITY – forebears, funk living, Japanese communes, schemes, the commune lie, consideration, organization, market, business, funds, food, cooking, kitchen, vegetables, woks & Dutch ovens, preserving, storing, grinders & juicers, gourmet equipment, gadgets, wine & beer making, sauna, massage, Go (the board game), stuff, dogs, animals, dope, mental health, health, emergency medicine, first aid, doctoring, drugs, country cures & medical stuff, home delivery, birth, baby stuff, sex, women, death, bargain living, bargain buying, Sears, Wards, shopping, shoes etc., Hong Kong, outlaw, time, justice, organization, politics, down home, country, kindred, the arts, kindred, New Mexico road
NOMADICS – the Great Bus Race, buses & campers, campers & trailers, Volkswagen, car repair, vehicle repair, off road, motorcycles, bicycles, The Way, walking, aloof, mountains, horses, boots, moccasins, camp clothing, tents, sleeping bags, packs, outdoor suppliers, snow equipment, north, camping, camp, survival, guns, knives, bow & arrow, bowhunting, fishing, canoeing, canoes, kayaks & inflatables, boats, scuba & surf, diving, sailing, seamanship, cruising, ocean, boatbuilding, boats, boat supplies, flying, airplanes, sky sports, exploration, trips, Nepal, travel
COMMUNICATIONS – diagram, image & control, silence, culture, style, language, universe, mind, sense, brain, information, math, organization, computer design, computers, electronics, radio, electronic equipment, high fidelity, managing rock, tape, electronic synthesizers, music, instrument making, guitars & banjos, dulcimers, exotic instruments, wind instruments, music, economics, non-profit, tokens, money, capitalism, video, theater, filmmaking, film, photography, photography supplies, art, image, art, painting, silk screen, printers supplies, writing, bookmaking, printing, books
LEARNING – parent, toys, children’s books, home school, children’s art, learning books, nature, astronomy, history, pioneer, wilderness, Indians, games, kites & paper airplanes, kid technology, science, teaching, schools, school methods, school things, free schools, correspondence schools, what to do, culture, The Game, dope, psychedelics, discorporate, paranormal, mysticism, psychology, mind, centering, self-hypnosis, meditation, yoga, calisthenics, myth, China & Tibet, excursions, Don Juan, mysticism, thinking, serendipity

It’s kind of like a random walk through sixties counterculture. You can see the interest in other cultures, the reaching back to the past for skills, and the hopeful looking upward, outward, and into the future.

Not very helpful for organizing my future website, though.

It’s a cautionary tale

1971 was two years after Woodstock and seven years after Ken Kesey’s psychedelic road trip that Tom Wolfe wrote about in The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test. By the time this final catalog came out, people had experience with actually living in communes and trying to live a better life away from the repressive Establishment. The Community section is peppered with sad letters and essays, and this photo that says a lot about the reality of living with other people:


It’s a historical artifact

The counterculture has moved on. Stewart Brand, the genius behind the Catalog, has moved on and rethought a lot of what he wrote in the sixties. For one thing, he’s now saying that the environmentally responsible thing is dense urban living, not dropping out to live on a tiny farm. Here’s a link to his current work with the Long Now Foundation, and here’s his Ted talk at the U.S. State Department.

Politics have shifted. The page on guns includes an affectionate note about the NRA, its useful magazine with tips on things like storing and preparing game, and the help it provides to any member who has a question. The writer says there are a lot of “flag-freaks and super-patriots” involved in the organization, but it hadn’t yet taken on the boundless power it seems to have today.

And I think this page on computers is a perfect illustration of how technology has grown since the year I took Fortran in college. Check out the features of the $4,400 and $4,700 desktop calculators, compared in the bottom left corner of the page.


It’s hope and confidence

One thing that comes through loud and clear is the idea that people can do anything they put their minds to. Want to raise goats and churn your own butter? You can learn how from this book, and buy the supplies you need from these sources. Want to build a camera and create your own movies? The resources are here. Same for raising wool, spinning yarn, and knitting sweaters. There’s a pitch for the USDA Agricultural Extension Services, with free help and information on all kinds of things.

And bigger problems, like overpopulation, pollution, and poverty, aren’t insurmountable. Read this book, and think about these ideas, and use your ingenuity to invent solutions using these tips.

Well, this trip down memory lane didn’t help me much with the website organization question I came in with, but it gave me a lot to think about. And it led me to the Long Now and its optimistic podcast series. Just what I need in 2018.

If you also remember the Whole Earth Catalog, or if you’re from a different generation and have something else that brings your era to vivid life the way this did for me, I’d love to hear about it in the comments below.




Scrivener update

I’ve been using Scrivener for a few years now. I wrote a post about it in July 2016, in which I raved about some of the basic features that I love about the software. Literature and Latte came out with a new version for Mac a few months ago, and it’s even more awesome now. It’s called Scrivener 3, and they haven’t released a PC version yet.


There are 5 little icons at the top of the inspector column: synopsis/notes, bookmarks, metadata/keywords, snapshots, and comments/footnotes. If you click on the bookmarks icon, it opens a little panel and you can drag other documents from your binder into it, so you can refer back to other documents without losing your place in your current document!

My current project has dozens of documents in it, including text, character sheets, places, and research notes. Plus, I have a memory like a steel sieve, meaning I’m constantly going back and forth to remind myself of what I said last time I wrote about a particular character, or whatever.

The screenshot below shows the bookmark panel at the right. I’ve just put a couple of the character sheets in there as an illustration.

Screen Shot 2018-02-16 at 10.08.16 AM

The screenshot also illustrates another awesome new feature:

Linguistic focus

This feature is under the EDIT/WRITING TOOLS menu. It grays out everything except the kind of text you ask for. You can just look at your verbs, to see if maybe you’re overusing passive voice; you can look at adjectives or nouns to see if maybe you can inject a little more variety or elegance into your writing; and you can even look at dialogue to see if your character voices are consistent and distinct (the direct speech option highlights everything that’s inside quotation marks).


I usually have multiple Scrivener documents open at the same time. There’s my current project, of course. I also have a catch-all called “how to write” which has my notes on everything from the 3-act structure to how to take a screen clipping, and I usually leave that one open. I keep a copy of my blog posts in a Scrivener project, which helps when I want to look up something I wrote a long time ago but am not sure when; that’s also usually open somewhere in the background. In the past, I’d have to shuffle the documents around to find the one I wanted somewhere buried behind everything else.

The new WINDOW/MERGE ALL WINDOWS feature creates tabs in your header bar, one per open project, so you can see them all nicely laid out and switch between them with ease. You can see it in my screenshot above.

Along the same lines, if you have projects you might not open very often but want to find them easily, you can add them to your favorite projects list (FILE/ADD PROJECT TO FAVORITES). I don’t know if this is a new feature, but I just learned about it.

Screen Shot 2018-02-16 at 10.41.42 AM

Arrange by label

This is a feature I think has huge potential for helping to see the flow of your story, or figure out if you have the right balance of different points of view, or identify what stage of drafting and revision your pieces are in.

When you’re looking at your document in group mode (the cork board with index cards), there’s a group of icons at the bottom of your document that looks like this:

Screen Shot 2018-02-16 at 10.51.46 AM

If you click on the one that looks like little tadpoles, it shows you a diagram like this:

Screen Shot 2018-02-16 at 10.55.12 AM

The way it works will depend on how you set up your labels. In the illustration, mine are set up for where the scene takes place. You can zoom out to see more of the diagram at a time (VIEW/ZOOM/ZOOM OUT). A neat thing about this is you can move the cards from one line to another and it will automatically change the label.

There are lots and lots of other cool features in Scrivener, but I’m most excited about these right now.

Happy writing, everyone! If you use Scrivener and have found other neat things to share, I’d love to hear about them in the comments.