In “7 F***in' Great Ways to Build Your Writing Routine,” author Phil Jourdan recently shared a tried and true science experiment. In an effort to increase his writing productivity, Jourdan researched the psychology of habit-formation. He then applied a few new theories and tricks to his daily writing routine—with perhaps not surprising results.
Writers or not, we are all creatures of habit. We have our quirks and ticks. We have favorite TV shows that must be seen on a particular night with a particular snack, or we have preferred chairs for curling up with a good book. We are drawn to the familiar, be it fashion or cuisine. For those of us who write, we have—whether we acknowledge it or not—a pattern of behavior that either works for us or doesn’t.
In his drive to understand his creative productivity, Jourdan took a serious look at how he spends his writing time. He made observational notes. He evaluated what aspect of writing results in the most (and least) word count. He set boundaries on social media and phone calls. And, most importantly, he acknowledged that there is something within him, something ingrained as part of his habitual act of writing, that governs all else.
“Why? Because I am an animal and I respond to environmental cues.”
— Phil Jourdan, in 7 F***in' Great Ways to Build Your Writing Routine
So often I hear emerging writers speak about their productivity woes. “If I had more time to write”… “I want to write, but I get stuck”… “I have writer’s block”… and so on. We all hear it. We have perhaps been there ourselves.
Yet I’ve often wondered how much of this lack of productivity is our own fault. Emerging writers hear so much advice, and all too often the tips for success are prescriptive, even if vague: Write every day. Wake up an hour early. Stay up an hour late. Don’t leave your page until you hit the desired word count.
Specific? Yes, in some ways. But as Jourdan discovered, writing 250 words of dialogue is not the same as writing 250 words of narration. Every piece of the writing puzzle has a high or low and what may move quickly for one writer may be slow and draining for another. Or, while one writer may find morning writing time to be exhilarating, another may find the early hours to be less focused. We need to recognize our own strengths and weaknesses whether these conform to someone else’s advice and standards or not.
My own habits have altered over the years. I have not forced myself to change; rather, I have adopted in response to what has happened organically. I used to be a heavy night writer, staying up until 4 or 5am to complete a chapter. Now I crank out more words before 10am than I would have ever imagined. Our lives change. Our bodies and internal clocks change.
Forcing myself to stick with the old habit would dampen my productivity. Instead, I have grown into the changes by recognizing my own habits. Like Jourdan, I acknowledge what works and what doesn’t—for me. While I used to enjoy the thrill of completing a chapter in full, I now prefer to leave a chapter incomplete at the very last paragraph. The next time I sit down to write, I know exactly where to pick up. I don’t need to generate momentum. I finish the train of thought left hanging the day before and in no time I am moving on to the next page, the next chapter. This is a trick I implemented organically a few years ago. I could have never foreseen this tactic working for me, but it does. Now.
What Jourdan’s article brings home is this: our creative power is ours and ours alone. All the dos and don’ts offered by others are just one piece of the puzzle. It’s up to us to determine how and why we write the way we do. There are no wrong ways to go about your writing day.
Learning what works for you—and working with that knowledge—can not only heighten your productivity, it can alleviate any lingering guilt that you’re doing something wrong or not living up to your potential when compared to others. If we allow ourselves to create in the environment that suits us best, and respond to those creature habits that influence our state of contentment, then we’re on the right track. Then we’re focused on the writing.