Create an Atomic Writing Habit
Jan 24, 2020
If you’ve ever wanted to write a book but never made it past the first few pages, this article is for you. It's also for you if you write for work but often procrastinate. And this message is for you, if you think writing might help provide meaning and clarity to your life. In other words, when it comes to writing, this article is for the avoiders, the procrastinators, and the dreamers of the world.
In James Clear’s book Atomic Habits, he explores how simple changes can create profound impact in our lives. The problem, as Clear sees it, is our ambition causes us to shoot for the stars.
A simple way of understanding Clear's premise is to consider a common goal like wanting to drink more water. Even though you're starting out with an average of drinking less than two glasses per day, you set your mark at 60 ounces of water. Every day.
When you fail, you have all sorts of reasons why it didn’t work—you just don’t like water, you kept forgetting your water bottle, or going to the bathroom all day long was annoying. We’re good at rationalizing our failures and quick to forget why we wanted the change in the first place.
Goals that ask us to go from non-performance to peak performance are a giant undertaking and a reason we don't succeed at making the changes we want, which leaves us feeling hopeless, unworthy, or like we just lack discipline. At least until the following New Years, when maybe just maybe, we try again.
The Writing Habit that Changed My Life
Most of my life, I’d wanted to write a book. But between teaching writing, coaching writers, and raising kids, I just felt too distracted and exhausted to attempt it. But in 2018, my coaching business was growing, and I need a way to scale. At that time, I'd spent nearly a decade teaching college bound seniors how to use storytelling methods to gain top college acceptances and win scholarship dollars. I knew that codifying the process that had made so many of my writers successful was a way I could help more college hopefuls and enhance my coaching platform.
And so, I decided I would write a book. Each weekday morning, I woke up early and wrote for an hour. Most mornings I was able to complete the equivalent of half of a chapter. In three months, I had the first draft of my book. I wrote Write Big before Clear’s Atomic Habits but after reading it, I see his advice in the success of completing a long time goal, and more than that, I see his advice in helping me understand how writing a book was a personal goal that I was always capable of achieving.
Writing a book can feel like declaring you’re going to run a marathon. Approaching an unwanted writing project can feel like agreeing to run a marathon with a friend even though you hate running. But if you’re going from not running at all to completing a marathon, you’re going to need to establish habits that lead you to the finish line. Likewise, if your writing has been sporadic or reliant on pressure to perform, you’re going to need new tools to make a lasting change.
Clear’s book has many suggestions for breaking habits, starting new ones, and maintaining them for the long haul. You'll discover a new mindset for habit formation and gain real tools to implement them. But for the rest of this article, I’m just going to focus on two rules I learned from Clear and how to use them to create your own atomic writing habit.
Make it Easy
When you want to establish a writing habit, remove common obstacles. That starts with making some decisions about your writing location or environment, the time of day you’ll write, and gathering the tools you need for writing in advance. Make your writing habit much easier by pre-planning all of these activities.
If you write on your computer, select or download software to organize your files.
If your goal is to journal daily, buy a new journal and a gel pen.
Don’t leave your writing location to chance. Choose a location and a position for writing. Will you write in your office, in your bed at night, first thing in the morning at your favorite chair by the window?
Put your writing time into your calendar. Extra credit: after you write, adjust the note on your calendar to include the topic.
The Two Minute Rule
The genius of Clear’s approach is that he identifies the micro-habits needed to ever succeed at your goal. Want to become a runner? That requires putting on sneakers and walking out the door. Want to drink more water? That requires putting water in glass. Want to be a writer? That necessitates the habit of spending time with words. So, as Clear points out, if you want any of these changes to become permanent you need to build the discipline of performing these preliminary activities frequently.
Clear insists that when you’re trying to make a change or go after something big to devote only two minutes to the goal. It might not seem like much to only run two minutes a day, but if EVERY day you put your shoes on, walk out the door, and run for two minutes, you’re going to get use to the ritual, and you’re going to overcome the first obstacle everyone trips on: applying consistent effort. Here’s what this looks like for building your writing habit.
Each morning or night [depending on when you choose to write], spend two minutes only preparing the environment for your writing activity. That means if you’re writing in the morning, you’ll do this the night before. If you’re writing in the evening, you’ll set this up before you go to work or leave home for the day.
For the first seven days, your job is to only write for 2-5 minutes. I know this is fudging Clear’s rule here, but don't stop writing at two minutes if you’re on a roll. But do stop at five minutes. If you feel like you have WAY more to write, simply create bullets of your thoughts. Those can be your writing prompts for the next few days. Writing more than 5 minutes at first can sabotage your effort for the next day, so really try to stick to the rule. You want your writing habit to feel easy.
Once you’re solid in your writing habit—preparing the environment and writing for 2-5 minutes daily—then you’re ready to add time. But remember Clear’s rule—make it easy. Try doubling the amount [4-10 minutes] for another 7 days, and over six weeks, see if you can work your way to thirty minutes daily. If you’re writing a book, you’ll probably want to work up to one hour each day. But guess what? Even if you ONLY spend 15 minutes daily working on your writing habit, that’s nearly two hours spent writing in one week! Compared to not writing at all that is a tremendous gain.
Can you write a book without consistency? Can you finish a writing project and still procrastinate? Sure. But writing is painful enough without wrestling with time management. Give yourself some structure, work at it every day, and really find out all you're truly capable of doing.
Victoria Payne is a devoted word nerd, who believes stories exist all around us. Where some find rabbit holes, she finds treasure. She's a former writing professor turned certified StoryBrand Guide and writes about business and digital marketing, professional and personal development through writing, and occasionally her dog Jack. Victoria grew up in Georgia, serves clients throughout the United States, and is based in Portland, Oregon.