Nancy: Is It Time to Kick Some Habits?

Humans are creatures of habit, and for good reason. Habits lead to predictability, which lends itself well to things like safety and survival. And as brain science and writing gurus have told us, engaging in habits surrounding creativity can boost our productivity. We’ve talked about writing habits, rituals, and routines a lot on this very blog.

But what happens when those habits become necessities, when we can’t write or create or function without them? Is it possible for writing habits to become too precious?

Sometimes life throws us out of our routines. Family emergencies, summer vacations, or business travel intrude on our plans for long hours of solitary writing time. Sure, we can abandon our writing until things go back to normal. But what if there’s a looming deadline, or the break will throw you out of your story at a critical creative juncture? Or, horror of horrors, what if things never go back to ‘normal’?

When it comes to attachment to habits, I know whereof I speak. I love my morning rituals, my writing routines, my writing spot, my editing desk, and schedules and timers to keep it all moving along. But I’m going to have some routine-shattering events coming up this summer, along with deadlines on multiple stories, which means it’s time to get over myself and my ‘must-have’ habits. 

I’ve decided to approach this like an athletic challenge. First, I’ll set up the end goal. Then I’ll set up a training schedule to meet it, and start working up to the challenge day by day, week by week. In case you need to train for a similar event, please to enjoy my training approach and adapt for your own nefarious purposes.

The Challenge: Write outside my comfort zone, achieving 5000+ words and multiple chapter edits weekly while traveling with family and friends

The Timeline: The first travel challenge occurs in 10 weeks

The Training Plan

Play Musical Chairs. If you have taken the good advice of many writers, you will have carved out a writing cave for yourself. Your cave might be an entire office, or it might be a small corner of the dining room table, but it’s THE PLACE you go that tells your brain, ok, it’s time to get serious and write. If you are really particular about the sanctity of your writing space, you might even have rules about other family members entering it. Or a big KEEP OUT sign posted on the door. It is your safe place. Your precious place. And it must go. 

OK, not really go, but you should be able to move out of that space and still engage your brain in writing. Move to a different chair, a different room, or even into the back yard for small chunks of time, but try to keep the same focus and discipline you strive to have when you’re in the cave, and actually get words on the page in an entirely new place.

Leave Home. Once you’ve mastered the task of writing outside your cave and actually producing work, it’s time for a bigger challenge. Pack up your writing tools of choice and go out into the world. Find a place – preferably a busy, noisy place – where you can set up writing shop. You might still need headphones to block out the obnoxiously loud conversation at the nearby table (I recently had two old white men discussing politics at the table next to me at my local Barnes and Noble cafe – you can imagine how that went). But take some time to learn to write in a space where you cannot control entrance, or the volume, or the energy swirling around you. (Bonus points if you are already a public writer. This part of the training will come easily to you.)

Learn to Use Power Tools. No, this does not involve electricity, unless you’re using a computer with battery issues. Nor does it involve dangerous things with blades that could take off a precious writing finger. I mean, I can’t stop you from using those kinds of tools, too, but you do so at your own peril. I’m talking about expanding your repertoire of writing tools, especially if you are a computer-based scribe like the majority of writers today. Some places just are not laptop-friendly, and the ‘friendly skies’ might soon be added to that list, based on recent news reports. 

The good old-fashioned, handy-dandy pen and journal might have seen their heyday in years past, but they can still be a writer’s best friend. Consider getting something small enough to fit in a purse or even a back pocket, and you can have the tools of the trade with you at all times. However, if you are like me, you’ll soon realize this doesn’t help if your writer brain is triggered by the tap-tap-tap of the keyboard. So while you’re in training mode, get out your pad and paper and see if you can write a few pages, or a scene, or maybe a whole chapter. A word of warning here: if your handwriting is as atrocious as mine, considering going at a slow enough pace so the writing will be legible at a later date. Or get really good at context clues to decipher your hieroglyphics.

Retreat, Writer, Retreat! If you have enough time and nearby writer friends before you have to leave your routine, consider taking a retreat. These outings with like-minded creatives really are good for your writer’s soul. They also teach you to spend large chunks of time – an entire day, weekend, or longer – writing in a different place, surrounded by people, but with the security blanket of those people you know and trust. Since many of us are romance writers here, I’ll just mention that the first time you write a love scene while surrounded by other people, there is a certain comfort in those people being trusted writer friends. 

Start Small, Go Big. If you are a writing creature of deeply embedded habits, this training plan might seem daunting. This is where advance planning is your friend. If you have the luxury of many weeks to prepare for your writing adventure (and you must start to think of this devastating disruption to your routine as an adventure!), you can start with one strategy at a time, for a few short hours a week, and build your endurance from there. 

Whether or not you manage to keep up quality writing time during disruptions to your routine, remember that everything is grist for the creativity mill. If you open yourself up to new people, places, and challenges, they’ll bring something to your work just as important as word count: a fresh perspective.

And if you are fortunate enough to have a vacation disrupting your routine, consider actually vacating – at least some of the time – from all work, including writing. Remember, an important component to every training program is down time. It allows you to rest, recover, and come back even stronger.

So what’s on your agenda this summer? Will you need shake up your writing routine to keep up with life and word count goals? Anyone taking a really great vacation (and is there room for one really small writer in any of your luggage ;-))?

2 thoughts on “Nancy: Is It Time to Kick Some Habits?

  1. (-: When I read the headline, I thought this was about decluttering bad habits that interfere with writing — which is exactly what I need these days. I need to stop using my phone after 9 p.m., and I need to get to bed by 9:45 (not 10:30 or 11).

    I think this is all great advice, and I’d like to try some of it (since all my writing is at a stand-still right now). Planned mini-adventures, maybe with my writing buddy. Write a little, then have a picnic. That sort of thing. I could also mix-up my writing, as well, and plan to have a haiku competition with that friend during the picnic!

    It might help to set up some new “talisman” habits that work on-the-go. For example, that Magic Writing Elixir (chai tea, or lemonade with sparkling water — for me) can go in a thermos. A little keychain with a writing motto or character sketch/placeholder can go on the zipper of the computer bag. Or a mini-collage can be stuck in a clear file folder that fits in your computer bag. And as you’ve mentioned, the earbuds to block noise — the playlist can really go anywhere.

  2. What works best for me is to write in my cave, in the morning, just after returning from the gym. And for the most part, there’s no real reason to interfere with this formula.

    However, sometimes there are things I need to do in the monring (like cut grass before the sun is blazing hot). Happy to report that in the past week I’ve been successful writing after lunch.

    Now to tackle moving out to the living room….

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