How to break bad habits with writing

Reading time: Less than 3 minutes

Do you have any bad habits with writing? Here’s how to demolish them so you can learn to write with ease, grace and pleasure…

When people tell me they cannot write, I never suggest they get more disciplined or work harder.

Instead, I try to help them figure out what derailed them in the first place.

Usually, a bad habit with writing is the source of the problem.

Here are some bad habits that can prevent you from writing (see if any of these resonate with you):

  • The habit of doing “more important tasks” first
  • The habit of spending too much time on TV/Netflix/social media
  • The habit of thinking writing is going to be difficult
  • The habit of worrying about what others are going to think 
  • The habit of spending too much time writing (and getting worn out)

While many authors have written entire books on how to form new habits (The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg is my favourite), they’ve given less attention to how to break bad ones. 

But here is what neuroscientists now tell us about bad habits: Exercising self-control doesn’t work because something about the bad habit is rewarding, which makes us want to repeat that behavior. So to solve this problem, we need to figure out WHY we are acting the way we do.

Here is how to take that step:

1-Identify your triggers

If your habit is to procrastinate with your writing, identify HOW and WHY you do it. Do you start scrolling through Facebook or Twitter? Do you call a friend on the phone? Do you check your email? If your habit is to do “more important tasks” first, figure out why you think they’re more important. Do they relate to the needs of other people? Are you concerned about money or prestige? If your trigger for procrastination is to think writing is going to be difficult, identify the ways in which you define that difficulty. Do you think it’s going to be too boring? Too tiring? Too distressing? It’s fundamentally important to begin by identifying the trigger behind the distraction (instead of writing).

2-Name the benefits you get out of your bad habits

The next step is to identify the advantages you gain from your bad habits. After all, bad habits aren’t entirely bad. (If they were, we wouldn’t do them; we’re not stupid!) We all gain some discernible benefit from everything we do. Perhaps reading Facebook relaxes or amuses you. Or helping others makes you feel good about yourself. Or identifying the difficulty with writing allows you to avoid it. Awareness of the benefits you get from your bad habits will allow your brain to understand that “X” behavior leads to “Y” consequences. And if the consequences aren’t something you want, you’ll be in a better position to stop doing X. 

3-Become a scientist about your own feelings

Your brain is always looking for a bigger, better reward. Imagine you’re trying to break the bad habit of using social media to delay writing. What if, instead of relying on social media, you used curiosity to figure out why you are wanting to escape from writing in the first place? “Hmmm,” you might say. “What does this craving feel like when it first arrives?” Here’s what you’ll likely learn: Cravings are made up of physical sensations and thoughts, that come and go. Being curious will help you acknowledge those sensations without acting on them. In other words, you’ll be opening yourself up by being curious rather than shutting yourself down by scrolling through Facebook. Opening up is always much more rewarding than shutting down.

4- Use the word “but” to overcome negative self–talk

We all talk to ourselves all the time. Similarly, we all judge ourselves all the time. The confluence of these two events often leads to what I like to call “trash talk.” When that happens, finish your sentence with the word “but”…

  •  “I procrastinate with my writing but I can write 250 words this afternoon.”
  •  “I’m a terrible writer, but with a little bit of editing I can make my own work better.”
  • “I’m a loser, but everybody messes up sometimes.”

5-Plan for failure 

Never expect success 100 percent of the time. That’s just asking for failure. After all, everyone slips up from time to time. If your slip ups are irregular (say, fewer than once a month) congratulate yourself for being a human! If they’re more frequent than that, start tracking how many times your bad habit occurs. Each time your bad habit happens, mark it down on a piece of paper or make a note on your cellphone. At the end of the week, tally your marks, non-judgmentally. The idea isn’t to be perfect. It’s to improve over time. Work to do better the next week. 

I especially like the way Timothy Gallway frames his advice in his classic book The Inner Game of Tennis. “There is no need to fight old habits,” he says. “Start new ones instead.”

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Need some help developing a sustainable writing routine? Learn more about my Get It Done program. The group is now full but there is turn-over each month, and priority will go to those who have applied first. You can go directly to the application form and you’ll hear back from me within 24 hours. 

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My video podcast last week addressed whether freelancers should write on spec. Or, see the transcript, and consider subscribing to my YouTube channel. If you have a question about writing you’d like me to address, be sure to send it to me by email, Twitter or Skype and I’ll try to answer it in the podcast.

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How do you deal with your bad habits with writing? We can all learn from each other so, please, share your thoughts with my readers and me in the “comments” section below.  Anyone who comments on today’s post (or any others) by March 31/21 will be put in a draw for a digital copy of my first book, 8 1/2 Steps to Writing Faster, Better. Please, scroll down to the comments, directly underneath the “related posts” links, below. Note that you don’t have to join Disqus to post. See here to learn how to post as a guest. It’s easy! 

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