The age-old advice for dealing with writer’s block is to “just write.”
But for some people, pushing through is simply not an option. Without inspiration, some writers have no motivation. They’ll even start to wonder why they began the project.
Yet for professional writers, writing is simply a part of their daily lives. They’ve long learned to push past the resistance and write at the drop of the hat. These writers can write whenever they want, wherever they want, and they’re only limitations is the amount of time they choose to dedicate to their craft.
How is this possible?
These writers have made writing a part of their routines. “The Power of Habit” by Charles Duhigg talks about routines and their impact on productivity and creativity. In essence, he points out that habits – including writing habits – are developed in three phases:
The problem is that your brain can’t tell the difference between good habits and bad habits. In addition, new habits can’t be formed; instead, old habits must be replaced. For instance, whenever you open your laptop (your cue), you can either check Facebook or start writing (routine). Eventually, this is what will lead to your reward (either social gratification or the satisfaction of a completed chapter) until it becomes an automatic response (a habit).
If you want to change your habits, you need to keep your same cues and rewards but change the routine in between. Unfortunately, this isn’t always straight-forward. One thing that researchers noticed is that these new routines tend to fall apart as soon as the stressors of life got in the way. Alcoholics fell off the wagon when tragedy got in the way and dieters went for snacks after a bad day. Yet what they also found was that believing in what you were trying to accomplish is what helped preserve these habits (this is why Alcoholics Anonymous became so effective in spite of the fact that it baffled scientists; it forced belief into its 12 step program).
Professional writers are disciplined to the point where they know their cues (which can be as simple as opening a laptop or going to a favorite coffee shop), their routines (writing), and their rewards (usually, the satisfaction of completing their work – but as one gets further into their career, the money doesn’t hurt either). But they also believe in their work. Ultimately, as writers, we should believe in our stories as well.
If you want to learn more about habits, including how new habits can be made, I highly recommend you check out Charles Duhigg’s book (available here).
PS: I use Charles Duhigg’s advice to manage my addiction to Sim City. At one point, it was interfering with my productivity. I decided to use the same cue to make a habit of listening to audiobooks whenever I have a free moment. I started combining audiobook listening whenever I played Sim City. While it didn’t fully break my addiction, it made a better use of my time.