Like most of us, you probably dream of circumstances that allow you to write for several hours a day without making any sacrifices or experiencing any interruptions. But the reality is that what works today might not work tomorrow, and what would never work in a hundred years might be your only option today. When life tosses your schedule out the window, you don’t have to fling your writing out with it.
Most habits are formed and maintained through decision and repetition. First you commit, then you carry out the action week after week. For most habits, writing included, this is easy to say but hard to execute. Since the “perfect” moment to write doesn’t exist, your regimen needs to be flexible, or it will crack at the first sign of change.
But how do you brace yourself for the unexpected? By taking a deep breath and applying four strategies.
Tip #1: Ritualize Your Writing
The most effective habits are like reflexes—tasks you perform without much thought. Unfortunately, writing can’t ever be automated. Creativity requires a large amount of mental energy, and finding a peaceful atmosphere can be difficult. If you rely solely on your mood, you’ll write little—or none at all.
When you’re dealing with shifting emotions and plans, ritual can be your savior. A ritual is nothing more than a set of triggers for desired behaviors, such as drinking a cup of coffee to wake yourself up, putting on gym clothes and popping in your earbuds to motivate you to exercise, or lighting a candle and watching an episode of your favorite TV show to relax. All of these sensations prepare your mind for the associated activity. On days when you don’t feel like checking a certain item off your to-do list, you can trick your attitude into changing.
Whenever my family goes on vacation, we follow a specific morning ritual to keep us sane. My husband and I get up, have coffee, and read quietly until 8:30 when the kids join us. No matter where we are or what happened the day before, this routine provides stability.
Priming your mind and body for a writing session helps you get “in the zone” wherever and whenever you need to. Below are a few ideas for engaging your senses. Aim for simplicity and repeat each detail until it becomes second nature.
- Smell: burn a scented candle, slather on lotion, or spray the room with air freshener.
- Taste: drink coffee/tea or chew flavored gum.
- Hear: listen to a song, playlist, or ambient noise.
- Touch: wear a comfy article of clothing, wrap yourself in a blanket, or sit in an executive desk chair.
- Sight: use a specific pen and notebook or choose a setting with a view that inspires you.
My personal writing ritual involves music and an old sweater. Every morning, I put on my headphones, slip into my sweater, and write for at least fifteen minutes. Your ritual can literally be anything—as long as you do it before you write, you’ll condition yourself to be ready.
Tip #2: Be Willing to Rearrange Your Schedule
A steady writing habit is challenging to build but easy to demolish. When you’re tired, bored, or overwhelmed, you’ll be tempted to shove your writing into a closet. Instead, you need to sneak into a closet with your writing—just maybe not at the time you originally allotted for it.
As a working mom who’s married to a teacher, my itinerary constantly varies. When and where I write this semester won’t necessarily be when and where I write next semester. I’ve learned to incorporate my writing around other demands. Last year I wrote almost exclusively after the children were in bed. This year I write only in the mornings. I know I can write every day, but if my session needs to be moved or shortened, I adapt.
If you’ve been writing consistently for a while and your life spins out of control, don’t stop. If you’ve always struggled to write regularly and your responsibilities keep multiplying, don’t lose heart. Examine your schedule for the month (or week) and be open to adjusting it so you can write, even if the time and place needs to be different every day. Life is never static, and a season of chaos won’t last forever.
Tip #3: Maximize Small Pockets of Time
You don’t have to treat writing like a full-time job. Although large stretches of time are ideal, even a two-hour slot is a luxury for many writers. So what are you supposed to do when your schedule is packed and you can’t even free up a whole hour?
The truth is that you can write a novel in minutes (yes, minutes) that you collect whenever possible. The concept is similar to saving up for something special with spare change. You look for gaps in your schedule where your mind and hands are unoccupied. Maybe you have a twenty minute train commute or a thirty minute lunch break. Maybe you could wake up thirty minutes earlier or skip watching an episode of a baking show before bed. The length of the interval doesn’t matter. Even if it’s short, you can still dedicate it to writing.
The next step is to squeeze all the words you can out of those stolen minutes. Don’t scroll through social media, blogs, emails, texts, or missed calls. Set a timer and focus on completing a writing sprint or another small goal. This is where a writing ritual can boost your productivity, because the quicker you can switch gears, the further you’ll fill the page. The transition will be rough at first but gradually become smoother.
Writing something is better than nothing, so don’t fuss over the amount or quality for now. You managed to squish writing into your day. Celebrate that and return your attention to your other obligations.
Tip #4: Don’t Worry about Missing a Day
How often have you labeled yourself as a bad writer because you don’t make progress on your manuscript every day? I used to believe that about myself too, but then I realized it’s a lie. While consistency is necessary to foster a habit, it can also turn into a cage. The advice to “write every day” is too rigid. If you miss one day, you’re instantly a failure, which lowers your morale.
Life is messy and unpredictable. You can’t expect to meet a daily quota without problems. Traffic is congested, family members get sick, homework must be finished, and kids need to be carted around. When you’re having a crazy day, let yourself off the hook. Don’t be so attached to your writing that it raises your stress levels.
Sometimes you may even need an extended break, as Maddie talked about last year. That’s okay too. If you’re concerned about losing momentum, try reducing your writing time first. If that doesn’t release enough pressure, choose a start and end date for your break, jot each one on a Post-it note or index card, and stick those in a prominent spot to keep you accountable.
Roll with the Punches
Learning to bend (but not break) your writing habits takes time and practice. Some people thrive on pandemonium and have no trouble adapting to whatever comes. Others struggle with the tiniest disruption to their schedules. No matter your personality, as you work on developing a consistent but flexible writing habit, you’ll probably experience as many failures as successes. Dust yourself off and keep going. Remember that this phase of your life is temporary. Change is inevitable, and you can change with it.
Rose Sheffler is a Kentucky native who began her writing career in the seventh grade by hijacking a simple assignment and turning it into an elaborate creative piece. Her teacher reprimanded her for not following the instructions and said, “You should be a writer.” She studied English Literature in college, with a focus on creative writing, and returned to teach seventh grade English at the same private school. Her favorite genres are fantasy, historical fiction, and fairy tales.
This summer she completed a manuscript of new fairy tales and hopes to have them traditionally published. Until then, she homeschools her three kids, feeds her philosopher husband, grades papers, engages daily with her church community, talks to herself, updates her blog, reads too many children’s books, considers the brevity of life in the face of eternity, and takes bookish photographs for Instagram.