By Shannon McFarland
The habits we have rule our lives, especially when we aren’t thinking about it. Eating, sleeping, hygiene, etc. All these many little actions.
The more I examine my own habits, the more that I discover little things I do that work well (or don’t!). Writing is one of the most intentional habits that I have, so it is an easy example of what works for me.
1. Build cues for the habit
This is pretty much habit building 101. For me and my writing habit, making a cup of tea and getting a small snack is all part of my routine. At this point, ten years down the road, these are cues to my brain that I am about to sit down and not get distracted while writing and working.
I’m usually drinking green tea and nibbling on dark chocolate. Both of these happen to be foods that influence dopamine too, the neurotransmitter that controls the “reward” and “pleasure” parts of your brain, which could very well help. But really, these snacks are out of habit too, they were often my “study snacks” when I was in college. The tea was because it was cheap (as a cash-strapped student, I stopped putting honey in my tea just because it cost more) and I could drink cup after cup without getting coffee jitters. The chocolate, because it tasted good and I could nibble at a square or two for an hour while I worked.
2. Listening to chill, instrumental background music.
Music and art have a proven impact on your brain. I used to listen to certain CDs on a loop, now it’s often a Spotify mood playlist that I get obsessed with.
Or even wearing my headphones without any music or sound whatsoever. Having the noise around me muffled slightly helps me block it out, focusing more deeply on my task at hand.
3. Make it into a winning streak
You can check it off on a calendar or just make a tick mark on a page. Those little things add up.
These days, I keep track of my daily writing by putting the date at the top of the page each day. I feel like giving myself a tiny pat on the back each day that I’m keeping up the habit streak. For 2017 I had one document, which I started adding to every day starting last September (averaging about one page per day). I started a new document for 2018, and with this month’s writing challenge, am publishing more here on my personal blog.
The simple act of tracking progress makes a big difference. Think about it like a person tracking sobriety, changing deeply ingrained habits. Each sober day or year feels like a bigger victory. You feel good every time you hit a milestone.
4. Pick something to look forward to afterward.
For me, it that can be many things. A good fiction book, social event, or anything outdoors. Rock climbing, skiing, hiking, whatever. Even just a good book. A positive incentive for wrapping up the task at hand.
5. Telling someone else what I am doing.
It is especially helpful for me to tell people about what I am doing. My fiance, friends, family, and colleagues are all very helpful check-points for me. Even a simple question about how this-or-that is going gives me a short moment to evaluate and verbalize. Am I stuck? Am I making progress?
Even sharing these thoughts on my blog helps keep me accountable. Publically stating that I would post every day of the month, even if no one else is really tracking, is just one more little tweak toward big things. Toward creating habits for long-term impact.