No matter what else is going on in your life, if you have a set time to write and you’re used to writing at that time, the sheer force of habit will increase the odds that you’ll actually get your writing done.
Sometimes, though, routines wear out their welcome.
Used to be that I wrote at the end of the day. There were a lot of advantages to it. I would be just a little tired, which made it easier to settle into my characters’ world, and because there was nothing else to be done, I could relax and just let the words flow.
Gradually, however, as my daytime tasks increased, I found myself unable to focus. I’d turn on the computer and stare at it and the ideas wouldn’t come. Soon I was skipping my writing time in favor of crashing into bed because I was just too tired.
I berated myself for not keeping at it. I kept trying to make it work. Eventually I realized that I was fighting a losing battle.
It was time to change.
I switched to writing first thing in the morning. It took some adjustments, particularly with my freelance projects, but within a few weeks I was off and running again.
Since then I’ve changed my routines regularly as needed, sometimes every few months or so.
We’re all creatures of habit. That’s why we sometimes stick to a routine long after it’s no longer working for us.
How can you tell if your writing routine needs a makeover? Look for the following clues. If even one resonates with you, it may be time to reschedule.
If you’ve gone more than two days without writing during your usual time, it’s time to consider a change.
Two days may not seem like much, but it doesn’t take long to sap your momentum, particularly if you’re working on a longer piece.
“But everything will calm down in a few weeks,” you may think. Great. If that’s so, you can change back, but for now, you need to do something to keep your writing going.
Check your schedule for another time that may work. If something heavy is going on in your life, maybe you need to cut back on your expectations. Half hour instead of an hour, for instance, or 500 words instead of 1,000. Make the change and try it out for a few days.
If it works, it will help carry you through. We all know how much better we feel if we’re accomplishing at least a little on our writing no matter what else is going on.
We all go through those times when we believe whatever we’re working on is the worst piece of crap every written.
If this goes on for more than a week, however, you need a change. Maybe the time of day is just fine, but that’s not all there is to consider. Your state of mind when you sit down to write is just as important as the time on the clock. You need to shake things up so you can get excited about what you’re doing again.
In this case, it may be wise to change your writing location. If you’re used to writing at home, make a plan to go somewhere else. To a nearby park, maybe, the library, a local coffee shop or a café. What matters is that it’s easy to get to so you can stick to a regular schedule.
Take a unique route to get where you’re going. Bike instead of drive, or walk if you can. Switching up your routine in these ways can help knock loose some ideas that will help you break through your funk and get back to happy writing again.
Most of us have a word count (or page count) that we try to reach every day. Mine is 1,000 words (on my novel in progress), and that’s relatively easy for me to reach in the time I have.
If I start having trouble reaching that goal, however—if I’m struggling to get out even 250 words—I know something’s not right.
If this happens to you, there could be a lot of reasons for it. Maybe you’re stuck with a difficult plot twist, or you need to get to know your antagonist more, or you need to figure out exactly what genre you’re writing in.
Whatever the problem is, your brain can usually figure out the answer. If you’re a writer, that’s just the way it is.
But what if it’s just not happening? It could be that your brain has slowed down, and is not firing on all cylinders. Stress, fatigue, and a stale routine can all cause your most important organ to sort of shut down and sleep.
How do you get it going again?
There’s one really effective way—exercise.
Yes. Get back into your daily exercise routine. You’d be surprised at how many writing problems come up because you’ve been too sedentary.
Studies show that exercise is just as good for the brain as the heart. Researchers from the Netherlands found that regular exercisers did better on creative thinking tests than non-exercisers. A later Stanford study found that walking boosts creative inspiration.
If you’re struggling to meet your word count, you may be surprised to realize that you’ve have been neglecting your exercise–and you may be equally surprised to find that a few daily walks jolts your brain into giving you the solution.
Change your routine to work exercise in, somehow.
You’re getting your word count in, but when you go back to read it, it lacks that spark your writing usually has.
What’s going on?
Could be that you’re in a rut. Take a look at the rest of your life. Have you done anything new lately? Or have things been proceeding along comfortably…perhaps a bit too comfortably?
Creative people need novelty, and we need it more often than other folks. The word “routine” may seem to preclude spontaneity, but you can change that.
Find ways to work new activities into your weekly routine. Plan a different route to work. Shake up your evening schedule at least once a week. Decide to do something you’ve never done, or at least haven’t done for a long time.
Sign up for a new class, try a new craft, or take up a new type of exercise. Dance, join a sports team, try cooking a new type of dish, or learn to play an instrument.
You may think you don’t have time for these things, but your brain depends on it. Learning new things is the key to keeping your brain healthy and to ensuring that you continue to expand your mental powers. (It also helps reduce the risk of dementia.)
If you need new ideas and/or a fresh approach, think broader than your writing—bring something new into your life.
Though most of us enjoy writing, that doesn’t mean it’s all roses and chocolate.
Particularly if you’re in the middle of a novel, you know what it’s like to “slog” along. You know the feeling of taking yourself by the nap of the neck and sitting yourself down to get something done.
But there’s a difference between facing a challenge and actually dreading the work. If you have that heavy, “responsible” feeling about what you’re doing, and feel that you “have” to write and you don’t really want to—if you feel irritable about it, or even depressed—you may be stuck in a stale routine.
It’s time for a drastic change—but probably NOT in your writing routine. Usually, this sort of feeling means that some other part of your daily routine is failing you.
Maybe you’re working too many hours at your day job. (This is a common reason for this problem.) Another common cause—you’re not getting enough sleep.
Maybe something else is going on in your life that has you feeling down, or out of control.
Possible solutions include:
- Taking a break from writing altogether. This can feel scary, but sometimes it’s necessary for you to get through whatever else is bothering you so you can return to the joy of creation. Set a specific time you’ll be away—two weeks, for example—to help you feel more secure about when you’re return, and then really enjoy that two weeks off.
- Taking a break from your current project. Try some free writing instead. Write about your life and what’s going on. Sometimes our true emotions are hidden even from ourselves. Give yourself ten minutes and write without stopping. Tackle different subjects, like how you feel about the balance in your life, your work, and your relationships. See if your free writing doesn’t help you root out the cause of your dread.
- Going on a vacation. Most Americans don’t take nearly enough time off. We work ourselves to death and then wonder why we lose our spark for life. It may be that a vacation is just what you need. Schedule some time away. If you can’t afford it, go somewhere you can stay with friends, or keep your travels within a one-hundred mile radius. Just get out and away from your current routine. Get some distance.
- Going to a writer’s conference. Could be that you’re burned out. Maybe you’ve been through a number of deadlines lately and you’re just exhausted. Attending a writer’s conference can help you reconnect with why you started writing in the first place. You’ll have a chance to network with other writers—the only ones who understand what it’s like. You’ll get advice from masters in the field, and will likely return home rejuvenated and ready to go at it again.
Bottom Line—Don’t Be Afraid to Make a Change
Routines can be easily changed. All we have to do is sit down with a calendar and map it out. It doesn’t have to be perfect, just try something new. Put your writing in a different time slot, in a different location, or clustered together with different habits (like heading out to a coffee shop or taking a walk).
Care about yourself enough to make your routine work for you—not the other way around.
Once you’ve got your new routine sketched in, give it a chance to work. As Janice Hardy, founder of Fiction University says:
“When life changes, it changes your life. Adapting to the new can be rough, but it’s less stressful than trying to continue with what isn’t working. Things will be different, and finding your feet again might take awhile….Trust that you will figure it out and find your way again.”
Do you change your writing routine when you need to? Please share your story.
Lorenza S. Colzato, et al., “The impact of physical exercise on convergent and divergent thinking,” Front Hum Neurosci., December 2, 2013, http://journal.frontiersin.org/article/10.3389/fnhum.2013.00824/full.
“Stanford study finds walking improves creativity,” Stanford News, April 24, 2014, http://news.stanford.edu/2014/04/24/walking-vs-sitting-042414/.