Building a Strong Writing Habit and Lessons from the Gym

Sweating, muscular back - illustration for gym writing habits article

Whether you want to write a novel or run a marathon, the first step is forming good habits. Habits are the steps we climb to achievement. The more time we spend building and practicing good habits, the more we can accomplish, and the more rewarding our lives will be. When you have a strong writing habit in place, you can create more with less effort. Forget waiting for motivation. You have something more powerful: discipline.

Earlier this year, I joined a gym. At first, it was tough to motivate myself to go regularly, but I quickly started enjoying working out and missing the gym when I was too busy to exercise. I was proud of myself for making these changes, but the experience also made me pretty confused. The exercise habit clicked right away, but building a good writing habit took me years of struggle. Why did I find a writing habit so much harder than exercise? Why was it easier for me to finish a 5k run than 5k words?

After some thought, I realized that the gym and physical exercise have built-in structure and rewards. They made exercise quickly go from a chore to a pleasure, to the point that the exercise habit came almost automatically. With some work, similar structure and rewards can be used to help you build a strong writing habit, making it much easier to stay excited about writing every day.

Structure – Regular Scheduled Times

I found that my gym was the least crowded right when I got off work, so I ended up going at the same time every day. This created a mental cue. I couldn’t forget to go to the gym. As soon as work ended, the first thing on my mind was “time to exercise”. By the time I started thinking about Netflix or Reddit or my other lazy habits, it was too late – I was already on the treadmill.

However, I did my writing whenever – in the mornings before work, during lunch, at night when the wife was busy with her own hobbies, whenever I could find time. Or all too often, a week would go by and I would realize that I never found any time for writing at all.

Just like exercise, first step to establishing a good writing habit is setting regular writing times. Go through your schedule and find a few minutes you can set aside at the same time each day. Starting the habit is more important than the amount of time. Start small, say fifteen minutes or so, and build up slowly.

If you can’t find room in your schedule for writing, try time tracking. For a week, keep track of everything you do and when you do it. Write down when you eat, when you sleep, when you juggle cats, all of your activities. At the end of the week, you’ll be able to go through your notes and find anything that’s not absolutely vital, and replace it with writing.

Structure – Lack of distractions

When I go to the gym, I’m in an entire building dedicated solely to exercise. There isn’t a video game room or a food court or a ball pit to tempt me away from the weight machines. (There are televisions, but they are located directly above the treadmills. No need to feel guilty about watching trashy daytime TV if you’re also running a few miles!)

When I sat down to write, I was at a computer hooked up to the internet. Instead of writing, I could play games, or go to Twitter, or Reddit, or millions of other distractions. Even after I opened my writing project and started typing away, I would eventually run into something I wanted to research. It was easy to Google “the first science fiction novel” and end up reading a thousand other things until I ran out of writing time.

To make writing time more effective, remove the distractions. Separate research from writing. When you start a project, write a detailed outline, and search through the outline for anything that you might need to research. Have research periods and writing periods, and never combine the two. When you are writing and come across something you need to research, make a note to do it later, and keep writing. When you have the urge to watch a video or check Twitter, again, make a note to do it later, and keep writing. If you are still tempted to open a web browser during a writing period, turn off your WiFi, uninstall Chrome, and buy a typewriter.

Rewards – Measurable improvements and rapid feedback

It’s easy for me to stay motivated at the gym because it offers tangible rewards, like measurable improvements and rapid feedback. These rewards help reinforce the habit of regular exercise, making it easier to get myself back in the gym tomorrow. Everything at the gym can be measured, allowing me to see how I am improving over time. I can see that I’m lifting a little more weight and running a little bit farther than last week, which makes me want to go back and work a little harder and improve a little bit more.

It’s a bit addictive, like leveling up in an RPG. You can help build a daily writing habit by measuring your writing performance and watching yourself improve.

When you’re writing, the easiest thing to measure is word count. Don’t just measure the number of words you write. Keep track of the time you spend writing, and the number of words per hour. An increase in words written might just mean you had a day off, but an increase in words per hour means you are improving your mental focus and efficiency, and becoming a better writer.

If you go to the gym to exercise, you know pretty quickly if your workout is successful. If you are growing stronger, completing all your exercises, and not injuring yourself, you had a good workout. Feedback from writing takes longer. You could spend weeks, months, years, even a lifetime working on a piece without really knowing if it’s any good.

To make writing more like exercise, you need to increase the amount of feedback you get from readers, and to reduce the wait time for feedback. You can work on shorter pieces, share individual chapters of a novel, or otherwise share your work before it’s completely finished.

Rewards – Building Strength You Can Depend On

I never go to the gym thinking “I have the energy to run three miles today!” I still go even when I’m tired. It’s not feeling energetic that allows me to run, but rather physical strength and endurance. But when I sat down to write, I would frequently tell myself that I was “too tired” to work on a story, even when I hadn’t really done that much that day.

Energy, motivation, and inspiration are fleeting and temporary. It can be easy to wait for hours, days, even weeks for the stars to align so you “feel like” writing. A good writing habit requires building mental strength and endurance, qualities that will always be there to depend on.

Think of building a daily writing habit as a form of mental exercise. Just like athletes train by running intervals, you can train your brain with writing intervals. Get a timer and write for ten minutes without stopping. Take a break for five minutes to check your email, watch a video, do whatever you usually do when you’re distracted. Lather, rinse, repeat. Every week, add five minutes to your writing time, but keep the break time the same. Before long, you will notice your attention span growing longer, and your mental focus getting stronger.

Your Writing Habit and Exercise

Finally, exercise and writing also work very well together. Whenever you don’t know where a story is going or just can’t think of the next line of dialogue, it can help to get up and get your blood flowing. When your mind gets stuck, move your body. Before you know it, you’ll have a stronger body and a stronger writing habit.

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