Bec Evans: I am Bec. I am here with Chris, and we love helping writers find a routine that works for them in the busyness of their lives.
We do this in lots of different ways. We do coaching courses. There's advice in our newsletter and on our blog, and in our book Written, which we're very excited to be telling people about. Over the next hour, what we're gonna be doing is giving you lots of tips, lots of ideas, and some really, really practical exercises because we want you to come away with the foundations of that productive writing habit with lots of different things that you'll be able to try.
Habit is persistence in practice
Chris Smith: So the title of this webinar is “How to Build a Productive Writing Habit.” But what do we mean when we talk about habit? To kick off, I just wanted to share this super quote from Octavia E. Butler. If you don't know her, she was an award-winning science fiction author.
She said, “First forget inspiration. Habit is more dependable. Habit will sustain you whether you’re inspired or not. Habit will help you finish and polish your stories. Inspiration won't. Habit is persistence in practice.”
I love that. Habit is persistence in practice, and there are two ways you can think about habit.
One way is the way a lot of academics and researchers think about how we develop habits and what a habit is. When they're talking about habit, they're talking about something you do unthinkingly or on autopilot. Think brushing your teeth before you go to bed or tying your shoelaces before you step out the door.
We don't think that writing falls into that definition of habit. When we are talking about habit, like Octavia Butler, we are talking about something that you want to do more regularly. I'm guessing that writing is the kind of thing that you want to do more regularly. That's really what the focus of this webinar is.
What we're gonna do is cover four things that will help you establish a habit over time. These four things are how to find time — something that is an issue for everybody who writes — what stops you from writing, the kind of things that help you start and then keep going, and then, in the end, we are going to be revealing what we think your writing superpower is.
Making time for your writing
Bec Evans: I'm gonna kick off with this first section on how to find the time. Now, this is one of the biggest problems that people come to us with. They don't have enough time to write, and they struggle to make the best use of the time when it is available. It's a real barrier to building a habit. We want to fit it into our lives, so it becomes more routine-like.
We've run surveys over the years, and we found about 90% of people don't have enough time to write. So there is a lucky 10% who have enough or more than enough, but for most writers, this is a real problem. If it's something that you face, you are not alone. It's also something that lots of famous and bestselling writers struggle with as well.
Cheryl Strayed is the bestselling author of several books, including the memoir, Wild, and Tiny, Beautiful Things. She's known as a columnist and a podcaster. Despite all that success as a writer, she really struggles to find time to write. She's pulled in lots of different directions by all her responsibilities, and she's busy, fundamentally. The way that she found time to write often made her feel bad because she thought that proper writers wrote every single day, whereas she was more of what is called a binge writer.
She used to compare herself and feel bad about it because she couldn't write daily, and she often couldn't write weekly. The only way she could write was by booking in a few days at a time, perhaps once a month, or even less frequently than that. But, over time, she realized it worked for her. She embraced binge-writing and is unapologetic about it, and a real advocate for those people who are too busy on a daily basis.
Her advice is to set the intention about when you can write, to book it in. Even if it's only one day a month, she says you can get a lot written in 12 days a year. If that's all that's available to you, go for it.
We found that there are four different approaches to how writers make time for writing. We've been running lots of surveys on this, and this is about three and a half thousand writers, and we've figured out these four patterns. It's binge-writing (like Cheryl Strayed), daily, time boxing, and spontaneous. I'm just gonna go through each of them in turn.
But before I do that, I want to say that none of these is better than the others. You might recognize some of the patterns that you've used in your own life, and you might use all of them at different times as well.
To start off is binge-writing. This is a very rare, occasional deep dive into your writing. It's a bit like when academics have sabbaticals, or you might go on a writing retreat, but it doesn't need to be that fancy and it doesn't need to be that expensive. It could just be a weekend at home when you've kicked everyone else out the house.
Daily writing is often considered the gold standard, and a lot of writers really advocate for this. It is great, but it's not for everybody. It's really important that if you can't write daily, don't feel guilty about it. It's habitual, same time, same place. It removes the willpower and the decision making about when you're gonna write. It often helps with the kind of ups and downs of writing. You have a bad day, the next day might be better.
The third approach is time boxing, a pragmatic and practical writing method. This is literally scheduling it into your calendar, treating it like any appointment. It’s a really good way to put boundaries around your writing time, to respect it, and communicate that to other people in your life. It's just really helpful and practical.
The fourth and final way is what we call spontaneous writing. You might have heard it being called snacking, toggling, or even time confetti. This is for writers who have either very unpredictable schedules, for example, if you have caring responsibilities and you can't quite predict when things are gonna happen, or people who are really very booked. Spontaneous is about grabbing five or ten minutes whenever you can.
The point with all of these is to make them intentional, to be prepared to do them, to know what you're gonna write so you can hit the ground running even if you've only got five minutes available. You will find that how you write, how you find time to write, will change over the course of your writing career. It will change over the course of a writing project. None of them are better. I'm gonna keep saying that! Don't judge, don't compare. It's really important that you accept what time you have available and make the best use of it.
Chris Smith: We should also say that those methods around how to find time were the results of surveys and research that we've been doing for many, many years.
We've come up with these approaches by interviewing thousands of writers over about a decade. With that in mind, we'd just like you to have a think. When you write, what method do you typically use? Have a think about whether it's the kind of thing that has changed over the course of your life. Has it remained the same, the way that you find time for writing? Or has it changed? And if the method that you are currently using doesn't work for you, think about what might. Yet again, remember, we're not saying one method is better or worse than the other. Just have a think about what's gonna fit into your life as it is right now.
What if you're not sure? What if you have just started your writing journey, or perhaps you haven't done any writing for a bit? The key here is to seek out a similar example. Think about a time when you had to start something new. Maybe you've had to change your behavior in some way. Think about a time you might have, for example, had to learn a language. You might have wanted to learn a musical instrument or start a fitness regime or routine of some kind. Think about other examples of how you found time when you've had to say, organize a family party, a work party, or maybe you've had to organize a vacation.
How did you find time for those in your life? Think about this really, really broadly.
Bec Evans: It struck me, as you were saying about seeking out an example in your own life, this is where it's a really good way that you can seek out examples in other writers' lives.
One thing I love about writers is they often come together in community, and they love reading about how other people write. You might not have an example in your own life or you'll struggle to think of it, but think about what other people can do. That can be a real jumping-off point for your own experiments with writing time.
Now, I'm gonna share another couple of quick tips to help you figure things out. The first one is about tracking. Often we think about our writing, and we can judge what's going on there. What tracking does is give you some evidence. It gives you proof about how you spend your time.
It proves how busy your life is and what opportunities there are for writing. I really do encourage you to do this as a bit of an exercise. If you think you don't have any time to write, start making a note of how you're spending your time. Some of you might be familiar with Laura Vanderkam, who writes a lot about this and is a real advocate for time tracking.
It will give you some evidence to reflect on what's going on, to explore possibilities and opportunities. Just making a note of when you write in the day — what time, what your energy is like — can be really helpful. We often hear things like, you need to write first thing in the morning. That works great for some people, but it doesn't work for others. So give it a go and find out whether you are full of energy first thing in the morning or whether actually, you're more likely to have your ideas late at night. Tracking is a really great tool for doing that.
The other tip I'm gonna talk about is, “What if you've got too much time?” I said earlier that 90% of writers say they don't have enough time to write, so there are about 10% who have too much time. It might be people who have taken a break from work, they might have retired, or they might have got that magical sabbatical that some people are offered to go away and write. We find that having too much time can be as problematic as not having enough time. The way to deal with that is by imposing constraints.
Many of you will recognize this tomato timer on screen, which is the Pomodoro technique, which was created by Francisco Cirillo back in the eighties. It's a very simple technique for finding focus and imposing some structure on the time that you have. It's perfect if you've got too much time, but it can also help you structure your writing sessions.
All you do is set a timer for 25 minutes. When the time is up, you take a five minute break, and then you repeat two or three times and then take a longer break. The guidance around it is really clear. But the thing I really like about it is the rule that for those 25 minutes, your sole focus is to write. It can be a really good thing to help you manage distraction, which leads us on to our next section.
What stops you from writing?
Chris Smith: When we think about distractions, there are those on the outside, external distractions, and those on the inside. The kinds of things that distract us are everywhere. There could be breaking news headlines, there could be family distractions, there could be emails, phones. If we're a parent, we have children and family that might distract us.
There are also those internal worries and fears, like fears of comparison. There's also those “what if” worries that we all have as well. I'd like to share with you some of the distractions of some of the writers that we work with.
For the last five years we've been running these things called Seven Day Writing Sprints. They're just a quick and easy way to get you off the starting box with your writing. The question that we always ask at the beginning of a writing sprint is: what's going to stop you writing in the next week?
This is a sample of 500 writers. There's been thousands that have taken it actually, but this is our analysis of 500. 54% of people say that work gets in the way of writing, your phone 20%, social media 16%, news headlines 10%, those emotional worries and fears distract 29% of people, and family distracts 16% of people. The eagle-eyed amongst you will have seen that those figures don't add up to a hundred percent because people could answer different questions.
I wanted to share that with you to show you that you are not alone if you're distracted from your writing and you have any of those kinds of concerns.
With that in mind, what we'd like you to have a think about is a time that you got distracted from your writing project. What was it that got in the way for you? Was it one thing? Was it many things? Was it something new that you hadn't experienced before? Or perhaps it was something familiar? Something that was more of a recurring distraction. What we'd like you to do is write as many down as you can.
Bec Evans: One thing that we find really helpful about this exercise is that we often think we are the only person who gets distracted, we're the only person who procrastinates on our writing. Knowing that other people have similar distractions can be super helpful. It also gives you different ideas about how to tackle it.
Chris Smith: Once you've got your list and you've looked at all the distractions that you might potentially face, what we suggest next is for you to hone down on just one, for the purposes of this particular exercise.
It could be your most recent distraction, the one that you experience today or the one that you think you'll experience in the course of today. It just could be the thing that bugs you the most or happens the most often, but what's the thing that really, really throws you off your writing game?
Bec Evans: Again, with those distractions, I find it really helpful to think about those external things. So it's other people stopping me and the internal things, those fears, those worries, that kind of inner critic stuff can really stop us.
Now I said we wanted this to be a really practical exercise. The stages are, think of all the distractions, pick one, and then come up with solutions. I know all writers are brilliant at coming up with ideas. I want you to use your imagination and do a bit of a brainstorm.
The example here is about email being a main distraction. When you brainstorm, it can be helpful to think about all the things you can start doing and all the things you can stop doing. For example, I could put my out-of-office on, I can turn off all my notifications, and stop using my phone. Things like that.
Think of all of the ideas you could have to solve your personal and main distractions. Go as wild and as wacky and as weird as you can, because, often, I find that that can really help trigger new ideas. You might be able to come up with five, ten, fifty different solutions to deal with that distraction.
Take a moment to think about that.
The fourth and final stage of this exercise is to make it stick. You've got your main problem, you've got lots of solutions there. Which one are you gonna pick?
You might find there could be several to experiment with, and we're big fans of experimentation, but turn one of those solutions into a plan. There's something called an if/when-then plan, which is very simple. I'm gonna give you some examples, but it often just makes your plans really concrete.
If I'm writing, then I'll switch off my email notifications. It's very simple, very concrete. It's often called a mental model because it kind of fixes itself in your brain. Again, it's a bit like thinking about habits. It reduces the decision-making and willpower required. You just think, “Every time I’m writing, my email is switched off.”
Here are some examples of some if/when-then plans. They start with "if" and the second half-sentence is "then" or "when".
- If I feel distracted, then I'll clear my head for 30 minutes with a walk.
- When I start writing, I'll always put my phone in another room.
They're simple ways to try out different solutions.
If you've got a moment, why not write down a plan for dealing with that distraction that you have?
Chris Smith: We often find that physically writing it down, putting it somewhere physical, can be really, really helpful because it gives you clarity and a physical reminder of your plan. As we've said before, if it doesn't work, then think of a different way to do it. Don't stick with it if it's not working.
We've looked at what it is that stops you. Now we're going to look at what helps you start writing and then keep going.
What helps you start writing and keep going?
Chris Smith: We think there are two aspects to this. It's the starting part, and it's the 'keep going' part. To start off with, I'm going to start with a little story from our book.
Robin Sloan is an American indie and traditionally published author of fiction. In 2007, he was working at Twitter, and he was bored. He wanted to write, and he couldn't; he was too busy. So he joined with two of his friends and work colleagues who also wanted to write, and they started writing what he told us were fragments. Just little bits, little stories, little thoughts, and ideas. They started to share them with each other. But one day, he had an idea for a story, and it was a story that was based in a mysterious bookstore. So he wrote a short story based on that idea.
Then a little later, he set up a Kickstarter page because that story was really popular and he wanted to get some funding to write a novella, which he did. Then that Kickstarter page attracted the attention of an agent and that agent got him a book deal. In 2014, he wrote and then published his first novel. That novel was Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore and it went on to be a New York Times best seller. And it all started from a fragment.
Bec Evans: What I really like about this story is that Robin Sloan took things in very small steps. He went from his tiny little fragments to a short story, a novella, and then a novel. He used all the tools that were available to him.
He didn't have lots of connections. He didn't know how to publish things. He experimented with lots of different things and built up his experience. Often we’re told with writing to have a goal, that it's really great because it gives you clarity and it gives you direction. But some of us aren't quite sure what our goals should be or how we're gonna get there.
The research shows again and again, the way to make progress is in steps, and there's different approaches to doing that. So Robin Sloan did this kind of starter step. He didn't know what he wanted to do, he was just having fun writing, and he built up and gained his experience from there.
If you like setting a goal, what you need to do is learn to scale back from that goal. You set that very ambitious goal. You want to write an 80,000 word novel, you want to do a series of novels, but you need to work out what that looks like now. How do I make a start on that? It's just a really helpful approach to take.
I'm gonna get you to do another exercise on this. Have a think about your current writing project. Whenever you get stuck or whenever you are starting out, have another brainstorm. Come up with lots of different ways you can have different steps. Sometimes this can be a really helpful exercise to do when you first sit down to write. If you've got a writing session and you're not quite sure you're facing — the fear of the bank page — come back to thinking of really small steps.
What's the smallest thing I can do to get going? Is there a writing task that's gonna help you move your writing forward? To come up with lots of different ideas? If they feel too big, scale back. You don't always have to scale back from really, really big goals. You can scale back from, “I'll write a thousand words.” I'm not gonna be able to write a thousand words, I'll just write a hundred.
Often, if you're not sure which one to choose, pick the one that's most fun. Do you wanna do some free writing to find a way into your story? Do you wanna voice note it instead? Sometimes, we can get that fear of starting to write, so having different approaches and ways to get going — like writing exercises — can be really helpful.
Chris Smith: As Bec said, don't worry about making it too small. If you are struggling to start, it's far better, we often say, to finish one or two small steps and have those under your belt rather than be faced with this very large writing project and just do nothing at all. Remember that once you start small, you can always crank up.
You don't need to stay at that level. But just do something to get started. It’s really important to lower the stakes at the beginning.
Bec Evans: Make it easy. Make it fun.
Keeping yourself accountable
Chris Smith: Over the years, we have realized that other people are so incredibly important in terms of helping you to keep going, to help you get started, and giving you the motivation to to continue. But how you work with other people and how you stay accountable to other people is a very personal thing.
It was very interesting when we were writing our book, Written, we realized that we had very different styles in terms of how we kept ourselves accountable and how we worked with other people to keep ourselves accountable. Bec was very fond of joining writing groups. You had accountability buddies. What else did you do?
Bec Evans: I told lots of people. I use lots of different focus times. I write best in community and with other people.
Chris Smith: Whereas I didn't really do that. I tended not to work with other people. I kept it to myself. I tended to use Bec as my accountability buddy. But having said that, I couldn't have written that book, or co-written that book, on my own. I need somebody else. I need Bec to be able to keep me accountable. The moral of this story is that how you keep accountable, how you keep motivated, is very personal to you. There's no good way to do it. There's no bad way to do it. There's no one approach that's better than the other.
What we'd like you to do is have a think about how you work with other people to keep going. How can other people help you to keep motivated with writing? What groups, relationships, partnerships, or organizations could be of use to you?
Within the world of writing, there are so many different things to try, so many groups. You could be involved with writing groups, some have looked at all different structures, some are very supportive and very nurturing and encouraging. Others are more based around giving you direct feedback.
Have a think about what would work for you and whether you want something that's more formal, like a mentorship program or a course, or something more informal. Maybe you work best with one other person, just telling one other person or a family member what you're doing.
If you don't know — if you've only just started writing or you're not really sure — have a think about a different time when you've tried to achieve something, like organizing something or starting a fitness routine. How have other people helped you in that? Are you the kind of person that needs somebody else spurring you on or can you do that on your own?
Bec Evans: As well as coming up with ideas, you might already be thinking about things that you know don't work. For example, you might know you really don't like when other people give you deadlines. You rebel against those. That's a really helpful thing for you to know and to build into your toolkit. As well as coming up with possibilities to try, think about what really hasn't worked because that can direct us a bit more strongly.
I'm gonna give another couple of quick tips. The first one is to be kind to yourself. If you want to write, writing can be really hard. We're often working at the level of our own skill and craft, and we judge it. Be as kind to yourself as you are to others in your writing community. Writers are incredibly supportive of each other, so be your own best friend on this.
Part of this is also accepting when you can't write. You might set yourself very high standards. You might be a perfectionist. That's fine if that's what keeps you motivated. But if you fall short, don't judge yourself. Learn from that. Sometimes we get thrown off course, so accept that if you can't write. Move on. Be kind to yourself. It's really, really important if you're gonna keep going for the long haul. I know many of you have ambitious plans for many, many books and series to come.
The other tip I'm gonna suggest is associating positive things with your writing. Writers can be very hard on themselves and their writing. The way our brains work is we are more likely to attach and remember the negative. We might have to make a bit more of an effort to think about positive things.
This is an exercise that I do and it's based in positive psychology. It's called three good things. At the end of a writing session, find something good about your writing. Make it part of your close down routine, and it will make you feel more positive, particularly when you're stuck in the saggy middle of your plot. It'll make it easier for you to come back to your writing because you're associating positive feelings with it.
What is your writing superpower?
Chris Smith: We're nearly at the end. But we're going to reveal what your writing superpower is. This is very important to our coaching model, our approach, and it's also really the heart of the book in terms of what we suggest people do.
Over the years we've learned that one thing can be quite transformative for your writing process, and it's noticing. If you don't notice what it is that works and what doesn't work for you with your writing, then you'll always struggle to act. It's the reason why we have asked you to notice how you spend time, how you use time for writing, to notice what it is that gets in the way and distracts you. It's why we've asked you to notice what works as well. What is it that helps?
Noticing gives you the power to change your behavior. Because if you don't notice, you're not going to be able to change. It's a very simple idea, but it's based on the work of the psychologist Ellen J. Langer. She's a professor of psychology at Harvard University. Her approach is about being more mindful about how you live and how you work. I'm going to end with this quote, which I think is really powerful.
It says, “The rules you were given were the rules that worked for the person who created them, and the more different you are from that person, the worse they're going to work for you. When you're mindful, rules, routines, and goals guide you, they don't govern you.”
I think that's a really liberating thought, and I think it's something that can not only guide your writing but can guide your life.
Bec Evans: To wrap it all up, here’s a quick slide on our approach and how you can put this into action. You might have come up with ideas over the past 45 minutes, which is great. What we want you to do is start by testing them out. You've brainstormed a few things, you might be able to pick and choose those that you want to run experiments with.
For example, you might have heard that other writers like to get up at 5:00 AM and write. By all means, run that as a bit of an experiment. If it doesn't work, you can forget about it and forget about feeling guilty that you're not the sort of writer who gets up at 5:00 AM to write.
You're gonna notice what works and what doesn't. Try different approaches, notice them, and then reflect on that. Do you feel energized? Do you feel tired? Is it helping? Is it hindering? Then based on that reflection, adapt and change your behavior.
These are really low stakes, quick experiments. These aren't big grand approaches because you wanna be able to cycle through things to figure it out as quickly as possible. The more you do that, the more likely you are to figure out what productivity means for you, what a good writing habit is, what is a realistic routine for your life right now, and it will change. You'll cycle back through this little experimentation loop.
That is everything from us!