The Power of Habit: with a little help from my friends Hemingway and Duhigg

Storytelling might be said to live at the fork in the road, always demanding of us which way now? Never allowing us the sweet ease of boredom trudging along the well worn path. That doesn’t, however, mean you can’t make it a little easier and call on the power of habit to do so. Since I know no one clicked on my link in my last post (it really is worth that devastatingly difficult index finger twitch, honest..) I thought I’d do all the hard work for you, since I am already, mid-way through Nano with a zero word count, attempting to do it for myself.


The dreaded decisions don’t start with Chapter One and whether your character is mid-flight or mid-yawn, for most of us the entire process is steeped in them, offering dozens of tantalising, torturous options long before we even switch on the computer. And it’s here in the run up to the actual putting of words on screen that we can use habit to the greatest effect.

If you are anything like me the first hurdle is simply getting your bum into the chair. Not the couch, not the kitchen stool, not the bed, but the little wheelie deal that tucks under my desk.

Not everyone has a cupboard stylish wee hideaway to write in, some do it at the kitchen table, some in front of the tele, some wherever they can. If you want habit to help you out, you need to scratch the last from your list. The others are fine, but if it’s at all possible to designate a chair, a spot just for writing, do it. Even if its just taking a different seat to the one you usually sit at for eating round the kitchen table.

Habit Mr Duhigg tells us is a loop, a closed circuit in the brain, that starts with a cue. A trigger. I’m sure advertisers could write a book on this. A trigger is a seemingly innocuous image, place, act that sets the process in motion. Its like how the thought of hitting the gym somehow suddenly doesn’t seem quite as insurmountably awful when you’re already in your gym kit. Of course there’s the small issue of making yourself put on your gym kit, when you might have already made the decision it aint going to happen. Duhigg suggests putting your trainers by your bed, so they are the first thing your feet hit when you swing them out from under the covers in the morning. The trick with a cue is to make it specific but also really easy. An act so small or insignificant you don’t even pause to question it. Like putting on shoes.

For me I’ve started putting my laptop in my cupboard study each night, so that if I want to use it the next day I have to bypass the couch, go in to the study, switch on the light. The simple act of walking into my writing space triggers the process of sitting down to write, much like being in your running clothes triggers the process of exercising. Sounds easy; it is. And you might find you don’t need to read any further.

Most of us find the getting started the hard bit and if we can overcome that, make it a habit, then the rest falls into place. When I was briefly unemployed many years ago I took the decision that rather than waste the days I would consider writing my full time occupation. I developed habits around this without really realising what I was doing. I would often find on days when I hated the thought of starting I had already powered up the computer and was sitting nursing a hot cup as Word flickered into life, even as I was still moaning about how I didn’t want to do it. I was living with my parents so had a proper study and a computer with no internet access..

I’ll repeat that: a computer with NO internet access.

The cue that gets your arse sitting down to write might not be enough if you’re still tempted to sit down to write a tweet or a facebook status. Or a scathing review on amazon, because even you could write better. Except you’re not. You’re not writing at all.


If you have a computer that has no internet access.. but who does? I don’t have spare one. Even my parents finally caught up (though they still can’t manage the wireless printer). That’s why containing writing to one very specific place can be so crucial, you are reducing the cue to one set of actions. However, until the habit is formed, it’s too easy to stray to easier, less tasking options, for the writer who ‘hates writing’.

The Habit Loop is closed with a reward. Duhigg states that this is often less obvious than we might think, is it the cookie or the underlying sense of having treated yourself? The coffee shop, the ambience, the chat or much more crucially the feel good chemicals flooding your brain from simply having completed the loop? For the writer who ‘loves having written’ I think the reward is fairly obvious and subbing in chocolate treats just leads to trainers by the bed..

Instead I’d look to my other mentor Hemingway (never cared for his novels, but as a mentor he’s not bad).

When I am working on a book or a story I write every morning as soon after first light as possible…  ~ A Moveable Feast, Earnest Hemingway

Mornings belong to rush hour for me most days, but if you can write early, it’s to your benefit. Decisions get increasingly harder to make, the more of them we make. Like candy crush, we start each day anew, but by the time we’ve got through a work dilemma, family dinner, and everything in between we’ve pretty much used up all of our reserves. If you want to start new habits start early. Even if you can’t write early, make the decision to write early. Studies have shown that dieters who decide what they will eat for dinner first thing in the morning, even better if they commit it to a daily planner, are far less likely to give in to a take away however late they crawl in.

Make a commitment and write it down. And as with the cue, don’t get carried away in that New Years Resolution, six aftershocks after you should have stopped, sort of way; keep it small. Insignificant. The aim is to get started. If you aim for 500 words a day, or even 100, that’s less than a page. Yet if you were to do it every day, it would add up to 14,000 a month, which means a book in six. Two books a year if you managed this very small amount. And in truth the amount is just about getting you started. More often than not a writing session for me totals in the 1000’s. If I can get started.

The second trick Hemingway offers is one I have always tended to instinctively and one I know I would struggle (even more) to do without.

…. and as you always stop when you know what is going to happen next you go on from there. You write until you come to a place where you still have your juice and know what will happen next and you stop and try to live through until the next day when you hit it again. ~ A Moveable Feast, Earnest Hemingway

I consider it a way of easing myself in. Like warm up exercises, you complete the bit you already know – no decisions, no figuring it out, no feeling stumped – you just start to write and by the time you reach the bit you do have to figure out you’re already in the groove.

I’m going to try and employ all of these and do my own nano and run from now til the 18th of December. I’ll let you know how well I do, and if you are trying too.. Still love this wee guy!




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