Why Writers Need to Form Habits

Coming back from Panama, I got the book “The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business on my Kindle, so I could read it on the trip home. The book discusses habits in a scientific and psychological way. It uses examples of people’s personal lives and companies that have successfully created new habits and/or changed existing ones. I will let you in on a little secret: Good habits are important in writing.

It doesn’t matter what kind of writer you are, you want to create habits like writing every day and editing after you are finished. As I always tell my kids, everything in life is practice. Even someone who is a naturally-gifted writer will benefit from forming these habits. Since I was 18, I’ve kept a personal diary that I write in every day. I frequently blog, and I also write at work. I try to edit as much as possible.  If I can, I have someone else do the editing.  As you probably already know, your eyes get so used to your writing that you are more apt to skip over mistakes that someone’s fresh eyes will catch.

The book explains that you need a cue, routine, and reward. However, you also need a fourth element: Belief. If you are a morning person, plan on writing for ten minutes after pouring your morning coffee. You can reward yourself by having a piece of chocolate when you are done.  Start editing when you are done.  Also, believe that one day you will be one of the most respected Technical Writers in the U.S. (you can add your own belief in here).  This will help keep you going, even times when you are tired or just not in the mood, and eventually a new habit will form. 

In the book, the author states:

“Without habit loops, our brains would shut down, overwhelmed by the minutiae of daily life.”

This reminded me of an article I read in the Harvard Business Review awhile ago.  Harvard professor Richard C. Pozen wrote his thoughts on a Vanity Fair article on U.S. President Barrack Obama.  The author Michelle Lewis spent six months with the President.  One of the questions she asked the President was how he would prepare someone to do his job.  Obama responded:

Making too many decisions about mundane details is a waste of a limited resource: your mental energy.

When you write, you want your brain to focus on the content rather than every word and sentence. If you write every day, you subconciously create a habit of not thinking about those things until after you have finished writing.  What about grammar and spelling? This is where editing comes in. Editing is a great habit to form after you finish writing. You can clean up the grammar and spelling mistakes after you write, not during.  In this way, you have written a great document in a proficient way.

This is why processes (e.g. Shipley, CBAP, etc.) and industry best practices (e.g. Six Sigma, CMMI, etc.) have become so popular. Everyone knows the process, which is like a habit, so it eliminates error and wastefulness.

Create your habits, reward yourself, and have a belief.

If you want to see my highlights from the book, you can check them out on my Kindle page.

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