Making Writing a Habit, Not a Decision

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man writing a contractLessons from bestselling book “The Power of Habit,” by New York Times writer Charles Duhigg.

Linking brain science, data analytics, and marketing strategies with an engaging style, Charles Duhigg explores the role of habit for us as individuals, for companies, and for our society. As academic writers, we can understand ourselves better, and build better writing habits, with some of his insights.

Why do we have habits?

Because habits involve much less work than thinking about each action separately. A habit involves the basal ganglia, the part of the brain also involved in emotions. When the brain creates a routine from a series of actions, called “chunking,” the set of actions no longer requires decisions, which involve the prefrontal cortex.

You may have heard of the loop of habits: cue – routine – reward, in which the routine is, in the case of academic writing, the writing session itself. The cue requires the brain to work very hard, to determine whether the signal is a familiar activity. If so, the brain can go into a routine. The routine involves much less cognitive activity, less work, for the brain. The reward is a signal to the brain that the routine was completed well.

What is your cue?

How do you know it is time to write? Is it in your daily calendar? Do you pour a cup of coffee or tea? Walk in to your workspace and sit down? Turn on your timer? Charles Duhigg would suggest that identifying the cue will help you maintain a good habit.

A little ritual before you start is worth continuing, even if you don’t feel you need the cue any more. Your brain has recorded a successful writing session following that cue, so keep it up!

But maybe you want to change a habit. Maybe that particular cue leads you to a less-desired habit. Do you see no writing session when you look at that calendar? Do you pour that coffee and sit over the news for a half hour? Do you walk in to your workspace and check your email?

Take that cue and substitute a writing session! It will feel uncomfortable at first, and take some time, but your brain will begin to associate the cue with writing.

Reward writing!

In our Writing Club, as in most habit-formation programs, we urge you to plan a reward to follow each writing session. Is your first thought of a reward, “Eat a hot fudge sundae?” “Buy a new electronic plaything?” “Travel to Paris?” A reward like that is not going to be practical for daily writing in the longer term!

The brain science presented by Charles Duhigg suggests that the reward comes when the brain knows the routine has been completed; that you have finished a writing session. Maybe it is the sound of the timer. Maybe it is the stretch and walk-around that follows your planned session. Maybe the reward is to check email for a few minutes during your break between sessions.

Crave the reward!

Successful habit-makers gradually begin to crave the reward. No, not the hot fudge sundae! Make your reward something that brings you satisfaction with your writing session. For example,

Does interacting with others perk up your spirits? Reward your writing session by checking in with others in your Writing Club or a quick email to a friend. You will crave that human connection after writing!
Does praise, an “Atta-girl” or “Atta-boy” encourage you? Focus particularly, in your Club or in a writing journal, on what you feel good about that session. You will crave that self-appreciation after writing!
Does getting closer to that faraway goal make you feel more hopeful? Make a detailed list of your tasks, in your Club Goals or on a piece of paper, and visibly check them off each session. You will crave those check marks after writing!
Does your goal seem impossibly far away? Count your minutes in your Club log and look at your Progress Report at the end of the week, or on a piece of paper. You will crave that gradual accumulation of minutes!


Write as Routine?

So we have the cue and reward, and understand that your brain begins to crave the reward associated with the habit. But surely no one says your writing ought to be routine, ordinary, mundane, unexciting.

Of course not! It is not the content of your writing that is routine, it is the behavior. The charts of brain activity show lots of zig-zag lines when the cue happens, and again when the reward happens.

But during the routine, the brain activity slows down. Charles Duhigg would suggest that one big benefit of developing a writing habit is that doing the writing becomes a no-brainer.

No decisions about “Should I write now, or later?” or “Where was I? How do I start?” or “Is this project worth writing? Am I competent?” No choices are necessary. Your brain recognizes the writing behavior and lets the basal ganglia run the routine.

Writing is just an ordinary part of your day. No choice. No drama. You sit down and do it. That leaves the intellectual part of your brain free to think about your project.

One of my favorite examples from The Power of Habit is backing down the driveway. At first, it required multiple decisions, many choices, complex assessments. When it becomes a habit, you continue to back down the driveway without collision! But your brain has recognized that package of behaviors as a routine and engaged the basal ganglia. So your higher-functioning brain can remember, “Oops! Forgot that lunch!”

Make your writing sessions a routine, not a decision. Recognize or reestablish the cue and the reward. Then let your brain stop making choices about whether to write, and move on to your very best thinking.


Charles Duhigg, The Power of Habit: Why we do what we do in life and business. 2012 Random House

How Companies Learn Your Secrets
By Charles Duhigg The New York Times February 16, 2012


**Warning: Shameless Plug Alert:

Join the Academic Writing Club. It will give you the ongoing encouragement, gentle nudges, and a group of supportive colleagues to help you get clear that You are the experiment, and your behavior is the data. Joining the writing club will help you get real about your work and get on with it.

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