There’s a lot of stuff written about habits out there, but much of what’s written doesn’t seem to have much psychology behind it. What are habits, how can we develop them and (hardest of all) how can we make them stick? Here I’ll be focusing on developing a writing habit. I’ll also be giving five tips for making your writing habit stick.

What are habits?

Essentially, habits are actions or behaviours which are automatically triggered by cues in your environment. We all have habits which we carry out every day and which we might not notice because they’re completely out of your conscious awareness. For example, every morning, I get up, get dressed and then brush my teeth (in that order).

There are two main components of habits which are that they are automatic and performed repeatedly over time. So, you can’t have a habit for a behaviour you’ve only done once but you could have one performed far apart.

Environmental Cues

You might have heard of the Pavlov’s dogs experiment which was one of the first studies of conditioned learning and habit from back in the early 1900s (poor doggies).

Pavlov was a physiologist who did digestive experiments with dogs. And in one of the experiments he did, he rang a bell just before the dogs were going to be fed. He noticed that after this was repeated a number of times the dogs began to salivate (expecting food) each time the bell was sounded. So something in the environment (the bell sound) became associated with an uncontrolled response (drooly doggos).

Close up of a jack russell dog's eyes, nose and ears
Poor hungry doggies

You might have developed a similar unconscious association yourself. For example, if you’ve ever got super drunk on something with a particular taste and smell and felt sick as a dog the next day. Then the smell of whatever you were drinking brings back a slight twinge of nausea for months or even years afterwards.

What thinking is involved?

It’s generally considered that we have two different thought processes – conscious and unconscious.

Unconscious thinking

Unconscious thinking is like the example I gave above, where you feel sick every time you get a whiff of aniseed due to getting hammered on absinthe one night in your late teens. Or if you brush your teeth every day, you probably don’t consciously think about the fact you need to brush them. Or locking your front door every time you go out. This is why sometimes you get that horrible feeling where you can’t remember locking the door/brushing your teeth and you’re already miles away. You generally don’t need to pay attention to these behaviours because they’re automatic.

Conscious thinking

Conscious thinking is a little different. These are all the behaviours that aren’t entirely automatic, like walking or eating. This needs self-regulation/self-control, where (funnily enough) you regulate your behaviour. So if you’re at work, you might stop yourself snacking so you don’t spend all day eating biscuits (as much as you’d like to).

The problem with self-regulation and self-control is that these are finite resources which you can use up. This is why you might start off the day determined to stick to your diet but by 5pm you’re hungry and grumpy and you just really want a biscuit.

biscuits in foreground with blurred laptop on background

Intention-behaviour gap

In Psychology, there’s something called the ‘intention-behaviour gap’ (imaginatively named, I know). You might intend to do something, like write 1000 words every single night or run a 5K after work each day. But often life has a habit of getting in the way of these intentions getting translated into behaviour.

Setting plans for behaviours which you are likely to be able to achieve is suggested to be a good way around this. Although most of the research that’s been done on this is on physical activity. Trying to develop a writing habit might be easier than one for exercising every day since you probably enjoy writing or you wouldn’t be wanting to make a habit out of it!

Maintaining habits

There are loads of different numbers floating in the ether with estimations of how long it takes for a behaviour to become habitual. I’ve seen everything from 21 days up to 6 months. One of the problems with some of the shorter estimations is that this doesn’t take into account some monthly or seasonal variations. Developing a habit when you’re all bright eyed and motivated to start writing can be a lot easier than maintaining the same behaviour when you’re knackered and you’ve got 500 birthday presents to buy.

One of the best ways to get over this hurdle is to make plans for when things aren’t going your way. If you’re too tired to write and know that anything you do write will just be ‘twaddle twaddle twaddle’ until you reach 200 words, then cut yourself some slack. It’s worth having an ACTION PLAN in place. This means that if you do find things getting in your way, you’ve got a plan B to revert to which means your whole writing habit doesn’t go right out the window.

5 steps to developing a writing habit

  1. Set an if-then plan
  2. Include an environmental cue
  3. Be a bit vague
  4. Repeat
  5. Action plans for bad days

1. Set and if-then plan

These are plans which have specific details incorporated into them. Write yours down and share it with someone else, or even better set a joint one with a friend – that way you can remind each other and have a healthy dose of guilt mixed in.

Every weekday, after I get up I’ll sit down at my desk to write.

After eating tea, I’ll spend the time between 8 and 9pm writing.

2. Include an environmental cue

In the two examples above, the cues are either sitting at your desk or after having eaten tea. Try to include a cue so that you can eventually become just like Pavlov’s doggies (although hopefully slightly happier).

3. Be a bit vague

If your plan is too specific, this can actually put you off from sticking to it. So if you plan to write 1000 words every day and find that this is actually REALLY HARD to do, then it might put you off altogether. Planning to set a bit of time each day to focus only on writing is more achievable. Plus hopefully it will fill you with a nice fuzzy warmth inside.

4. Repeat

This one’s pretty self-explanatory. Set your if-then plan and then do the same thing over and over until it’s locked into your brain and you feel a bit weird not doing it.

5. ACTION PLAN (the greatest hero of them all)

Have a plan of what you’ll do on days where it’s more difficult to write. Whether it’s because you’re going on holiday, or people won’t leave you alone, or you just can’t bring yourself to write. You need a plan for what you’ll do on these days:

If I feel too tired/generally shitty to write, I will sit at my desk for five minutes.

Reward yourself and cut yourself some slack if you’re not able to always carry out your plans. Plus, review your plans. If after a couple of days you’re not getting into them, then give them a tweak. Or if things in your life change, then the plans are all yours so you can tweak them if you need to. Maybe soon, you’ll be writing every day without even thinking about it.

My writing plan is that every day I’ll write each evening after eating between 8-9pm. I like to hand-write everything first, as I find it helps me think. So my cue is to have my notebook to hand.

What’s your action plan? I’m looking forward to hearing what you come up with on Twitter or Instagram, or in the comments below!

Want to read more?

If you’re interested in reading more about psychology and social media, you might want to take a look at my other posts on social influence and social media. Or how reading reviews might change your opinions before you know what they are.

Or, if you fancy reading some fiction. A short story including a murder, a picnic, and a wannabe future pirate. An urban fantasy romance about a werewolf and water-nymph. Or a flash fiction about a guy realising the meaning of life is the game of tiddlywinks.