‘Atomic Habits’: 3 Tips for Growing Writing Habits that Last

“All big things come from small beginnings. The seed of every habit is a single, tiny decision. But as that decision is repeated, a habit sprouts and grows stronger. Roots entrench themselves and branches grow. The task of breaking a bad habit is like uprooting a powerful oak within us. And the task of building a good habit is like cultivating a delicate flower one day at a time.” –James Clear, Atomic Habits

Even though I heard about Atomic Habits by James Clear often in college, I never really intended to read it. I heard it quoted, referenced, and recommended as a great resource to help you reach your goals, but part of me wondered whether it was worth the hype. After reading through Clear’s book this past week, my answer is most definitely yes. Atomic Habits is well-worth adding to your shelf.

James Clear breaks down the how and why of habit formation in a clear, conversational way. As he explains the science behind our repeated actions, he provides practical advice on how to put our brain’s tendencies to work for us. 

While the book is a general guide for building better habits, I kept finding myself thinking about how the tips apply to writing habits specifically.  Writing a book is a big goal, one that starts with small beginnings. Although forming a consistent schedule to work on our stories moves us toward our goal, it can be challenging to create writing habits we’ll actually maintain long term. So here are three tips from Mr. Clear to help us grow writing habits that will last.

Growing our Writing Habits:

1. Environment = “The most common form of change is not internal, but external: we are changed by the world around us. Every habit is context dependent.” (Ch. 6, Atomic Habits)

In Chapter 6 of Atomic Habits (and again in Chapter 12), Clear discusses the power of shaping our environment to make our habits more obvious and easier to follow through on. If we want to eat healthier, for example, we might have a bowl of apples on the counter instead of tucked away in the fridge. If we want to read at night, we might leave a book resting on our pillow after we make our bed. The idea is to give ourselves visible cues that will prompt us to take actions in the future. Additionally, we want to arrange our environment to make new habits as easy as possible to complete.

How can this apply to our writing? We can start by looking for ways to make writing more integrated into our day-to-day activities. If you want to brainstorm ideas for your story during your lunch break, you could pack a journal and pen in your lunch box where you’re guaranteed to see it. If you know you want to write in the morning, you might make sure your desk is cleared off the night before and your computer is fully charged. You could even set your coffee mug beside the computer to remind you of your goal to write first. When writing at home doesn’t work, try reserving a room at your local library for a writing hour. Or, you could buy yourself a gift card to your favorite coffee shop to encourage creative outings.

Look for simple ways to add visual cues for your goals into your daily activities. Then, make your environment as easy as possible for completing your goals.

2. Don’t mistake motion for action = “When preparation becomes a form of procrastination, you need to change something. You don’t want to be merely planning. You want to be practicing.” (Ch. 11, Atomic Habits)

James Clear describes the difference between motion and action as the difference between preparing to complete a task and actually completing it. In motion, you might be planning and learning and building your strategy, but in action, you’re doing the work.

As writers, especially if you’re a planner like me, it can be easy to get caught up in all the prep work for a story. Gathering your research. Writing outlines. Creating characters and choosing names. Trying to pick the perfect title. Planning your story world and deciding how everything in it works. All of these things are good, important parts of the process.

However, eventually there comes a point where the prep work stops being an action that makes progress on your story, and instead becomes a motion that keeps you from doing the most important work: actually writing. All the outlines and character sketches in the world aren’t enough to replace sitting down and putting the story onto the page.

Make sure in your writing habits you are balancing time between planning your projects and practicing your writing skills.

3. Be Intentional in Building Relationships = “One of the most effective things you can do to build better habits is to join a culture where your desired behavior is the normal behavior.” (Ch. 9, Atomic Habits)

We’ve discussed the value of having a writing community before. Meeting with fellow writers can give us accountability and feedback to help us grow in our skills. However, even just spending time with other writers can boost our motivation to stick with writing habits. Spending time with writers we respect makes the habit of writing more attractive. We see other people who love story telling, which then helps us get excited about it. Surrounding ourselves with positive influences taps into the part of our brain that wants to fit in. We set ourselves up to use peer pressure to reach our goals.

So how can we find writing communities? One way is to join a critique group, but you can also find writing groups online. Facebook groups and Instagram tags like #christianwriters offer opportunities to connect with likeminded authors. Attending conferences and classes like Write2Ignite’s upcoming event in April provides a chance to meet face to face (or via Zoom). Even having one or two friends who write regularly can make a huge difference in keeping up with your writing practice.

Final Thoughts:

Growing strong and healthy writing habits can be a long process. We have to overcome distractions, time constraints, and wavering motivation every step of the way. But in the end, the harvest is worth all the trouble we put in. Every time we show up, sit down, and write, we reinforce in our mind the fact that writing matters. That this calling to create stories is part of who we are and who we want to be.

If you’re having trouble sticking with your habits, consider checking out Atomic Habits. I’ve found it incredibly encouraging (and a little convicting), and there’s a wealth of information I couldn’t include here.

Karley Conklin

Karley Conklin is a librarian by day, a writer by night, and a bookworm 24/7. On her blog http://litwyrm.com/, she discusses literature of all sorts, from poetry to picture books. Her goal is to use the power of stories to remind others of hope and joy in a world that all too often forgets both.

3 thoughts on “‘Atomic Habits’: 3 Tips for Growing Writing Habits that Last

  1. I couldn’t agree more, with the worth of developing these habits for our writing life. I am one who likes to leave my writing space all set to go for the next day! Thanks for a very helpful post, Karley.

  2. I am like Carol. I love researching and can easily spend too much time in that area. I’m still learning how to balance it well with the writing part. Thanks for the reminders, Karley.

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