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writing habits

Cue, Routine, Reward

I’d like you, for a moment, to think of writing not as a calling or gift or pipe dream, not even a profession or hobby. Instead, I’d like you to think of writing as a habit. For at least the remainder of this article, the desire to write is not some high-minded, abstract and holy adventure. It is, rather, no greater or lesser a task than brushing your teeth.

I started thinking about writing in these terms when I read Charles Duhigg’s fantastic article about the formation of habit through the lens of companies like Target. Here, I’d like to take that information and apply it to writing, examining habits that inhibit my writing, and what it takes to make writing a habit, looking to bolster the writing habit and curb the interfering habits.

The first step is understanding the habit loop: cue, routine, and reward. Duhigg explains a study concerning the meta-knowledge of one’s own behavior and how that might affect future behaviors:

In one project, 256 members of a health-insurance plan were invited to classes stressing the importance of exercise. Half the participants received an extra lesson on the theories of habit formation (the structure of the habit loop) and were asked to identify cues and rewards that might help them develop exercise routines. The results were dramatic. Over the next four months, those participants who deliberately identified cues and rewards spent twice as much time exercising as their peers.


Since I’m a bum (or, as I prefer it, an indigent bohemian), I have a luxury most writers do not—time.

Very rarely do I meet writers who are content with the work they put in, even at residencies. We writers end up talking about writing (and how we don’t write enough) more than we write.

But why is there such a disparity? And why is it so common?

Examining the structure of the habit loop might hold the key. We all intuitively understand the loop to a certain extent, when we try to start running every day, or stop biting our nails. But my sense, and possibly yours, of how to reinforce the writing habit has been flawed.

Let’s begin at the end: reward. To create a habit, the reward cannot be abstract or distant. It must be immediate and, if possible, tangible. Therefore, THE REWARD for writing IS NOT PUBLICIATION. I don’t mean to undermine the tenacity it takes to overcome the rejections and hurdles, but simply to point out that external validation is not the reward that will make writing a habit. (It might, in fact, distract you from it.) Every writer can shell out the advice to stop thinking about publication and just get the work done. I’d like to reiterate this but with a different application: for writing to become a habit that sticks, you must also have a short-term reward.

My reward, after a day of writing, is watching TV. Good TV! (I just finished the last season of the incredible BBC series Upstairs Downstairs, which aired in the 70s).

Your reward might be cooking a nice meal with your partner or going out for a drink, listening to a podcast, watching a movie, reading a book that has nothing to do with writing-research, smoking, masturbating, whatever.

My cue for writing in the morning is seeing my laptop sitting on the kitchen table as soon as I walk in, or on my desk as soon as I wake up. Just as the habits we’ve developed over decades are not easily forgotten, the habits we’d like to develop are difficult to initiate. The trick is to find one of those diehard habits, and piggyback onto it, Duhigg says. You want to get an hour of writing done in the morning? Pick out your clothes for the day, but stay in your pajamas until your writing is done. Putting the coffee pot on could your cue for opening your laptop and starting to write. If you write after work, your cue could be pushing start on the dishwasher after dinner; in this case, writing would also be the reward for cleaning up.


Freedom from distraction has become so entwined with my writing habit, that when I do have access to the internet, a new habit instantly forms, interrupting my already existing writing routine. That new habit is—what else?—checking Facebook.

In order to overcome this monster of a habit, I know I must, like the exercisers in the experiment, hack my brain. I must replace one routine with another.

According to Duhigg, if you want to curb your compulsion to eat a cookie, or, in my case, to check Facebook and gmail, you must understand where the impulse stems from by identifying your habit loop—cue, routine, reward—no matter how silly the answers are.

What, precisely, is the reward you get for your facebook habit? Perhaps it’s keeping up with your friends who you haven’t seen in a while, since you’re so busy writing and work and all. Perhaps it’s that gratifying, duplicitous feeling of envy and pride that your Facebook friends are at a boring desk job (getting paid to update their status), while you are broke and writing the next best thing…while living in your parents’ basement. Or is it that you simply need to give your brain a moment’s break?

Perhaps you need, as Duhigg did, to run a few tests to land on what the precise urge is. What happens when you take a walk or do a few jumping jacks the next time you feel the need to check your email when you’re in the middle of a scene? If it turns out you just needed a break, it should be possible to replace Facebook with this new routine. If a mental break was not the reward and you still feel like getting online, go back to square one and try a different replacement routine. Drink a glass of water or eat an apple while sitting back down to write—maybe you needed more stimulus or to stave an oral fixation. If you need to prick a hole in that isolating writer’s bubble to feel connected, stream a two-minute story on NPR that is in some way connected to your writing research. Or, if you really must socialize to feel less alone for a moment, try finding a social outlet that will be less distracting and has a definite endpoint.

Naming the cue is more abstract. What initially drives you to constantly have Gmail open, or to hit refresh on your Facebook newsfeed? Is it the desire to find out if you’re famous already? (Did that story or poem get accepted by the Kenyon Review, or are they a bunch of losers who don’t get your work?) Are you sleepy? Hungry? Bored?

“Our lives often contain too much information to figure out what is triggering a particular behavior,” Duhigg states. Rarely do we eat breakfast at a specific time because we’re actually hungry. But Duhigg says we can locate our cue by examining which of five categories it may fit into: location, time, emotional state, other people, or the immediately preceding action.

Location: at my computer.
Time: 10:15am, 11:49am, 1:23pm, etc. (You’ll have to track this, which might help curb the habit anyway!)
Emotional state: overwhelmed with a writing problem, anxious.
Other people: Sometimes Chris asking me questions about his own writing, but usually just me.
Preceding action: reading a sentence I wrote and saying bleh, did I really write that?; trying to figure out how I get a character from point A to B swiftly; finally asking how can I possibly cut this damn book from 430 pages to…to…

It’s pretty clear what my problem is.

I have not fully attempted to unpack and repack my social networking habit. It’s daunting! And maybe I’m a little keen on my self-loathing and anxiety like any neurotic writer. But I have begun thinking about it. I’ve identified that my cue is anxiety or feeling overwhelmed by the intimidating task of my project. My routine is checking Gmail, then Facebook, then Gmail again. My reward is a break from said anxiety by doing something simple and mindless.

I would love to change the cue, but I have a feeling that that would entail a complex shift in my world-view and self-view that could take years of therapy. For now, my work—and yours—is to replace the routine. When I’m feeling overwhelmed, I’ll take a walk or make a snack, during which I can more calmly think about the problems in the novel, having taken myself physically away from it.

Once you start thinking this way, it’s hard to stop. You realize you have layers upon layers of habit loops. Not getting enough exercise? Too distracted by Facebook? Maybe you can curb one habit by introducing the other. I imagine that the zen-masters of the habit-loop are able to completely invert their cues and rewards. Writing itself can become the reward.

Musicians, jazz musicians, keep fake books–at least they used to–with all the chord changes as well as written-down alternatives they may want to try. Why don’t poets keep fake books? I know Thomas Lux has his own personal anthology of poems he likes or is interested in. It’s a great idea.

To make a good fake book,
1. Leave plenty of room in the margins to write notes.
2. Leave doodle space.
3. Keep the backs of the paper blank so you can write the poem out in your own hand, or write an answer to it, or a variation on it. When you write someone else’s poem out by hand, you get an entirely different relationship to the language–the line, word choice, etc.

Here’s another strange practice, but one that appeals to me as a sort of loopy scientist: Read a poem once silently. Close the book, take a pen or pencil and jot down the exact lines in your fake book (or what you think are the exact lines you remember). Even if it’s only an image, jot it down. Do this with every poem you encounter. Five months from now, see what it is you remembered: study it by mood, by words, by sound relationships. This is how your neural self stores immediate acts of language. It is a hand print of your own immediate memory. It will also show you how alliteration, repetition, and strong language are all mimetic devices. Look for a pattern to your memory. You will then have some idea what makes language immediately memorable to you, and you can use this knowledge for your work. Keep this in a note book. Don’t revisit the previous memory jottings until the five months are up. Read a poem a day, and do this. See what your mind misremembered or added to the text. I know a girl who remembered a line by Emily Dickinson: “I like a look of agony because I know it’s true.” She mis-remembered it as: “I like a look of agony because I know its you.” I loved it.

Once, in a kingdom called Catholic grammar school, I was made to memorize “The Raven” and The Song of Hiawatha.” I got up there and lost it. This is what I said (I spell Longfellow’s Indian place name wrongly on purpose):

By the shores of gitchee goomy,
Stood the noble Hiawatha
quoting from the other shore:
Only this and nothing more.

I spliced them, diced them, and mangled them. What I remembered flawlessly was the meter which is trochaic tetrameter. I screwed up. The kids laughed. The nun tried not to laugh, and then did. Later, when we were briefly alone, I said:

“Sister… did Poe steal from Longfellow.? They got the same sound.”
“Joseph, I wish your memory and your work ethic were on par with your perception. Poe did indeed imitate some of the effects of trochaic meter found in Longfellow. Mr. Poe could be somewhat of a thief.”

We remember rhythms and sounds because they are the verbal mold sets for imagery and words. Free verse has irregular molds and so it often relies on the imagery for its effects. Modern, written prose uses mimetic devices sparingly, unless it is trying to sell something. You will know when something is being sold because the sisters of repetition, and alliteration, and rhyme, and short sentences, and chiasmus, and rhetorical oration will come into play:

Buy bonds!
Where’s the beef?
If the glove don’t fit, you must acquit.
Play it again, Sam!

The last line was never actually said in the movie. The whole culture misremembered it. We do not remember words or even language. We remember effect, usually rhythmic effects. This is why jingles, sound bytes, slogans, and commercials are so memorable (and so dangerous). By keeping a record of what you remember immediately, or misremember, you are keeping an “effect diary.” I like that. I think I am going to do it myself!

Many poets obsessed with the page turn against a poem the moment they are too aware of its effects. They do not recognize this as snobbery, as a prejudice. They don’t get on Gerard Manley Hopkins for it because they have been trained to think he is a great poet and would not dare to accuse him of overdoing the alliteration.

I always wanted a t shirt that said, “Rose, thou art sick!” I can’t imagine a more jolting, a more provocative start to a poem. It would be nice to advertise Blake.

So in class, I’d like to have a slogan-bot. A little machine that would spit out catch phrases, received ideas, slogans, and cliches, on a fairly constant basis, in the voice of that English lady in cars that have a GPS device–only with no priority of order. I would turn it on for five minutes every day and just let the students listen. It would seem comic. It would train the mind of a student to associate the sounds of sound bytes with incongruity and to be suspicious. Eventually, the student would be conditioned to have a sound byte detector, and to test language that nut shelled things. He or she would be trained to know the effects of slogans–not necessarily the slogans. That would be better. That would be training the ear. This would both teach cliche, and train the student to use effective sounds, but without simplistic thoughts.

PHOTO CREDIT: See some more amazing jazz-themed photos.