How to Nurture (and Keep) the Writing Habit 5

WHEN ASKED about their greatest writing challenges, many writers tell me they struggle with making a regular habit of writing. Life gets in the way, they say. And it’s true. That’s because they are attempting to create a new habit, and, as pretty much everyone knows, changing or creating habits can be incredibly difficult.

To “install” a new habit requires a commitment to making a change in your life and understanding what it will take to accomplish. It may also mean taking time away from other activities.

Our daily lives are largely ruled by habit — we rise, shower, eat, dress, and brush our teeth at roughly the same time and in the same order every day. We go to work or school by the same route, see the same people, and do the same things.

By putting our daily activities on “autopilot,” our minds are free to accomplish complex tasks required by creative or problem-solving activities. And we may even create habits to assist us with those activities, such as sitting in a certain chair or drinking a certain kind of tea.

According to Charles Duhigg, author of The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business, habits utilize a three-step loop:

“First, there is a cue, a trigger that tells your brain to go into automatic mode and which habit to use. Then there is the routine, which can be physical or mental or emotional. Finally, there is the reward which helps your brain figure out if this particular loop is worth remembering for the future. . . . Over time, this loop — cue, routine, reward; cue, routine, reward — becomes more and more automatic. The cue and reward become intertwined until a powerful sense of anticipation and craving emerges. Eventually, . . . a habit is born.” (p. 19)

Craving motivates and powers the habit loop. So, to create a new habit that sticks, you need to put together a cue, a routine (action), and a reward that will create a craving. And if you want to substitute a new habit for an old one, you keep the cue and the reward, but change the routine.


Here’s how to find time for and nurture the habit of writing:

  1. Repurpose a cue that already exists, such as when you wake, finish a meal, or arrive home at the end of the day.

    • Before you can repurpose a cue, you need to understand the habits you already have in place. What do you normally do at these times? What happens in the first moments after you wake in the morning? After dinner, do you sit down to read, watch TV, or chat with family? What about arriving home from work? What’s the first thing you do? The second? What other cues occur during a normal day?
    • Can you insert writing before a pleasurable activity you habitually do?
    • Or is there a routine you have now that you’d like to replace with writing?
  2. Insert or substitute your new routine (writing) after the cue and and tie it to an existing reward.

    • For example, if you want to write in the evenings after dinner, instead of sitting down to read right away, write for fifteen minutes. Then read and go through the rest of your evening as usual. Reading. and the pleasure you associate with reading, then becomes the reward for writing.

      Fifteen minutes isn’t much, but it’s enough to begin establishing a habit without feeling like “too much discipline” or disrupting your life.
    • To substitute the new routine of writing for a previous routine, select a routine you’d like to replace, such as excessive time on social media. 
  3. Start small

    • You’ll have better success if you start small and work your way towards your desired schedule. For example, I struggled for years to make a habit of flossing my teeth. I could just never seem to remember. Then, I decided to start small by flossing only on Mondays before bed. Brushing my teeth on Monday became the cue for flossing, and the reward was a feeling of having extra-clean teeth. I liked the feeling of those extra-clean teeth, so I expanded to Mondays and Wednesdays. Before long, I craved that extra clean feeling and began flossing every night. Now, it’s a habit that I don’t really think about. I don’t have to force myself to floss my teeth. In fact, if I forget (usually because something in my routine has been disrupted), the craving for the extra-clean feeling reminds me.
    • The point is not to push yourself into doing something every day, when the cue-routine-reward cycle has not yet been established. Schedule your new writing time just one or two days per week. When you find that you crave more writing time, add days to your schedule.


My Story

I started my habit of writing in the mornings by setting my alarm 1/2 hour earlier. I would get a cup of coffee as usual, but instead of reading the news or checking my email, I would write for 30 minutes, then begin my day with my normal routine. After a while, I began to associate the pleasure of my morning coffee with writing, and the sense of accomplishment of adding words to my writing project was my reward. On days when my routine is interrupted for whatever reason and I don’t write, I feel as though something is missing. I literally crave my writing time!

My cue -> routine -> reward loop looks something like this:

To Summarize:

  • Identify an existing cue — an event, sound, or activity associated with a time of day.
  • Insert or substitute the routine of writing before or instead of an established routine.
  • Start small.

Creating a new habit may be simple, but that does not mean it is not easy. It takes conscious intention, commitment, and persistence.

If you’ve been struggling with establishing the habit of writing, try this method, then come back to this post after two-three weeks and share what happened.

And if you have already established the habit of writing, please share what cues and rewards you use that keep you on track.

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5 thoughts on “How to Nurture (and Keep) the Writing Habit

  • sara etgen-baker

    Informative and helpful. Thank you. I think the same process can be used when trying to break an old, pre-existing, “bad” habit such as overeating. I was once so over conditioned to eat and was caught up in the reward loop that I had to learn to replace the cravings/habits with different routines…small steps are crucial in that process as well.
    Small steps in writing have always been important to me. Writing can be such a vulnerable, overwhelming task especially in the beginning. The smaller steps make the transition to a writing habit much more manageable. Thanks Amber!

    • Amber Lea Starfire Post author

      A wonderful example of how this process works, Sara! And that’s exactly it – replacing an existing, unwanted, routine (habit) with a desired routine is the best way to break old habits. Thank you for sharing your thoughts and your personal experience on this topic.

  • Renee Howard Cassese

    Although I may also write later in the day I always write in the morning right after washing my face and brushing my teeth. It began with morning pages but over the years I’ve started using this precious quiet writing time for bigger projects like short stories and novels. Creating a ritual helps. I do a yoga sequence and a five minute meditation in order to focus then begin writing. Now that my habit is settled in if I miss it for any reason my whole day feels off. I also found that this “first thing in the morning ” writing routine motivates me to come back to writing later in the day because my head is now focused on my story.

    • Amber Lea Starfire Post author

      Renee, I agree — creating a ritual reinforces the habit because the ritual itself is enjoyable and provides pleasure. I also do a 5-minute meditation before writing, and my yoga stretches after as part of my reward! 🙂

  • Stacy Holden

    I have a sign on my fridge that says “Schedule = Empowerment,” and, really, it is a reminder to institutionalize patterns and habits. (In truth I must sit and contemplate that slip of paper a bit more than I do right now!) I have also benefited from Gretchen Rubin’s book Better than Before: What I Learned about Making and Breaking Habits.