DO YOU STRUGGLE with getting started or maintaining a regular writing practice? Don’t worry, you are not alone. Clients, students, and readers often reach out to me because they’re having difficulty sustaining a regular writing schedule. And, just like maintaining an exercise program, once they’ve fallen out of practice, getting started again can be a challenge.
The solution to both getting started and staying on track is actually fairly simple — it’s called self–discipline. Yes, I know that the word “discipline” may strike fear into your heart or elicit a negative response, but hear me out.
So many would-be writers tell me they just don’t have any discipline. Or they associate discipline with the punishments they received as children. Can’t I just use another word? Sure, there are a number of synonyms I could substitute: self-control, self-governance, self-restraint, or willpower. But why avoid the most precise word?
The amount of self-discipline (or willpower, if you will) that you have is determined primarily by how much you believe you have. A Stanford University study published by Kelly McGonigal, Ph.D. in The Willpower Instinct, found that willpower is not an innate trait you either have or don’t have, but a mind-body response that can be affected both positively and negatively by factors such as stress, sleep, and nutrition.
Discipline is simply the act of training yourself to do something in a controlled and systematic way. It utilizes a combination of self-determination, self-motivation, and self-control. These behaviors are important to succeeding as a writer (actually, succeeding in anything) — and by success, I mean that you practice writing regularly and consistently work on improving your craft.
Let’s break this down . . .
SELF-DETERMINATION means making a decision about where you want to go, setting a destination or goal, and then taking the steps needed to get there. It is your inner compass that lets you know when you are on or off track.
When you are self-determined, you are are in control of your own life, not releasing that control to someone or something else. And no matter what your situation in life, no matter how much of your life seems to be determined by other factors (children, family, a high-power job, a chronic illness), you feel that you always have a measure of choice, a measure of control.
Writing tip #1:
Get started by making a decision about what you want to accomplish in your writing. What’s your short-term writing destination? This doesn’t have to — and shouldn’t — be a big, pie-in-the-sky future destination like, “I want to be a New York Times best selling author.” That’s a nice dream, but when you’re just starting out, a goal of working on a specific aspect of your craft, or writing a short story or memoir vignette and submitting it for publication is ambitious enough.
Do this now: write down one simple writing goal that you could accomplish within the next month.
SELF-MOTIVATION means having enough interest and enthusiasm about your goal or activity that you don’t need pressure from anyone else to do it. It means understanding your “why” and knowing that the joy of accomplishing what you set out to do outweighs any inconveniences or obstacles that might stand in your way. Self-motivation is the energy source, the engine that motors you along your path. Your level of motivation greatly influences how quickly you get to your destination.
Writing tip #2:
Get started and stay on task by knowing why you want to write a particular piece. Why do you want to write that memoir piece about a childhood event or that opinion piece for the local newspaper? What do you hope to achieve or what response to you want your readers to have? What’s the best outcome your work could have?
Do this now: explain your reason(s) for wanting to accomplish the writing goal you set above.
Once you’ve written down your motivation(s) for writing, post them in a prominent place where you can see them daily. Don’t hide your reasons in a document on your hard drive or smartphone where you’d have to search for it. Post your reasons on your computer monitor, on your bathroom mirror, on your front door — wherever makes the most sense for you. Posting in multiple locations is even better.
SELF-CONTROL is often associated with saying no or denying yourself something you want, like a donut or that new dress you’ve been eyeing. But self-control is much more about being aware of your thoughts and emotions, making conscious choices to steer those thoughts and emotions in the direction you want to go, and then taking action — however small — toward what you want. Self-control is about choice. It’s the rudder that steers your writing boat in the direction you set in step 1 (self-determination).
Writing tip #3:
Schedule your writing time and stick to the schedule. It doesn’t matter how often or how long you schedule for — 30 minutes three times a week or four hours daily. When you’re just starting or returning to writing after a hiatus, keep the schedule doable and don’t expect too much of yourself. Any time spent writing, even 5 minutes, is better than none. The point is to make a commitment to a particular schedule that, when kept consistently, will instill in you the habit of writing.
Keeping your writing schedule involves self-control because you’ll have to say yes to writing more than yes to the activities that attempt to distract you, such as social media. Point your rudder in the direction you want to go, and your motivation will propel you there. But you have to get in the boat (you have to put your butt in the seat), or you won’t go anywhere.
And when it comes to your scheduled time to write, stop whatever else you’re doing and devote those few minutes or hours to what you love to do.
Do this now: schedule your writing time on your calendar.
It’s best to schedule for the same time of day, especially if you don’t write daily. It’s easier to remember and to keep a schedule that is regular in nature and not constantly shifting. Also, if you have young children or other care responsibilities, arrange for another caregiver during that period of time and go to a location in or outside your home where you will not be disturbed.
That’s it. That’s the whole secret to getting started, keep going, and stick to your work is discipline: being self-determined, self-motivated, and self-controlled. Set a short-term goal, understand and state your motivations for achieving that goal, and commit to spending time doing it.
You may or may not achieve what you set out to do. You may or may not feel satisfied with your work. But you will be writing. You will move toward your destination. And you will grow both as a writer and an evolving individual.