I’ve been thinking about habits a lot lately.

  • What is a habit?
  • How do we create “good” habits?
  • How do we get rid of “bad” habits?
  • And one question specifically for my writing life: Can I be a successful writer without habits?

My reflexive answer to that last question is, “No, I can’t.”

But that’s just me. Turns out, there are a number of people—successful, happy, creative people—who avoid habits like I avoid onions (that is, like they might kill me. (They won’t, I just really don’t like them.))

In the dictionary I found this definition of a habit: An acquired mode of behavior that has become nearly or completely involuntary.

There are a lot of actions I’d like to take in my life in a “nearly or completely involuntary” way.

So, there are a lot of habits I’d like to create.

I already have a lot of habits; some of them do not serve me. Those I would like to change.

Screen Shot 2016-07-13 at 2.05.42 PMCharles Duhigg, in his book The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business, breaks down the anatomy of a habit.

His definition: “A habit is a formula our brain automatically follows: When I see a CUE, I will do ROUTINE in order to get a REWARD.”

The ROUTINE is obvious. It’s the thing you’re doing. But the CUE and the REWARD are not always so easy to figure out.

Mr. Duhigg recommends we investigate our habits, at least the ones we want to change. If we can figure out what the CUE and REWARD are for a particular ROUTINE, then we can change it.

You can also use this definition of a habit to create a new habit. Again, you have to figure out the CUE, the ROUTINE, and the REWARD.

Screen Shot 2016-07-13 at 2.05.05 PMGretchen Rubin, in her book, Better than Before: Mastering the Habits of Our Everyday Lives, talks about the importance of habits: “Habits are the invisible architecture of daily life. We repeat about 40 percent of our behavior almost daily, so our habits shape our existence, and our future. If we change our habits, we change our lives.”

Ms. Rubin’s book gives a lot of insights into habits and also shows that people have different tendencies when it comes to habits or routines.

There are 4 tendencies Ms. Rubin has identified through her research into the medical and psychological literature: Upholders, Obligers, Questioners, and Rebels.

If you know which tendency you have, you can use strategies to create habits that are most successful for people with that tendency.

I am an Obliger. I did not need to take the quiz on Ms. Rubin’s website to know this (although I did take the quiz), but it was helpful to have this tendency spelled out for me.

Obligers are good at meeting the expectations of others, but not so good at meeting their own expectations. You can see why Obligers might have trouble sticking to a writing routine that didn’t involve an editor, publisher, or a small child begging for the next installment of the story.

Once you know your tendency, you can work with it. Obligers need to create more external accountability. That’s why I can sign up for NaNo and write 50,000 words in a month when I haven’t written 50,000 words in the previous 6 months!

Or ask for accountability. Like this: I plan to write every day for the next 30 days. Feel free to ask me about it whenever you want.

The best advice I gleaned from all my reading on habits is this: Know yourself. Once you do, you will know how to change, create, and stick to the habits you want in your life.

What writing habit do you want to change, create, or celebrate?

Diane MacKinnon, MD, Master Certified Life CoachDiane MacKinnon: I’m a life coach, a writer, a blogger, and a family medicine doctor who hasn’t seen patients in 6 years. I’m living the life of my dreams and still trying to figure out how to get a little more writing into every day.


I’m in the middle of a project requiring consistent action on my part. I broke down the project into smaller parts, made a check-list of each of the different tasks involved, and started taking tiny steps forward, sometimes doing only one thing that required a few minutes in a day.

I’m at the point now where I have a daily goal to accomplish in order to complete the entire project on time. Each day I mark down where I need to be at the end of the day to stay on task and I try to do a little more than is required in order to stay ahead of the deadline. So far, I’m more than meeting my daily goals and expect to finish in plenty of time.

While I’m totally excited about the project, it has nothing to do with writing. (I’d tell you what it is, but it’s a surprise. I’ll tell you later.)

While conceiving, planning, and executing this project, I’ve also been reading the book, The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business, by Charles Duhigg, and it’s allowed me to figure out why I’m sticking to this new “habit” and also to apply what I’ve learned to my writing life.

At the end of the book, Mr. Duhigg states that any habit can be changed:

“However, to modify a habit, you must decide to change it. You must consciously accept the hard work of identifying the cues and rewards that drive the habits’ routines, and find alternatives. You must know you have control and be self-conscious enough to use it.”

One of the habits I’d like to change is my habit of allowing myself to get distracted from my writing by other things, from my son calling me, to my email, to a TV show my husband is watching (and I can’t ignore.)

For me, it always comes down to a thought I am thinking. I sit down in the living room with my computer even though the TV is on because I’m thinking something like, “I deserve to relax a little at the end of the day.”

And, yes, I do deserve to relax at the end of the day. But I deserve to get my writing done (and I want to get it done) more.

So now, I’m making plans. First of all, I look at my calendar early in the morning (or even the night before) and I look for opportunities to get my writing done before 8 PM (I’m not a night owl.) Then I ask myself some questions—and answer them.

  • What am I going to do at 8 PM when the TV is on and I still have some writing I want to get done? I will ask Tom to shut the TV off or I will go in my office to write.
  • What am I going to do when I get to my son’s karate class? I’m going to open my iPad and write. I will not check my email or do a puzzle.
  • What am I going to do when I’m cleaning out my email inbox and I see a Facebook post I’d like to check out? Delete it and remind myself I can check Facebook after I finish my writing goal for the day.

My special project and my writing are getting done, and I’m creating new habits that support me and keep me moving in the direction of my dreams.

Do you have any habits you’d like to change?


Diane MacKinnon, MD, Master Certified Life CoachDiane MacKinnon, MD: is a writer, blogger, life coach, family physician, mother, and stepmother. I’m making small changes on a daily basis that are adding up to more writing in 2015.




The Writer’s Desk: Messy or Neat?

“If a cluttered desk is a sign of a cluttered mind, of what, then, is an empty desk a sign?” – Albert Einstein

Much as there is debate between pansters and plotters, there is debate between the Oscars and Felixes of the writing world. Should a writer’s desk be a vision of clean and regimented order, or an explosion of creative disarray? One group holds that the writer’s workspace should be tidy and organized. They believe that having everything “just so” is essential to the writing experience – everything you need at your fingertips, preferably arranged in straight lines and at right angles. The other group believes in the chaos theory. You can’t see even an inch of their desk’s surface under the wild clutter of accumulated notebooks, stickies, reference books, and bits of scrap paper. These people swear there is a system to the madness and say that if you clean things up, they’ll never be able to find anything.

I’ve always been a bit of a neat freak. Growing up, my room was always spic-and-span – bed made, desk clear, clothes folded and put away. I had an enormous collection of horse statues and each of my equine collectibles had a specific place on my shelf. My cassette tapes were, if not alphabetized, organized by genre, and my stuffed animals were arranged by size – largest ones at the back, smaller ones tucked in front. My sister, on the other hand, had a room that would have made Oscar the Grouch feel right at home – clothes everywhere, half-finished projects sprawling across the floor like some kind of creative suburbia, leftover snacks balanced precariously on the windowsill, and an eclectic collection of makeup and hair accessories adorning random space in bookshelves, desk drawers, and toy chests. Needless to say, my sister and I had our differences.

But, despite what I thought an impossible environment and what she found a horrifyingly fastidious one, each of us managed to make our way in the world … in our own way. Interestingly, our two extremes have mellowed with age. I now have plenty of clutter and chaos in my world, and my sister’s place is much more put together than her room ever was. We each seem to have found our happy medium – a place where things are clean enough that we don’t have to worry about losing pets or small children in the mess, but “loose” enough to ensure we don’t feel like we have to take our shoes off at the door.

My writing desk – an expansive drafting table – is mostly on the “neat” side, but there are pockets of debris that I’m quite attached to. The tool caddy on the side of the desk is full to overflowing with an odd collection of accumulated treasures – pens and pencils of course, but also miniature puppets, tiny candles, pressed leaves, shells, tea tins, a pair of antique scissors, my first dog’s collar, and a few pieces of artwork compliments of my daughter. On the surface of my workspace, just to the right of my ever-present notebook is a small open shrine that includes two pictures of my daughter, a heart stone from my beau, a chestnut from a friend, three sea stones that look like eggs, and a plush hedgehog my parents gave me. In honor of the Halloween holiday, it’s also currently home to a small, ceramic jack-o-lantern that some friends gave me in a gift basket when I was going through my divorce.

I’ve found my balance between Zen and chaos. My desk is an inviting place to me – there is enough white space that I never feel choked or overwhelmed. And yet, the personal flotsam and jetsam make it a warm and cozy spot.

How about you – are you an Oscar or a Felix? And, I’m just curious, are you a panster or a plotter? There may be a connection … 

Jamie Lee Wallace is a writer who, among other things, works as a marketing strategist and copywriter. She helps creative entrepreneurs (artists, writers, idea people, and creative consultants) discover their “natural” marketing groove so they can build their business with passion, story, and connection. She also blogs. A lot. She is a mom, a singer, and a dreamer who believes in small kindnesses, daily chocolate, and happy endings. Look her up on facebook or follow her on twitter. She doesn’t bite … usually.

Image Credit: J. Lim aka “Lustro”

A confession and 7 steps to better writing habits

I’m experiencing a bad case of writing resolutions whiplash.

At the start of 2011, I was all revved up and ready to plunge into my writing practice like a pelican diving head first into an ocean seething with slippery, silvery deliciousness. I had plans – Big Plans. “This is the year,” I said, my heart full of confidence and enthusiasm.

And then my daughter came down with the flu. And then I came down with the flu. We had a succession of snow days the likes of which I haven’t seen since the famed Blizzard of ’78. We had school holidays and teacher workshop days and early dismissals. I landed two new clients. (That’s a good thing.) They both needed big deliverables in a hurry. (That’s not such a good thing.) And now, suddenly, it’s February.

A writer unravels
I had intended to get back to journaling. I had planned to finish reading the excellent eBook about structure by Larry Brooks of Storyfix. I had meant to get back to work outlining my novel, working on character studies, and creating a fabulously retro “map” of my story using markers, sticky notes, and some very large pieces of paper. But, these intentions were all summarily slaughtered by the demands of my Real Life.

I wanted to cry. I wanted to scream. I felt disappointment, anger, and guilt. This morning, I read a post called Blood, Sweat and Words: How Badly Do You Want This? (also by Larry Brooks) and I wanted to whip myself with a cat-o-nine-tails for being such a wuss. If I were a real writer, I would stay up all night to fit my writing into my overscheduled life. I would Make Things Happen. I would Sacrifice.

So, I brooded. I moped. I felt sorry for myself. I got mad at Larry Brooks. I moped some more.

The magic of habits
The beauty of a habit is that you do it almost without thinking. It’s not something that you have to work at; it’s just part of who you are and your life. It’s automatic. At some point, I stopped stomping around my house glowering at inanimate objects, and I decided to try and do something positive. The first thing that came to mind was coming up with a way to make writing a personal habit. It used to be a habit, but somewhere along the way, I fell off that wagon.

So, in the hopes that my plans might help some other writer in a Real Life crisis, here are my 7 Steps to Better Writing Habits:

Step 1: Find, make, or steal writing time
I wrote about this in detail last week in my post You DO Have Time to Write. It’s something I’m still working on …

Step 2: Have a purpose
I like the word “purpose” because it conveys a certain sense of fate. Goals sometimes seem cold and clinical, but a purpose is an almost spiritual thing. A purpose is bigger than any one goal or task. It’s the thing that inspires you to keep slogging, even through the worst days.  It’s what goes in your obituary when you’ve shuffled off this mortal coil. Try saying, “Writing is my purpose.” How does that feel? What about, “Bringing joy is my purpose.”

Step 3: Avoid the shoulds
My Twitter friend @John_C_Davies left a wonderfully insightful and generous comment on my last post. It made me think about the way “shoulds” drag us down. Shoulds are those things that you think you ought to do – because someone said you should. Someone said that anyone who is anyone, anyone who is smart, anyone who is going anywhere does these things. If the should doesn’t strike a chord deep down in your soul, don’t try to make it into a habit. It’s not for you.

Step 4: Start small
If you want to guarantee failure, start out of the gate with the bar set so high that you can barely see it. Promise yourself that you will write for two hours each day. Commit to writing at a NaNoWriMo pace… forever. You’ll come up short, beat yourself up, and then wind up moping and brooding like me. Instead, start small. Plan to spend fifteen minutes a day working on your writing. It may not seem like much, but even just a few minutes make a dent … and a difference.

Step 5: Be consistent
The main reason you make your initial commitment so “easy” to keep, is so you’ll actually keep it. Habits are born out of routine. The more frequent your routine, the more quickly the habit will form. That’s why writing for fifteen minutes each day is more powerful than writing for an hour each week.

Step 6: Measure progress
As a mom, I can testify to the irrational power of a progress chart. Sticker charts, marble jars – kids love seeing their progress in a very concrete way. You can do the same thing with your writing by putting stars on your calendar or making hash marks on the wall. There’s something compelling about a long row of check marks that makes you hate to break the chain. Giving yourself a “gold star” is great positive reinforcement that will help even on the days when you don’t earn a pat on the back. Even on those days, you’ll be able to look at all the other gold stars in your writing galaxy and you’ll feel better about the occasional, inevitable slip-up.

Step 7: Find your joy
In his comment on my last post, @John_C_Davies wrote, “I had caught the bug. I started to fit writing into other areas of my life. All of a sudden it wasn’t a chore. It poured out of me. It was a pleasure. I had no problem retiring early to scribble an hour’s worth of writing in my bed side notebooks.” He was talking about how his emotional reaction to writing changed after he turned his back on some pesky shoulds. What made me smile, though, was the sense that he’d rediscovered the joy of writing. In my experience, if you start small so that you experience some initial success, you’ll start to feel that joy which in turn will inspire you to write more. It’s an “upward spiral” of the very best kind.

So, those are my 7 steps. What are your favorite tips for making writing a routine part of your day and your life?

Jamie Lee Wallace is a writer who, among other things, works as a marketing strategist and copywriter. She helps creative entrepreneurs (artists, writers, idea people, and creative consultants) discover their “natural” marketing groove so they can build their business with passion, story, and connection. She also blogs. A lot. She is a mom, a singer, and a dreamer who believes in small kindnesses, daily chocolate, and happy endings. Look her up on facebook or follow her on twitter. She doesn’t bite … usually.

Image Credit: dspruitt