How to climb that mountain.

Climbing a mountain

Part of a series on writing every day.

So you’re sold on the idea of writing ‘just a little each day’ to work on your novel. But somehow it hasn’t worked out yet. Day after day goes by where you just haven’t got the words down, despite promising yourself every night as you fall asleep that ’tomorrow, I’ll definitely do it!’

Sound familiar?

You need a habit! You need sitting down to write to become as automatic as reaching for that biscuit tin while waiting for the kettle to boil.

But how? That’s the purpose of this blog post… These are the techniques I used to create a writing habit for myself. At first they were something I needed to consciously think about, but before long I was doing them automatically.

Have a routine.

If there was only one thing I could recommend, it’d be this. Our brains crave order and routines, and so we can easily train them to do something if we dress it up just right.

In fact, a lot of things on this list are really just subsets of this idea - tricking your brain into realising ‘it’s writing time’ before it remembers that Netflix show you meant to watch.

In my case, it’s making a coffee, sitting down at my computer, turning off notifications, firing up some white noise and opening Scrivener. By the time I’ve done that, I’m ready to start writing.

Turn off notifications.

This should be an obvious one, but you’d be amazed how often I was mid-sentence and a news alert popped up. Or an email. Or a text from someone asking if I was busy. All phones and computers now have an easy ‘do not disturb’ mode you can set, and it will work wonders for your concentration. Some let you tell it to turn off after an hour, some allow through urgent calls, but knowing that nothing else will bother you while you focus is priceless.

Get rid of distractions.

How wonderful, you think, if only I could get the pets/kids/spouse to shut up for two seconds so I could think. And yes, this is often easier said than done. But can you bargain with the people in your life, to give you a few minutes peace in return for something later? Can you go somewhere that you can close a door and hang a ‘Do not disturb’ sign? Can feeding the cat be part of your routine, so it stops clawing your leg while you try and concentrate? I find I work best with white noise - rain sounds and distant thunder suit my style but you can find apps that do any kind of ambient soundscapes to block the sound of the washing machine and what have you. Music doesn’t work for me, but some folks swear by it - try a few things and see what helps you focus.

Find a place to write.

If you’re lucky enough to have a room you can dedicate to writing, or a corner of the coffee table, or whatever it is - use that as part of your ritual too. If at all possible, don’t do anything else there. If you have a ‘writing spot’ it helps prime your brain in the same way as the routine does. If that’s not possible (and let’s face it, we can’t nip out to the coffee shop at the moment) then find some other way to distinguish where you write from where you browse on Amazon.

I have a hat. Putting it on reminds me that I’m there to write, and it also helps by reminding anyone passing by that I’m working, and not to be disturbed.

Set a time to write.

This is one I didn’t do as meticulously as I had expected. I thought that getting the words ‘out of the way’ first thing would be helpful to me, but it didn’t quite work the way I anticipated. There are a lot of writers who swear by doing their writing before everyone else is awake, in that quiet time before the day really starts, but I can assure you that I’m not one of them. I need coffee to work out what day it is, so any writing I did at 5am wouldn’t be worth the effort. Still, I reasoned, 10am is pretty early, and gives me the rest of the day to do other things that need doing.

In practice I tended to write just after lunch. Mornings were often slow to get going, particularly in lockdown and with the general ’everything’ that was 2020. And so I found myself using the morning to catch up with mundane tasks, emails, etc, and then knuckling down with my post-lunch coffee.

200 words only tend to take me about 10-20 minutes, so this might seem like something you can just ‘fit in’ to your day, but trust me: putting time aside helps prime your brain to know it’s time to write, and you will be much more productive and efficient if you do so. Once again, it’s about building that routine, which your brain quickly turns into a habit.

All of these items play off one another. Turning off notifications and sitting down with a cup of coffee are part of the routine, as is the time of day and the place you go to write.

Putting a routine in place, and sticking to it is the best way to build a habit. Before you know it you’ll find yourself ready for writing time, mind full of ideas and keen to get going.

And if you aren’t? If life gets in the way and you sit down and stare at the blinking cursor for an hour?

Part 5: How I conquered the block describes what I had to do when a block hit.