Andromeda/Alaska Writer on the Road: The Power of Habit and the Finite Nature of Willpower, for Writers

Until recently, I believed that writers and artists—aside
from a few more self-destructive, iconic, overyhyped examples–lived more or
less sane, healthy, even boring lives. Then I read
Daily Rituals by Mason Currey, in which various eccentrics (and
more than a few alcoholics) are profiled. Patricia Highsmith, for example, not
only smuggled pet snails in her bra to her second home in France, but also “kept
a bottle of vodka by her bedside, reaching for it as soon as she woke and
marking the bottle to set her limit for the day.” (Note in favor of avoiding
alcohol and recreational drugs:
this letter from Stephen King, post-reform
years, to his 16-year-old self.)

Positive examples aside, the clichés seem to be true. Productive
writers aren’t necessarily the
healthiest or most stable bunch. But they do seem to share a few things in
common: self-knowledge about their own creative needs, and an individualized,
highly protected routine designed to make creative production possible. In
other words, top writers seem to
recognize the power of habit.

 According to Willpower:Discovering the Greatest Human Strength by Roy Baumeister and John Tierney,
researchers have concluded that people spend about a quarter of their waking
hours resisting desires—at least four hours a day. Resisting desires requires energy-sapping
moment-to-moment decision-making: should I go get that donut and coffee refill
from the kitchen? Should I check email again or check out friends’ posts on
Facebook? Should I be writing at all—or should I nap/ balance my checkbook/ download
a movie?

Once habits are instilled—whether that means “I start
writing at 9 am, three days a week, without fail,” or “Yes, I do drink vodka
daily—but only this much” (Highsmith)— the need to make endless, debilitating
decisions wanes. There is mental energy left to make the creative decisions that
matter, like “in this dialogue about illicit lovers, what should the man say
the moment he hears the sound of a car engine puttering into the garage, signaling
the arrival of his wife?” (Surely a more interesting question than, “Should I
allow myself one or two spoonfuls of sugar in my next cup of coffee?”)

We writers strive to instill habits both positive (creating
new routines) and negative (avoiding temptations): DO write 2000 words a week,
or DON’T drink that extra glass of wine at night, since it will disrupt your
sleep and make tomorrow’s work more difficult. DO submit one story or essay for
publication each month, or DON’T check email before the writing day begins. DO
spend some time each week finding a new writing group, or DON’T let those
negative messages from your last three rejection letters keep circulating in
your head.

Got your own list? Good. The point is not that you should
adhere to anyone else’s DOs and DON’Ts, but that you should find the ones that
work for you, and make them stick. But how?

I’m constantly trying to reshape my own habits—even more so
in the last year, while I’ve been traveling and living abroad, with so many old
routines disrupted. I turned to The Powerof Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business by Charles Duhigg for
help. A few highlights:

Habits aren’t really broken, they’re just rewired. Study yourself to map your own habit circuits. Figure out your cues and your rewards. The author frequently interrupted his own office work to get a cookie. Then he realized the reward he was really seeking wasn’t sugar, it was socializing. He kept that reward and substituted a new, timed routine—stopping by a co-worker’s desk to chat.

When trying to modify habits, allow yourself failures (they’re not really failures, they’re experiments.) Also, understand that the negative impact of failures can be defused by accommodating them, in some cases. If some things can’t be avoided (like checking Facebook in the afternoon), plan for your cravings and accommodations. For example, it’s better to set a timer and check Facebook quickly, on a schedule, than to spend every minute wondering if and when you should cave in. If there’s something you need to avoid altogether, create a pro-active plan for what you’ll substitute, and don’t beat yourself up if it takes some tinkering to make the new habit stick.

The creation of positive new habits requires the cultivation of belief—and belief in groups is particularly potent. The success of AA groups is a debatable topic, but one thing the AA model relies on is the belief in a higher power, and sharing that belief within a nurturing group creates bonds that may help most of all. Writers benefit from spending time with other positively oriented writers who believe in each other’s projects and potentials. Beware attaching to a group that thinks the dices are always loaded against them or that all of publishing is in a death spiral.

“Small wins” fuel later victories. Another point on which both Duhigg and Baumeister/Tierney agree: incremental successes create an achievement trajectory. Want to become an award-winning, commercially viable novelist? Fine. Publish smaller stories, essays, or excerpts; compete for grants; accept positive feedback as a sign you’re heading in the right direction; reward yourself for every small step along the way—including meeting weekly writing goals.

Plan for expected difficulties. Two things are hardest for me: Starting any new project, and waiting for agent/editor response to a manuscript. Those things are never going to get easier, but recognizing they’re tough times, and knowing what helps (check-ins with friends, reading inspiring books about writing that remind me the tough moments are universal) is the best I can do. I no longer expect myself to “grow out of it.” Waiting is tough. Rejection sucks. On occasion, a writer needs to grieve.

A sense of control helps the person creating new habits. I can’t control whether my books sell well. I can’t even control if all my manuscripts get published. But I can control whether I complete a book-length manuscript every two or three years, learning more about craft at every step. By focusing on my own self-determined production cycles—and the process of writing itself—I can retain a sense of control about my own life as a writer.

Creating logs may help. According to Duhigg, one study found that dieters who had to keep food logs lost twice as much weight as those who didn’t. Just keeping a record of your efforts seems to have power. I’ve returned to an old habit of mine: keeping simple monthly calendars on which I log how many words I write each day. I used to keep them in a bound journal, and I’ve tinkered with keeping them online. Now I keep them on the wall, taped right in front of me. If I haven’t written anything for a while, the proof is there. I allow myself variable success day-to-day, but I do keep an eye on the monthly output. Longer-range goals broken into medium-sized chunks are more flexible than rigid daily ones.

Willpower is a limited commodity which runs out as the day progresses. (Willpower concepts are explored even more in the Baumeister/Tierney book.) Don’t make yourself strain if you don’t have to. For example, if a simple app like “Freedom” can help you avoid going online for two hours a day, use it. Don’t cave in to the idea that you shouldn’t need help avoiding temptations. Keep the cake out of the fridge and the internet blocked, when possible.

Willpower is finite, part II. The resistance of endless daily temptations and the need to behave well—for example, being patient with family members, avoiding saying something impolitic to ones’ boss, avoiding the bread basket at lunch—saps our energy. Writer’s version: If you have a big job to do, like a major novel revision, create an environment in which all those other demands can be put on hold. I’ve marveled at how much writing I can get done while on an isolated writing retreat: not just a little more each day, but five times as much. I used to credit simple distraction-reduction, but now I realize that I reduce the demands on my willpower in many other ways. Yes, I give myself permission not to chit-chat too much with other retreat participants. But I also give myself permission to eat lots of forbidden foods, swill just a little extra wine, stay up late, sleep in, exercise when I feel like it or not at all, walk around in a dreamy trance pondering my characters’ next moves. Far from relying on the power of all my habits, I focus positive-habit energy in one direction: getting the writing done. I couldn’t live this way for months, but for three to five days, it’s heaven.

Andromeda Romano-Lax is the author of The Spanish Bow and The Detour. She is a co-founder of 49 Writers and teaches in the UAA MFA low-residency creative writing program. She is also a book coach with a special interest in revision, narrative structure, and the lifelong development of the writer. Contact her at for more info on her book coaching services.

5 thoughts on “Andromeda/Alaska Writer on the Road: The Power of Habit and the Finite Nature of Willpower, for Writers”

  1. Great post Andromeda. Helped me understand some of the forces behind my own writing/creative process, what makes it work sometimes & not others.

  2. Bill Sherwonit

    I broke away from my own solitary routine to read this posting and a few others on the 49 Writers site — a habit I need to renew, checking in more regularly at this online "place" and community. There's lots to be inspired by here.

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