How to Write When You’re Supposed To

Holly Stratton

How to Write When You’re Supposed To

Another classic post updated for 2022. This one is also an essential skill for writers. All writers, not just the prolific. In fact, I would suggest that if you’re not prolific and want to be, learning this skill of writing when you should will shoot your productivity sky-high. –t.

How Resistance lures you

Having a finely tuned writing schedule doesn’t do diddly for your productivity if you never follow it.

Saying you’re going to write for two hours after supper tonight will quell the nag in your brain for the rest of the day, but when you actually sit down at the keyboard, do you find yourself doing anything but writing?

Resistance makes Facebook look really good.  Your overflowing email inbox suddenly seems charming.  Sorting laundry takes on new urgency. 

Writing, on the other hand, seems hard.

Actually, you don’t think about writing at all, in the face of all these sudden must-do’s. Yet in the back of your brain, you weigh up the uncomfortable difficulty of writing against folding towels.  Lunch out with your work-mates is far more enticing than a cold sandwich at your desk.  Even boring, low priority, unpleasant tasks will win every time.  You embrace the chore with a sense of relief that you carefully don’t examine too closely.

Next thing you know, you’ve spent your two hours being highly productive, and haven’t written a word.  You’re a creative and you can find endless highly inventive reasons to not write, but do xxx instead.

Circumvent your pathetic willpower with this combo

The moment you question whether writing is a good use of your time, Resistance will immediately kick in and you will choose to do something else instead.

The trick is to not give your brain a chance to make a decision.  You take away any choice by using the combined power of routines, habit stacking and triggers.

Morning and evening routines

Many productivity experts vouch for the power of morning and evening routines.

The idea is that you start your morning and end your evening with the same tasks, repeated in the same order, every single day.  The routines become ingrained habits that help put you into the right mind-set, cue your body for effort or sleep, and remove big chunks of decision from your day, preserving decision juice.

If you habitually write first thing in the morning, or last thing before bed, then you can incorporate writing into your morning/evening routine.

Even if you write at odd times during the day, you can still use the power of morning/evening routines to push you into writing when you say you will.  The magic of habit stacking will work even if you never know when you will be able to write.

The power of habit stacking

If you hit the alarm to shut it up in the morning, get out of bed, feed the pets, turn on the TV and set up the coffee to brew all before properly waking up, you’re using the power of habits stacked one after another to get you through your mornings.

You don’t think about it.  You just do it, because that’s what you’ve “always” done.  There is no question about whether you should or shouldn’t do it.   You don’t wonder about whether you should dress and floss your teeth first, because that happens later.  You don’t wonder whether you should mow the lawn instead.

There are no questions about what happens next and zero resistance.

The alarm going off in the morning triggers you to turn it off.  Turning off the alarm triggers you into getting out of bed.  Getting out of bed pushes you into feeding the pets, which makes you automatically reach for the remote and thumb it, which is always followed by rinsing the coffee pot, cracking open the machine and setting up fresh coffee to brew.

The last habit is set off by the previous habit, which is set off by the previous habit…so on until you get to the very first habit in the stack.

Something has to trigger that habit, to begin the cascade.

Triggers are the key

Morning routines are triggered by getting up in the morning.  Evening routines usually need a “manual” trigger—often, turning off the TV is the trigger.  But it might be getting up from the supper table and picking up your plate.  Or taking the dog out for a walk.

For all but morning routines, the trigger to set off a habit stack must be deliberately invoked.  That requires <gulp> making a decision.

Therefore, the trigger habit should be something small and preferably pleasant and stupidly simple to do in order to circumvent Resistance.

For example; picking up your plate and putting it in the sink after supper.  Kissing a loved one goodbye as they head out the door.  Opening your journal and writing the date on the next clear page.  Sharpening a pencil (or three).  Standing and stretching, then bending to touch your toes.

These are all simple little things, but they should be unique, so your subconscious doesn’t get confused about what comes next.

A ritual by another name

Does any of this sound suspiciously like a writing ritual?

That’s because it is.  Writing rituals have been around as long as there have been writers, but the psychology that drives them has only recently been formalized in other fields.

If writing rituals and invoking your muse is too woo-woo for you, then think of it as a habit stack or writing routine, then use the process to make yourself write every time you want to.

Combine routines, habit stacking, and rituals

You quite possibly already have little habits that you complete before you get to the actual writing.  Often, they’re distraction-raising habits:  Social networks, email, news feeds.

Or perhaps you’ve fully embraced rituals, so you write your morning pages, light candles, put on music, meditate…

If your ritual takes a long time to complete, it’s self-defeating and stealing your writing time.

Ideally, you have three or four little things you do before writing.  They can move from ridiculously simple to more complex, until the last one triggers you to open your current manuscript, jump to the end, and write one paragraph.

Once that first paragraph is written, momentum will keep you going.

For example, I commute to my day job (i.e., I walk down to the basement), put on my thick, cuddly dressing gown (that I only use for writing), put on music to write to (a unique play list), open up the current manuscript, scroll back a few to a dozen or more pages, then read over the last of what I wrote yesterday, cleaning up and tweaking as I go.  Then I glance at the outline beneath the end point to see what comes next.  A few seconds, with my hands on the keyboard, to think about how to write what happens next, then I begin writing and don’t stop.  When I’m doing sprints, I don’t stop until the alarm I set up earlier goes off.

If I’m not doing sprints, I don’t stop until I forget to stop…in other words, I’m in flow.  That generally takes about twenty minutes.

Then pick your trigger…

The trigger is important.  If you can find a trigger that happens automatically, without decision on your part, use it.

My trigger used to be kissing my husband goodbye as he headed off for work each day (and yes, the days he didn’t go to work, I had to be super-vigilant).. These days, as he works in our publishing business, and from home, my trigger to get into my writing each day is still to kiss him goodbye and announce I’m going to work before heading downstairs. Often, he replies with “Drive safe!”.

For your trigger, you could put an alarm on your phone with a unique music track, set for when you want to write, followed by a simple, no-brainer action from you (like shutting down everything on your computer, or getting up from the sofa and heading for the desk).

Pick an innocuous little habit that can kick start the five/ten minute stack that ends with you writing your ass off.

Habits you already have in place, that you do every day, work best, but if you must create a new trigger, then choose something simple, unique, easy to do and pleasant.

Lighting a candle, putting on a certain piece of music, putting on a particular garment, arranging a chair or table, moving to a particular area of the house, deep breathing, taking a walk (along a route that you don’t use for anything but prepping to write)…these can all work.

…and use the trigger.

Like all habits, the routine you use to prepare to write will require conscientious application until the habits are set.  That means at first you will have to memorize and carefully follow the routine exactly and every single time.

Once the routine has become a habit, that you flow through as unconsciously as you do the first twenty minutes of your morning, you will still have to consciously invoke the routine by performing the trigger, each time you want to write.

That’s why the trigger must be simple and pleasant, so that Resistance doesn’t get to raise its hoary head and ask if there’s something better you should be doing instead.

A well-built and ingrained writing routine will beat back Resistance, and ensure you write every time you trigger it.

Write More, Faster Than Ever Before

Are You Prolific?

The Productive Indie Fiction Writer Workbook now available for pre-order!


Scroll to Top