Theory of habits and writing
What’s this episode about?
Welcome to the second season of The Pen Garden Podcast. Listen to the full first episode and/or scan the show notes below for the main takeaways.
In this episode, I will talk about habits – what they are, how they’re different from routines, why it’s so hard to change them and how we can build good ones and discard the ones that don’t bring us anything positive. I will share some interesting research around this and some wisdom from people who know a lot about the science of learned behavior.
Habits vs Routines
As with the beginning of last season, I want to start with basics. Do you know the difference between habits and routines? I admit that I used to think they’re synonyms as I’ve heard them used interchangeably throughout my life. But when I did some research for this episode, I found that this isn’t the case – they’re two different things. And this is important because understanding the definitions of those two words can help you create routines that work and foster positive habits.
Website Ness Labs says “The main difference between habits and routines is how much aware and intentional you are. A habit usually manifests itself as an automatic urge to do something, often triggered by a particular cue. The stronger the connection between the trigger and the habit, the more ingrained the habit. In contrast, routines require deliberate practice.”
For example, I have the habit of walking in a bookstore and browsing despite not wanting anything to buy, or knowing I have plenty of books to read at home. The cue is the bookstore calling to me, the habit is to listen to its call and go in. Reading, however, is incorporated into my bedtime routine – a set of actions which I do in a deliberate order, at a specific time, to urge my mind to switch off and prepare for sleep.
Ness Labs reassures us that “with enough time and the right techniques, routines can turn into habits”. But humans are often reluctant to change, even if their habits are detrimental. “One needs to want to turn a routine into a habit for the process to happen.”
Changing a habit is hard
A study on people’s resistance to change asked students to abstain from a habit and record their daily experiences for 3 weeks. Most of the students found that challenging in many different ways. Some found they set themselves up for failure by focusing on a big, difficult to reach goal; others self-sabotaged by putting themselves in situations where the cues for their habits were screaming at them and they had to work way harder to resist them; others found “ the actual amount of difficulty that a person encounters when implementing a change could be vastly different from the level of difficulty estimated by others”, meaning the people around you might not understand how difficult it is for you break a habit or make a habit stick.
All these barriers make people resistant to change. It can be boiled down to a simple truth – getting out of our comfort zones is hard work. But it’s worth giving it a go – in the end, we strive to improve ourselves; and that is impossible without breaking our bad habits and building good ones on top of the rubble.
Build good habits
Back to the topic of habits, we want to build good ones that stick right? There’s a vast sea of strategies out there online and in self-help books and if you take one thing from this episode, please take this one: go and explore; think about your daily habits and your writing habits and see if there’s anything that can be improved. Take things in your hands because you owe it to your writer self.
To nudge you in a direction, author James Clear has been my habit go-to inspiration for years. One of the things he suggests is creating identity-based habits instead of goal-based habits. He argues the key to building lasting habits is focusing on creating an identity that reflects your best self because current behaviors are only a reflection of your current self.
James’s recipe for success only has two steps: Decide the type of person you want to be; and prove it to yourself with small wins. So in terms of writing, let’s say you want to be a writer who writes every day. Your smaller win would be if you sit down and write any words on the page, without a looming wordcount to achieve. That type of thinking allows you to celebrate when you reach smaller wins but consistently, thus making the habit stick and actually helping you towards becoming that person that you want to be.
Changing a habit is possible
Just to illustrate that habits are a force to be reckoned with and also that they can be broken when a more appealing alternative is available, I want to share the findings of a study conducted to examine people’s decision-making in spacial organization. Or simply, where they put things around on their desks as they worked on a writing task.
The participants were told that the purpose of the study was to copy familiar and unfamiliar symbols as quickly and as accurately as possible and they were given pens in pen holders to do it. How they interacted with the pens as the study required them to alternate between them and how efficient they were at the exercise were the most important things.
After a few experiments with the pen holders at different starting places, the study found that “humans would organize their space in order to minimize effort or maximize performance.” At first, “individuals were strongly influenced by an object’s past […] history; they maintained an object’s original location despite the fact that this […] was physically more effort and less time efficient for task completion.” Later they had “demonstrated that this bias could be overcome when the physical effort to complete a task was increased.” Where the pen was before was a cue that people easily formed a habit after – they put it in its place. But when they realised the habit was not productive for the quality of their performance, they started putting the pen in the pen holder closer to them.”
This is how I believe you should tackle your writing habits and your routine – with proactive thought about what can be improved, what can be brought closer to you so you could be more efficient and benefit more from the positive outcomes of your practice.
sO, TO SUMMARIZE…
Habits are responses to cues. Changing a bad habit is possible if you change your response to the cue. Change is hard but it is within your reach if you hit the right motivation for you and have the promise of a good reward, like increased efficiency or a feeling of achievement.
To help you out on this journey of discovery and change, I will explore your creative motivation in depth in the next episode. Join me next Tuesday to learn what motivates the different MBTI personality types and how you can use that to power your thinking about your creativity and your writing practice. If you have no idea what your MBTI type is, here’s some homework for you – go listen to episode 2 from Season 1, where I explain why your personality type is important and how to find it and come prepared to listen next week.
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If you want to continue the conversation, you can poke me on The Pen Garden Facebook page or tweet me @laineydelaroque. Thanks very much for listening everyone. Hope you have an awesome week and speak to you soon.
- Habits, routines, rituals (website article)
- Understanding Resistance to Change: An Experiential Exercise (journal article)
- Identity-Based Habits: How to Actually Stick to Your Goals This Year (website article)
- Spatial habit competes with effort to determine human spatial organization (journal article)
Listen to all Available episodes of season 2:
Or the episodes from season 1, beginnings: