Writing Habits from 2020 Worth Keeping

A recent article published by The New York Times explained why we get so upset when our routines change.

What it comes down to is that humans love predictability.

Why? Because in prehistoric times, surprises often lead to unpleasant things, like a hungry tiger or dangerous quicksand.

We are resistant to change because it represents the unknown, which is why the initial lockdowns last year added a whole other layer of stress to our lives.

The good news though, is that humans are also adaptive, at least once we get over our initial resistance.

We all made changes last year. We all had to adapt. Going into 2021, I want to put a positive spin on all these changes and break down the five NEW habits that I plan on continuing for the new year.

# 1 / Timed writing sessions

Okay, honestly, I’ve pretty much adopted this for everything on my to-do list.

We all know what the Pomodoro method is—set a timer for 25 or 50 minutes and then work (without stopping) until the timer goes off—and while I’ve found this trick irritating in the past, now I absolutely love it.

It feels so helpful to have a container within which your work gets completed, and there is something about knowing you ‘only’ have to work for twenty-five minutes that suddenly makes daunting tasks feel do-able.

This year, I used the Pomodoro technique while re-drafting and then revising my latest manuscript.

The reason why it worked so well for me is because it created a distraction-free zone. During these sessions, I do not check my email or phone or ‘duck off’ to hang out the laundry or make a cup of tea.

Knowing I have a five-minute break coming up allows me to set those minor (and major) distractions aside so that I can just focus on writing.

I quickly got into the habit of keeping a scrap piece of paper beside me as I worked so that I could jot down any niggling “I should just check that” thoughts while writing.

Things like Googling a fact, searching for a book I recently heard about, looking up a quote to use in a non-fiction piece, a dinner recipe, or when my next credit card payment is due, etc.

You know, all the distractions our inner-critic likes to remind us of whenever we are doing important work.

Setting a timer and having distinct break times has worked wonders for the constant interruptions such little checks can create. And, might I remind you that every time you do one of these little checks, it takes up to twenty-five minutes to regain your focus (and the average office worker is interrupted every eleven minutes … so basically, nobody is getting anything done.)  

And the crazy thing is that when it’s time for a break, I rarely carry out any of the ‘urgent’ checks that pop up while writing. Go figure.

Stickers in my planner doubled as a reward and tracking system.

# 2 / Stickers

Yup. I am seven years old.

This year, I used stickers as a fun way to reward myself after completing a Pomodoro session, plus it was a great way to keep track of how many hours I spent in a state of deep work (see: Deep Work by Cal Newport).

I tracked these sessions in my planner, and while I have not gone so far as to buy stamps or washi paper, I do enjoy flicking back through my 2020 planner and seeing the neat little row of stickers that line the bottom of each day.

This sounds ludicrous, but this one little step when combined with the Pomodoro technique really helped me make time for tasks I had been avoiding.

For instance, I’m currently completing a doctorate in creative writing, and as part of my dissertation, I have to do a lot of research.

Research for me means reading. Reading fiction books, reading scholarly and literary journal articles, dense books about theory (feminism/human-animal relation/narratology) and anything that seems slightly relevant to my research topic.

By July, I had several files on my computer stuffed with all the things I had put aside to read. But every time I started in on a journal article, I’d abandon ship to go work on my novel, an academic article, or some other kind of writing.

How did I break this? Monster stickers.

Witches, demons, vampires, jack-o-lanterns and werewolves–that’s how I got stuff done.

I’d close my email, put my phone on flight mode, and read until the timer went off. Then I got a nifty sticker at the end of it: a visual representation of my progress.

#3 / Fewer parameters, more doey-doey

Confession, I fully stole this one from VE Schwab.

It’s pretty simple.

Aim to have as few parameters around your writing as possible.

Ideally, I’d love to write in my home office, on a clean desk, with a candle burning, and a large pot of chai at my side while listening to a looped recording of rain sounds. I’d have hours of open time ahead of me. I’d have nowhere to be and nothing else to do. Bonus points for fresh flowers, a new notepad, and snazzy pens. Double bonus points if the house is empty and free of distraction.

If I actually needed all of these things to write, I’d be lucky to get one session in every fortnight.

Best to keep things simple, don’t let your inner critic create a false narrative that you can only write in perfect conditions.

There are only a few things I need to write: a laptop + a bit of time + a drink.

Though some white noise would be nice too.

The simpler your writing routine the more likely it is you will write.

# 4 / Letting go of scheduling everything

Honestly, it took me a while to let go of scheduling my days.

I fought this one so hard.

It drove me nuts that I couldn’t start my workday before 9 a.m (I adore working from 7a.m-3p.m), but with my partner now at home, making that happen felt very difficult. So, I chose to adjust my schedule so that we have longer mornings together before we go off to our respective offices.

I’ve found my place in this new rhythm, though I’d be lying if I said there weren’t still days when I’m tapping my foot under the kitchen table, desperate to finish breakfast so I can sneak off and do my work, and it’s only 7:30 a.m.

And yet, there is something wonderful about front-loading my day with all the pleasant activities I used to reserve for the late afternoon and evening.

#5 / Experimenting with my routine

This one was HUGE for me.

For the longest time, I’ve believed that I could only write in the mornings (see habit number #3!).

I am a morning person. By 5 p.m. I am so done with everything.

However, for the longest time, I thought that writing in the afternoon was so painful that I may as well write the day off by sliding my to-dos over to the following day.

Then I started teaching for the first time and picking up extra bits of freelance work. I started helping out at a function centre when they needed an extra set of hands; started a book club; joined a few committees at my university; and all of a sudden, it became very difficult to keep every morning, Monday-Friday, free of appointments.

I had to become flexible.

I had to learn how to write in the afternoon, even though it is not my preferred time.

How did I do this?

  1. I made the decision.
  2. I set a timer.
  3. I bought some cool stickers.
  4. I was gentle with myself; I lowered my expectations. I didn’t have to write one thousand words in one hour, but I did have to write, free of distraction.

Of course, I wish 2020 played out differently, but it didn’t.

While many of these changes were unwelcomed in the beginning, now I am grateful for the new habits that I’ve established.

Now, I’d love to hear from you. What new habits or changes did you make to your writing life in 2020 that you’d like to carry over into the new year? Leave a comment below and tell me all about it.

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