Writers, we’ve all been there. It’s Sunday night, the eve of a fresh work week, and tomorrow, you’re going to start a consistent writing routine.
The 5 A.M. alarm chimes and… snooze button. You snuggle deeper into the downy sheets. You think: It’s okay. I’ll write on my lunch break.
Lunch rolls around, and the 1 P.M. fog descends. The new Rebecca Makkai novel and a panini sound a lot better than writing. You worked all morning! You’ll get to it after dinner.
9 P.M. Dinner is done. Dishes are washed. But the dog needs a walk. You also need a shower, herbal tea, and few minutes to zone out with Game of Thrones.
It’s okay, you think. I’ll wake up early tomorrow and write.
I’m well versed in the “there’s just not enough time in the day” vortex of non-writing. For me, when I dig beneath procrastination, I find fear. Writing is hard. Writing requires all of me. That’s terrifying.
Writing requires shitty first drafts. And we’ll do an––y––thing to avoid the physical act of writing. Left to our own devices, it’s easier to avoid the discomfort of writing, especially a first draft.
We need momentum. We need to remove decision making.
We need a habit chain to ignite a writing routine.
In this post, I’m going to look at how keystone habits can spark a chain of healthy acts that spill into a writing routine. I’m going to tell you the story of how I built a healthy morning routine starting with making my bed. But first, what’s so great about habits, anyway?
Habits form when we’ve done an act so many times it becomes automatic. Your brain literally changes, and you no longer need to decide to perform the act.
One reason it’s hard to get “butts in the chair” and “just write” is because, unless we have a solid routine in place, we must choose to write. Decision making eats up precious glucose in the brain. Each decision you make throughout the day is a deposit from your glucose and willpower bank account.
Habits remove decision making from the equation. Example: you don’t decide to brush your teeth every morning. The decision is already made, and you do it automatically.
Habit expert Charles Duhigg says, “When a habit emerges, the brain stops fully participating in decision making. It stops working so hard, or diverts focus to other tasks. So unless you deliberately fight a habit—unless you find new routines—the pattern will unfold automatically.”
So unless you forcefully tell yourself, I will NOT brush my teeth today, chances are, you’ll brush your teeth.
The beauty of habits: they can fuel enormous change and growth in your life.
And there’s one thing you can do today that’s easier than forcing yourself to sit down and write: start a keystone habit.
What’s a keystone habit? Cue dreamy flashback fade:
In 2015, I was living in Portland, depressed, sedentary, eating lunch out every day, and definitely not writing every day. I’d barely write a journal entry a month.
I woke up 10 minutes before I needed to leave, threw on some clothes, and went to work. Not exactly the picture of a healthy lifestyle.
Then I listened to a podcast about the power of making your bed in the morning. There’s a reason the military has strict rules around bed hygiene; it’s a “small win” first thing in the morning. If you can make your bed, you can face the next challenge the day throws at you.
One morning before work, I made my bed.
I loved coming home to a tidy bed. Everything was falling apart, but at least the bed looked comforting and warm, ready for me to crawl in and sleep off the day.
The next morning, I made the bed again. And the morning after that, and the morning after that…
Fast forward three years: I live in sunny San Diego and have a morning routine of healthy habits. I wake up, write three pages in my journal, write on the computer for an hour, make the bed, get dressed, walk with Nala for 45 minutes, practice 30 minutes of yoga, meditate, shower, and go to work.
I’m not telling you this as a sneaky way of saying, Look how productive I am! Rather, I’m a case study for the power of a keystone habit.
In his book The Power of Habit, Charles Duhigg defines a keystone habit as an action that “can influence how people work, eat, play, live, spend, and communicate. Keystone habits start a process that, over time, transforms everything.”
Research shows that keystone habits act like sparks that light much-needed motivational fires in our lives. Something as simple as going for a walk or practicing a few minutes of yoga can start a cascade of healthy lifestyle changes.
“When people start habitually exercising,” Duhigg says, “even as infrequently as once a week, they start changing other, unrelated patterns in their lives, often unknowingly. They smoke less and show more patience with colleagues and family. They use their credit cards less frequently and say they feel less stressed. It’s not completely clear why. But for many people, exercise is a keystone habit that triggers widespread change.”
When I moved to San Diego, I wanted a healthier life. I moved to the beach to motivate myself to get outside and walk or swim. Before adding any other habits to my morning routine, I added “take a 45-minute walk on the boardwalk” after “make the bed.” Welcome to the party, keystone habit #2!
Over time, I added other activities I’d been trying to cultivate for years: morning journaling, yoga, meditation…
The science is not quite sure why keystone habits work, but the theory is they give us “small wins” that refuel our willpower to create positive change. Duhigg theorizes that “Keystone habits transform us by creating cultures that make clear the values that, in the heat of a difficult decision or a moment of uncertainty, we might otherwise forget.”
Keystone habits are simple, like making your bed or brewing coffee at home instead of getting Starbucks. Once you’ve repeated the routine enough times, it becomes automatic, and you no longer have to decide. The action is automatic, and something feels off if you skip it.
It’s the feeling you get when you forget to brush your teeth. You feel kinda twitchy, right? Like you’re out of step. That’s how powerful habits are.
How do you start a keystone habit? And how can you be sure it will work?
Pick one small thing to change. Here’s a list of keystone habits you can try:
- Make the bed in the morning
- Do 10 minutes of yoga or other exercise on your lunch break
- Read one poem in the morning or before bed
- Take a 20-minute walk or jog in the morning or evening
- Meditate for five to 10 minutes before bed (need a guided meditation? I love the InsightTimer app)
- Track your water intake for 30 days
- Pack a healthy, but yummy, lunch the night before work (this should take you 30 minutes max in the evening)
- If you have a pool or access to water, swim for 15 minutes each day
- Before bed, write down one thing you’re grateful for (it’s okay if it’s very simple: I’m grateful for my comfy pillow)
If you believe you have no time to start a keystone habit, choose one of the above that takes five minutes or less each day, like reading a poem or tracking your water intake (I use Strides app for habit tracking).
Give your keystone habit at least 30 days, preferably 60, to become automatic. Then, check in with yourself. Do you feel that twitchy, anxious feeling if you skip it? Have other positive lifestyle changes crept in? If you’re a few weeks or months into your keystone habit, my guess is yes!
How Keystone Habits Fuel a Writing Practice
My keystone habits––making the bed and a 45-minute walk––started a waterfall of habits that eventually cascaded into my current writing routine. But it took a while.
First, my keystone habits had to become truly automatic. Once it was uncomfortable not to make my bed and walk, I added to the chain.
I added 30 minutes of home yoga.
A few months later, I added morning pages.
A few months after that, I added 10 minutes of meditation.
It wasn’t until these practices became automatic that I was able to get serious about writing every day for one hour.
But it did happen. The other actions in the habit chain provided momentum to move through fear. If I could automate those practices, why not my writing routine, too?
The hard truth: I aim to write for one hour every morning around 5 A.M., and some days I don’t hit it. But most days, I do. The automation, the practice, is still growing. Writing is still the hardest action to automate. You’re more vulnerable on the page than walking on the boardwalk or doing home yoga.
Of course, there are many factors that trigger major changes, and I hope to cover them on the LitHabits blog. It’s important not to see a keystone habit as a “magic bullet” for lifestyle change, but rather as a new beginning or first step on the road toward the life you want.
Writing is hard, and that’s okay. Healthy challenge and discomfort pushes us toward mastery. But the important part is showing up, and that’s how the habit chain helps.
And the keystone habit that started it all: making my damn bed.