It’s four AM. Novelist Haruki Murakami rises after a restful sleep. He heads to his desk to write for five or six hours. After finishing his daily pages (about 10), he laces up his modest running shoes and ambles out the door for a long run.
For Murakami––an award-winning writer who’s published 14 novels and countless short stories––the morning run is a sacred ritual. It requires immense strength to show up for the difficult, draining, and courageous work of writing fiction. Murakami knows he must be physically strong to face the emotional and mental challenges he’ll meet on the page.
In an article with the New Yorker, Murakami explains that, when he writes a novel, he goes “underground”––a place where he meets strangeness and darkness. As a fiction writer, the darkness often has something critical to tell him. But “coming back is important,” he says. As writer’s, we must leave the darkness at our desks, on the page, in the space where we commune with the divine. If we take it with us, things get scary, and that’s a recipe for tortured artist syndrome.
To come back, Murakami says, “I respect the daily routine.” So he runs. Haruki Murakami has run every day for the last 37 years.
It’s the year 1810. Dawn breaks over the hills in Chawton, England. Author Jane Austen wakes before the rest of her family and goes to her piano. She lives with six other women and rarely gets a moment of true solitude.
She plays for an hour while the rest of her family beings to stir. (Side note: Who wouldn’t love waking to the sound of gentle piano in the morning instead of iPhone chimes?). Around nine AM, Austen prepares the family breakfast and eats with her loved ones.
After breakfast, she settles in the drawing room to write––usually with her sister, mother, or friend beside her sewing or drawing. She writes on loose leaves of paper that can be quickly tucked away if a visitor turns up, and they often do. Despite a bustling household and a time-period hostile to women writers, Austen completes six major novels in her lifetime through this simple, consistent routine.
It’s 5:30 AM in Manhattan. Award-winning choreographer Twyla Tharp hails a cab, gets in, and tells the driver to take her to Pumping Iron gym at 91st Street and First Ave. She plans to work out before heading to her studio to rehearse with her dance company.
The important habit, Tharp emphasizes, is not the two-hours in the gym. It is the cab. The moment Tharp slips into the back seat and tells the cabby where to go, she’s closed the habit loop. By automating the decision of hailing a cab, Tharp has eliminated the internal debate many of us feel when trying to nurture a workout habit: Do I feel like going to the gym today?
If the question comes up at all for Tharp, it comes up in the cab. At that point, too much energy has gone into getting ready, and it’s not worth it to turn around.
The creative life, Tharp says, “is all about repetition.”
Creative work requires risk. It requires vulnerability. It requires an unmooring of epic proportions. It requires dancing with the lightest of light and the darkest of dark.
This is why great writers cling to grounding habits because ritual provides certainty and a refuge from the uncharted space of creation. Writers cling to ritual so they can show up to the page with courage… where the most intense nightmares and fantasies come alive.
As Flannery O’Connor said, “Routine is a condition of survival.”
I call these non-writing rituals bedrock habits.
The reason bedrock habits work is because they’re wired into an area of the brain that doesn’t require decision making. Murakami doesn’t make the decision to lace up his running shoes, that choice is automatic. Austen didn’t have to decide to sit at her piano bench at seven AM; it was as instinctual as eating breakfast.
If for some reason the ritual can’t be performed, I imagine these artists would feel off. It’s that feeling you get when you skip brushing your teeth –– icky and twitchy.
And that is my thesis for the entire LitHabits for Writers community:
Fruitful and productive writers have an intrinsic muscle set that helps them write with courage, keep the ass in the chair, and finish their most cherished projects––even when they feel frozen or overwhelmed with fear.
These muscles are courage, faith, focus, saying No!, willpower, grit, and drive. Habits and routine are how writers grow these muscles.
How to Create a Writing Habit in 60-Seconds
You might say, “That’s great for them, Renee, but making a habit stick is really f**king hard for me!”
I know. I’ve started and stopped a daily yoga practice more times than Taylor Swift has started a feud. It takes a deep sense of why you want to nurture the habit to make it stick.
And it’s do-able. Trust me.
If you’re ready to start showing up for your creative work, ready to create a consistent writing routine that overcomes procrastination and helps you finish projects, here’s a simple way to make your writing habit and healthy habits stick in 60-seconds.
STEP 1: Tap into your Why
Take out your journal and free-write the answers to these questions:
If money, time, and resources were no object, would you still choose to write? Why?
Imagine you’re on your deathbed. It’s your last day on earth. What do you want to be remembered for? Why?
If you could leave a core message with the world in one sentence, what would it be?
STEP 2: Choose your first bedrock
In your journal, answer these prompts:
Brainstorm a few non-writing “bedrock” habits you want to grow. Examples: Running, cycling, painting, crocheting, meditating, etc.
Of all the habits on your list, which one gets you the most excited? Which one causes a visceral reaction like an involuntary smile, butterflies, or raised eyebrows?
Choose ONE bedrock habit from your list and circle it. This is the habit you’ll grow in Step 3.
STEP 3: Practice the first 60-seconds of your bedrock habit
This is the 60-second rule of habit creation!
Remember: Twyla Tharp’s automatic ritual was not working out at the gym, it was getting in the cab. This strategy, which I learned from James Clear in his book Atomic Habits, helps you hard-wire the first step of your bedrock habit into your subconscious.
Identify the first 60-seconds of your bedrock habit. For example, if you’re growing a running routine, the first 60-seconds includes putting on your running clothes and lacing up your sneaks.
Practice ONLY the first 60-seconds of your bedrock habit for 5-7 days. In other words, stop yourself before you get to the meat of activity. Examples: Set up your meditation cushion and sit down, but don’t meditate. Lace up your running shoes, but do not go for a run. THIS IS THE MOST IMPORTANT STEP! Do not go further than 60-seconds or you’ll defeat the purpose of the exercise. The point is to hardwire a very small habit into your brain so you don’t procrastinate or make an excuse when it’s time to go all in.
Track your progress. Mark an X on your calendar for every day you complete your 60-second habit. My preferred way to track habits is with Strides app. Tracking is another critical step. A visual report of progress gives you small wins, which inspires motivation to keep going.
After 5-7 days, ease into the heart of your new ritual. Add 5-10 minutes of meditation or jog slowly for two miles. Even at this stage, it’s important to start small and grow your habit over time. It’s very easy to get burnt out and “fall off the wagon” if you push too hard. Let your body and brain acclimate to the new routine. After a few weeks, you’ll have a fully automatic bedrock that nourishes your creative life.
STEP 4: Apply the 60-Second Strategy to your writing practice
The Coup de Grace to your chronic procrastination!
Now that you have a solid bedrock ritual (whether it’s running, yoga, or piano), you can apply the same habit-wiring trick to your writing practice.
Set your ideal writing goal. Make it SMART: specific, measurable, achievable, realistic, & timely. While you don’t have to “write every day,” aim for consistency. Two or three times per week is plenty! Here’s an example: “I want to work on my novel for one hour, three times per week. I’ll write from nine PM to 10 PM on Sunday, Monday, and Wednesday, and will have a first draft completed by December 1st.”
Identify the first 60-seconds of your writing practice. It might look like this: Make a cup of tea, turn on favorite writing playlist, put phone on Airplane mode, open a fresh Google doc, and write one sentence.
Practice ONLY the first 60-seconds of your writing routine for 5-7 days.
Track your progress. (See instructions above).
After 5-7 days of practicing only the first 60 seconds, ease into the full routine you outlined in your goal. Add a few sentences or a few minutes at a time until you’re so eager to write the words pour out of you!
This strategy is essentially an exercise in reverse psychology. “Oh, you want to write or exercise? Well, you CAN’T!” By the end of day seven, you’ll be so frustrated with being unable to write (or run or meditate or chaturanga), wild horses couldn’t stop you from your new routine.
Give it a go, and then tell me how it went in the comments.
Wait! Before you jet…
After you finish an amazing book, do you ever think: “Dang, it’s all been done before! No one’s going to care about my story”?
Friend, let me lovingly tell you: you’re wrong! I want to see YOUR by-line on a summer reading list, so let’s cure that “It’s all been done before” syndrome.
Resources & References
Clear, James. (2018). Atomic Habits. Penguin.
Currey, Mason. (2013). Daily Rituals: How Artists Work. Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group.
Murakami, Haruki. (2008). “The Running Novelist.” The New Yorker. https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2008/06/09/the-running-novelist
Murakami, Haruki. (2008). What I Talk About When I Talk About Running. Vintage.
Treisman, Deborah. (2019). “The Underground Worlds of Haruki Murakami.” The New Yorker. https://www.newyorker.com/culture/the-new-yorker-interview/the-underground-worlds-of-haruki-murakami