What I’m learning about writing: habit – Anna Spargo-Ryan

What I’m learning about writing: habit

What I’m learning about writing: habit

A few weeks ago, I had spent more time than I want to admit opening Scrivener, popping down a hundred words and then thinking that I would become inspired later, that I would know what happens next later. I had gone from actively writing a book to occasionally brushing up against an unfinished manuscript. I was barely writing. Instead, I engaged in the things I enjoy more, like sitting and crying. And once I had exhausted sitting and crying, I opened Scrivener again and wrote things like, She cried until the only thing left to do was stop crying.

Yes, I have already chosen my awards ceremony dress.

The trouble is, I’ve told people I’m writing a book. People like my dad. Every day he calls me and we have this conversation:

How is your writing going?

Yeah, I wrote 200 words this week.

Okay. At that rate, it’s going to take you seven years to write your first draft.


I hate lack of progress (which is paradoxical, because I am also menacingly lazy). It hurt me to admit to totally failing at finishing what I was writing. I wanted to be able to pick up the phone and say, “Yeah, I wrote 10,000 words this week.”

The idea of creating a writing habit is touted by fair dinkum every writing book I’ve ever pretended to read. Block out hours of time in your diary, like a meeting, and make that time non-negotiable writing time. Make your office for work, and your kitchen table for creativity. Write in the mornings, before you check your email or go behind paywalls.

So, motivated by the idea of finishing my book this decade, I opened up my Outlook calendar and made a new appointment.

Subject: Write

Location: At your desk

Time: 2pm – 3:30pm

Then I clicked on Recurrence and checked Every day.

Screen Shot 2013-08-02 at 11.34.23 AM

I’m good at forming habits. People with anxiety disorders often are. Turn down this street, have a panic attack. Enter the supermarket, have a panic attack. Get a clean glass because the old glass might be poisoned. I’ve had drinking habits, smoking habits, sex habits and food habits.

Ergo, I could also successfully form a writing habit, right?

Every afternoon, while I have my head down in code or emails, a reminder pops up. WRITE AT YOUR DESK! Five minutes later. WRITE AT YOUR DESK! I’m scared of computers, so after snoozing three times I give in to its demands.

And I write from 2pm to 3:30pm. To form my habit, and to move my story.

At first it was nearly impossible. “But I have to finish this first!” I shouted. “I have to go to the toilet! I have to sweep the back verandah! I have to put out the washing! I have to make a lasagne! I have to go to the shops! I have to wax my moustache! I have to brush the dog! I have to watch The Matrix! I have to buy an octopus! I have to dress up like Heston Blumenthal! I have to time travel! I have to buy a star in someone else’s name!”

But I slogged through it. I wrote a word and then another word until I had some words and it was time to watch Everyday Gourmet with Justine Schofield.

Then then this amazing thing happened. Every day at 1:30pm, I began to think about my story. Not consciously, just in snippets and scenes in the back of my mind. The characters started to have opinions about things, about where I had left them and where they should go next. They kicked me in the shins and pulled on my hair and told me it was time to write, and by 2pm I couldn’t think of anything I wanted to do more than write.

I formed a habit. I convinced my brain that at 2 o’clock every afternoon, we write for an hour and a half. So now we do.

And this week, I wrote 8000 words.

Lesson 3: Your brain can be tricked into being creative, even if you’re a disorganised old fool.

  • Caroline

    August 2, 2013 at 1:22 pm Reply

    You make it sound possible. Feeling very inspired right now x

    • Anna Spargo-Ryan

      August 2, 2013 at 1:24 pm Reply

      Seriously, if I can make myself do it, I have no doubt that YOU can.

  • Libby

    August 2, 2013 at 1:31 pm Reply

    Go Anna!

    You’ve just inspired me to smash out a scene before I smash the Adriano Zumbo brownie that’s calling me from the fridge.

    PS I adore reading your blog xxx

    • Anna Spargo-Ryan

      August 2, 2013 at 1:34 pm Reply

      haha, I’m so glad! Thank you love.

      P.S. I will also eat a brownie, comrade. Mine is just Coles packet brownie though.

  • Emily

    August 2, 2013 at 1:36 pm Reply

    LOVE THIS. And just think of how many you’ll write next week. LOVE.

  • bigwords

    August 2, 2013 at 1:41 pm Reply

    fabulous stuff

  • John James

    August 2, 2013 at 2:03 pm Reply

    I’m actually deliberately taking things slowly.

    I started writing my current book in 2012 – I took 3 months long service leave – wrote two short and quick drafts of what I thought were two books – the first book, and its sequel… and then I sat on those drafts for 6 months, stuck…

    Then early this year I realised they were the same story, and I’ve been working my way towards combining them into one consolidated draft – my aim is to complete that draft by the end of the year… and then leave it…

    In 2014 I’m planning to write the first draft of a completely different book. I’m not going to go back to the current work until after I do that… I want to let it rest… sit…

    I’m planning on swapping between the two projects until I have something that’s ready to shop around…

    But that’s not the only reason I’m not rushing towards publication – while I’m writing these books, I’m also learning the craft of writing – I’ve written 3 or 4 manuscripts before these books, but the stories I’m writing now are the first that feel like “real” books… and I’m still learning the craft as I work on the current projects…

    My goal will be to having 1 – maybe 2 – manuscripts ready to shop around in 2016… yes, 2016! I know that sounds a long way off, but you only get one chance to write your first book… I son’t want to waste that experience – I really want to take my time and learn from it. :)

    • Anna Spargo-Ryan

      August 4, 2013 at 10:09 am Reply

      Thanks for sharing your experience JJ :) I think the important (and common) thing is a deliberate approach. If you’re deliberately writing slowly and shooting for a 2016 deadline, I imagine that’s much more likely to be successful than what I was doing before, which was completely not deliberate and uncommitted. Speed isn’t my aim–progress is what I want!

  • panos

    August 2, 2013 at 2:27 pm Reply

    amazing. you’re excellent and you’ve inspired me to do the same thing.

  • JodiGibson (@JFGibsonWriter)

    August 2, 2013 at 3:41 pm Reply

    *Stands and applauds* I knew you could do it!

    • Anna Spargo-Ryan

      August 4, 2013 at 10:05 am Reply

      Thank you Jodi! I’m glad you knew – I had no idea.

  • Torre – Fearful Adventurer

    August 2, 2013 at 6:12 pm Reply

    8,000 words! Take that, Dad!

  • kkellie

    August 3, 2013 at 12:23 am Reply


    Okay. You are funny even whilst wallowing in misery on those pre-habit days. I think it’s great, I applaud you, I wish you every good thing.

    xo kk

  • Emily

    August 3, 2013 at 9:42 am Reply

    This is awesome. I need to do this. I’ve written 70k with no writing habit & it has been painful & stressful. – has made me realise I HAVE to have a writing habit!

    • Anna Spargo-Ryan

      August 4, 2013 at 10:04 am Reply

      70k is brilliant :D What are you writing?

      I think I got to a point where I realised that if I didn’t have a daily reason to write, I would just keep putting it off forever. I’m probably 2/3 of the way through my draft, but I had definitely stagnated with no direction.

  • Tine @ Beautyholics Anonymous

    August 3, 2013 at 11:38 am Reply

    I stumbled upon this post from a retweet on Twitter and may I just say, well done! That sounds so doable! I’m a serial procrastinator and have been putting off my ebook for days, then weeks, then months. I’m going to try your method out and make myself form that habit.

    • Anna Spargo-Ryan

      August 4, 2013 at 10:03 am Reply

      I am too, and always have been. I have a feeling that setting a daily habit has kind of manifested itself as a daily deadline, which suits my procrastinating side :D

  • Deb

    August 4, 2013 at 5:16 pm Reply

    I read a post by Joanna at The Creative Penn earlier this year about her writing habit (she wrote the number of words she’d done on her calendar each day). It seemed such a simple thing I decided, “I could do that.”

    I didn’t. Not sure why. But again your post is inspiring me. I’m okay with my blogging…. I have deadlines (mostly self-imposed) but as for any other writing… Meh.


    • Anna Spargo-Ryan

      August 10, 2013 at 12:40 pm Reply

      Thanks for visiting, Deb :) I hope you find a habit that works for you. Mine seem only to work if I’m avoiding doing something else ;) Writing during my work day has really helped – I work later into the evening, but I’m procrastinating BY writing instead of ABOUT writing.

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