Sandra Gerth - author of the Writers' Guide Series

Building habits without losing your marbles

The new year is quickly approaching and with it the time to make New Year’s resolutions. Most writers I know, myself included, set goals for the new year. Several want to get into the habit of writing every day or meet a certain word-count goal each day in 2015. So, basically, they want to form better, more productive writing habits.

Habits can be a wonderful thing for writers. They are things we do automatically, without thinking, so they no longer require so much mental effort. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we could sit down and write every day, producing page after page, without procrastinating, wasting time, and exhausting your willpower?

So how do we go about forming new writing habits—or any new habits, for that matter?

First, you have to understand how habits work. Each habit consists of three parts:

  • A cue—a situation or context that triggers the behavior. First thing every morning, I settle down at my desk with a cup of tea, put my headphones on, and open up my Scrivener document. That lets my brain know that it’s time to write.
  • A routine—the kind of behavior that you’re aiming for, in this case writing without letting yourself be distracted.
  • A reward—can be any kind of positive feedback, for example, taking a break after an hour of writing and getting yourself a smoothie. Your reward doesn’t need to be expensive.
Building habits one marble at a time

This is where the marble method comes in. I’m trying to get into the habit of exercising for an hour every day. After I finish exercising, I reward myself with putting a clear marble into a glass bowl. If I skip a day, I have to put a dark marble into the bowl. The same system would work for writing-related habits as well—reward yourself with a clear marble if you meet your daily writing goal, and give yourself a black marble if you fail to accomplish your goal.

The marble has a dual function. First, it serves as a mini-reward. Rewarding the right behavior isn’t enough to form a new habit, though. You also need enough repetitions so that your brain can make the connection between cue and reward. Only once that connection is engrained in your brain will the behavior become automatic.

That’s where the bowl of marbles comes in for me. Once I had a handful of clear marbles in the bowl, I didn’t want to taint my nice little pile of marbles by having to add a dark one. If I skip one day, I will have to look at the dark marble for weeks before I finally add enough clear marbles to cover the dark one. So I kept exercising, even on days when I really didn’t want to or felt that I didn’t have enough time.

Also, if you keep your marbles somewhere where your family and friends can see them, that will keep you accountable. Anyone will be able to see whether you’re sticking to your resolutions or not.

According to studies, you need 66 days on average to build a new habit, so make sure you have enough marbles and a glass bowl that is big enough to hold them all.

For me, the marble method is working so far, so if you want to form a new habit in 2015, you might want to try it.

Good luck!

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