Habits – good and bad, and how to make them work for you as a writer

Months ago I read Dorothea Brande’s Becoming a Writer, and took note of her suggestion that a writer should write for half an hour first thing in the morning, before getting out of bed, brushing their teeth or having their morning coffee, cigarette, meusli or whatever else would start their day in an acceptable fashion.

It sounded frankly impossible. But my partner starts work at seven, so he leaves home around six-thirty, and in the spirit of enquiry I asked him to wake me every morning. I put a shorthand pad and pen by the side of the bed, and started the experiment.

I did make one change to Brande’s suggestion. I wrote the title of the story I wanted to work on at the top of the first fresh page in the pad before I went to sleep. Now, in the morning, I start work immediately, (without brushing my teeth either, a thing I would have considered impossible a year ago!) and I write for thirty minutes.

It works.

It took six months to establish the habit. At first I would write nothing, or write drivel, or drift into making lists for the day ahead. Sometimes I would write for half an hour and find all I’d done was recapitulate some part of the story already written. Persisting became a real chore.

Somewhere around the fifth month I discovered that I could do this thing I’d thought impossible – I could write for thirty minutes, on a subject I’d decided the night before, and produce coherent text. It was as if my subconscious suddenly realised that it was meant to be in partnership with my conscious mind, just for that half hour, and delivered the narrative goods as a kind of waking dream.

During the holidays, of course, I don’t get woken in time for my half hour’s writing before the day starts and my productivity drops by about 15%. It’s not a huge amount, but it’s enough to show me just how valuable this habit has become – breaking the habit, in other words, reinforces how important it is to my writing life. I look forward to tomorrow, when he’s back at work and I shall be returning to Brande’s excellent system.

So if you have writing habits, whether good or bad, remember that it takes most people around six months to establish new ones, and remember to break your habits from time to time, to find out whether they really are contributing to your writing output.


  1. Jim Murdoch
    1st January 2008

    That’s fine for young writers who aren’t slaves to their bladders. I’m glad you’ve got a system that works – that’s all that matters. I always thought that a habit could be established in three weeks, six months seems a bit much but everyone is different. To be honest I seem to be able to write anywhere and under pretty much any circumstance once the flow has started. Getting going is another thing completely.

  2. Kay Sexton
    2nd January 2008

    I think that’s an excellent point – and one wonders (or this one does) if Brande, writing then, had a gazunda! The point about habits is it only takes about three weeks to learn to do something, but six months for people NOT to revert to their previous behaviour under stress (there was a brilliant research project in Finland that found people would unlearn a habit but under a stress like threat of redundancy, would revert to the older behaviour right up to the six month cut off point) – so if you learn a good writing habit and then, four months later, have a journal fold just after telling you that you’d won their contest, you may go back to your bad habit almost without realising. Not a great example, but you see what I mean – a new learned behaviour doesn’t become a true habit for six months.

  3. Jim Murdoch
    2nd January 2008

    That makes sense but I bet it doesn’t apply to bladders.

  4. B.A. Goodjohn
    3rd January 2008

    The six months aspect is interesting. I too had worked on the 3 week principle but you’re right – it’s stress that breaks it. If I do something I’m reasonably happy with taking on board, then 3 weeks feels about right. But if I’m resistant to it, or if life throws me a curve, then it’s gone.

    I know you hate it, but I finished Freud’s Dora last weekend and as a result have started keeping a dream diary. The problem is that although I KNOW I need to do it before coffee, before peeing, before everything, I don’t. I get up and put the coffee on, listed ot NPR…and I can feel the dreams slipping away.

    Why are we so resistant to change!?

  5. Vanessa G
    3rd January 2008

    And me.

    I KNOW I should do this, and probably intend to before waking… then I ‘just check that last email exchange’, ‘just have a drink’, ‘just put the cat out of the study’… just anything.

    congratulations on sticking with it Kay.

    I admire your staying power.

  6. bowerr
    7th January 2008

    I’m glad you found Brande works for you so far. Her approach does require serious application.

    Interesting research about the six months too! I wonder if the research said how guilty people feel who give into stress, thus reinforcing feelings of failure.


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