Wednesday, January 2, 2013

On Resolutions and Writing Habits

I have more to say on my in-depth analysis of Elf, but with the new year upon us tradition demands I take a break to post on a couple of other topics (I’ll return to Elf in a week or two). One of those topics is my Best Written Films list, which will be my next post. Today I want to discuss the tradition of making New Year’s resolutions and the broader topic of writing goals and habits.

Habit is a powerful force, one that can work for you or against you. For example, I try to exercise five times a week. When I’m in that routine it isn’t hard to get motivated to go to the gym or for a run. In fact I get frustrated and grumpy if I miss a workout. But if that habit is interrupted for any length of time – by illness or travel, say – then I find it takes a great deal of willpower to get off the couch and back to the gym afterward.

The good news is we can change our habits with a little effort.

Most writers write at a certain time of day – this is a habit. Some get up at 4 am and write before their family wakes up. I usually do two writing sessions – one in the morning and one in the afternoon – when my schedule allows. I have difficulty writing at night. I just can’t seem to focus and my motivation is weak. But it wasn’t always like that.

I remember having lunch with one of my college screenwriting professors a few years after I graduated. I told him I had completed three new specs in the previous year, all while working a full time day job. He was amazed and asked about my writing habits. I told him I made it a point to write for a minimum of an hour every day after I got home from work, no matter how tired I was. I didn’t require that I produce a lot or that it was any good, just that I sat at the computer for an hour. And those hours added up.

He didn’t think that would work for him – it usually took him several hours just to get up to speed. As a result he only wrote on weekends when his teaching responsibilities didn’t interfere. I suggested that perhaps the reason it took him several hours to get up to speed was because he only wrote on weekends. I felt my daily habit kept momentum going so I didn’t need so much warm up.

I don’t know if he tried my technique or if it worked for him – I believe different writers function best with different habits. But obviously I was productive and he felt he wasn’t, so he probably needed to make some kind of change to his habit.

A few years ago I realized I had developed a bad habit. I was wasting way too much time playing computer solitaire. So I made a rule that I could play three games of solitaire and then I had to start writing. Now it’s become almost like a superstision. And by the time I finish my third game, I’m excited to get to my script.

I’ve recently learned this is a common habit-building technique known as a “trigger.” It’s basically the Pavlov’s dog approach. Give yourself an easy, unthreatening routine that you perform just before the activity you want to make a habit. After a while, your subconscious will associate the two. So if you always make a pot of coffee before sitting down to write, making a pot of coffee will signal your brain to switch to “writing mode.” Most people find it easier to start making a pot of coffee than to start writing, so it eases you in.

I like to make New Year’s Resolutions, both personal and professional. It’s hard to make resolutions for the whole year, though. For one thing, by April I’ve forgotten all about the resolutions. Plus, it’s hard to know what will be the best thing to be doing in December. If I resolve to write three specs what happens if I get an assignment or maybe get inspired to write a novel? Of course I can change my resolutions and nobody will care in the slightest, but doesn’t that kind of defeat the purpose?

So though I do pick a few broad goals for the year, they are usually related more to improving my habits than achieving specific milestones. And, I’ve started making monthly resolutions (another idea I’ve discovered is not particularly original). Those have turned out to be far more valuable.

It’s a lot easier to focus on improving one thing for a month than sticking to several things for a year. And studies have shown it takes about three weeks of repetition for something to become a habit. So if, for example, you resolve to make one networking call or email per day in January, by February you won’t need a resolution to continue the practice because it will have become a habit.

I’ve gotten into the bad habit of spending the first hour or so of my day reading blogs, returning emails and checking Facebook. Nothing wrong with any of that per se, but I long ago realized I’m at my most creative and productive when I’m most rested. That means I’m using the best part of my day for tasks that don’t require much mental power.

So my January 2013 resolution is to spend at least the first thirty minutes of my day doing “idea development.” I’ll take some potential project and brainstorm or do character development or noodle with an outline. I’ll spend my most creative and productive time doing tasks that require the most creative energy. Facebook and blog reading can wait until I’m worn out.

I can’t tell you what your resolutions should be, of course. But I will suggest a few things that might spark some ideas. Obviously you could resolve to change a writing habit, as I did. You could also resolve to improve some business habit – make a daily networking outreach, enter a certain number of writing contests, more regularly follow industry news, practice pitching every day, etc.

Or you could make an educational resolution. A writer friend of mine once resolved to “master character development.” That’s a little amorphous for me, but you could take a class and resolve to listen carefully to the feedback. Or read a book that addresses a particular weakness. Or work on spelling and grammar.

You could try to improve a creative habit. I used to write my first drafts very quickly and as a result most of my scenes were underdeveloped. Then years ago I started making it a point to stop at the beginning of every scene and think through what the scene was about, what the characters wanted, and what I could do to really develop the scene in an unexpected way. As a result, my first drafts got a lot better. You might resolve to write dialogue that’s more reflective of character or to avoid clichés or whatever your personal creative weakness is.

And whatever you resolve, I wish you good luck with it!


Kristi Holl said...

Terrific article and so true! Thanks!

MonkeyMarilyn said...

This was perfect! I seem to have the same habits as you and realized I write better in the AM but then I spend an hour catching up on blogs/emails. And, if one of them should induce stress it kills all my creativity!
Curious if you do you do morning pages (3x stream of consciousness pages first thing in the morning) or have any other habits like that.

Sarah Scott said...

Thanks for the inspiring blog. Here's the main takeaway for me: "Then years ago I started making it a point to stop at the beginning of every scene and think through what the scene was about, what the characters wanted, and what I could do to really develop the scene in an unexpected way." Good advice I'm putting to use already.

Unknown said...

This is brillian I will try to write more in the morning :-)