4 Science-Based Resources to Build a Drama-Free Writing Routine

routineFew things in life give me more pleasure than a gorgeously written blog post validating my choice to write, particularly if I’m fresh from a difficult critique or my characters have gone silent. That’s when I scan my environment, looking for people brimming with positivity. If you’re one of them, I glom onto you. I yearn to be swept up in your narrative.

And if you’re drinking hope’s sweet ambrosia and if you’ll allow me to sip from your cup, maybe take it back to the keyboard with me, I’ll love you beyond all reason.

I’ll bookmark your post. I’ll copy it into my Scrivener file marked “inspiration”. I’ll remember you with gratitude long past the point when your words have lost the power to propel me forward. Because I’m fickle like that, dear Unboxeders. Borrowed hope only works for so long before I need another hit, another dealer, a different jewel-encrusted goblet to place at my right elbow.

Lately, because of this self-knowledge, I’ve lost interest in dealing with my internal drama and grown more focused on what garners results. I’ve looked for ways to make my writing both habitual and independent of motivation levels. Much like I change my environment and routine when I’m serious about taking care of my health, I’m trying to respect my process and design an environment which makes writing the default position rather than something I must fight my way into.

Accordingly, I’ve been focused more on science-based behavioral change, looking to the resources I’d have valued in medicine to support patients who want to alter their lifestyle in systematic, incremental, and non-threatening ways.

Because I’ve found them helpful, and because they have virtually no end of application, I thought I’d share them here. (This is not to say I won’t continue to enjoy and possibly write posts about motivation. It’s not an either-or proposition!)

The first several draw upon the work of BJ Fogg, a Stanford professor whose research is about habit formation. In 2012, Fortune Magazine named him one of Ten New Gurus You Should Know, but I simply admire his work for its concreteness.

1. In this first video, you will learn:

  • How to create a minuscule behavioral change following a reliable trigger. (e.g. Perhaps you want your routine to mean that you open your work-in-progress as you sip your first morning coffee, or that you activate your internet blocker as soon as you sit down to write.)
  • The special-but-small practices which, when performed, make it much more likely your habit will stick.

2. Now that you’ve got the basics, if you’d like like help from Bogg himself on how to design a minute habit which has a good chance of becoming automatic, sign up for his free online 5-day course. It’s superb and doesn’t take much time.

3. When it comes to creating long-lasting behavioral change, does the evidence suggest we should focus the most energy on motivation, ability, or triggers? The answer is probably not what you think, as explained by Bogg in this next video. He also covers:

  • How to go about leveraging a tiny change into a bigger one.
  • How you can use your moments of high motivation to lock in bigger behavior changes, both now and in the future. (e.g. commit to a critiquing schedule; locate a freelance editor you want to work with and establish a deadline; decide a fit body leads to a fit brain and pay for sessions with a personal trainer.)
  • Why automaticity trumps self-discipline when it comes to permanent behavioral change.
  • The implications this can have for your business as you create triggers for your customers which can activate and create habitual use of your product.

4. By focusing on minute behavioral changes, we’ve bypassed the issue of inspiration and motivation. But if you were to create an habitual writing routine, could you reasonably expect that motivation would follow?

The As If PrincipleAnecdotal information says yes. (That would include mine; I’ve found any kind of forward movement makes me feel more hopeful, in turn leading to another baby step forward and an upward spiral of action and motivation.)

Nevertheless, would you find it comforting to know there is ample scientific evidence to support the theory? Then you’d probably enjoy The As If Principle: The Radically New Approach to Changing Your Life by Richard Wiseman. It’s chock-full of science experiments which illustrate the point. For example:

  • By holding a pen in your teeth, activating the musculature that would be used in a smile, you will automatically feel happier.
  • By clenching a fist or bicep, you will come to see yourself as one who possess willpower.
  • By having an established couple perform “exciting” activities together, versus those they’d label “enjoyable”, you can rekindle emotions similar to when they’d first met.

While there are no experiments that relate explicitly to writing, it’s not a stretch to believe that acting as if you are a committed author, however that looks to you, is a back door to feeling like one after a sufficient period of time.

Now I’d love to hear from you. What is your experience of the role between motivation and writing output? If you have a routine and rely upon automaticity, how did you discover your process? Lastly, do you have any other resources you’d add to this list?


About Jan O'Hara

Jan O'Hara left her writing dreams behind for years to practice family medicine, but has found her way back to the world of fiction. Currently the voice of the Unpublished Writer here at Writer Unboxed, she hopes one day soon to become unqualified for the position.


  1. says

    I can’t control output – that depends on the particular scene I’m writing, and how much work I need to do to before it will flow. But I CAN control whether I’m sitting at the computer, ready to write, in as good a physical shape as possible, first thing in the morning. The routine is down, and gets tweaked as necessary: in the winter, the first half hour (right now) is done under a very bright light because the days getting short seems to shut me down.

    If I’m procrastinating I use a little technique from Alan Lakein’s book, How to get control of your time and your life. After identifying the A1 task, he divides reasons for procrastinating into only two kinds: the task is overwhelming or the task is unpleasant. A task can be both – filing taxes, anyone? – but on any given day, it is usually more unpleasant than overwhelming, or vice versa.

    Then he gives you a lot of techniques for handling either. For example, if it is overwhelming, making a list or doing anything, however small, on the A1 often gets me me going. If the task is unpleasant, I might use a reward – or seriously contemplate what is going to happen if I don’t get it done NOW.

    The process of admitting I was procrastinating, figuring out why, and dealing with that specifically got me through my thesis – and continues to serve me well. Sometimes ‘figuring it out’ takes several pages of writing – so the words also get flowing.

    Anything to engage the brain, and get it writing – because that’s what I really want to do.

    Thanks so much for the videos!


    • says

      It’s been years since I read Lakein, but that book still influences my thinking and helped me build my routines for just about everything but fiction. It’s almost a decision-tree habit he teaches, isn’t it?

      • says

        Exactly. On my thesis I would allow myself to procrastinate by reading as much as I wanted – but only Lakein’s book.

        Every time I would read until I found a suggestion that resonated that day – put the book down, and get to work.

  2. says

    It has boiled down to making choices, not just daily but sometimes hourly. After the non-negotiables, the rest are choices. Do I play with the dog or write? Do fix that drawer that’s catching or write? Do I weed the garden or write? Do I read or write? That last one is hard … it’s a 50/50 depending on my mood. But the nice thing is that even if I blow a whole day reading (I can always call it research :) I don’t have to beat myself up about it, and just make the next choice writing.

    • says

      So your habit, if you will, is to have any activity trigger the question, “This or writing?” Interesting technique, because it won’t necessarily have you seated at your desk at any given time, yet there are many opportunities to engage. If it works, and you don’t find yourself fatigued, then it sounds wonderful.

      Also, I’ve given up on beating myself up over non-performance. (It’s like that ironic saying: Beatings will continue until morale improves.”) Rewards work much better, IMHO. Glad you’ve reached the same understanding.

  3. says

    Jan, these links are fascinating — thank you so much for sharing!

    With so many activities calling for attention these days, finding time to write can be hard. I’m trying to block out specific hours — even on my phone’s calendar — to make sure I keep the habit of writing.

    • says

      Glad if they provide food for thought, Liz. And your trigger of a time slot is a brilliant one, if you are in a position to react when that phone alarm goes off.

  4. says

    Well, Boss, I guess my work habits were formed when I was a boss myself. I found that running a production facility was grounded in habit and goal-orientation.

    The morning routines of overseeing the setting up of machines and perusing order files with employees–even the jocularity of shared morning coffee as we readied ourselves, and the grim humor of bemoaning the workload together–were essential to getting sixty people going before dawn each morning. It was important to “glimpse the overwhelm” sharing with each the mountain of a growing order file. But then reining it back to: “Just get these six orders done today”; or even: “Just get these two done before lunch.” I learned how important morale was to the task, and had to maintain my own, as well. Then the goal: “If we can get this footage out on time, we’re only one week away from our shared monthly footage bonus, guys! I need you all to gut it out!”

    I’ve always thought of it as making the morning rounds, and my writerly self still makes them (checking the page, checking in with the Mod Squad, reading WU, seeing who else has a post up). With morale in check, I glimpse the overwhelm (God, this rewrite will take forever!), then tell myself: “Just review this scene before lunch. It’ll help you immerse and you can rewrite that next scene this afternoon.” Then, the goal: “Get this rewrite done by Friday, and you can forget all about it for a while on the coming vacation.”

    Mine’s pretty simple, but it works for me. Glad you’ve found the science to take you to the next level of routine-building, Jan! Thanks for sharing!

    • says

      You’ve got me pondering the similarities between my routines in medicine and writing, V. Perhaps that’s been part of the issue in that there hadn’t been much overlap beyond getting the kids out the door. For all my essential autonomy as a physician, my routine was often set days, if not months, in advance, then subject to surprises out of anybody’s control. Interesting. Will have to think on this further. Thank you for the prompt.

      As for yourself, I can see how that way of working from a broad, summative position, to focusing on a specific, bite-sized problem would loan itself extremely well to a writing routine. So glad that you came to the world of fiction with a full toolbox.

  5. says


    If I grip a pen between my teeth I will feel happier?

    *Ah-kay…doo-in-aht! Heelin’…appy! Hanks.*

    Great advice for making BIC easier. There are other habits I wish authors would form, for instance daily taking a step back from the scene of the day to ask questions:

    What does my POV character want? Will he/she get it or not?

    Can I put a secondary motive forward as the primary motive?

    What does my POV character feel? What *else* does he/she feel? Can I eliminate the first and feature the second?

    Why am I writing this scene today? What do *I* feel about what’s happening? What do I want my reader to feel? How can I get my reader to feel something they don’t expect to feel?

    And so on. BIC is great. Being in control of the work is even better.

    • says

      Don, *ee must alk before ee un.” ;)

      Perhaps this bring you a smile without the need for a 2H: This morning, as is my recent habit, I rose from my bed and grabbed to computer to write before my brain was hijacked by the external world. The scene I was refining? One inspired during your 21st Century workshop in which I discovered my character’s secondary motivation and the turning point which pivots us into the climax. Yay!

    • Tina says

      I thought BIC referred to the pen in your mouth. So, BIC is Being in Control? I have to watch the videos.

  6. says

    I write blog posts most daily and work on my book in sections of time I specifically make for writing. It’s not perfect, but I do continue to write.

  7. says

    I love how all the information we have learned (and continue to learn) about the brain are spilling out into all types of areas. My favorite therapy is cognitive-behavioral therapy, which deals exactly with that feedback loop of “what we think affects how we feel and what we do; what we do affects how we think and feel; and how we feel affects what we think and do. If we change even one of those areas, we can move mountains, and be happier doing it! Thanks for the informative post. I’ll have to look at those videos tonight when I’m at home!

  8. says

    Wow, thanks, Jan! I love the idea of tiny habits. Like a lot of people, I set goals that are too big, like clean out every closet in the house, write 2,000 words a day. My motivation quickly dissipates. But tiny habits could make a difference. Will give it a try!

    • says

      Mary, I think Fogg’s work speaks very well to people stuck in the perfectionism-negative-feedback loop, where you can’t ever meet your own standards. I hope you can take the time for his Tiny Habits course. He speaks directly to the role of rewards in creating habits that stick. Best of luck to you. I know how frustrating it can be to inhibit your own progress.

  9. says

    “I’m trying to respect my process ”

    This is one of the biggest things I am learning to do — respecting my own process – not trying to mold myself into what I THINK I should be or how I should write or what I should write or blah blah — but, trust what works for me with my wonky brain.

    I love how your posts apply to other things in our life besides writing, as well.

    • says

      Funny, Kat, because at a vulnerable time, when I was trying to corner “the best” way to do things, yours was one of the voices which penetrated the din of advice. I heard you advocating for self-respect and a different path, and because I loved your writing, that made an impression on me.

  10. Eric Troyer says

    Great post! I’ve been working on goal-setting, including how to break down big goals into smaller ones, that are easier to attain than the big goals. This takes it a step farther by making smaller goals even easier to attain by anchoring them to existing behaviors. I plan to participate in NaNoWriMo, so this is timely for me.

  11. Beki says

    I always have loved Stephen King’s philosophy of three pages a day. Three a day is doable and if you’re on a roll you skim right through them and keep agoing in a wild ride through that day’s scene/s. But if you get three a day for 90 days straight, that might just be a really good first draft you have in three months.

    Though I’m not writing more than nursing notes anymore (and am having to learn an entirely different language to produce them! No grammar? No punctuation? WTH???) I still find the simplicity of a daily, reachable goal is encouragement enough on the days and even weeks when I cannot do more than that, THIS I can achieve and still feel accomplished.

    Also, the fake smile face I put on instead of allowing myself to frown while in thought really does seem to keep my mood positive for longer during a tough day, so the pen in teeth thing makes total sense to me. Nice post, Jan!

    • says

      Ah, yes, medical language is a whole ‘nother conversation. I feel you, my sister-in-health.

      If you can do three pages a day as a routine, more power to you. It’s an excellent goal, but as was said earlier, for me, I have to focus on being there and let go of the word count. Please dog that will change one day.

  12. says

    Loved this! I wasn’t able to watch the hour-long video until today and am eager to try the tiny habits routine. I also signed up for his 5 day course. Good stuff!

    • says

      Kathy, I hesitated to add that hour-long video, but IMHO it’s so worth it. (And honestly faster than reading a recent popular book on habit formation that was more narrative than instruction.) Hope you enjoy the class!

  13. MJ says

    Fascinating stuff, Jan. Trying to read between the lines–is your “tiny habit” statement “After I get out of bed, I will grab my computer”?

    Yes, I’m nosy.

    I have a long drive tomorrow and will be cogitating on all this. Thanks for the thought-material.

    • says

      You’re perfectly entitled to ask, MJ. I don’t see that nosy so much as curious.

      I’ve been traveling a lot of late, so the usual triggers have shifted. But when home, a few of the specific writing-related, tiny habits I’ve been using are:

      After I make breakfast, I will fill the water bottle and place it on my desk.

      After I journal, I will activate the Internet blocker for one hour and open my WIP.

        • says

          MJ, if you’re super short on time, I’d recommend the Tiny Habits course. He gives a quick primer before the week begins, then reinforcement throughout the week. It’s probably the most condensed approach. Also, you have permanent reading materials to read or reread at your leisure.