When You Fall off the Horse
Every writer I’ve met struggles with periods of inactivity. If you haven’t experienced this, the odds are that you will, sooner or later. Falling out of the writing habit is difficult to avoid. Because of this, we should develop a plan to deal with it.
One reason I strongly advocate for routine is that it guards against falling out of habit. It's much more difficult to completely stop writing if we have a daily ritual. The fact remains, however, that even the most consistent of us will eventually fail.
Knowing this, we should develop a plan to get back on track as soon as possible. The real danger doesn’t lie in missing a day or two. It lies in not resuming our routine after that day or two.
We see it all the time. Someone who set a goal for themselves such as writing a book experiences something that interrupts the project. The writer deals with the interruption. Later, instead of picking up and resuming where they left off, the individual never finishes the project. Sometimes, the person gives up on writing completely.
Because we know this happens to writers, we should take steps to prevent this kind of outcome. If we create an action to deal with interruptions, we can be confident that we will resume as soon as possible. Several factors can help with this.
1. Think Beyond Desire
The plan must be more than an emotional drive. Too often, writers rely on sheer willpower to carry them through rough patches. This works great, until we encounter fatigue. Feelings lack consistency. We need a plan that remains viable regardless of how we feel.
2. Make It Specific
Remove uncertainty from the process of getting back on track. Develop specific actions that you will take to set yourself back on a path of consistency. Write down these steps and keep them somewhere prominent, where you will review them regularly until you know them by heart. The remaining tips below can serve as a starting point.
3. Don’t Beat Yourself Up
If you fail your daily writing target, don’t beat yourself up! It happens to the best writers. Cut yourself some slack and recognize that missing a day or two (and perhaps more if you are on vacation) is not certain death for your writing. While failing your routine isn’t ideal, it’s far less of a threat to your writing than the destruction of your confidence. So be easy on yourself. This is not a paradox. It’s entirely reasonable to hold yourself to a high standard of consistency, yet still be kind to yourself if you screw up.
4. Get Back on Track as Soon as Possible
Resolve to get back on track as soon as possible. Don’t allow yourself to stay stuck. Do whatever is necessary to get started again. Sometimes, this means tossing yourself a softball to get an easy hit. It might take the form of giving yourself permission to write something really simple or silly. Even if what you write is unsharable—even if it’s something that goes straight into the trash, the fact that you wrote it puts you back on the right path. Keep the bar low when getting back into your routine. Perfectionism is a habit killer, and never more so than when you have fallen out of your ritual.
5. Recognize What Distracted You
It’s important to identify the source of your habit’s interruption. Ask yourself if the source of the disruption could interfere again. If so, what can you do to work around it?
For example, if a commitment to a friend or family member interfered, determine if this could happen again. If so, figure out how to schedule future interactions with this person. That way, they’ll be satisfied that you are committing to them, and you’ll be satisfied that you have protected your writing time.
If you were distracted by some kind of entertainment, develop a system of rewarding yourself for avoiding that distraction. Perhaps you can tell yourself that you will watch an hour of your favorite show, but only after completing your writing target for the day. It’s unrealistic for most people to completely ignore their favorite forms of relaxation, so barter an exchange between your writing and your hobby. Use the thing that could distract you as a incentive for staying on track.
6. Create a Buffer
One strategy that guards against faltering is to create lead-time between when you write and when you share. This particularly benefits writers who have committed to regularly deliver writing to an audience. If you have a blog, for example, it’s valuable to write well in advance of your posting schedule. The same principle follows if you’re traditionally published, if you’re a student writing papers, or if you’re working on a book and you've announced a deadline. By getting well ahead of the due date for your projects, you’ll always have a buffer if you fall out of habit. As mentioned before, this is valuable because it will prevent you from overreacting emotionally. If we always write at the last minute, any disruption can mess with our scheduled sharing. This in turn can have disastrous effects on our confidence. Getting ahead and staying ahead offers peace of mind, which helps us to remain confident and consistent.
7. Take a Planned Break
Sometimes, a writer simply needs a break from writing. If you’re beginning to feel that writing is a chore, it’s probably a sign that you need a vacation from writing. Sometimes, the break will just be a day or two. Other times, you might need a couple of weeks. I think it’s fine for writers to take a break, but it’s crucial to have a plan for resuming. Commit to restarting the routine when your vacation is over. Know that getting back into the swing of your habit may take a few days. Resolve to push past the inertia you may experience until you can get things rolling again.
Stay the Course
Sooner or later, most of us will fail in maintaining our writing routine. This isn’t a big deal. The big deal is how we handle that failure. If we allow disappointment to paralyze and prevent us from returning to our routine, we’re in trouble, but with a solid plan and a resolve to get back on track, falling out of routine is just a speed bump. Let’s focus on the long term and shake off any setbacks.