What Addiction Can Teach about Writing

Have you ever been hooked on a game? Years ago, I would have hesitated to pose this question to a mainstream audience, but these days, with the large game offerings on phones, tablets, and computers, most people have been obsessed with a game at some point in time. Titles like Candy Crush, Angry Birds, and Pokemon Go have been played voraciously by millions of people in the past few years alone. 

Lately, I’ve been considering how these games influence players. If you’ve tried one of them, you know how engaging—even addicting—they can be. There’s a lesson to be had for writers who are working on their routine. 


The impact of addicting design

Addicting games lure players with a sense of accomplishment. Just this past weekend, I downloaded a new game to my phone. It quickly sucked me in with a string of achievements. I was hooked, and I kept playing throughout the weekend, trying to push the level of achievement higher and higher. Eventually, I realized that the game was distracting me from things I needed to be doing, so I deleted it. Later, I reinstalled it. After diving deep into the game a second time, I knew I’d become addicted. I stopped and asked myself, “What’s going on here?” I knew that games like this were tapping into something powerful, and I was convinced that it should be used for my writing habit.


What I’ve learned

Popular games achieve their influence by giving players a sense of accomplishment. Look at any contemporary game played by a large number of people, and you’ll probably see a game mechanic based on leveling up, earning achievements, or unlocking some other game-based reward. 

This idea of achievements or progress is the heart of what makes most games attractive. It’s the reason I keep going back to games, even when I’ve decided I should avoid them. The lure of those achievements, even if they’re artificial, is hard to resist. Something about making progress or building something deeply appeals to humans.


How gaming addiction relates to writing

We need to capitalize on this lure of achievement when building a habit such as writing. The same fascination that keeps us coming back to a game can also keep us returning to our writing projects. 

The key is to set up a feedback loop. With a well-designed game, the loop has already been painstakingly created. This is why we get sucked into something like a game, even if we know we should be doing something else. 

Now setting up and committing to the feedback loop in our personal routines takes forethought and commitment. Essentially, it takes a lot of front loading. When we buy a game, we’re paying for the work that someone else put into setting up the feedback loop. The benefits are short-lived, but it feels like we’ve cheated life somehow. We’re getting a sense of accomplishment without having done anything of real-life significance. 


The habit loop

Knowing what’s going on with artificial achievement can help us to set up authentic achievements. As you design your writing routine, focus on three elements. I first encountered these elements in Charles Duhigg’s excellent book The Power of Habit. These elements are used in game design, but form the basis of any habit creation. They’re as follows:

1. Prompt

2. Routine

3. Reward

Prompt is the reminder or urge to do the habit. With gaming, this sometimes takes the form of a notification or a status update from a friend. With writing, it can take the form of accountability software, accountability partners, journaling, or related routines. For example, my related routines take the form of making coffee and listening to a focusing app with music. I find that these two activities—because I’ve connected them repeatedly with writing—get me quickly into the routine. Often, a prompt reminds us of the reward that we are looking forward to if we complete the routine. In gaming, for example, we are reminded of in-game achievements that await us if we complete certain levels of actions. In writing, we may need to be reminded of a monetary or social reward that awaits. Experiment to find your ideal prompt or prompts. 

Routine is the habit itself. It’s playing the game or doing the writing. This action is the whole point of the process. The elements of prompt and reward exist to reinforce the engaging of the habit. This routine gets bookended by the other two elements to spark and reinforce the behavior.

Reward is some kind of perk that we give ourselves when we’ve completed the routine. This is built into games inherently. Things like badges, leveling up, and social sharing are all designed to keep gamers playing. In writing, we should find achievements that spur us on, similar to what happens in gaming. Oftentimes, the writing is its own reward, once we do it. Just finishing a draft can give a writer a huge boost of energy and encouragement. Many writers experience reward when they share what they’ve written with others. Sometimes, the reward is less connected to the task of writing. So if you need something completely separate, like going somewhere or buying yourself something, give that a shot.


Harness the power of writing routine

Adding each of these elements helps us to build a solid feedback loop. The cyclical, repetitive nature of the process grows the habit. If we combine these three elements in the establishment of a writing routine, we have a winning recipe. Game developers have long understood this, and they’ve baked these elements into their design. As I continue to refine my writing habit, I’m thinking about these characteristics. 

Whether you have experience with games or not, consider how these elements of habit creation can inform your routine. Make a deliberate effort to incorporate all three: prompt, routine, and reward. As with all personal development, be sure to continue experimenting. If you find yourself in a rut, try something different. Iterate. Once you’ve found your ideal mix, the routine will run itself. 

My Writing Journey--The Power of No

As I’ve sought to build my writing routine these past couple of years, a key theme has surfaced. The times I am most productive are when I am focused. And being focused relies on my ability to give certain things up.

I love good quotations. Here’s one of the best from Steve Jobs. 

“Focus means saying no.”

This week, I’ve reflected on the things I’ve had to say no to in order to build my writing habit. What surprises me is that it’s been the same things over and over again. I’d love to say that I’ve only had to say no to things once, and that then the behavior continues forever, but the reality is that my old habits usually creep back. Then I have to say no to them all over again in order to resume my writing. 

Here are some things I’ve had to say no to repeatedly:

  • Staying up late to watch shows
  • Downloading games to my iPhone
  • Sleeping in
  • Exploring new hobbies
  • Taking multiple days off from writing
  • Neglecting exercise

This isn’t meant to be a list for anyone else; it’s just for me. These are things that have significant power to distract me. When I download a new game or stay up late to watch a show, I know it will negatively impact my writing. It’s happened so many times that I know how things will pan out.

I’m certainly not bashing on taking a break from working on our goals, but I also think that we need to be very smart about our habits. During the last two weeks, I’ve made poor choices about my activities. The consequence is that my writing progress withered. 

So this next week, I’ll be refocusing on choosing the activities that I know reinforce my writing. I know that I’m happier when I keep my habits in place, so it should be a good week.

Don't Make a Resolution if You Want to Write More

This past week, I thought about my approach to the next year. You probably did something similar. My take on this topic is a little different than some: I don’t believe in New Year’s Resolutions. 

I wrote about my thoughts and posted them on medium.com, a site that allows any user to blog in a shared format. I’m adding the link because that post discusses my writing ritual. I think my readers at BTBC will recognize some of the themes.

I believe that resolutions can sometimes work for people, but I also believe that many folks deeply discourage themselves if they fail. The post explains what I believe is a much better approach for achieving our goals:

Resolutions Suck--Do This Instead

If you read this, please let me know what you think in the comments here. And it’s okay if you don’t agree with me!

How a Morning Routine Has Changed My Writing (And Maybe My Life)

If anyone had told me when I was younger that getting up early would become one of my most important habits, I would have laughed at them.

In the not too distant past, I never rose earlier than absolutely necessary. The only exception was if I were excited about something, like going on a vacation. A few years back I took a big step in changing that mentality. The alteration happened because I was making my first attempt to create a serious writing habit. In my quest to grow as a writer, I had begun to study the lives of successful authors. I noticed that a high percentage of authors were early risers. I dreaded the idea of getting up earlier, but I decided to give it a shot.

For the first time in probably years, I willingly got up while it was still dark outside. I staggered to the kitchen and made some coffee, then staggered to my computer to write. A couple of hours later, I had made a legitimate stab at a book chapter. I was elated.

In the months following, I became consistent at this routine. Granted, it was easier for me to start than many people. I was only employed part time. My wife was working full time and we had no children. My whole morning was open, and I had a lot of flexibility. (Wow, I can hardly remember what that was like!) So creating this ritual was easier than it might have been. I wasn’t dealing with sleep deprivation, for example, or a conflicted schedule. I was able to continue in this vein for several months and I completed the rough draft of a novel. (It still needs revision--on my list!)

Not long after that, I enrolled full time in graduate school. The writing ritual was lost in the busyness of commuting, classes, and a combination of jobs. Later, a baby and a full-time job stood in the way. Then another baby. I spent the better part of six years looking back at those mornings with my coffee and novel writing and realizing that had been one of the most enjoyable experiences of my life. I figured there was no way to go back.

A few months ago, I reached a point of mental and physical exhaustion. I was unhappy, too. I remembered the years when I'd had more time to engage in writing, and I realized a couple of things:

1. Engaging in a regular writing habit makes me happier.
2. Any habit, including writing, only happens because I make time for it.

These two realizations convinced me that I needed to resume writing, even though I didn’t feel like I had the time or energy for it. Many of the things I’ll be posting about are strategies that I’ve discovered to help me cope with the lack of time and energy. I do want to be completely honest and admit that it’s still a struggle. I haven’t nailed it. What I can say with absolute certainty, however, is that every day I write, I am happier.

So I resurrected the early morning routine from years before. It’s been harder this time around. I need to get up even earlier, sometimes as early as 3:30am. (Not a joke.) I have a long commute and an early start to my day job, so this is necessary. I have to go to bed earlier than some elementary school kids, and I don’t get as many hours of sleep as I’d like to, but here’s the key thing: I am much more fulfilled on the days I follow my morning routine.

Yesterday was a skip day. I slept in rather than following my ritual. No joke—the whole day felt like a disaster. I was lacking energy, unfocused, and irritable. The day before, I'd thoroughly engaged in my morning routine. The benefits followed me through the day: energy, enthusiasm, cheerfulness. And of course, there was the benefit of having actually written something. 

So I'm striving to get into the flow of doing the routine every morning, even on weekends. I find that if I skip, it throws off my consistency completely. I've also found that if I'm undisciplined in this area, I tend to be unsuccessful in my other goals. 

I realize that many people hate mornings. I also understand that some people thrive working at night, when I'm rarely good at much more than a movie and popcorn. All the same, I encourage anyone serious about improving their writing habit to take a look at their morning routine. I was very surprised when I discovered that the mornings were my best time for writing. 

Also, even if you don't utilize the morning for writing, consider that the way you start your day has a profound impact on how the rest of your day unfolds. I used to wait until the last possible minute to get out of bed every day. I'd throw on some clothes and grab the simplest thing to eat I could find before running out the door. I constantly felt tired, distracted, and unfulfilled. Now that I get up earlier and follow a set of morning rituals, I am much happier, calmer, and more focused. So, I encourage you, look into ways to optimize your morning, even if you don't utilize that time for writing

In a future post, I'll share specifics about my morning habits, as well as how I approach my writing time. What about you? I'd love to hear some comments about how you start your day.