I’ll start with the bad news.
Much of what you’ve heard about daily routines is more fictional than the stories you’re writing. Everyone seems to have their own “key” to productivity: motivation, willpower, passion, and big goals being the most common.
While these all have the vague ring of truthiness, you’ve probably noticed that, in practice, the results of such methods are inconsistent to nonexistent.
Fortunately, there’s a simple cure.
The Problem With Common Productivity Methods
A daily routine needs to be automatic. Decisions require precious energy and grant us wiggle room to come up with clever excuses not to write. Daily consistency can’t be about gritting our teeth and simply wanting it more.
Because, one day, you’re going to wake up and not want to write at all.
This is why habits are the foundation of an effective daily routine. Once properly installed, they happen without our conscious involvement, and without sapping valuable energy for unnecessary deliberation.
But what of those old productivity stalwarts mentioned during the introduction?
Motivation and willpower are fleetingly unreliable.
Passion is a myth—completing the hard tasks critical for generating growth is often not enjoyable, largely because the human body tries to maintain a state of homeostasis.
And big goals, while great for impressing your friends, are often little more than written wishes with impossible deadlines. On the offhand chance you do accomplish such a goal, you often find yourself so torched by the end that you quickly backslide into old behaviors to escape the “dream big” private Gulag you unwittingly crafted.
Lost amidst this self-help shuffle is the skeleton key that actually controls all your behavior, positive or negative: habits.
Daily Routines Give You Freedom
Artists shy away from consciously constructing habits and daily routines because they’re worried their schedules will become inflexible or their creative work will suffer.
The truth is actually the exact opposite: an effective daily routine frees you from dozens of sundry decisions, thus allowing you to effortlessly immerse yourself within your creative work.
This isn’t a new discovery; prolific Victorian-era novelist Alexander Trollope penned 49 novels in his lifetime by maintaining a consistent daily writing routine from 5:30 AM to 8:30 AM before heading to work at the British Post Office. Of his daily routine, Trollope had this to say:
“A small daily task, if it be really daily, will beat the labours of a spasmodic Hercules.”
Incremental progress and continuous improvement—that is, kaizen—doesn’t make for great copy. There will be no sudden light bulb moment that transforms you from a 500 word per day writer to one who regularly cranks out 6,000 words. Unfortunately, the internet has led us to believe that such massive leaps are the norm.
But while habits aren’t sexy, they do have one critical advantage over the self-improvement pack.
What Is a Daily Routine?
A daily routine is simply a chain of habits, lasting anywhere from ten minutes to a few hours. If you’re just starting out with consciously creating habits and routines, then a shorter one—with fewer moving parts—is recommended.
We all have daily routines that trigger at various times. A morning routine is the most obvious: we might wake, take a shower, get dressed, and have a cup of coffee, always in the same order. However, there are additional daily routines that we don’t consciously see. Most of these automated routines are beneficial, and require no tweaking.
A few, however, could use an overhaul.
And, since many prolific writers maintained consistent daily routines, you might want to construct an entirely new one to ramp up your writing output.
I’ll explain how to do just that using habits.
But first, let’s dive a little further into productivity.
The Two Keys to Productivity
While habits are critical to your productivity, they aren’t the only factor.
Habits make up about 50% of your daily productivity. Essentially, a habit is a behavior that’s been repeated long enough to become automated. You don’t need to decide whether or not to tie your shoes, or to wear a shirt: these decisions have been burned into your brain’s neural architecture through years of repetition. This saves us considerable time and annoyance.
We can apply the same principle to writing, eating, or any other area we’d like to change: burn in the right habits through repetition, and eventually they will become as automatic and effortless as tying our shoes.
Chain these habits together, and you have a daily routine that unfolds effortlessly.
But habits aren’t the whole story.
The other 50% of your daily productivity comes from energy management. Your energy levels are dictated by your sleep, diet, exercise, and understanding when you work/focus best. If you sleep poorly, your performance suffers—and it can even sabotage your habits and daily routines (you might skip shaving in the morning if you’re running on E).
Here’s where things get interesting: sleep, diet and exercise are all controlled by habits. In effect, almost 100% of what you accomplish on a day-to-day basis can be traced back to your habits.
The final point—understanding when you’re most alert—is a matter of self-awareness and experimentation. It is during these times of peak awareness & focus that you want to build daily routines—which, again, are simply chains of habits—and search for triggers.
What’s a trigger?
Good question—because triggers are essential to consciously creating habits and daily routines.
The Basic Architecture of a Habit
Habits form naturally. This makes them appear unremarkable (or impossible to consciously create). But much of your current life is already controlled by habit and routine.
The problem with naturally developed habits is simple: you haven’t consciously chosen them. Subsequently, it’s common for our minds to be overtaken by habit squatters: uninvited, non-beneficial behaviors that wreak havoc on our objectives.
Worse is when they snowball into ineffective daily routines. You’ve probably found that taking certain actions early in the day triggers a cascading effect—either good or bad—on your productivity. This is an example of an unconscious daily routine.
Luckily, habit formation—either creating a new habit, or changing a bad one—is simple once you understand the mechanics. And a black box process becomes crystal clear.
A habit has three components:
- Trigger (also called the “cue” or an “antecedent”)
- Behavior (e.g. the habit itself)
- Reward (also called “consequence”; e.g. what we get from performing the behavior)
In your brain, these three components of a habit become literally bundled together in a neural cluster. This is known as Hebb’s Law: neurons that fire together, wire together. The time frame between the trigger-behavior-reward sequence is condensed enough for these actions to form a neural link. Repeat this chain and the neural groove becomes stronger.
This is why, to change or create a behavior, we must start at the beginning of the chain: the trigger.
Triggers come from the environment, a certain time of day, a specific action (e.g. sitting down), a thought (e.g. “I’m bored”), a smell, sound and so forth. They immediately precede the behavior in question.
Examples of common triggers, and the resulting habit chains:
- Waking up (trigger) > shower (behavior) > cleanliness (reward)
- Morning coffee (trigger) > read the paper (behavior) > feel informed/smart (reward)
- Sitting down at your computer (trigger) > check your email (behavior) > dopamine rush (reward)
By becoming aware of the action/feeling/sensory stimulus immediately preceding a certain behavior, you can work to either repurpose these triggers or avoid them. This, in turn, will alter the behavior. If you routinely buy a doughnut on your commute, but figure out that the trigger is walking past the shop, then taking a different route will render that habit inert.
When it comes to new habits, triggers are equally important. The key to effectively using triggers is finding common actions (e.g. sitting, going through doorways, drinking your coffee) and then constructing effective habits around them. The more consistent and repetitive an action is, the faster the habit will get burned into your neural architecture.
You can then build entire daily routines around these common triggers—say, one for your morning coffee, one for your lunch coffee, then a final one for your evening cup.
But triggers alone are often not enough to solidify your habits.
And the other piece of the puzzle comes directly after the behavior: the reward.
Rewards come in two flavors: extrinsic and intrinsic. Although we believe that intrinsic rewards are best—e.g., we should enjoy writing in the morning for its own sake, or exercising because it makes us feel healthy—this is an egregious error, particularly in the early stages of habit formation.
While we all formed plenty of positive habits without the benefit of extrinsic rewards, it goes without saying that intrinsic motivation is clearly insufficient to create habits that have, to this point, eluded us.
Thus, implementing a system of extrinsic rewards is critical to solidifying habits. Unfortunately, however, we tend to do the opposite: we follow up a difficult behavioral change with what amounts to punishment.
Our “reward” for an intense workout will be a miserable egg white smoothie. Or we’ll do a writing session, then immediately “reward” ourselves with a series of cold calls. Or a chore we hate, such as emptying the dishwasher.
In our brain, this links the preceding behavior to negative feelings. It’s no wonder that our adherence plummets long before most behavioral change can become habitual.
Instead, we need to actually reward ourselves.
Common rewards include:
- Coffee, chocolate, soda—e.g. a small treat or a snack. You can use your morning coffee as a reward for doing 200 words after getting up. I frequently use lunch (because I love lunch) as a carrot for getting writing done.
- Watching a movie or video or reading a book. Usually we’ll cut these out, or only read so-called “serious” books. If you want to read a comic after doing your 200 words, do it.
- Playing a game. You have to be careful with any reward that can stretch out infinitely, but setting aside thirty minutes for Candy Crush or Halo 5 is effective.
- Social media. Again, it has to be bounded, otherwise you could spend three hours on Facebook.
- Checking email. Embarrassingly, I’ve used this as an effective reward.
If none of these are enticing, then come up with your own rewards—something that you like. Then cap your habit with that reward to reinforce the behavioral change on a neural level.
And enjoy it. Don’t spend the entirety of your reward time berating yourself or feeling guilty.
One final note: as time wears on, your brain becomes more accustomed to the intrinsic reward (e.g. the satisfaction of getting words down) and, often, you can reduce or remove the extrinsic reward.
The Final Step: Reps
After you’ve designed a habit, everything comes down to repetition. Think of your neural pathways like a groove. The more water you run through that groove, the deeper it becomes. Eventually you have the Grand Canyon—where something is so automated that it becomes part of who you are, without thinking.
The more common the trigger, the quicker you form a habit. Daily habits are best; those that can be performed multiple times a day are even better.
This makes sense even when doing something every day is suboptimal. Daily strength training is (generally) less beneficial than a three days per week program, as the muscles demand rest time to recover. But when I switched to exercising every day, I quickly went from a 70% compliance rate (with only three weekly sessions) to a 90%+ compliance rate (despite working out twice as much).
Because of this repetition, when I skip a workout due to injury/fatigue, there’s a nagging voice that makes me desperately want to do it anyway.
This took a couple months to “burn in,” but this habitual inertia is incredibly powerful when you experience it firsthand. So powerful, in fact, that I would have concluded that a story like the one above was either fictional or wholly exaggerated.
It’s not. Habits literally change who you are.
Keystone Habits (What Habits Should I Build?)
As with most things in life, certain habits have massively more impact than others. This is an example of the 80/20 rule, wherein 80% of the results are generated by 20% of your effort. Keystone habits are the cornerstone of that vital 20%: they are daily tasks that, when successfully and consistently completed, improve multiple areas of your life via a halo effect.
Getting in shape improves multiple areas: confidence, social interactions, focus, energy, and so forth.
Exercise is an example of a macro keystone habit—e.g. things that improve your entire life. Micro keystone habits, on the other hand, are field specific: playing guitar every day, for instance, dramatically increases your technical skill on the instrument and ability to create music. But the benefits are largely contained within a specific domain (although you might be happier/more content/be able to focus better), unless you’re a professional musician.
As a writer, there are three keystone habits that can push your career to the next level:
- Writing every day (or five times a week). The more you write, the better you get; the more you publish, the more money you make. In short, if your goal is to become a professional writer, then this is the #1 habit you should focus on. Note that “writing” includes stuff like revision.
- Reading every day. This is pure story fuel.
- Exercise. This is pretty much a keystone habit for everyone, but especially critical when you consider that writing is a very static task. Exercise can not only help us get out of heads, but has a litany of cognitive and physical benefits that will increase our focus and overall life satisfaction.
By the way: Putting these three habits together into a daily routine makes a lot of sense, especially if you’re strapped for time.
Behavior change is rarely easy. We all have habits that, upon reflection, we’d rather not possess. Similarly, we all have habits that we’d like to add to our daily regimen—but have, thus far, been unable to make stick.
Thus, here are four things to keep in mind when you’re either changing or creating habits.
1. The Grand Canyon
Since we all have habits that have been serving us poorly for a long time, that earlier metaphor about the neural pathways might have given you pause. Habits cut both ways: you can really burn-in terrible, automated behaviors. Many of us have.
Don’t beat yourself up; instead, understand that changing them comes down to identifying the trigger and then repurposing it for something more positive. Eliminating habits is very difficult, as the neural pathways (like the Grand Canyon) don’t disappear once they’re formed. Changing the behavior by replacing it with a more positive one is far more effective—this essentially creates a detour that bypasses the old habit’s neural pathway.
2. Habits don’t mean always
There are days where life breaks our routine and we skip a shower or tooth brushing. Nonetheless, we don’t view such occurrences as catastrophic or identity shattering—nor do people flee our presence because of the small woodland creatures that have suddenly taken up residence in our hair.
Habits don’t mean every day; they mean that, when you miss a day or an opportunity to perform one, it generally takes conscious effort—and it feels like something is off.
Iteration and experimentation are essential to changing your habits and building new ones. You will have many false starts and setbacks. Quickly moving on and attempting to build a habit differently—instead of burning failures into your neural grooves by repeatedly trying ineffective strategies or dwelling on mistakes—is a simple two step process.
1. Dissect why you failed. Was it a problem with the trigger or reward? Was it poor planning? Do you just not care about this habit?
2. Adjust the trigger or reward and try to build the habit again.
4. Harness the power of friction
Since our willpower is unreliable, even when we’re trying to build smaller habits, it pays to reduce negative temptations and distractions in the environment.
Create friction: For bad habits, set up obstacles and remove triggers from the environment. This can be something like changing your social media account password (or deleting the app from your phone). If you’re trying to eat better, not keeping cookies in the house ensures that you can’t eat any cookies when a craving hits.
Reduce friction: For good habits, we want to make jumping in as seamless and painless as possible. Thus, we can reduce friction by doing things like keeping our WIP open on our computer. Or our guitar out in the open.
Don’t underestimate the power of friction. You might think ten seconds sounds like it doesn’t make a difference.
You’d be amazingly wrong.
I practice guitar regularly (one hour a day). For a while, I put my tuner in a bag in the closet (five feet from the practice area). I didn’t tune the guitar for a month—despite playing every day, and knowing this was severely impacting the quality of my deliberate practice.
This immediately changed when I put the tuner on the shelf (still five feet away—just in plain sight). When it comes to building habits, reducing even a little friction goes a long way.
Habits for Writers
To this point, I’ve taken a more general overview of habits, simply because the concept has tremendous utility outside of writing. By widening our scope, I hope you’ve also identified various habits that are indirectly impacting your ability to create effective daily routines.
For example, you might have already formed the requisite daily morning writing habit “grooves,” but are only showing up half the time because of poor sleep. Which is the result of an ill-advised coffee at 7:30 PM habit that reduces your sleep hours from seven to six, making you tired and fuzzy-headed upon waking.
Thus, it pays to examine all our habits to determine their halo effects—either positive or negative.
However, since The Write Practice is (obviously) for writers, I’ll also give you a few writing-specific examples.
Changing old habits by repurposing triggers
OLD: morning coffee (trigger) > read paper/email etc. (behavior) > dopamine rush (reward)
NEW: morning coffee (trigger) > write 250 words (behavior) > read paper/email (reward)
OLD: feeling bored (trigger) > go to ESPN/email/blog (behavior) > feeling informed (reward)
NEW: feeling bored (trigger) > pull out a craft book and read for 10 minutes (behavior) > text a friend (reward)
OLD: Lunch (trigger) > go talk with friends/go to the food cart (behavior) > feel good/socially energized (reward)
NEW: Lunch (trigger) > bring lunch, work on work in progress (WIP) for 15 minutes (behavior) > visit with friends when they return (reward)
Creating new habits
Sitting down (trigger) > flip to WIP and write for 5 minutes (behavior) > watch a short video (reward)
Booting up your computer (trigger) > work on WIP and write 200 words (behavior) > check social media (reward)
Walk the dog (trigger) > upon returning, work on WIP and write 200 words (behavior) > have a sandwich and give Rover the crust (reward)
Wake up (trigger) > drill scene structure for 10 minutes (behavior) > have breakfast (reward)
The numbers are placeholders and should be scaled to your schedule and skill level. If you can write 5,000 words per day, then it likely doesn’t make sense to work in 200 word blocks. That will probably decrease your productivity.
Conversely, if the longest thing you’ve written in the past three years is a Post-it note, 200 words might be a Herculean effort. Don’t worry about that; once you have the habit in your pocket, scaling the word count or time commitment is a simple matter of gradually bumping up that number.
Putting It All Together: A Daily Routine
We’re finally coming full circle to what the title of this promised: creating a daily routine. It’s important to understand habit construction first, as building a routine is as simple as putting those pieces together into a longer chain.
A quick refresher on the three components of habit construction:
- Behavior (e.g. the habit itself)
Structuring your daily routine in a way where the links flow naturally into one another as a smooth series of triggers and rewards is critical to its effectiveness.
Morning routines are the most common, so let’s break one down. If you recall from earlier, the three keystone habits for writers are writing, reading and exercise. Thus, we’ll chain these together into a morning routine that takes about an hour.
You can, of course, adapt this for any time of the day, using any trigger as the start of your routine.
Waking up is a great trigger, since it reliably occurs on 100% of days. Thus, we’ll use that to kick things off:
Wake up (trigger) > read craft books for 15 minutes (behavior) > coffee (reward)
Right now, we have a fairly basic habit like the examples above. Reading is a good way to start the day off, since it takes less focus & brainpower than writing, which can be a little difficult with sleep fog (YMMV, naturally).
The secret sauce in building a routine from this single habit, then, is to use its final link—the coffee reward—as a trigger for the next habit. Which will give us something like this:
Wake up (trigger) > 15m reading (behavior) > coffee (reward/trigger) > 15m writing (behavior) > 5m email (reward)
Let’s take another step in the chain, using the five minutes of email reward as a trigger for a little exercise:
- Wake up (trigger)
- 15m reading (behavior)
- Coffee (reward/trigger)
- 15m writing (behavior)
- 5m of email (reward/trigger)
- 15m exercise (behavior)
- Protein bar (reward)
Links can be added to the habit chain ad infinitum. In general, however, a simple daily routine is best. Each additional behavior, trigger and reward introduce a new point of failure. If you’re out of coffee, that can throw the entire routine off, for example.
Daily Routines That Work
A robust daily routine is structured around triggers that happen every day, rewards that don’t interfere with your goals (e.g., if you’re trying to lose weight, half a cake is not a reward), and reliable individual components.
In other words, if your internet is out 25% of the time, then using email as a reward would be untenable.
Which leads us again to the concept of friction, and setting ourselves up for success. For the daily routine above:
- Keep a paperback book by your nightstand so you can roll over and start reading. (reduce friction)
- Don’t keep your phone/iPad/Kindle Fire there, as it’s easy to get sucked into a web browsing wormhole instead. (increase friction)
- Keep your computer on, with the WIP open overnight. Thus, when you come up with your coffee, the document is already waiting. (reduce friction)
- Set a timer for activities—emails, social media, video games—that can go on endlessly. (increase friction)
- Have your exercise mat/clothes set up the night before. (reduce friction)
A few more things to bear in mind when creating your daily routine:
Smoothly transition to the next habit
This is paramount in individual habit creation as well. Don’t muddy the neural circuit by doing three things in between the coffee and the fifteen minutes of writing (or whatever your chosen behaviors and rewards happen to be).
A trigger must be tightly bonded and immediately followed by the behavior. Likewise, the reward needs to come right after the behavior. Otherwise the chain doesn’t work.
Smooth transitions have the added benefit of dramatically increasing your efficiency and saving lots of time.
Perform your daily routine the same way, in the same order, for many consecutive days. This means that an effective daily routine you can follow is better than a mythical “awesome” routine that doesn’t fit your lifestyle.
As with habits, if you can repeat your routine multiple times per day, then it will become automated faster.
Analyze existing triggers and rewards
And, as for adjusting an unwanted routine: simply analyze the existing triggers and rewards. Often removing just one or two will cause the current routine to crumble and fade away.
While I hope you’re excited about using habits to build new daily routines, I’ll temper expectations by saying this isn’t an instant life renovation silver bullet. Habits take a long time to form—sixty-six days is commonly thrown around as the “average” time.
Unfortunately, like most things in self-help literature, this number is wholly fictional; the actual time depends on the person and activity. I sat down and meditated for thirty minutes a day instantly; it took me five years to form a regular exercise habit (and I’m still not all the way there). And don’t get me started on going to sleep before 3:00 AM.
After months—or years—of banging your head against the wall following bogus self-help truisms, spending months or years to change your behavior might sound untenable. Unfortunately, there is no alternative. It would be unrealistic—and, quite frankly, undesirable—to expect your brain to completely change overnight.
Nonetheless, as you put in reps, compounding takes over. At some point, you start progressing faster than you ever thought possible. This is the classic “overnight success” that took five or ten years to coalesce.
But if you’re persistent, that success could be you.
Since we covered a lot of ground, here are the key takeaways:
- Willpower, motivation, big goals and passion are unreliable for generating long term behavioral change. The Greek poet Archilochus said it best over 2,600 years ago: “We don't rise to the level of our expectations, we fall to the level of our training.” Habits are your training.
50% of your daily productivity comes from habits; the other 50% comes from managing your energy through getting enough sleep, exercising, eating well, and knowing what times of day you work best.
- Habits are built on triggers, behaviors, and rewards. Focusing on the triggers, then the rewards, will allow you to change old habits and also craft new ones.
- Triggers come from many places: the environment, time, thoughts, sensory stimuli, and more.
- Rewards should generally be extrinsic in the early stages of habit formation.
- Not all habits have equal impact; those that have a halo effect across multiple areas are called keystone habits.
- Three keystone habits for writers are writing every day, reading every day and regular exercise.
- Repetition is the key to burning in neural grooves and making a habit or daily routine automatic—executing your habit daily or multiple times a day will hasten the automation process.
- Replacing bad habits is much easier than eliminating them. Repurpose triggers for positive behaviors to turn time-wasting/negative habits into benefits.
- Expect to experiment with triggers and rewards—sometimes it’s not immediately obvious what is causing a certain behavior, or which extrinsic rewards motivate us.
- Daily routines are simply chains of habits. Craft them around consistent daily triggers and robust individual parts so that day-to-day life doesn’t interfere.
- Keep records. A check mark on a calendar or a simple log will allow you to instantly see your progress. This is critical, because progress is often slow enough to seem imperceptible.
The Power of Habits, Triggers, and Daily Routines
Habits are the most powerful driver of behavioral change on the planet. When consciously strung into well-crafted daily routines, they make you an unstoppable source of seemingly effortless productivity.
While the upfront cost of building habits might seem too high or too slow, consider this: once you’ve carved in those neural pathways, that behavioral change is permanent. No more discipline or watching motivational videos on YouTube. Zero time deciding what to do, or whining about “not feeling it.”
Just pure writing bliss and continual improvement. What could you accomplish if your brain was forever freed from the shackles of merely showing up? Imagine all your creative brainpower being marshalled toward writing the best stories possible—instead of more productivity hacks and tricks.
That’s the power of a bulletproof daily routine. The pieces are simple. But don’t let that fool you.
Lasting, permanent change is now in your hands.
The only question left, then, is this.
A year from now, who are you going to be?
Do you have a daily routine that helps you write? Let us know in the comments.
Take fifteen minutes to consider how habits and daily routines can positively impact your writing.
First, pick one existing habit you want to modify into a writing opportunity. Or, design a new writing habit to add to your day. If you’re ambitious, try constructing a simple routine of a few habits. Identify the trigger and reward and write out the complete chain.
Then, commit to completing the habit for the next thirty days if it’s a new habit, or continually iterating it over those thirty days if it’s one you’re trying to change. Check off the day on your calendar each time you perform the habit.
Share your habit and its trigger-behavior-reward sequence in the comments below. Be sure to encourage your fellow writers as we all work to develop healthy, productive habits.