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Creativity coach, writing and creative process instructor, speaker, author of Around the Writer's Block: Using Brain Science to Write the Way You Want (Penguin/Tarcher 2012) and Dancing in the Dragon's Den (Red Wheel Weiser), Teaching Artist at the Loft Literary Center.

Why Writers Need Habits, Not Discipline, to Overcome Resistance


In the previous post, I explained that I’m not a fan of discipline (aka punishment). Here’s why.

Why Discipline (aka Punishment) Rarely Works

The human brain remembers every little thing associated with a negative experience. Because any of the little details might have caused or contributed to the experience, it pays to remember those details so you can avoid them in the future.

So if I pinch you every time you touch your nose, you’ll stop touching your nose. In this sense, discipline, aka punishment, works. Naturally, you’ll also want to avoid me (because I’m the source of the punishment). Punishment doesn’t work if you want to maintain an ongoing relationship with another person (or with your dog or other mammal).

But because the brain remembers every little detail, you’ll also want to avoid other people who were present when you were punished, as well as the place you were punished and all the things you saw, heard, smelled or felt when you were punished.

If you try to “discipline” yourself around your writing, you’ll actually start avoiding the people and things associated with your writing. Ultimately, you end up avoiding your writing altogether.

As ineffective (not to mention unpleasant) as this aspect of discipline is, there may be a form of discipline writers do need.

Positive Discipline?

A student once commented that I must be really disciplined because I honor my commitments to Process, Self-care and Product Time 99 percent of the time.

“That’s not discipline, that’s habit,” I said.

“Yeah, but before it was a habit,” the student observed, “You had to be really disciplined to make it a habit.”

I never thought it that way. The word “discipline” is so tainted for me, I avoid using it. I always thought of what I do as setting an intention, making a commitment and then honoring my commitment. I see myself as a woman of integrity, not a woman who’s self-disciplined. That may seem like a semantic difference only, but it’s not for me.

Showing up for at least 15 minutes of Product Time 5 days a week (along with meditating for 30 minutes and playing with process for 15 minutes) is just what I do. It’s not a struggle or strain. When you get to this place where you do something just because it’s part of who you are and what you do, you have a solid habit.

But my student is right: before you have a habit, you’re doing something that takes mental focus and a willingness to be a little uncomfortable. Some people call that discipline or will power. I won’t argue with them. I just call it something different – honoring commitments – because that’s compatible with how I define myself.

Whether you call it discipline, will power or integrity, it’s a quality writers need. Unfortunately our capacity for this kind of mental focus and willingness is limited – as anyone who’s ever made great food choices all day and then fallen “off the wagon” in the evening out of sheer exhaustion can attest to. You have to use that mental energy wisely.

Habits Are Easier Than Discipline

The smartest way I know to use that mental focus and willingness is to create habits.

  1. Set your intentions carefully: only give your word when you know you will keep it, make small commitments you can keep and build on your success.
  2. Use whatever tools you have (calendar, online reminders, support groups, tracking charts, check-ins with classmates, etc.) to remind you to bring your mental focus to bear on doing the behavior you want to become habitual.
  3. Do this behavior every time you say you will.

Once you have the habit, you have to keep honoring your commitment every time, but you need much less mental focus and willingness to sustain the habit.

Discipline falters (and it hurts); habits endure (and they’re easy). Who wouldn’t want writing habits instead of writing discipline!

If you want tools and support to sustain as you develop writing habits, please consider joining my Writing Habit class. I promise no one will try to discipline you, not even yourself, but you will gain integrity and really enjoy new writing habits!

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