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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.

How to Build Stronger Writing Habits

Habits are well-insulated neural pathways.

Habits are well-insulated neural pathways.

In the previous post, you identified your writing habits and your resisting habits. To transform those resisting habits into writing habits, it helps to know just a bit about how habits work in your brain.

When you think a certain thought or take a particular action, a series of neurons fire in sequence along a neural pathway. Every time these neurons fire, the neural pathway gets a small layer of myelin, which is the brain’s fatty, white tissue that insulates neurons.

“The thicker the myelin sheath around the neurons in a particular pathway, the faster and more accurately the signals along that pathway travel. The more a behavior or thought pattern is repeated, the more efficient the neural pathway for that behavior or thought becomes.” (Around the Writer’s Block, p. 12)

Except for a gradual loss of myelin as we age and in certain diseases like multiple sclerosis, myelin doesn’t go away. Once you insulate a given pathway, it stays myelinated.

This explains why it is so hard to eliminate “bad habits.” Through repetition, the super-insulated neural pathway for smoking, chewing your nails or distracting yourself away from your writing becomes the default route. When a trigger appears (you see someone smoking or your computer pings to tell you that you have messages), you don’t make a conscious choice, you simply follow the default habitual pathway.

Bad habits are like freeways; once they’re created, cities (or brains) rarely remove them. But just because a freeway exists doesn’t mean you have to drive on it, especially if it takes you someplace you no longer want to go to.

new route to creativity canstockphoto6990961 (2)The best way to not follow the default route of your resisting habits is to create stronger, more insulated neural pathways for thoughts and actions that support your writing. The only way to do that is to repeat the thoughts and actions that lead you to writing. Repeat an action or thought enough times and eventually it will become your new default route.

If you realize you accidentally took a wrong turn and end up on the old resistance freeway, there’s no need for remorse or despair (although you probably will feel regret or frustration). As soon as you realize you’re driving on the wrong neural path, you simply exit.

How do you exit? Stop doing the old behavior or thinking the old thoughts as soon as you recognize them. Shift gears by engaging in the writing-supportive actions and behaviors you want to become your stronger (better insulated) habit.

Don’t wait until you notice a resisting habit kick in. Start practicing your new writing habits now and repeat frequently.

For example, instead of assuming you don’t have time to write, make a game out of finding and using small bits of time throughout the day. The goal is not to produce a lot of great writing; the goal is to create the habit. Any intriguing content you write in those small sessions is a bonus. If you happen to write utter crap, it doesn’t matter. All that matters is repeating the habit you want to create or strengthen.

What resisting habit freeways detour you from feeling satisfied, proud, even delighted with your writing?

What existing or new writing habit freeway can you strengthen to reduce the likelihood of traveling the old resistance route? What habits will take your writing where you want to go?

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12 Comments on “How to Build Stronger Writing Habits”

  1. yellroy January 16, 2018 at 5:42 pm #

    Rosanne, Very interesting what you wrote about habits and myelin. I suppose that is why most linguists have stated that after the onset of puberty a person cannot achieve native-speaker fluency of a second language. We notice that many people who learn English (or any other language) after puberty usually retain a foreign accent, no matter how fluent they have become in English. Nevertheless, with the new ideas about neuroplasticity one hears that the human brain remains malleable even into old age, and that it s theoretically possible to learn a second language without retaining an accent. Maybe you can offer an opinion on these conflicting views. Thanks!


    • rosannebane January 17, 2018 at 11:42 am #

      Hi Yellroy,
      As I understand it, there are some neural pathways (which then manifest as traits or behaviors) remain plastic throughout our lives, while others are not. I think the reason we have an accent when learning a second language is because the brain is flexible about what sounds occur in spoken language in childhood, but this flexibility closes around age 5. Learning the vocabulary and grammatical rules in a second language is a different kind of cognitive task for an adult than it is for a child, more intentional learning for adults, more unconscious absorption for children.


  2. Bartosz Sosna (@brtsos) December 30, 2012 at 11:54 pm #

    I know great tool to habits : http://habitsin21days.com/


    • rosannebane January 2, 2013 at 4:39 pm #

      Thanks for the suggestion Bartosz. I’ll check it out.


  3. Joel D Canfield December 18, 2012 at 7:38 am #

    This is precisely the process I used to get over my bitterness from my divorce 10 years ago. I was totally consumed by anger and unhappiness and didn’t stop to think about replacing my thinking habits until a friend talked me through this very process.

    Within a week, I was noticeably happier, and within a month, I had a new habit of thinking positive things about life, the universe, and everything. No, it wasn’t a miracle, I still have to work to stay off the old broken freeway, but at least there’s a brand new freeway to use instead of just jungle paths.

    My challenge with writing is, just as you say, looking for big blocks of time so I can get in the zone and really produce.

    But that’s all I’m doing: looking. Not writing. I’m creating the habit of looking for time, when I should be creating the habit of writing.

    I’ve been looking for an excuse to use a nice journal and my expensive fountain pen. Why not keep ’em handy, and when I have five minutes, two minutes even, write?


    • rosannebane December 18, 2012 at 2:36 pm #

      Very perceptive Joel! Nice distinction between the habit of looking for time to write compared to the habit of using available time to write.
      Please keep me posted on what you discover about how much you can write in two to five minutes.



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