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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.

Do Bad Habits Detour Your Writing?


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In the previous post, you inventoried your writing habits and your resisting habits. To transform 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 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.

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. If you repeat an action or thought enough, it will become your new default route.

It takes months to build new habit highways that will lead you right to your writing. In the mean time, you will inevitably find yourself taking a wrong turn and ending up on the old resistance freeway. There’s no need to judge yourself. Regret, frustration or criticism isn’t going to help. The goal at this point is not to avoid the resisting habits, it’s simply to notice them.

take exit canstockphoto5113295 (2)As soon as you realize you’re driving the wrong neural path, take the exit. How do you exit?

  1.  Notice the old resisting habit and stop doing that
  2.  Take five deep breaths
  3.  If you’re judging yourself, stop
  4.   Do something different.

Ideally, you’ll do something that will support your writing, but doing anything different breaks the habit chain and makes it less likely you’ll engage the old resisting habit next time.

You don’t have to wait until you notice a resisting habit. Start practicing your new writing habits now and repeat them 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 of finding time to write. 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 and strengthen.

You probably have many resisting habit freeways that detour you from feeling satisfied with your writing. We all do. Pick just one to focus on for a month.

You also have ideas about what writing habit freeways you want to travel more often. Pick two or three to practice as soon as you notice you’re traveling the old resistance route.

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  1. How Scratching the FOMO-Itch Blocks Your Writing | Bane of Your Resistance - October 13, 2017

    […] If you routinely use phone or tablet to check social media, that behavior becomes habitual. (You create and myelinate a neural pathway for that […]

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