It’s not easy to become a productive writer. Using the tiny habits approach has much to offer.
A common problem for writers is procrastination, often linked to excess perfectionism: “I don’t feel like writing today. I’ll wait until I feel the inspiration.” Delay follows delay. Sometimes, when sitting down to write, a perfectionist keeps rewriting the first paragraph or even the first sentence, because it’s never quite right.
Finally, after an interminable delay, pressure builds up, often due to a deadline, and this triggers a surge of writing lasting hours or even days. It’s a binge. It generates lots of words but it’s exhausting mentally. Not wanting to do it again soon leads to procrastination, and the cycle goes on.
In 2008, I read Tara Gray’s book Publish & Flourish. It is a short, easy-to-read and inspiring guide to becoming a productive scholarly writer. The core of her approach is writing daily — a practical way to overcome procrastination and bingeing. Gray was inspired by research, carried out in the 1980s, by psychologist and education researcher Robert Boice. He observed that most new academics were overwhelmed by the demands of teaching, but noticed a small number who were less stressed and more productive. Boice thought the techniques used by these more productive junior academics could be taught to others and set out to show how. He found that a practice of daily writing, in short periods and with accountability, could work wonders.
Since 2008, I’ve used the Boice-Gray approach myself, offered it to my PhD students and coordinated a writing programme for academics and research students. I’m always on the lookout for ideas to make the process easier and more effective. It was with this background that I came to BJ Fogg’s book Tiny Habits.
Fogg developed his programme for building habits a decade ago and has been using it to help thousands of people. Tiny Habits is a straightforward presentation of the programme, with lots of exercises, diagrams, lists and — most revealing of all — stories about habit development. Some of the stories are about people Fogg knows, and some are his own personal experiences.
Here I’m going to point to a few of the ideas in Tiny Habits and say how they relate to the Boice-Gray writing programme.
A key idea in Tiny Habits is to start small — very small. The purpose is to make it as easy as possible to start a new behaviour. Once it becomes a regular part of your routine, it can be built up. Fogg repeatedly uses one example from his own experience: after he has a pee, he does two push-ups. And to start with, the push-ups can be against the wall. Easy! Fogg wanted to become fitter, and he wanted to develop habits that would help in this quest. He didn’t start by going to the gym for a workout. He started with the two-push-up routine.
In the writing programme, we have something similar. Rather than procrastinating and then going on a writing binge, the goal is to write a relatively small amount each day, an amount small enough to feel unthreatening, small enough to feel doable.
When I started the Boice-Gray method, I aimed at about 15 minutes per day, which felt like a breeze compared to my previous methods, and easy to maintain week after week. However, I soon learned that for many of my colleagues, even to sit down and write for 15 minutes was too daunting to contemplate. They couldn’t do it. Some couldn’t write anything at all. So, for those who join our group and started out writing many hundreds of words each day, I say, “Cut back. Don’t write for so long each day. Think of doing five or ten minutes. Do this until you create a sustainable habit.”
This advice worked for some, but others dropped away after starting the programme, returning to their usual pattern of procrastination and bingeing. If I had known about the tiny habits approach, I would have offered something simpler: start by writing just one minute each day. Or even simpler: start by picking up a pen and looking at a sheet of paper. Do this every day for a week. If you feel like writing a sentence, do that.
Tiny habit indeed! Picking up your pen — or putting your fingers on a keyboard — and thinking about writing seems pretty easy. That’s the point! It’s so easy that it’s hard to rationalise not doing it. It’s hard to say, “I’m too busy to pick up a pen and look at a sheet of paper for a few seconds.” It’s so easy that excuses are too obviously just that, excuses.
Don’t rely on motivation
Many people, when they want to start a new behaviour, rely on motivation. They want to lose weight, so they rely on their willpower to eat less or eat differently. This sounds obvious, but it hardly ever works.
Fogg devotes pages of text telling about motivation and why it’s an unreliable road to change. He tells about “behaviour design” as a way of getting around the “motivation monkey.” The idea is to discover what you really want to do, and develop a way to turn that into a routine.
The Boice-Gray writing programme is also based on a distrust of relying on motivation. The bad habit of procrastination is driven by an assumption, or rationalisation, that you need to be inspired to write, so if you don’t feel like it, then you should wait until you do. For quite a few scholars, the result is very little writing.
Here comes a delicate issue. Fogg provides a detailed set of steps for figuring out what you really want to do. The writing programme assumes you really want to write, or at least to be an author. But perhaps some scholars don’t really want to write. Maybe they don’t really want to be authors because they fear putting out their work for others to read.
Make it easy enough
Fogg provides an illuminating diagram showing the areas where action will be taken, with the axes being motivation and ability. If your motivation is too low, you won’t act; if you lack ability, you won’t act. Doing 20 push-ups might be too hard; doing two push-ups against the wall probably won’t be.
Everyone in the writing programme has the ability to write. Most of us are either doing PhDs or already have PhDs. But sometimes it seems that writing on a challenging topic for an article or thesis chapter feels too hard. Because it’s important to write regularly, we sometimes suggest easier options, such as writing a diary entry, a letter to a friend, or just whatever comes into your head, so-called free writing. Options like these help keep up the daily writing habit, and maintain or improve our capacity to turn thoughts into words on a page.
When it comes to building a habit, a crucial factor is having a prompt: something that will remind you of what you want to do. Fogg gives many examples of prompts and how to find one that is reliable and effective.
In the writing programme, we recommend finding a regular time and place for writing, so it becomes part of a routine. For me, it’s soon after getting up in the morning. Others time their writing after specific activities. We could do more to help each other find prompts.
Over the years, many participants in the programme say that it’s important to do their writing before checking emails or social media. It’s easy to get sucked into hours of online browsing, and before long writing seems too hard. One tip is to turn off notifications, so there’s less temptation to see what’s come in. For those who find it easy to be distracted, we’ve suggested various tricks, for example leaving a sheet of paper on top of the computer, to be seen at the next visit, saying “WRITE”. The problem of overcoming distractions can be thought of as breaking an undesired habit. Fogg tells about this too.
Fogg recommends celebrating immediately after every single success in carrying out a tiny habit, even just doing two wall push-ups. He goes to great lengths to encourage you to find the most effective way. It might be a fist-pump, shouting “Yes!” or doing a little dance. Fogg says it’s worth experimenting to see what actually brings out a positive feeling. It’s the positive emotion that’s important: it helps wire in the habit.
In the writing programme, we encourage people to reward themselves after finishing a writing session, for example by having a favourite drink, taking a walk or checking social media. That’s fine, and is compatible with a tiny habits approach, but I think Fogg would recommend something more immediate and emotionally powerful right after writing the last word in a session.
There is far more detail in Tiny Habits than I can indicate here, and it would be fascinating to explore many possible applications to writing. There is one other connection, a general one, worth mentioning here: experimentation. Fogg says it’s worth trying out different techniques to find what works best for building a desired habit, or ending an undesired one. In our writing group meetings, I often say that finding the most effective approach to writing is a matter of trial and error. What works for one person may not work for another. Each of us listens to others describe techniques they’ve tried and thus get ideas about what we might try ourselves, so in a sense we’re experimenting both individually and collectively.
Tiny Habits is remarkably detailed in its guidelines. There’s one thing I missed: comparison with other works on habits. Fogg gives no references. I would have liked to see a discussion of Charles Duhigg’s best-selling book The Power of Habit or of research on expert performance such as Peak by Anders Ericsson and Robert Pool. Perhaps this is just a scholarly quibble. The test for each individual is whether learning the tiny-habits approach is worthwhile.
Are you going to get a copy of Tiny Habits? Maybe you need some incentive to order it. Then, are you going to read it? Start small: just open the book once a day. Then aim to read just one page each day — and celebrate just after you do. Before long, you’ll have perfected a habit of regular reading.
Thanks to Tonya Agostini, Paula Arvela, Monica O’Dwyer and Bec Watt for useful feedback on drafts, and to all members of the high-output writing programme for sharing experiences.