How to Hold Yourself Accountable to Your Writing Practice
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I’ve often said that consistency is key to writing success.
There are other keys, of course: passion, patience, persistence, a willingness to learn. But when it comes to building a life-long writing habit that brings creative fulfillment, consistency is king. Why, then, does it often prove so difficult to get our butts in our chairs and our fingers on the keys?
Today, let’s talk about the phenomenon of resistance and how we can leverage our unique personalities and processes to overcome it!
The phenomenon of resistance…
Do you often fail to do the things you know you want to do? Whether it’s as simple as making your bed in the morning or as important as building your creative writing practice, the phenomenon of resistance doesn’t discriminate.
With our basic needs met, it’s in our human nature to store up energy for the next time we need to build a fire or hunt our dinner — or, in more modern times, head out to our day jobs or prepare a meal. If a task isn’t vital to our physical survival, most of us struggle to work up the motivation to do it. We resist.
And so it’s this phenomenon of resistance we must overcome if we’re to accomplish the many things we want (but often struggle!) to do. But understanding resistance doesn’t make it any easier to get started, does it? What if I told you there’s a way to avoid resistance altogether?
The simplest way to circumvent resistance is to make an action automatic, to turn it into a habit, A consistent practice.
This reality is why “write every day” is such common advice. If a task, such as writing for 30 minutes, becomes a daily habit rather than an occasional occurrence, it quickly chips away at the resistance we feel in getting started. Personally, I recognize the complexities of our everyday lives and won’t insist that daily writing is a must. I do, however, believe some form of consistency is essential.
But this isn’t your first rodeo, is it, writer? You’ve tried to build a consistent practice many times over, but you just can’t seem to maintain it in the long-term. So what’s the deal? Are you not cut out to be a writer? Rest assured, that isn’t the case. With resistance in mind, it’s time we talked about how to hold ourselves accountable to our writing…
How do you engage with expectations?
In Better Than Before, Gretchen Rubin’s book on building good habits and breaking the bad, Rubin outlines a personality framework called the Four Tendencies, which is based on how we, as individuals, engage with the inner and outer expectations in our lives.
According to Rubin:
Upholders readily respond to all inner and outer expectations.
Questioners only engage with expectations, inner or outer, when they believe them to be reasonable.
Obligers meet outer expectations willingly but often fail to take inner expectations seriously.
Rebels place high value on freedom and often resist both inner and outer expectations.
If you’re an Upholder by nature, you likely don’t have any problem maintaining your writing practice. You’ve created a habit and you expect yourself to uphold it. Job done. But if you fall into any of the other tendencies listed above, you may struggle to hold yourself accountable to your work.
As a Questioner, I can attest to this. Because my non-fiction work pays the bills, I expect myself to complete that work first. When I have time to write fiction later in the day, however, I often browse social media or watch Netflix instead. Why? Because I’ve often extended all or most of my mental energy and find relaxing to be the more reasonable thing to do.
If you’re an Obliger, you likely fail to maintain your writing practice because you’re so caught up in your obligations to others. Taking the time to work on something personal often feels like you’re stealing time and attention from those who need it more than you. And if you’re a Rebel, well, the very idea of a consistent habit likely makes you scowl.
With a better understanding of how you engage with inner and outer expectations, what does this mean for your writing life? Let’s break down a few key habit-building tips that may (or may not) apply to your work!
Learning to leverage your personal tendency…
A quick Google search for motivation tips yields hundreds of lists and hacks, and indeed, I’m going to share some of the most popular below. What makes this list different, however, is that it doesn’t ask you to take a stab at which motivation hacks may work for you. It provides evidence á la Gretchen Rubin’s Four Tendencies to help you make the most of how you respond to expectations.
Tip #1: Find yourself an accountability partner.
No one will benefit more from a little external accountability than Obligers. Prone to meeting outer expectations, knowing that someone is waiting on their work will help them make words happen. Questioners may also benefit if they find that external accountability is a reasonable way to motivate them to work.
Rebels, on the other hand, are almost certain to flee from the very thought of making themselves beholden to another’s expectations.
Tip #2: Set goals that work for you.
Some writers thrive when working to fulfill quantified daily or weekly goals, such as writing 2,000 words or editing ten pages. Others prefer to put in the time and let go of the outcome, knowing that putting in their best work for, say, 30 minutes a day is more important to them than reaching a specific goal.
Obligers may find a more concrete goal to be helpful as they work to meet their critique partner’s expectations or they may find that allotting a specific amount of time for their writing helps them maintain their practice while still making time for others in their schedule.
Questioners like myself will benefit from choosing whichever type of goal seems most reasonable. As I revise my manuscript, with some chapters proving more difficult than others, putting in the time makes the most logical sense to me. When I draft, however, I often shoot for specific word counts.
And finally, Rebels will choose whichever style of goal they don’t feel has been foisted upon them by others — or they’ll avoid goals altogether and write however they please!
Tip #3: Track Your Progress and Accomplishments.
It’s often said that looking back on just how far one’s come can prove motivating when maintaining a habit gets difficult or begins to feel like drudgery. Upholders certainly find this to be true, as it helps reaffirm their inner expectations. Obligers can also benefit from tracking their progress, as it most often proves that they aren’t, in fact, wasting their time on a personal project that’s going nowhere.
Some Questioners, on the other hand, may not see the logic in looking back. If they know they’re reaching their goals on a consistent basis, what point is there in self-reflection? Similarly, Rebels may find the process of tracking their work to be too confining and refuse to take part.
Tip #4: Establish your workspace — or ditch it.
Some writers can write anywhere and under any circumstances. Upholders meet inner expectations regardless of whether they like their environment, while Obligers do the same to uphold outer expectations. Rebels often benefit from not chaining themselves to a specific workspace, and Questioners don’t like arbitrary rules such as only writing at a certain time of day or in a certain place.
That said, every Tendency is also capable of benefiting from some workspace structure. Upholders may do their best work when maintaining a strict writing habit that ensures space for all of life’s expectations, and Obligers often benefit from working early in the morning or late at night, when other expectations aren’t in their way.
Questioners may find that maintaining a specific workspace and schedule is the most logical way to set their writing practice up for success, while Rebels may see maintaining such a structure as resisting the idea that one should sneak in a few words whenever and wherever they can.
Four accountability tips that go beyond your tendency…
Learning to leverage how you engage with expectations can be a great way to tailor your writing practice to best fit your personality, but not all accountability tips can be confined to the Four Tendencies. Take a look at these additional accountability hacks as well:
Tip #1: Make Writing Convenient (& Not Writing Inconvenient).
The easiest way to succumb to resistance is to put additional obstacles in your path. Rather than coming home to a writing desk piled high with unfolded laundry or finding yourself out and about without a way to write down your latest great idea, make writing as convenient as possible.
Sync your story notes between your phone and home computer. Set out supplies for that evening’s caffeine fix before heading out to work in the morning. Establish boundaries with family members that may not be aware that you’re simply looking for 20 minutes of uninterrupted writing time.
On the contrary, make any procrastination habits as difficult as possible. Use an app to block social media on your computer during your writing time. Activate night mode on your phone while you work. Put a sticky note above your pile of dirty dishes reminding you that they can wait; your writing practice can’t.
Tip #2: Moderate or Abstain from Distractions.
Another tip that goes beyond the Four Tendencies is in how one deals with distractions. Do you frequently find yourself watching Netflix rather than working on your own stories?
Some writers, regardless of their personality type, may find canceling their subscription to be the easiest way to avoid this bad habit. Others, however, will find abstaining from Netflix altogether to be far too limiting, actually making this intended positive change into a distraction all its own.
Figuring out whether you’re an Abstainer or a Moderator (another topic discussed in Rubin’s book) can provide the clarity you need to make the best choices in maintaining your unique writing practice.
Tip #3: Give the Strategy of Pairing a Try.
Another topic Rubin discusses in her book is the Strategy of Pairing, the idea of combining two good habits for positive reinforcement or using one easy habit as a trigger for another that produces greater resistance.
If you often find yourself choosing between writing and other important tasks, why not combine them whenever possible? For example, you could purchase a treadmill desk, which allows you to walk and write at the same time, or you could dictate your first draft into your phone as you clean house.
Sitting down to write often triggers a lot of resistance. Pairing this difficult practice with an easier one, such as drinking mint tea or listening to classical music, can indicate to your brain that it’s time to stop procrastinating and get to work. So long as you keep your trigger habit exclusive to your writing, that is.
Tip #4: Stop rewarding yourself for a job well done?
I won’t ever tell you not to celebrate a major writing milestone. You just published your first book? Go pop the champagne, my friend! But one very interesting lesson I learned from Better Than Before is that holding yourself accountable to your work by promising rewards can actually prove harmful to the habit you’ve built.
As Rubin explains, a reward marks a milestone reached, and milestones often prove to be stopping points. If you’ve just finished your first draft, taking time off to celebrate can actually break your writing habit, reviving that resistance you long thought defeated.
Rewards can also prove harmful on a smaller scale. If you allow yourself a cookie for every 1,000 words written, deciding to simply forgo your next cookie when writing gets tough means an easy opt-out of your practice.
Working toward rewards can also reframe your practice as suffering, beget bad habits such as eating far too many cookies, and even lessen the intrinsic value you find in maintaining your writing practice.
I’ve preached the virtues of rewarding good work in the past, and if rewards have already proven helpful in your writing life, I see no reason to ditch them. But if that’s not the case for you, try only to celebrate major milestones and remember to maintain your practice regardless. It’s always easier to keep going than to start again.
And there we have it, writer! A mountain of tips and tricks designed to help you overcome resistance, understand how you engage with expectations, and hold yourself accountable to your work at last. If all of this information has you feeling overwhelmed, don’t hesitate to sit down with a cup of tea, work back through the article, and take notes.
How you approach your writing practice going forward is another choice altogether. Quit bad habits cold turkey and tackle your new ideal writing life with all your strength or slowly begin applying just one or two tips to your writing life at a time. The choice is up to you!
No matter your decision, remember that getting started is what matters most. So say goodbye to resistance and hello to habits that stick; it’s time we claim the consistency and creative fulfillment we crave!
Better Than Before by Gretchen Rubin
I’d be remiss if I didn’t give one final shoutout to Gretchen Rubin’s Better Than Before, which informed much of this article. If you’re looking to build better habits and break bad ones, this book is a must-read. (Recommendation not sponsored. I simply found the book too inspiring not to share.)