On Taking Processes of Autopilot

A lot of the advice for newer writers involves hacking the basal ganglia in order to make writing easier. All the old favourites about setting a regular schedule, picking a specific place and time where you invite the writing process in, is really about setting up triggers and associated habit loops that help you to overcome the initial resistance to writing (particularly when you know what you’re doing isn’t up to the standard you want). It’s one of the reasons I recommend Charles Duhigg’s The Power of Habits as a foundational how-to-write book, even though it has nothing at all specific to the writing process.

The thing about setting up new routines, though, is that they’re often the solution to a very particular problem. Those early time/space triggers are great when you’re starting out and desperately trying to carve time out of your busy life to get work done, but they can be far less effective when your career starts to scale up and you find yourself trying to process more mail, or suddenly have to find editing time for your first draft while still attempting to write a new thing.

Context matters, when it comes to habit, and automatic activities are sensitive to changes in context. The writing habits that served me well when I went to an office regularly no longer work for me when I’m working from home, because the triggers that made them effective (going to work, coming home) are now absent. It’s why so many writers who suddenly go freelance find themselves struggling to work or match their output from the days when they worked around dayjobs.

Basically, solutions to problems that no longer exist – or automatic habits that no longer serve our needs – can be as big an issue as the original problem. It’s why it’s worth spring-cleaning your habits every couple of months, taking a look at what you do without thinking and figuring out whether it’s worth hacking or altering the habit.

I tend to throw my habit review into my Quarterly Review, picking an aspect of my life and taking a close look at the associated habits to see how I can make them more effective.

I’m tackling two at the moment, although only one has something specifically related to writing: a few months ago I removed the Facebook and Twitter apps from my phone, hoping that the momentary hesitation would result in me using the phone for more productive things during “distraction times” like sitting on public transport or queues. I could still access social media, but I’d do it using the phone’s browser.

This worked really well for a while, but it frequently resulted in me leaving a social media tab open in the browser and defaulting to it every time the browser opened. Since the browser was the central logo in the tray at the bottom of the screen, alongside the icons to get my messages and email, it resulted in me opening Chrome with the kind of pavlovian regularity that the Facebook icon used to incite.

Earlier this week I started hacking that habit – I took the Chrome icon out of its central position and moved it onto a secondary screen, hidden away behind a folder that would require me to engage the conscious thought in order to find it. In its place, I put the logo for my kindle app, figuring that if the habitual spot I triggered while waiting for something involved a book, I’d probably spend some additional time reading instead of surfing social media.

It’s been three days now, and I open my Kindle app a lot more than I used to do. I also read a lot more, because the moment an ebook pops up instead of a browser, my conscious brain kicks in and I make a choice. Sometimes I do still go back and check social media instead, but I’ve made a conscious decision to do be there instead of defaulting to it out of habit. The net result has been more reading, which in turn gives me more stuff I can use for writing.

Taking processes off autopilot every now and then means giving yourself a break to look at them objectively, figuring out where you can be more efficient or make changes that get you closer to the person you want to be.

The other habit I’m hacking? Making the bed every morning, after breakfast, and using that as a trigger for further cleaning and tidying. This has nothing to do with writing and everything to do with the fact that a) I’m a dude who now lives with another person; b) mess and clutter has an adverse affect on my mental health, and c) as a dude I habitually see mess and cleaning as someone else’s problem, and therefore point where I feel like I’m doing enough in terms of household chores falls way shorter than an equal distribution of domestic labor.

Sometimes taking habits off automatic is a chance to rethink who you want to be, instead of who you default to being.

Leave a Reply