How I (Finally) Developed a Daily Writing Habit

In my early twenties, I dreamed of becoming a writer. 

The only problem was…I wasn’t writing — at least not consistently. 

There was a chasm between the person I wanted to become and who I was currently, and I wasn’t taking the necessary steps to bridge it. This led to a great deal of inner torment, as I knew I was out of alignment.

Around this time, I discovered the Tiny Habits Method developed by Stanford Researcher Dr BJ Fogg, PhD .

The article you are now reading is a result of that discovery. Fogg’s method has made it harder for me not to write in the morning than it is to get up every day and write.

Here’s how it played out in my life. 

I first made my writing habit easy to execute by defining success as 1 x 25 minute writing session each day (Step 1). 

Next, I inserted the habit immediately after my morning workout, which was already established in my routine. This meant that exercise became a “trigger” for writing (Step 2). 

Finally, every time I completed a 25 minute writing session, I celebrated, which helped to establish a cause-and-effect relationship between writing and positive emotions in my brain (Step 3). 

Once my habit was established, it evolved, and I now write for a minimum of 1 hour each day and 1 deep work session (lasting 3-4 hours) each week. This article will introduce how you can apply Fogg’s 3-step framework to build habits that carry you towards your desired future.

Step 1: Make Your Target Behaviour Simple, So It Doesn’t Require a Lot of Motivation

Although it’s the most common approach to behaviour change, increasing motivation is not the solution. 

According to Dr Fogg, it’s more effective to focus on increasing ability by making your target behaviour simpler to perform.

And this is the foundation (and first step) of the Tiny Habits Method

Specifically, he recommends making it effortless to perform your new behaviour each day, so that it doesn’t require high levels of motivation to complete. 

This is achieved by turning your desired behaviour into a “tiny habit”. 

For example, if you want to start flossing, start with one tooth. If you want to start writing, commit to 500 crappy words per day.

Your aim is to “lower the bar” for success, so you create a wave of momentum behind your habit. 

James Clear recommends a similar approach in Atomic Habits, where he advises condensing your new behaviour down into a practice that takes 2 minutes or less to complete every day. 

By doing so, you’re increasing your chances of making it stick. Over time, it will grow, and gradually take up more “real estate” in your mind, at which point you can invest more time or make it more challenging. 

Reflection Question: How can you condense your desired behaviour into something that will take less than 2 minutes each day?

Step 2: Insert Your Tiny Habit Naturally Into Your Existing Routine

You might be motivated and able to perform your new behaviour, but if you haven’t factored in time, it will not occur. 

The Fogg Behavioural Model contains a “behavioural activation threshold”, illustrated as the “action line” below: 

 

When ability and motivation combine to place you above the threshold, then a “prompt” will initiate you to perform the behaviour. 

But if you’re below the line, the prompt won’t be effective. 

In other words, you first need enough motivation and ability to get you above the threshold. 

Then, you need a prompt to activate the behaviour you’d like to carry out. If we were writing it as an equation, it would look like something like this: 

Motivation + Ability + Prompt = Behaviour. 

If you remove any one of the variables from the left side, the behaviour will not occur. 

For instance, you might be motivated and have the ability to start practising Spanish on Duolingo for 5 minutes each day, but if you don’t have a prompt, then you won’t carry it out. Similarly, for your prompt to work, it needs to happen when you have sufficient ability and motivation to perform the behaviour. 

(You can’t login to Duolingo while driving your kids to school.)

Therefore, the second step of Fogg’s Method is to find where your new tiny habit can fit naturally into your existing routine. 

Your existing habits already exist as strong, well-connected neural networks in your brain. 

So a powerful way to build a new habit is to “piggyback” on an existing network.

This is sometimes referred to as “habit-stacking”.

In reality, all you’re doing is adding a new connection to an existing network. 

This means that every time you perform your existing behaviour, it “triggers” you into performing the new habit. A prompt for flossing might be after brushing your teeth. A prompt for your 500 crappy words might be after you exercise. A prompt for journaling might be after your morning coffee. 

And so on. 

Reflection Question: What is something that is already firmly established in your daily routine that you can insert your tiny habit after, so that your old behaviour acts as a prompt for your new one?

Step 3: Celebrate Immediately After Completing Your Tiny Habit

In an article for TIME Magazine, Fogg argued that his decades of research and coaching work with over 40,000 people can be boiled down into three words: 

Emotions create habits

Not repetition. Not frequency. Not magic. Emotions.

Contrary to what most in the personal development space believe, habits can form extremely quickly — often in just a few days — if enough positive emotion is associated with the new behaviour. 

When you celebrate, it stimulates the release of dopamine in your nervous system. 

Dopamine creates a cause-and-effect relationship in your brain, linking the behaviour with the emotions you experience during and afterwards. 

Note: this happens immediately. 

If you exercise in the morning and wait an hour before rewarding yourself, your brain won’t be able to link your behaviour with the emotional reward. So, if you want a new habit to stick, it’s vital to ensure that you experience positive emotion either during or immediately after you perform it. 

Fogg’s recommended protocol for this is celebration. 

You can do this in a number of ways including: fistpumping, saying “Yes!” to yourself quietly, smiling, clapping your hands, thinking: “Good job” to yourself, or even doing a little dance. 

Choose one that you can do consistently that works for your context. 

For example, the dance celebration might be ok if you’ll be performing your new habit at home every day, but not ideal if you’ll be on a packed subway for your morning commute. 

Reflection Question: How will you celebrate each time you perform your tiny habit?

If you want to put all three steps together, this 3-step formula can help:

1.) After I [existing behaviour],

2.) I will [new tiny habit],

3.) and then celebrate by [celebration method].

Summary


— Increasing motivation is not a good strategy for sustainable behaviour change. It’s more effective to increase ability by converting your new behaviour into a “tiny habit” and making it simple to perform.

— Once you have created your tiny habit, the next step is to fit it naturally into your routine. Each time you perform your existing behaviour, it will prompt you to perform the new habit.

— A habit forms extremely quickly when enough positive emotion is associated with it. After you perform your new behaviour, celebrate immediately to stimulate dopamine release and establish a cause-effect relationship between the behaviour and the positive emotion.

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Niall McKeever

Writer and Founder of The Weekend University. Passionate about making great ideas more accessible.

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