Every writer (at least, probably every successful one) has an opinion on how to make the dreaded writing routine a habit. Some writers write early, so that they have energy. Some writers work in the evening because they enjoy those quiet, late hours. Some writers put pen to paper every day and get down thousands of words, while other writers get down 100 words only on the night of the full moon and only with a warm cup of chamomile tea (or whatever).
For the longest time, the secret of the consistent and workable writing routine stumped me. I’d do all of the necessary prep that came so highly regarded: I set an achievable goals, set out time in my schedule, and even set boundaries with my friends and family. “This is my hour to write,” I said.
But then, I wouldn’t write. I’d watch YouTube tutorials, browse Facebook, or start a new series on Netflix (that lie, “just one episode,” has swiped so much writing time out from under my nose). I might suddenly decide to start a new hobby, like bookbinding or woodworking or painting. Sometimes, I would just simply sit on my couch for an hour, biting my nails and thinking about how I should be writing. Eventually, I would become discouraged, sulk under a rock filled with shame and disappointment, and pretend that my grand plans to habituate writing never existed.
I failed, and failed, and failed again… until finally, I succeeded. And here’s how: I gave myself what I needed.
Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs
Forming any habit is difficult, and if you’re having some trouble, try not to put too much blame on yourself. Instead, ask yourself if there’s something else you might need.
Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs is a five-tier model of motivational theory, which breaks down the basic needs one must be equipped with before they can begin to self-actualize. To self-actualize, here, means to decide who you want to be, and then to take the necessary steps to become that person. In sum: Everyone needs to (more or less) be fed, be safe, feel loved, and love themselves before they are motivated to actualize their desire to grow.
To some writers (and by some writers, I mean myself), writing can feel as natural and necessary as eating, drinking, or sleeping. So it can feel difficult and discouraging when we’re unable to focus on it for more than two minutes at a time.
Truthfully, sticking to a writing routine (and writing in general) is much lower on our priority list than we probably think. Our bodies and minds are geared toward fulfilling other needs first: the need to eat, sleep, and feel loved for example. Maslow’s Hierarchy refers to these categories (physiological needs through esteem) as the deficiency needs: the needs that arise due to deprivation, and motivate us until they are met.
Not sure what your diet needs? Work from the bottom up.
Satisfying Your Basic Needs
Are you staring at that blinking cursor, upset that your fingers won’t type? Have you checked if you’re hungry?
This may seem like a no-brainer, but barely anyone is at their best on four hours of sleep per night, or on a diet of ramen and pizza, or when they’re sick. We don’t always think of these as problems that might effect our ability to achieve our psychological or self-esteem goals, but they really, really do. If your diet sucks, or if you consistently feel sluggish and fatigued, start taking a multi-vitamin and see a doctor. Discussing your health candidly with your physician may end up being the best thing you’ve done for yourself in years.
But how about our other basic needs such as resources? Do you have a couple thousand in credit card debt? Are you currently homeless, or unemployed? It’s easy to brush these issues aside, put our heads down, and keep barrelling through life, but our bodies remember this stress. What is out of sight is not necessarily out of mind. Consider how these issues may be impacting your mental health and your ability to focus. If you need some help, from a therapist or a financial advisor or a friend, ask.
Satisfying Your Psychological Needs
Have you ever been writing and stopped to check Facebook to see what your friends are up to? You could be addicted to the dopamine response that social media notifications give our brains… or, you could just be a little lonely. Humans are pretty smart, but our bodies have been around a lot longer than our minds– the body knows when it needs touch, when it needs oxytocin, or when it needs to feel like part of a tribe. If you find yourself trying to write and begin wondering what your friends are up to: just stop writing ask to hang out. Go on. You officially have permission.
Next, check in on your self-esteem. Did you not land that promotion at work? Did you say something awkward on a date that your can’t get out of your head? Do you have a nagging and pervasive feeling of self-doubt? Reach out to loved ones. If the issue is severe and debilitating, see a doctor or therapist. Life is too short to wade around in that pool of misery.
To some, this list may be extensive and overwhelming. When balancing a social life, and work, and school, and kids, and pets, and writing, it can be easy to dismiss our body’s needs.
But there’s a saying that I love which applies here: You cannot pour from an empty cup.
Expecting yourself to write, and write regularly, without addressing your deficiency needs is like expecting your car to run without gas. It may roll downhill and stop, but that’s about it.
Fill your cup, writers. You’ll be amazed at what you can accomplish.