Increase Your Writing Productivity (part 2): the power of ritual
Last week, I introduced my Productivity Pyramid (that isn’t a pyramid at all, but I just can’t let go of the lovely alliteration from 2 p’s, you know?). This week, I’m focusing on what I think is the most important part of that pyramid–the base upon which all the other R-words are built.
Yeah, that’s right: Ritual. A ritual is (according to Merriam-Webster) “an act or series of acts done in a particular situation and in the same way each time.”
Rituals are INCREDIBLY powerful tools, and they can be the key to unlocking some great habits.
But wait, you say, I thought we were building rituals, Sooz! Make up your mind!
Yes, yes–we’re building rituals too. But in order to understand why cultivating rituals can effect change in your lives, you need to understand how a habit works.
A habit is (again, according to Merriam-Webster) “an acquired mode of behavior that has become nearly or completely involuntary.” So for example, I have this awful habit of putting on lip balm whenever I’m nervous. I’m pretty sure I don’t even need the stuff, but whenever I get a bit stressed, I’m grabbing for it from my pocket.
I have another habit, though, that’s a good one: I can easily fall into creative flow. Like, as long as I have the right set of conditions–the right ritual to start–I can sink into a productive whirlwind right away.
And that’s our goal here, guys: We want to build a ritual so that productive flow becomes a habit.
Now what do I mean when I say productive flow? I mean “the mental state of operation in which a person performing an activity is fully immersed in a feeling of energized focus, full involvement, and enjoyment in the process of the activity.” (definition from Wikipedia)
For me, productive flow = creative flow. When I’m writing in a mental state of creative flow, the hours ZIP by. I feel great, I love what I’m doing, and I come out feeling energized. That energy is a great reward, so I want to make sure I feel it again the next day…and the next day and the next.
But I wasn’t always this way. In fact, it used to be a real challenge for me to get to a creative free-fall state. I needed the “perfect conditions” or “inspiration had to strike” or some other magical voodoo star-alignment had to happen. However, just as I learned how to build the habit of productive flow, you can learn too. 🙂
As the amazing John Cleese put it:
“Creativity is not a talent. It is not a talent, it is a way of operating…the most creative have simply acquired a facility for getting themselves into a particular mood–“a way of operating”–which allowed their natural creativity to function.” – from John Cleese’s talk on creativity
Components of Habit
According to Charles Duhigg’s fabulous book The Power of Habit, there are three components to a habit: the cue, the routine, the reward. Essentially, a cue triggers you to behave a certain way, and then after the behavior, you get some sort of reward. That reward reinforces your habit so that it reoccurs each time you’re exposed to the cue.
Here, watch this video and you can understand.
Of course, Duhigg is talking about breaking habits (which is a useful thing to be able to do), but what we want to do here is start a new habit. We want to make productive flow a habit. And we’ll do that by tapping into what he calls the “cue.”
Rituals as Habit Cues
So just as my anxiety is a cue for grab lip balm from my pocket, I have a cue that triggers me to start writing. My cue is a ritual–a specific series of acts and conditions–and when I enact my ritual, it gears up my brain for work. And not just work, but creative, productive, focused work.
Sounds pretty fantastic, doesn’t it? Well, I’m not gonna lie: it is fantastic. And I’m not the only one who has a cue. A close author friend of mine always drafts on her laptop while sitting on her couch. That location (the couch) and the prop (her laptop) tell her brain it’s “go time”.
I have another friend who uses legal pads. When she sees the legal pad (her prop) sitting on the desk (her location), her mind slips into creative flow immediately. But it’s not just my group of writer friends who rely on cues to trigger productive flow. Here are some famous authors who have tapped into the power of ritual:
Recently I was talking to a writer who described something she did whenever she moved to her writing table. I don’t remember exactly what the gesture was–there is something on her desk that she touches before she hits the computer keyboard–but we began to talk about little rituals that one goes through before beginning to write. I, at first, thought I didn’t have a ritual, but then I remembered that I always get up and make a cup of coffee and watch the light come. And she said, Well, that’s a ritual. And I realized that for me this ritual comprises my preparation to enter a space I can only call nonsecular… Writers all devise ways to approach that place where they expect to make the contact, where they become the conduit, or where they engage in this mysterious process. For me, light is the signal in the transaction. It’s not being in the light, it’s being there before it arrives. It enables me, in some sense. – Toni Morrison (from The Paris Review, via Daily Routines)
When he first started writing, Grisham says, he had “these little rituals that were silly and brutal but very important. The alarm clock would go off at 5, and I’d jump in the shower. My office was 5 minutes away. And I had to be at my desk, at my office, with the first cup of coffee, a legal pad and write the first word at 5:30, five days a week.” –San Francisco Chronicle, via Daily Routines)
“I have a glass of water or a cup of tea. There’s a certain time I sit down, from 8:00 to 8:30, somewhere within that half hour every morning,” he explained. “I have my vitamin pill and my music, sit in the same seat, and the papers are all arranged in the same places. The cumulative purpose of doing these things the same way every day seems to be a way of saying to the mind, you’re going to be dreaming soon.” (from Haunted Heart: The Life and Times of Stephen King, via Daily Routines)
Notice that each author has are a specific sets of circumstances, and I’ve divide these “ways of approach” into three categories:
My personal ritual requires 2 props: a spiral-bound notebook and a pen. That’s it. I don’t need a special location or a special action. As soon as I see the ruled paper, I am ready to write.
That said, in the past few months, I’ve honed my ritual to try and take my creative flow to a new level.
I’ve added an action (making a cup of coffee), a location (an old 1960s couch in my office), and a third prop (my headphones & music). Now, when I have all five components of the ritual–notebook, pen, coffee, couch, music–my brain is instantly cued that it’s creation time! Hours will fly by, and I’ll come out of the writing/revising/brainstorming session feeling like I can take over the world.
Crafting Your Own Ritual
The key to tapping into your own habit of productive flow is to figure out WHAT your ritual/cue is. So take a close look at your current creative time. Is there something you ALWAYS do before your most productive sessions? Even the smallest thing might be crucial to getting your brain in the zone.
It took me years to recognize that I am a tactile writer. I can’t work on a computer–I prefer to write by hand, to revise by hand, and to generally create by hand. In all likelihood this is because I started writing before I had a computer. Not only that, but I usually wrote my stories while I was in class. I would scribble new worlds and characters into the margins of my notes.
And guess what–I took notes in spiral-bound notebooks. In other words, I cultivated a ritual for creative flow back when I was 13–without realizing I did it, of course–and I still react to those same powerful cues.
Of course, if you don’t have a ritual, you can CULTIVATE one by creating a specific set of circumstances–specific props, locations, and actions. If you enact these specific actions with specific props in a specific location every time before you start your work, it will teach your brain to react as you want it to react.
Basically, you are Pavlov’s dogs right now, and you need to make your own bell.
Your “bell” could be something as simple curling up on your bed and opening your laptop (a specific location and a specific prop). Or it could be as complicated as catching a bus to your favorite coffee shop (a specific action as well as a specific location), ordering a cookie (an action and a prop), playing your favorite musical piece three times (an action), and then opening a Word doc (an action/prop).
In fact, here’s an example of what I’d call a pretty complex–though clearly effective–ritual:
“Maya Angelou, author of I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings, rises at 5am and checks into a hotel, where staff are instructed to remove all stimuli from the walls of her room. She takes legal pads, a bottle of sherry, playing cards, a Bible and Roget’s Thesaurus, writing 12 pages before leaving in the afternoon and editing the pages that evening.” – Shortlist.com
Pretty crazy routine, no? Yet 12 pages a day is insanely productive, and you could easily have a draft in a month at that rate!
The Power of Ritual
Hopefully I’ve offered you enough incentive to look at your own rituals and habits. The great thing about this tool–what really makes ritual incredibly powerful–is that you can it to trigger your brain for any new habit. Want to start jogging in the mornings? Try putting your shoes and workout clothes on the floor beside your bed. Then, when you wake up, you’ll step on them…and then put them on. Once you’re dressed to impress, there’s nothing to stop you from heading out the door to run. If you do this every morning, eventually, the ritual of seeing your clothes/shoes will cue you for the habit of a morning jog.
The next post takes us to the next step on the Productivity Pyramid–routine—but in order to effectively tap into the power of routines, we need to first hone our rituals and habits.
So you tell me: What rituals do you have that prep your brain for productive flow? Or what rituals would like to cultivate?
February 10, 2014 @ 5:27 pm
Great post Sooz!
Ok, so since your last post, I’ve tried cultivating a ritual for a week now. I had an amazingly productive writing week last week, writing 2k+ words regularly, even hitting 6k one day! And then the weekend came, and I think there must be something about the weekends that’s interfering with my “location” / “actions”…
And today (Monday) was another disappointing day, even though I went through my whole ritual in the morning. I have a feeling it’s because a bestie crisis right in the morning got me distracted the whole day, and then I fell into the timesuck that is the internet. *sigh*
I’m not giving up though. It worked so well for me last week, so I think there must be something that was working! I think the trick is determining which props / actions are actually allowing me access to that creative free fall…
So, I have a couple of questions:
1) How did you actually figure out which props / actions / locations were working for you?
2) What happens if you are missing one of your cues? (e.g. your favourite writing spot in your sun-drenched kitchen, due to traveling?) (p/s: when I say you, I totally mean me)
Thanks so much for another wonderful post! Wish me a better writing day tomorrow 🙂
February 10, 2014 @ 6:05 pm
DUDE!!! That is VICTORY right there. One week of 2k+ a day?! I mean, wow. You have definitely, definitely stepped onto the right track for your productivity. (You have no idea how happy I am to read this!)
So, I kind of figured out my props by accident. As I was reading books on habit and ritual in creativity, it dawned on me that I cannot create without my notebooks–and I cannot revise without a printed manuscript. But if I have those physical props, I am good to go.
To test that, I took my props with me to different places–and I also brought my music. I tried working in a coffee shop a few times (success!), while I was waiting on my car at the mechanic (success!), and then working in different places around my home (kitchen table, office couch, desk, and even in bed). Every time, I could get into the zone–especially because I had no computer to distract me with the shiny internet. 😉 After that, as I was building my routine (next week’s post), I worked on establishing a specific location + coffee prop to the routine to REALLY trigger my brain when I start my writing at 5:20 AM.
Since you’re clearly working on honing a ritual that allows you to work anywhere, I suggest trying to focus on the props and actions (and also to get rid of the internet at alllllll cooossssts! Use the program Freedom, unplug your router, whatever). So for example, opening Scrivener + coffee + music might be the action/prop combo you can do anywhere. Or bottled water + bag of almonds + Word doc. See what I’m getting at? You can always have a ritual that’s linked to a location, but if you travel often, it’s good to also have part of that ritual also operate with props/actions only. I can write well (and productively) with just my notebook + pen, but I can write *really* well when I’m on my special couch.
Does that make sense? Or help at all?
Also: one bad day doesn’t ruin everything. 😉 I find I’m always a bit wonky on Mondays.
February 11, 2014 @ 2:28 am
You’ve made my morning Sooz!
Yeah, I keep reminding myself to be kinder to myself (a lingering case of the FRABs sometimes makes me think 1 bad day = END OF THE WORLD!)
You’ve hit the nail on the head — I am working on a ritual that’s mobile-friendly, so your suggestions definitely help! I think I’ve figured out at least two props (a notebook and a pen, although for some reason a spiral notebook and a mechanical pencil gets me into the zone even faster!)
I’ll test out my hypothesis for another week and see if there’s anything that bolsters / interferes with my routine (obviously het Interwebz is a baddie…duhhh).
February 12, 2014 @ 3:51 pm
Diyana, this is awesome. If there was audio messaging, you would be hearing me cheering you on right now. LOUDLY. ^^ Don’t let the off day get you down and just pass it in stride. You. Can. Do this.
February 10, 2014 @ 6:11 pm
Hey Sooz! I have a question; what if you are so focused on creating your ritual that the ritual itself becomes a form of procrastination? (Like I used to make a cup of tea and listen to music, but then the cup of tea turned into two cups, and I would drink two cups of tea while staring at my Scrivener in dread, and an hour would fly by with me just listening to music to get me “in the mood”.) Most of the time, the rituals and cues work, though Thank you so much for this post! 🙂 🙂
February 10, 2014 @ 6:41 pm
Hey Christina! I have to say, this is a new issue to me, and I think it’s a sign that your ritual isn’t a ritual at all. Because if it WAS a ritual, you wouldn’t be staring at Scrivener in dread. Your habit of creative flow would kick in automatically.
Have you tried not typing? I used to stare at Scrivener in dread (still do), and that was when I finally realized my own connection to writing by hand. I wrote almost ALL of Truthwitch by hand (boy, it was a pain to type the darn thing in, yet I still wrote the book in half my usual time). Or maybe try a program like Write or Die…?
Yeah, I just suggest trying some different mediums and really analyzing those times when you DO fall into creative free fall right away. What about THOSE times is different?
(Also, is it possible you aren’t procrastinating but just don’t know what to write next? Because if so, that’s totally legit! :))
February 10, 2014 @ 7:05 pm
I love, love, LOVE these posts! After a day of complete procrastination (on the EVIL internet and cleaning out a coal bunker – I kid you not) I’ve downloaded Freedom to help me focus in the mornings. Mondays are especially difficult for me. I’m optimistic that I’ll have a more productive day tomorrow!
I really need to solidify my writing routine so this series of posts really couldn’t have come at a better time. Thanks so much for your insights and wisdom. 🙂 I love reading your posts.
February 10, 2014 @ 8:54 pm
Thanks, Triona!! I’m so glad you like these posts. 😀 Mondays are really hard for me too–specifically with regards to social media and texting. 😛 I always want to catch up with people, and then op! There goes the day.
February 10, 2014 @ 7:32 pm
This is fabulous! It’s hard to pick out what rituals I have before my most productive writing sessions, because some have been in coffee shops, and some have been right here at my desk full of things that remind me of my home/family on the other side of the ocean. But I’m going to try to cultivate rituals and hopefully get my brain to kick into gear after doing them every day for awhile. We’ll see how it goes, but I’m excited to really give this a try.
February 10, 2014 @ 8:55 pm
It might not even be a ritual that happens before, so much as simple prop–like having a drink to sip or headphones in. Heck, there might not even be something in common across those various productive times. 🙂 That said, I hope you can pinpoint or cultivate some cue that will trigger your creative mind. It really can be powerful stuff. 🙂 Let me know how it goes!!
February 10, 2014 @ 7:40 pm
Awesome post! I’ve tried music, but it’s too distracting for when I’m drafting. I use it when I revise, though! My main writing habit is making really strong coffee and staring out my window. 🙂
February 10, 2014 @ 8:56 pm
Ahh, yes. I do a lot of staring when I’m drafting. That’s part of why I think I like my couch so much–there’s a nice (snowy right now) view. 🙂 And YES TO STRONG COFFEE!! 😉
February 11, 2014 @ 12:22 am
I have StayFocused downloaded onto Chrome, which I find helpful for escaping the Internet.
This past week, I had an accidental 4-day weekend when Oregon got hit with what was, for us, a huge snowstorm. So I tried rituals and same time and place. I’m not there yet, but I find I have a really productive half an hour right before I eat breakfast, especially if I start with the writing journal. I like to type, but starting with writing by hand and getting ink stains on my fingers is a good trigger. 🙂
The other trigger I tried was just finishing dinner and going upstairs to write, but that isn’t exactly working yet.
I’m going to work on some other rituals this week that will hopefully work when I am working full-time, and find a way to keep myself from napping instead of writing. 😉
My goal is to make it through 10,000 words this week, so I REALLY hope I strike gold on motivating myself/ritual-making.
February 11, 2014 @ 8:09 pm
Good luck!! I know you can do it. 😀 But remember, that rituals DO take time. Like, mine obviously took years to really cultivate. And what is the average? 21 consistent days of doing something for it to become a habit? It’s something like that…so don’t beat yourself up if it doesn’t work right away. 😉 But I’m sure you know that.
And dude, snowstorms. I will say, having heaps and heaps of snow outside has made me UBER productive since there’s not much else to steal my attention!! 😉
February 11, 2014 @ 11:59 pm
This series is rocking my world! I think without even realizing it, I managed to pick up some rituals after reading your last post. Now I’m just going to refine them and make them habits. Thanks so much!
February 12, 2014 @ 1:49 am
Awesome!! I’m so glad to hear that!! 😀 Let me know how it all goes!
February 12, 2014 @ 4:01 pm
So surprises and wonky schedules has thrown me for the passed week. (Oh, Life, why can’t you be more orderly…) Hopefully things are a bit more settled now. This ritual practice makes so much sense. Back when I seemed to feel the flow I remember that I would work with my computer on my lap-desk (is that what those are called?). For some time now I’m more often at my desk-desk (0.o).
Right now I’m in the process of developing a story idea, so it isn’t chunks of writing as much as copy/paste/cross out/brainstorming. Still, I’ll have to give using my lap-desk a try to see if it could up my productivity.
Informative and motivating as always, Susan. Thanks bunches. ^^
February 15, 2014 @ 9:58 pm
YES! Let me know how it goes, Joni! I’m super curious!! If I type, I actually do the same–work on a little lap desk thingy on my bed. That’s my location/prop that works best for creative TYPING flow!! Took me years to figure that out, though… 😉
February 12, 2014 @ 10:00 pm
You know what? I would have never said I had a writing ritual before reading the whole post – but I do! Days when I don’t have any time constraints, I walk to my nearest Starbucks (about fifteen minutes away) and I settle at a table with a proper chair, not one of the comfy ones, and I write in a lined notebook. I always get the most/best work done when I follow those steps – going to Starbucks alone, ordering a drink, writing in my lined notebook with a very particular brand and colour of pen.
Thanks Sooz! Now I’ve realised this I can take the time to make it happen more often!
February 15, 2014 @ 10:00 pm
HA! That’s a ritual if I ever saw one!! It’s so cool you could pin it down! I wonder if there are ways to use parts of those rituals (like the lined notebook + pen) so that you’re not locationally dependent. You can still go to Starbucks when you have the time and reap those benefits, but maybe you could also try other pieces of that ritual to see if they have any effect…?
February 15, 2014 @ 10:22 pm
I’ve definitely been thinking about that! My beloved newly discovered Leuchtturm1917 lined notebooks (the pages are numbered!!) have definitely helped but I think the big thing is being at something akin to a desk.
I don’t have one in my apartment. And sitting on the couch feels like time to watch TV or surf the internet but sitting with a table in front of me feels like time to write. Even the tray table on an airplane helps.
This could be a somewhat expensive realisation!
February 13, 2014 @ 1:25 am
I didn’t think I had any rituals until I read this post, but now I’m not so sure…I tend to work best when I write at my desk, with loose leaf paper. And I work better on weekdays then weekends, because I tend to start writing in the late afternoon/evening when all my work is done–although I’m not sure whether that part’s habit or procrastination!
I’m definetly a pen-and-paper person, that’s how I get my best stuff. I’ve tried a couple times to type into the computer, but it’s never the same. Of course, they all have to be typed at some point nad I’m trying to figure out what that point is.
February 15, 2014 @ 10:01 pm
Ugh–typing in. I am in the middle of doing that now, and it’s THE WORST PART. But, it’s worth it for me to write by hand–the creativity is just so much freer!
And maybe you like late weekdays because you can’t concentrate until you know your other work is done. That sounds like a smart tactic to me!! 🙂
February 13, 2014 @ 11:48 pm
I have been attempting to create a ritual for myself when it comes to writing! Doing something consistently, in the same place/time and with the same things actually really helps me form other habits, so why wouldn’t it help with the writing? Amazing post, as always.
February 15, 2014 @ 10:02 pm
Thanks, Alexa!! I’m so glad you found it helpful. 😀 Let me know if your ritual-formation works!