Recognising Writing Behavioural Patterns

Why, with all my good intentions, enthusiasm and motivation, do I fail to be as productive with my writing as I’d like?

Why do I start exciting new writing projects and often find they peter out after a couple of weeks? I’ve read enough NaNoWriMo blogs to know I’m not alone in this.

Someone suggested the unfinished ones were probably mediocre ideas, and while some of them were, I knew others had strong legs.

I’ve tried aiming towards a deadline and that worked. For a while.

I tried bum glue on my chair. I’m now proficient in Photoshop.

your-writing-coach-book
So with yet another year of unproductivity looming ahead, and these questions forefront in mind, I turned to Jurgen Wolff’s The Writing Coach.

What I learned surprised me.

Yes, Jurgen Wolf talked about time-management techniques. Practices for better productivity. But it wasn’t the ‘how to’ stuff that helped me – I’d seen much of it before. What changed the way I work was a simple exercise that revealed my ingrained patterns of behaviour.

Here’s the exercise.

The next time you go through a pattern, map it as you go. Take notes on the process that causes you to change your mind.

My plan for this year was that when the Christmas holidays were over I would write every morning, starting Monday 12th January.

Monday produced a hot Australian morning. One of those where the light is so brilliantly clear everything has a distinct outline and is illuminated in vibrant colours.

I noticed the laundry had piled up and put a load in the washing machine. After breakfast I hung it out before I went to write. Except the sun was so hot I decided to go down to the beach for a quick swim. I messaged my neighbour who I often swim with and she came too.

shark barThe beach was closed. A 5 metre white pointer shark was hanging around and there was a chatty excited buzz. My friend and I swam in an area protected by rocks. The sun was hot, the water cool, so beautiful we had two long swims.

Then we decided to shark-watch on the kiosk terrace. The cappuccinos were smooth and creamy. Mindful of my pact to write, I ordered an egg and bacon roll for lunch so I could go straight to work when I got home.bar beach cafe

The first thing I did at home was hang out the next load of washing. The newspaper lay on the coffee table and I flicked through the pages looking for articles about sharks. I lay on the lounge to read one. I felt a little sleepy and decided to have a short nap so I’d be brighter when I started writing…

Needless to say, I didn’t write that Monday. Or Tuesday. So I decided to start the next Monday.

Does any of this sound familiar to you? Maybe not the same events, but the similar pattern of life getting in the way of writing?

Jurgen suggests mapping your patterns of behaviour as you go through them. This will help you identify your patterns. The added benefit is that the act of writing it down can be enough of a pattern interruption that you go back to doing what you had originally planned.

I assigned this morning for writing this blog post. I noticed the washing again. Funny I only notice washing when I’m going to write?! I’m familiar with this pattern of behaviour now.

I’ve never had trouble make definite plans with myself about writing time. I recognise now that the difficulty lies in keeping them. So if something is about to change those plans or insert itself into those plans, now I ask myself, as I did this morning, “do you chose to do the laundry over writing?”

And here I am, writing.

The laundry will get done, just not in my writing time. I will have that coffee and swim with my friend, just not in my writing time. The way I work has become more productive because I’m more aware of my patterns of behaviour.

What I also had to learn was that I kept repeating those past negative patterns because I got something out of them. In two weeks’ time I’d like to explore that further on my blog.

Meanwhile I’d be very interested in hearing about the patterns of behaviour you discover.

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28 Responses to Recognising Writing Behavioural Patterns

  1. dianathrelfo says:

    Thanks for sharing this Karen. You could have been describing my negative patterns – except I live in the country, not near the beach. But when I decide I’m going to spend time writing on any particular day, it’s a surefire way of getting lots of household chores done! I like the idea of writing down the patterns I follow – and although I strongly suspect I’ll procrastinate about that as well, I’m going to do my best to give it a go!

    • Funnily, Diana, I did think it could be easy to procrastinate about writing down the patterns of behaviour. However, I was interested enough to do it – although I wrote it down later in the day rather than at the time. The most helpful thing that came from doing the exercise was to make me conscious of the pattern, rather than following it blindly. That in itself allows me to make a conscious choice about my actions. It’s working so far. Thanks for your thoughts, Karen

  2. anne says:

    I couldn’t help but laugh, Karen, at this piece. Washing, yes, definitely .. watering the plants … a bit of weeding … pruning … a second cup of tea …
    Elizabeth Jolley said, in a documentary I heard, that she had to have all her chores done first, before she could write.
    Hilarie Lindsay said to me once, “Just pick a point and write out the scene … next day, next scene.”
    I found that very helpful advice.
    I have reduced my ambition to just one paragraph a day. It might take 5 mins, 10mins or an hour.
    And, then, there are days when I need head space because something’s in the kiln, so to speak, and I have to wait for it to reach the right temperature.
    I say enjoy your walk … swim … talk … it’s all part of the flow.
    As for me, in January, it’s the tennis!

    • Yes, you’ve got the picture, Anne. I like Hilarie Lindsay’s advice. My scenes are written from all over the place and not necessarily in order, but I guess they don’t have to be consecutive scenes. I’m a firm believer that life is where the writing comes from. It’s the balance that I need to work on.Good to hear from you, Karen

  3. chelree says:

    What great advice! Thanks for sharing. This is a cool exercise I’ve never heard or thought of before and I’ll definitely have to follow up and actually take a look at my patterns… one I KNOW that’s there for sure is doing the dishes. They just seem so conveniently piled up once I have to start writing. 😉 How did you like the rest of the book by the way? Would you recommend it?

    • I had fun doing the exercise, and this approach was new to me, too. I haven’t finished reading the rest of the book yet. It is a little formulaic for my liking but there are some very helpful sections, like the one I mention here. Yep, I know what you mean about the dishes… Have fun with the exercise and I hope you get something useful from it.

  4. That darn washing! Gets us everytime! I found my writing patterns changed significantly when I had Max… before him (and before our writing workshops) I used to procrastinate terribly and never really take writing seriously. But with a newborn my only spare time to write was naptime, and usually that was no more than a 45 min sleep cycle. I also quickly learned that things like the washing, brushing the dog, making the beds, were all things that could be done while the baby was awake… But to write I needed silence. So as soon as the child’s eyes close my laptop is out!

    • Although I’m serious about my writing I wasn’t treating it with the importance it warranted. That’s what the exercise showed me. It often takes something as life changing as having a baby to really show us what our priorities are. When the your time was limited to such an extent it must have really made you focus on how important your writing was to you. Recognising my writing patterns has been wonderful for my focus, too. Thanks for your comments, Jessie.

  5. I like that. Observing rather than haranguing yourself helped to bring about the change. Was it Thea Astley who had to have the house spick and span before she could write … or was it Elisabeth Jolley. Anyone dare to Google …?

    • I liked the spirit of the exercise, too, Kirsty. Too often we writers beat ourselves up about things. It was Elizabeth Jolley who had to have the housework done before she could write. I remember thinking how dreadful that must be, but that didn’t stop her becoming a brilliant writer. Thanks for the comment.

  6. Marg jackson says:

    It’s good to know I’m not alone in these negative patterns Karen I am aware on a ‘big picture’ level that I give myself what i feel at the time are very good excuses to put the writing off til later. I think I’ll try this technique to shine a bright spotlight on the excuses and hlpefully kick them to the curb. Also I just bought the book on Amazon – it was just over $5. Thanks for this Karen it’s helpful and encouraging.

    • I’ll be interested to hear what you get out of the book, Marg. It put a different slant on the problem of not writing as much as I would like and so far I’ve found it really helped me focus on what’s important to me. Sometimes I still choose the swim – because I love it so much in the mornings, which unfortunately is also my best writing time – but it’s a conscious choice I make now. May your spotlight shine brightly . . .

  7. Nardia says:

    This is most definitely me Karen! Thank you for articulating exactly how it goes down at my house. And I’ve had 7 months off on Maternity Leave and am only now getting organised and a little bit more consistent in my efforts. I go back to work next month – lol. I might try and track down that book and have a read myself!

    • I’m glad this resonated with you, too, Nardia. Ha, just when we establish good patterns our life is sure to change and put us out of whack again! Margaret found the book on Amazon for $5 dollars. While I didn’t find everything useful it certainly gave me a new way of thinking about my writing process. Hope all goes smoothly with going back to work.

  8. Love the way you mapped this, Karen… but oh, that is yet another task I’ll drop the ball on! Procrastination is my name.

    • Today I wrote all morning and was on a high for the rest of the day because of it. That feeling sure helps beat back procrastination, Dawn. Because I really do love to write, I find that asking myself what I’d rather do, forcing myself to make a conscious choice instead of letting life carry me off, is all I need. So far, anyway. I would never have guessed that was YOUR middle name, Dawn. You seem so productive.

  9. Ruth Robertson says:

    I was interested to note that all your comments came from female writers. I wonder if the same behaviour patterns happen with our male counterparts? I somehow think not, but thank you for bringing the guilt complex that women carry if household chores are not met. lol

    • You’ve raised a very interesting question, Ruth. Most of my comments come from females, but I will ask some male writers. I’ll keep you posted.
      For me, I don’t much care whether the household chores get done or not, it’s not writing that makes me feel guilty. Anything has the potential to get in the way: laundry, swimming, coffee with friends, preparing workshops…
      Elisabeth Jolley certainly had the guilt complex about housework, but look what she achieved! I’m sure many women share that guilt.
      I appreciate your comment and will get back to you.

  10. Craig Tickner says:

    Well, while I am not a writer, I do recognise this behavioural pattern, and it can be applied to any profession, hobby or domestic situation…… We are creatures of habit, both Male and Female alike (in this instant – haha). Reading your blog gives me another perspective, and from this, another way to approach the battle to prioritise the things that mean the most to me (not reverting to the easiest, which tends to be norm).

    I liken your description of events to mine, i.e. when I start a project, and find that I need a little more information I tend to be sent in a direction, that all of a sudden branches to resemble something that looks like a family tree. Whether that be the washing, coffee, writing a standard or a short story, the outcome is the same….

    It takes 21 days before you form a habit (yes I tried it and it works), it becomes second nature for a while, but be aware, and it takes next to no time to break it!

    I think synchronisity plays the most important part in the way we exist. When you’re ready to do the things you say you want to do, you’ll do them diligently, with the “write attitude”, passion and flare….
    Thanks for sharing and the inspiration…..

    Craig xxx

    • It was great to get your comment, Craig. You’re so right that we develop habitual patterns in all aspects of our lives. I love your image of things spreading out like a family tree and overwhelming us – no wonder we often take the easiest option.
      Looking at my problems through the perspective of patterns of behaviour has made one crucial difference that so far is working wonderfully well for me. I’m now aware one of my writing behavioural patterns is to flow along with whatever else turns up in my life. Someone says ‘let’s party’, so I party. Since I’ve started to make myself consciously choose what I do, I usually choose to write. I want to choose writing.
      This morning I chose to swim – and ohh, it was wonderful and guilt free – but I’ve been writing since I got home at 10. I haven’t been doing this for 21 days yet but I actually can’t wait to get to my desk now.
      Maybe it is synchronicity… xxx

  11. Maree Gallop says:

    This is an interesting conversation you have started Karen. I find it difficult to set specific times to write as I find my most creative times are times when I’m actually doing the washing, washing up or hanging the clothes on the line! In fact that is my most productive time. The problem for me is that as soon as sparks start to fly around in my head I have to drop the washing basket and head for the pen and paper (yes, pen and paper not computer). So in my house there are a lot of jobs half done, but there is always something written (sometimes on scraps of paper to be constructed into a story later on).

    • I love the way you work, Maree. I get such a clear image of piles of laundry scattered around your house and the dirty dishes in a cold sudsy sink. Really, from one writer to another, the written word is what’s most important.
      I’m also a pen and paper girl. They help me think and ramble and doodle and fly.
      Thanks so much for sharing your method of writing.

  12. Pingback: Changing Negative Behavioural Patterns – Part II | The Writers' Life

  13. My plan is simple! I don’t write at home because at home there’s the washing (lol), the dog looking balefully at me for a walk, the floors to be mopped, rooms that need tidying ad infinitum. I write in the mornings before work and in my lunch break. It costs me in coffee but gosh do I value that time!

    • Good plan, Debbie!
      I wrote once in a local cafe in the corner feeling very intellectual, like a Hemmingway or Simone de Beauvoir. When I left the barista waved and commented that I’d been sitting there all morning like a little church mouse!
      Maybe I need to try your cafe.

      • I have a few lol. Crema Coffee House in Broadmeadow but I would do the most fiction writing at The Stag Hotel at Mayfield, of all place, good coffee and the staff are lovely. You’d be amazed at what I get done in 45 mins lol.

  14. Pingback: Just Write | The Writers' Life

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