Writing Habits: Set a ‘Trigger’

According to countless articles all over the web, habits are supposed to be automatic. Once you start and execute a new part of your routine for a month or two, it becomes easier to continue than to quit, so they say. If you’re anything like me, this hasn’t necessarily proved true for you. I’ve never reached a stage where a habit, even ones I’ve pushed through for over a year, started running on autopilot.

So I was skeptical when I came across a slightly different approach to the “write every day” refrain: instead of scheduling a certain time for writing, set up another action to use as a ‘trigger’ before starting. The idea is that it will help shift your brain into the right mindset for writing once you teach it this new pattern of cause and effect. As this great article on the neuroscience of writer’s block explains it: “If you light an orange-blossom candle or brew a pot of Café Verona prior to each writing session, and never at other times, neuroscience suggests that within three weeks, the scent of orange blossoms or taste of coffee will trigger the urge to write.”

I decided to give it a go. I bought a candle and committed to lighting it just before I started drafting, in hopes that my brain would come to associate that act, and eventually the scent of the candle, with writing. Other ideas for ‘triggers’ might be playing a certain song, wearing a certain hat, or signing yourself in using a Clock In app.

The shocker: it works! After just a few sessions, I noticed that it was easier to get into the flow of writing after performing the ‘trigger.’ My theory is that it works well for me due to my specific flavor of writer’s blockthat is, emotional regulation issues and OCD. The physical ritual of lighting the candle helps me let go of whatever thoughts or emotions are tossing around in my head at that time and give myself permission to move into a different mindset. Similarly, blowing out the candle after the session helps me let go of whatever emotions came up during the drafting process, itself. Overall, this new habit smoothes out the transitions, which for me, are perhaps the hardest part of being a writer.

If you’re habit-resistant, I’d suggest experimenting from this angle and trying to find a ‘trigger’ or ritual that works for you. The more you can uncover the underlying issues and fears holding you back, the more you can find unique ways of getting your brain to cooperate with itself.

Monday Blues: Inspiring Music

(“Monday” Blues: On every first Monday of the month, I’ll recommend a new world – a book, a game, a podcast, etc – to escape into. Or at least to look forward to after a hard day’s work.)

I’m going to do something a bit different for today’s Monday Blues. Instead of focusing on storytelling media, how about music that offers the perfect backdrop when working on your own stories and creative projects?


Wherepostrockdwells

Post-rock is such a beautiful genre. It’s atmospheric and ambient, yet evocative. It’s subtle but intense. It’s sometimes sad, but in that warm, melancholy way that highlights  wonder in the world. When I feel drained, simply listening to the right post-rock song often brings me back to a content, inspired place. It’s amazing what a difference music can make.

If you’re new the genre, check out Hammock (especially the Everything and Nothing album), God is an Astronaut, Distant Dream, and If These Trees Could Talk (if you like your rock heavy). With streams dedicated to different albums, the Wherepostrockdwells channel mimics the experience of walking into a music store to sample and select the perfect CD. Unlike the other channels in this list, Wherepostrockdwells usually uses album covers instead of aesthetic images for its videos, but post-rock album covers often make for interesting, surrealistic works of art in their own right.

An odd observation: While YouTube comments are normally dreck, the comments left on post-rock videos are often wonderfully creative and emotional, and can provide inspiration in their own right. Post-rock music is indeed a haven.

ChilloutDeer

In terms of less heavy ambient music, Chillout Deer is my go-to channel. It provides wonderfully designed mixes featuring a variety of relaxing, atmospheric songs in various genres collected around themes. Unlike those from similar channels, I find that Chillout Deer’s mixes actually evoke their themes with an eerie efficiency: listening to “Journey” feels like departing on a long adventure, listening to “Daydream” stirs the sensation of “sehnsucht,” and “Utopia” brings wonder and contentment. Because these mixes are so tightly themed, it’s easy to find the perfect creative soundtrack for any project. The channel also uses lovely visuals in its videos to further tempt the muse.

Odysseus

If electronic genres like synthwave and trance are more your style, Odysseus also offers a variety of themed mixes. The collections are atmospheric without being distracting, and paint both futuristic and retro soundscapes. It’s perfect for anyone delving into a sci-fi project, or for some aural escapism while working on less exciting tasks like updating your website or writing marketing copy. As a writer who tends toward the post-apocalyptic, “Dystopia” is one of my favorite mixes. The visual aesthetic used by the channel is also immersive and inspiring in its own right.


I hope you enjoy these channels like I do; outside of stories, music is one of my passions. Do you have any favorite You-Tube go-tos for evoking a creative mood?

Denying Distractions

I’d wager that most authors would name distractions as productivity’s biggest enemy, particularly the siren song of the internet. Here are a few tips, and some helpful resources, to help combat common distractions:

Distraction-Free Word Processors

There are some pretty complex, fully-featured options out there as far as word processors go. Programs like Scrivener and Liquid Story Binder offer a ton of powerful features that not only help you write your words, but outline the story, do you research, search through dictionaries and thesauruses, check your spelling, mark-up your edits, and organize and format everything. Even Microsoft Word and comparable office suites come with a slew of features. While these features are great when its time to outline and edit, I sometimes find that these features can be distracting, in and of themselves, during the drafting process. They also bring out the perfectionist in me, and I sometimes spend as much time organizing and cross-checking everything with my notes and research as I do actually pounding words out of the keyboard.

If you have similar tendencies, I’d highly suggest trying out a simple, dedicated word processor, just for the drafting process. There are plenty of options out there that are purposely minimal – designed to put as little buffer as possible between you and the page, staying out of the way and leaving you alone with your words.

My personal favorite right now is Dark Room. It’s a simple, free, full-screen word processor with just the right amount of features. You can set your margins, the color and font of the background and text to fit your preferences or your story (it’s styled like an old electronic typewriter by default, which I kind of love, since that was originally what I used when I first started writing – on those things, you had nothing to do but write), and, fortunately for us Wrimos, it still has a word counter! It’s immersive and distraction-free. Other options are the similar WriteRoom (for Mac), the meditative Ommwriter, or the slightly more complex WriteMonkey.

I was surprised how much using such minimalist software actually helped me focus. I don’t think it’s just that it removes the common word-processor distractions, so much as that it somehow makes the drafting process itself much more engrossing, and hence helps soften the call of other, outside distractions, as well.

Internet/Distraction Blockers

Most of the time, however, the biggest distractions don’t come from inside the word software, but from all the other temptations floating around inside our computers. The internet. Games. Videos. Email. Social media. If you need a little extra willpower when it comes to resisting these things, internet and distraction blockers can help.

One program tailored towards writers is Stop Procrastinating, a desktop app that lets you choose whether to block only specific websites, or your internet connection entirely for a certain amount of time. It also lets you set goals, and track how you did. This software isn’t free, but it’s what I typically use, and I’ve found it to be quite helpful on those days when I just don’t have the willpower to leave the internet alone. There are also some free tools out there, as well.

Another interesting option is the free Writer’s Block. A minimalist, full-screen word-processor like those described earlier, Writer’s Block also blocks not just the internet, but the rest of the programs on your computer, and literally will not quit until you’ve either written a set amount of words, or for a set amount of time, which you choose at the start of each session. It clings to your desktop and leaves you with no choice but to complete your goals to get rid of it. It won’t even let you trick it by copy and pasting! It’s a militaristic tool that could work perfectly for those times when you’ve just got to hit a certain daily quota.

Music and Sound

There are also distractions that come from outside the computer entirely. In particular, other people.

I used to prefer writing in silence, without music, but given that I live with other people, silence is a pretty scarce resource. I’ve recently found that it often works much better to put on some noise-blocking headphones and drown out the world with background music. Personally, I find lyrics distracting, so I stick entirely with instrumental pieces, usually electronica or classical. Spotify, and its playlists, are a great free resource for this.

If you absolutely cannot concentrate with music on, though, there are also plenty of free background noise generators out there, offering nature sounds, rain, or simply white noise.

Physical Prevention

One often overlooked method of avoiding distractions is also perhaps the most straightforward: make it physically impossible for them to reach you. If the internet is your downfall, then take a laptop, or even a paper notebook, and go sit outside somewhere, where there is no Wi-Fi, or simply disconnect your router all together for a while. If computer programs and games in general are a problem, have one device that you use only for writing, and absolutely nothing else (I have one old netbook that is such a piece of crap that I couldn’t use it for anything but writing even if I wanted to…and it’s actually a great productivity tool!). If there are too many people around or too much ambient noise, then move somewhere else, where you can be alone. If the weather outside is simply too nice to stay indoors, then go ahead and sit in the sun with your draft. Coffee shops and parks are also great places to hide from the typical distractions of the home. Besides, I often find that changing the scene helps generate some fresh inspiration.

Anyway, I hope that someone finds these tips and tools useful for Camp NaNoWriMo this month, and beyond. Feel free to chime in with any techniques or resources of your own in the comments section!