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Habitual writing

July 1st, 2010 Matt Leave a comment Go to comments
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Habits, surely, are some of the most effective tools on a writer’s belt. I’ve written before about getting into a writing routine; of establishing times where you do nothing but write. Habits around objects may be just as important.

Automatic Writing

I must confess, I don’t always (read rarely), stick to my writing routine, but when I do I feel energised, and ready to write! Once I have had a good run of writing days, the next time I sit down to write is so much easier. At the best moments, it is near to automatic. Apparently, a similar effect may be possible through object-based habits.

Jack Cheng recently wrote an article about activity/object association. In it he describes a phenomenon that he calls “habit fields”. These fields are created by constantly reinforced association between an object, and an activity. You can shape the nature of the field, and in return, it can affect your actions.

Memorable Benefits

Memory is made of connections

Neuron image courtesy of Patrick Hoesly

Now, when people start invoking energy fields and the like, a concept starts sounding a little “woo”. But don’t worry, it’s just a metaphor! What he’s actually talking about is the way memories are constructed. Specifically, there are two features of memory creation that are particularly important here: repetition and association.

It’s obvious to anyone who’s learnt a script that repetition is a vital tool to lock down a memory. Behaviour can also be learned through repetition. Video games are especially good at teaching actions, for example. Combo attacks in games require a complicated series of button presses that bewilder at first. But, through repetition, a player soon learns to react to different situations with a variety of combination moves, without thinking about it at all. This is an example of “muscle memory”. Now extend this to less specific behaviours – to a state of mind; relaxed behaviour, productive behaviour, writing behaviour; all can be learned.

Association is even more fundamental. Memories are essentially a series of associations. These can also be learned, of course. You have probably had the experience of a particular smell reminding you of a person or place, even if you have not seen that person or been to that place in years.

Making the connection

Cheng’s idea is that “habit fields” (states of mind or behaviour) can be built around objects through repetition. Stay consistent with the objects you use for certain tasks and the association takes care of itself. Just like the gamer whose fingers perform instinctive button ballets when he sits in front of his console, you can slip into focussed productivity when you settle down in your designated work place to use your designated work tools.

In practice, this process is going on all the time, for better or worse, so you are using it anyway. Being aware of it will help you avoid the obvious pitfalls, and develop good habits. Don’t check Twitter on your writing laptop, or it will gradually become your Twitter laptop!

Think about it for a bit, and you’ll probably see areas in your own life where this already applies. For example, I used to try writing at weekends at my big desktop computer. I was often distracted, and found myself much more comfortable at the dining room table, using the laptop I also use for work.

Given a quick think, this is not surprising. I bought that desktop primarily for gaming, and that’s what I had been using it for previously. The laptop on the other hand is what I use all day for work, and because it’s convenient, I use it to write on the train. The habit field of my laptop then, us one of productive work, including writing. Well, mostly.

Jack of all Trades…

It’s a problem, as Cheng points out, that becomes more pervasive the more capable our tools become. These days every electronic device is a Swiss army knife of possibilities, and the problem becomes one of narrowing those down or restricting those options in order to focus.

Having a dedicated area to write, and restricting your writing to to just that purpose, could take you a long way. Read Cheng’s full article for some other ideas on how to do that, and pop back to getmewriting.com next week, when I’ll have a list of tools to help you focus on your writing. In the mean time, I’d like to know if you have noticed habit fields around the the objects you use.