The Blank Page is a new weekly series on Novelty Revisions dedicated to any writer who is just beginning their journey or starting again after a long pause. Check back every Monday for more tips and inspiration.
I was doing so well.
There’s no better feeling than realizing you’ve stuck with a habit-forming commitment for more than 30 days — which is why it’s so discouraging when you suddenly break that habit … and can’t seem to get back on track again.
This past week, I stopped practicing my violin. I went about five days without even glancing at it. I thought about it constantly, I kept telling myself, “Just take it out of the case, you’ll find no reason not to play it once you do that.” But I just couldn’t do it. Every one of those days, I neglected my habit. And it felt awful.
Not practicing had nothing to do with the violin itself, or my lack of skills (I’m still learning!). There was a lot going on, I wasn’t feeling great, and it just became one of those low-priority, world-won’t-end-if-you-miss-it tasks. It happens. Life happens. You can’t always make your hobby your number-one priority. It’s just the way the world turns.
But that doesn’t mean you’re not going to feel disappointed in yourself all the same. It shouldn’t be this hard, you think. I should be able to just sit down and do it.
Thankfully I did find a way to “trick” myself into picking up my instrument again, and not surprisingly, I already have a renewed excitement for gradually improving.
It was so much harder than it’s ever been that first time after the unexpected break, though. Not to play, not to remember how to do it, but to simply go through the motions of getting started again.
My biggest fear will always be that if I stop again, I’ll never restart.
What’s the best way to prevent that? To keep going. To adjust. To be a better planner, and to commit to a routine I can stick to. Here’s why all this matters.
Every time you break a habit, you train your brain to believe it’s OK. And sure, there’s nothing wrong with taking a break or prioritizing other things that might be more important than writing at this particular moment. But we’re talking about consistency here, and when it comes to routines, your brain thrives on the expectation that you’re going to stick with what you determine to be “normal.”
So if you’re consistently saying you’re going to write, for example, on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays, and you do that for a week before skipping the week after that, you’re not teaching yourself anything other than “not writing is okay, I’ll get back to it eventually” over and over again.
You have to train your brain to expect that routine, so much so that you pretty much do it without any second thoughts, and the only way to do this is by sticking to your routine for weeks if not months at a time.
How do you do that? By doing whatever it takes, basically.
We’re less productive when we feel like we’re failing. Have you ever wondered why you get so upset with yourself whenever you say you’re going to write but don’t? It’s because you really do want to succeed, and when something is standing in the way of that — something you feel should be under your control, but isn’t — you’re likely to react negatively. That’s normal. There’s nothing “wrong” with you.
But if you do want to improve your writing skills and succeed in achieving whatever your writing goals for the future might be, you do have to make an effort to write even when you don’t want to. Even the things we do for fun sometimes require work. That’s how we get better at doing them.
THERE ARE GOING TO BE DAYS YOU CAN’T WRITE. And there is nothing wrong with that. Bad mental health day? Give yourself permission to set your writing aside. Long day at work? Let yourself rest. A routine can be broken. But maybe there’s a way to do it strategically so you don’t fall into the “I didn’t write yesterday, one more day off isn’t going to hurt” trap.
Plan ‘time off’ — make it part of your schedule. I’m not saying you have to write every day and can’t ever stop — you’re a human being and you need rest. But if you actually plan for rest time in advance and make it part of your schedule, you’re not going to have as difficult of a time getting back into it after a day or week off, for example.
That chunk of time I spent away from my violin? It might not have been such a drain on my confidence if I’d planned to take that break ahead of time. Or maybe if I’d just given myself one day off on purpose, the next day wouldn’t have ended up being a constant struggle that lasted nearly a week.
You can’t write every day — not usually. It’s not healthy, neither physically nor mentally. But you should plan to write often, with scheduled breaks along the way. This could mean you only write three days a week — that’s better than nothing, and if it works for you, go you! Maybe you write five days a week and take weekends off, or write only on Saturdays when you don’t have to focus on anything else.
Also, hey — you can take a vacation. I know it’s become a normal part of hustle culture not to do that, but if you don’t, you’re going to burn yourself out. And speaking from very recent and personal experience, this is not something you want to have to recover from. So if you can avoid it … please do.
Just starting out as a writer or returning from an extended hiatus? Let me know how I can help. Just drop a comment below with your questions/concerns — I am here to serve.
Meg is the creator of Novelty Revisions, dedicated to helping writers put their ideas into words. She is an editor and writer, and a 12-time NaNoWriMo winner. Follow Meg on Twitter for tweets about writing, food, and Star Wars.