How to Start a Daily Academic Writing Habit from Scratch

One of my mentees put it better than I could have:

Writing an academic book is really no different from any other project. It’s just about sitting down and putting in consistent work.

In Professors as Writers (eBook), Robert Boice concludes that the single best thing faculty can do to boost their output is to establish a regular writing habit. 

His results are astonishing: faculty who wrote in small, regular amounts (even just 30 minutes per day) produced over three times as many pages as those who only wrote when they felt like it. They also had twice as many creative ideas as those who wrote only when they felt motivated. 

To finish your academic book, the single most effective thing you can do is write regularly, not sporadically or to impending deadlines. Here's how. Click To Tweet

If you are currently writing occasionally (or not at all), follow the steps below—indebted to James Clear’s “Paper Clip Strategy,” which I have used to start new habits—to establish your daily writing habit and build it up to 15 minutes per day. (Habits nerds like me might also want to check out James Clear’s new book, Atomic Habits | ebook | audio book).

15 minutes might seem negligible, especially if you are used to completing projects in a few longer sessions just before deadlines.

But remember that you can write three times as much by writing regularly as you would writing just before deadlines.

Already writing for longer periods 2-3 days per week? Use the system below to gradually build up your practice on the other days.

How to Build Your Daily Writing Habit from Scratch

Step 1: Gather Supplies

To track your success, you will need some supplies: a clear jar or dish (I use a 4 oz Mason jar because I had one handy) and at least 35 of a small, inexpensive object like paper clips (I use colored ones, but plain metal are cheaper and ubiquitous), pennies, or marbles. 

If possible, keep these supplies in the location you will be writing.

Step 2: Develop Your Opening Routine

All successful habits start with a trigger. When you are trying to build a habit from scratch, your trigger needs to take 2 minutes or less. If you make it more complicated than that, you are likely to abandon the whole routine after a few days.

Your trigger will be the set of actions that you will begin to associate with a writing session, which is what I call an “Opening Routine.” 

Your Opening Routine should be a set of extremely easy tasks that take you from not writing to writing in under 2 minutes. So, what 4-6 things will you do to start your writing session? If you want, you can steal my opening routine:

  • Close all browsers and silence phone (I also use WasteNoTime to block specific, tempting websites)
  • Open project document
  • Open tracking spreadsheet
  • Type in date, start time
  • Set actionable session goal (or copy from previous session’s Closing Routine). Note: If you are starting a daily writing habit from zero, you should also be able to accomplish your actionable goal in 2 minutes or less. I recommend, for the first week, actionable goals such as “Write one sentence about X.” The point is not to make progress on your project per se. Rather, it’s to build the foundational habit of your daily writing practice. Start extremely small.
  • Start writing

Step 3: Schedule Your First Writing Session

Choose a time and place today or tomorrow for your first writing session. 

Remember that you are establishing a habit that you would like to become routine and that you will later be writing for longer. 

So, try to pick a time during your peak–when you are most alert and focused. For me, this is first thing in the morning. If possible, also choose a place conducive to writing for 30-minute periods, since you hope to some day expand your sessions.

Write down the following sentence as a contract with yourself:

I, [Name], will begin my Opening Routine tomorrow, [date], at [time] in/at [location]. 

Sign it and keep it in a prominent place.

Step 4: Run Your Routine

Now, it’s time to execute your writing session routine and take the first steps to becoming a daily writer. Gather your supplies and get ready.

  1. At your committed time, start your Opening Routine. If you start on time, place a paper clip in the jar (if it is in your writing space). You just earned one point toward completing your book, as far removed as that might seem! 
  2. Complete your Opening Routine. As soon as you do so, place a paper clip in the jar. 
  3. Complete your 2-minute session goal (like writing one sentence). As soon as you do so, place another paper clip in the jar.
  4. Schedule your next writing session, using Step 3.

That’s it! You’re now someone who keeps your writing appointments. You have a daily writing habit (even if n=1). You’re putting in “reps” (just like you would in the gym) toward your book.

If you fail to complete any of the steps—or, if you don’t start on time—that’s OK! You just don’t earn a paper clip for that step today. See the troubleshooting section below for tips.

Keep track of how many paper clips you earn per day and per week. You will use this information to decide when and how to extend your writing sessions. 

For extra motivation, you can also dump all paper clips into a much larger jar labeled “book” at the end of the week. Over time, you’ll see how these seemingly infinitesimal actions add up to a published book!

On Wanting to Do Too Much, Too Quickly

Running your Opening Routine and then writing for 2 minutes seems like nothing. You certainly can’t finish a book in a reasonable period 2 minutes at a time!

So, you might feel compelled to try to start off by writing for longer.

Remember, though, that the main point of this system is to establish a daily writing habit—the foundation upon which a published book rests. 

You’re training yourself to do exactly what Boice found led to the highest scholarly output: write in small, regular amounts, regardless of mood and motivation.

You cannot build on a weak foundation. So, for now, resist the urge to do more, or the whole figurative house might come crashing down.

How to Build on Your Daily Academic Writing Habit, Once Established

As mentioned above, you will use your daily and weekly paper clip data to decide when it is safe to build on your daily writing habit foundation.

Once you accumulate 20 paper clips in one week (a perfect score, initially), you are ready to start extending your writing session. 

At this point, I recommend that you modify the paper clip schema in the following way:

  • Start your Opening Routine on time: 1 paper clip
  • Complete your Opening Routine: 1 paper clip
  • Write for a 5-minute increment: 1 paper clip (for each 5 minutes)
  • Complete your session goal: 1 paper clip
  • Schedule your next writing session: 1 paper clip

Start with 5-minute daily sessions (minimum) until you accumulate 25 paper clips in a week. If you don’t hit that mark, that’s OK! Just stick with 5-minute daily writing sessions until you do. 

Once you hit 25 paper clips in a week, move up to 10-minute daily sessions (so, you would earn 2 x 5-minute increment paperclips per day, for a total of 6 possible paper clips per day), and so on. Your ultimate goal is to earn 35 in one week (a perfect score with five days of 15-minute increments). 

Troubleshooting Problems in Establishing Your Daily Academic Writing Habit

Note that as your sessions become longer, you’re likely to experience more challenges. Here are some of the main issues you might face and what to do about them:

If you miss or break appointments:

  1. You might not be taking scheduling seriously. Ask yourself whether you’re treating scheduling your writing appointments as you would an appointment with your dean. Be sure to think through what might possibly prevent you from starting on time, and choose a time that you know you can make. 
  2. You might need external accountability. You might be willing to break appointments with yourself, but not with someone else. See if someone might be willing to check-in with you by text or email when you start or end your sessions. Just knowing that someone else is expecting to hear from you can help you feel accountable.

If you struggle to start on time:

You might find yourself succumbing to excuses. Common ones are “I’m too tired,” “2 minutes is not enough time to do anything,” or “I should just wait until I have ideas to write.” 

I will be posting a more in-depth guide on defeating these obstacle thoughts soon, but the key takeaway is that you must find ways to talk back to them. 

For now, remember what Boice found: the single most important thing faculty did to generate more ideas, produce more text, and publish more was to write every day, even when they did not feel motivated or ready.

If you miss a session

It happens. Make it a rule to not miss two in a row. If you miss a session, each action is now worth double paper clips the next day. This rule does not apply, though, if you miss more than one day per week.

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