Do you intend to write, but never start? Or, are you overcome with anxiety the moment you open your computer? Maybe you tell yourself that you will write “in the morning,” but get sidetracked cleaning the kitchen. If any of these scenarios sound like you, then developing and implementing an opening routine–a series of steps you take each time you sit down to write–can help you begin writing more quickly and with less effort.
Ready to write more effortlessly? Read on.
What is an Opening Routine?
Writing consistently is really all about developing a series of good habits such as setting and keeping appointments, breaking large projects down into smaller tasks, and tracking your progress. An opening routine is an integral part of this series. It’s what you do to begin, or initiate every writing session.
As habits expert Charles Duhigg proposes, all habits follow a predictable pattern. First comes the cue–an action, place, person, or time that triggers the routine in motion automatically. After the routine comes the reward.
To make writing more like a routine–something we do automatically and with little effort–then, we need to pair it with a trigger. In this case, your opening routine will become your cue. The more you practice doing those series of actions and then immediately starting your writing session, the more your brain will associate the two. Over time, you should find that the mere components of your opening routine (time, location, action, other people) will trigger your academic writing.
How to Construct an Opening Routine
Cues are made up of one or more things that fall in a few categories:
- preceding event (drinking coffee, opening laptop, breathing)
- sensory input (sound of a phone alarm, sound of an audio track)
- location (coffee shop, library, particular room)
- time of day (9 am, afternoon dip)
- other people (writing partner, friend)
- emotional state (this one is not so helpful for writing)
Cues are strongest when they involve two or more of the elements above. Brainstorm things that fall in each of the categories and imagine how you might combine them to form your own routine from some of the elements listed above. Stuck? Try some of my sample opening routines below.
Sample Opening Routines to Try
I have used different opening routines at different times in my career. Below are modified versions of the opening routines that worked the best for me.
Sample Opening Routine 1
I wake up and have coffee and breakfast. At 8:50 (time of day), my phone alarm rings (sound), and I take my mug into my office (location). I sit down, put on my headphones and start my Naturespace app (sound). I open my tracking spreadsheet and type the date, time, and my session goal (preceding actions). I set a Pomodoro timer, take three breaths, and begin (also preceding actions).
Sample Opening Routine 2
I wake up at 7:35 (time of day) and drive to the coffee shop (location), where I meet my writing accountability partner (other people). I order my coffee, and sit down at the table next to her. We discuss what actionable items we plan to accomplish during that session, and I open my tracking spreadsheet. When my coffee is ready, I pick it up from the counter, sit back down, and fill out my spreadsheet (all preceding actions). I put on my headphones, start my Naturespace app (sound) and begin writing.
How to Implement an Opening Routine
The key to opening routines is that they are a series of actions you always do, in roughly the same order under the same conditions. So, it will take some time to develop an opening routine that works for you and to practice implementing it immediately before writing.
Once you plan an opening routine that you think will work for you, write it down so that you have a checklist to follow. Then, for at least two weeks, practice doing all the steps, in the exact same way each time.
In the beginning, doing your opening routine will take a lot of mental energy. But over time, it will become automatic. And so will the writing.
After two weeks, review whether you need to tweak your routine. Write your new opening routine down, and test it again for at least two weeks. Remember, it might feel unnatural at first, but it will quickly become second nature.
If You Can No Longer Do Your Opening Routine
I mentioned above that I have had several opening routines over the years. Sometimes external circumstances mean you can no longer do your opening routine in the same way. Maybe your friend or you moved out of town so meeting at the normal café won’t work. Maybe the semester is starting again, and you teach during your normal writing time.
In these cases, you will need to develop a new opening routine for your writing. I recommend that you try, if at all possible, to keep as many elements from your previous routine as possible. If you move and can no longer write at your favorite coffee shop, you can still write at the same time of day, with the same auditory cues, and the same preceding events. Over time, your new opening routine will replace the old one.
Your Productivity Arsenal
An opening routine is just one piece of your productivity arsenal. If you’re ready for more, move on to developing a closing routine, setting product-focused goals and breaking them down into actionable steps, and monitoring the stumbling blocks that derail your own writing progress.