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Using Meditation to Create Good Writing Habits

If I were to sum up the most important writing advice I’ve ever gotten (or given), it would be this: Develop good habits. The more I write, the more I realize how central habits are to writing well and to creating a successful writing career. You can be born with natural brilliance, study with the best teachers, learn spectacular technique, and none of it will take you anywhere if you have poor writing habits.

I doubt there is a human alive who hasn’t wrestled with bad habits—overeating, interrupting others, chewing fingernails—and writers are no exception. Stephen King may have no trouble sitting down to write four hours every single day (they say he skips Christmas), but many of us struggle to get ourselves to the keyboard regularly. There are undoubtedly writers who don’t distract themselves by checking Facebook, making out grocery lists, or suddenly deciding they absolutely cannot wait another minute before they dust every blind in the house, but most of us have to fight those urges. Maintaining a schedule, seeing projects through to the end, keeping on task—these are all habits writers need to develop. And each one can be an uphill battle.

So what can we do to help ourselves build strong, effective writing habits?

One of the most useful tools is meditation. Buddhist teacher Leo Babauta has written about how he used meditation to quit smoking, start running, and stop procrastinating. He points out that habits are supported by thoughts. Meditation helps us become aware of our thoughts, step back, and pay attention to them.

Let’s say we set an intention to begin writing right after breakfast, but instead decide we’ll email our friend first. I owe Richard a message, we say to ourselves. I haven’t seen him in ages, and I can’t let this go any longerI’ll get that email out of the way and then it won’t be on my mind when I’m trying to write.

Or perhaps we’re in the middle of writing and find ourselves longing to check out a funny YouTube video. It’s only four minutes, our thoughts tell us. And I’ve heard it’s hilarious. Why should I deprive myself of a few moments of laughter?

Switching projects is a common bad habit among writers. We’ve written three chapters of a novel, but suddenly get an amazing idea for a short story. Immediately, our thoughts tell us to stop what we’re doing and get going on the new work. I can come back to the novel afterward, we tell ourselves. The story is is a way better idea, anyway.

Of course, all these thoughts do is give us permission to shirk our responsibility to ourselves and our writing. They are like enablers who tell you, “Come on, one cigarette isn’t going to hurt you. You can quit tomorrow.” What we often fail to realize is that the voice telling us to email our friend, watch that video, or abandon our project is coming from fear. It appears when we feel anxious or scared, when our writing seems especially demanding or challenging. The voice that justifies our bad habits is that part of us that shies away from discomfort and uneasiness. Unfortunately, that voice can be persistent and persuasive—as anyone knows who’s ever tried to change a habit. We can fight those thoughts all we want, but they almost always win.

What meditation does is get us to notice those thoughts, to watch them without acting on them. When we meditate, we stop trying to argue with our thoughts, beat them back, or silence them. We just see them. By stepping outside of our thoughts and looking at them with clarity, we become aware of what they are and why they arise.

When we realize that what we really want isn't to email our friend but to avoid the difficulty and discomfort of writing, it is easy to dismiss that urge. Knowing that the voice saying, Come on, take a few minutes to view that video, really means, It's easier to avoid writing than to face the challenges writing presents, we can respond to that voice with resolve.

This is why Babauta calls meditation “the most important habit if you want to change other habits.” For anyone striving to become a more skillful—and more successful writer—it is invaluable.