3 Ways to Build a Writing Habit that Lasts Using Newton’s Laws of Motion


Habits are frustrating things. They exert a huge amount of control over what we do each day: what time we get up in the morning, what we eat and how we eat it, how we spend our free time, and much more. And once you have them, they’re really hard to get rid of.

In my opinion, the worst thing about habits is that they seem to adhere to Newton’s Law of Inertia:

A body  at rest tends to stay at rest, and a body in motion tends to stay in motion, unless an outside force acts upon it.

Do you have any bad habits you’d like to break? Wouldn’t it be great to form a new, better habit to replace it? Courtesy of Newton’s three Laws of Motion, here’s how.

Find Your Outside Force: The First Law of Motion

A body  at rest tends to stay at rest, and a body in motion tends to stay in motion, unless an outside force acts upon it.

In practical terms, you see the First Law at work when you watch a quarterback throw a football to his receiver. The football leaves the palm of the quarterback and soars through the air. Wind resistance and gravity notwithstanding (in this simple example) that football would continue to soar until it escaped the curvature of the Earth, except for one thing: the outside force of the receiver’s outstretched hands, which catch the ball and hold it still (at rest) until he starts to run down the field.

All habits, from cigarette smoking to boredom eating to compulsive email-checking, take up space  in your life. To simply remove a bad habit from your life would leave a gap, an unmet need. Instead, you must act upon your body in motion—your habit—using an outside force: another, better habit.

When I was trying to quit my bad habit of oversleeping, I found it overwhelmingly difficult to just get up and start working at an earlier and earlier time, because, uh, I’m lazy. I had to develop a pleasurable habit to replace the pleasure of lounging in bed: coffee in the quiet of the morning. I’d set a pot to brew on a timer, and the siren song of fresh coffee smell would lead me downstairs each morning. If I couldn’t stay in bed, at least I could get up and do something I enjoyed about as much, right up front.

Building Big Habits Requires Big, Bold Action: Newton’s Second Law

Acceleration is produced when a force acts on a mass. The greater the mass (of the object being accelerated) the greater the amount of force needed (to accelerate the object).

You intuitively know that it takes more force to push a 1.5-ton car up an incline than it does to push a grocery cart up that same incline. So when you’re attempting to build a BIG writing habit (say, writing 1,000 words a day, up from zero, or resolving to faithfully finish NaNoWriMo), you need to harness every tool at your disposal to do it. Anything less won’t be enough.

To do this, take stock of yourself, and ask:

  • Am I mentally prepared to do this?
  • Can I make any physical changes to my surroundings (clearing a desk, hiring a babysitter for a few evenings a week) to make it easier?
  • Do I have a support system (spouse on board, kids ready to respect boundaries) to help me?
  • What else can I do ahead of time to make developing my habit as easy as possible?

Once you’ve gathered these resources, you’ll be ready to make a big push toward building your BIG habit.

Get Ready for Resistance: Newton’s Third Law

For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction.

You’re pushing a small child on a swing.

“Higher! Higher!” they shout, so you oblige, pushing them with more force.

Applying force to the swing causes it to swing forward (the action) and then backward (the reaction). If you’re not paying attention, that backward swing can hit you in the chest and knock you flat on your backside, causing the small child to laugh and point, while you dust grass bits off your bum.

I’m definitely not speaking from experience.  At all.

Forming a habit (action) will provoke resistance (reaction). The more aspects of your life the habit touches, the more resistance you will encounter. You will suddenly discover opposing forces that will steal your writing time, or you’ll start off hitting your word counts with a bang, and then burn out from trying to do it all at once. So how can you combat resistance?

Go back to that picture of pushing a small child on a swing. The action (a forward swing) is met with a reaction (a backward swing). There’s your resistance. But what happens next?

It swings forward again.

Keep pushing, keep trying, keep swinging forward again., and eventually, you’ll establish the habit you want, break the ones you don’t want and become a more focused, productive writer.

For more ideas about how to build habits, check out Fake Being a Morning Person in Five Easy Steps. For more productivity hacks, take a look at Stay Motivated and organized with a Tactile To-Do List and How to Apply the Pomodoro Technique to Your Writing.

Are there any habits you want to build (or break)? If you’ve tried this method, how did it work for you? Share your adventures with habits in the comments!