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Writing vs. Social Media

I’m ramping up a new self-improvement program in public this morning. This is a big deal to me, though it probably won’t seem like much to you.  Here’s my problem: I’ve determined quite rationally that the number-one thing I want to do with the remainder of my life is to write fiction. Don’t worry about why or how I arrived at this point – we’ll save that for another post another day. But, as anyone who’s ever tried to write knows, there are just so many other vital things that need to be done: family, friends, personal health, and, of course, mental stimulation in the form of big-ticket time blocks like reading, blogging, and teaching. All of these consume chunks of my day and all are worth it.

So I’m not trying to tamper with those items. No, what I’m living through at the moment is the direct conflict between my life online, especially social media, and writing time. A blogger named Paula Whyman, a.k.a Curious Writer, crystallized the issue for me in a recent post. She wrote about why she’s cut back on her activities in Google+ and Facebook:

The thing is, writers write. If I’m on three or four social media platforms ACTIVELY, and I’m not there to promote a book that comes out in a month or two, that’s not called research, networking, or marketing. It’s called procrastinating. I’ve vowed to do less of this. I’m still paying attention to what my MVP’s are saying. But I’m not checking in as often or commenting as frequently myself. MVP, by the way, is Most Valued Poster.

Photo of woman typing at PC on beach.

I need a Crank It Out Anywhere app.

So there it is, out in the open, what I’ve been subconsciously trying to gloss over – the direct conflict between writing your own, one presumes eternal work and frittering away your day in the marginally useful but endlessly entertaining world of social media. As a get-things-done editor in the 40-hour-a-week grind for many years, I long ago bought into Stephen Covey’s maxim, “First things first.”  Paula Whyman’s version – “writers write” – is just as apt. So, if my first priority is writing fiction, shouldn’t that be the first thing I tackle each day when my mind is at its most pristine?

Yes but, but, but…. You see I already have this terrifically powerful habit of beginning my morning at the PC with a cup of coffee and then working my way through the overnight email, then Twitter, Facebook, and so on for as long as I have patience. The danger is that unless you monitor your time closely, an hour or two can slip painlessly by. I’ve been fighting this tendency for years by putting time limits on my usage, but what I’d really like to do is reprogram my habits so that the first thing I do each morning, before even opening up email, is to crank out some imaginative prose. Why should this be so difficult? Beyond the obvious, that is — that writing is hard mental work and grazing social media is easy.

Reading a recent article by Charles Duhigg in the New York Times Magazine has given me some hope about reinventing my habits. Duhigg quotes a Duke University study showing that for the average person 45 percent of activities are governed by her/his habits.  To establish a habit, researchers have determined, the brain likes a certain sequence. As Duhigg puts it:

According to another recent paper, if you want to start running in the morning, it’s essential that you choose a simple cue (like always putting on your sneakers before breakfast or leaving your running clothes next to your bed) and a clear reward (like a midday treat or even the sense of accomplishment that comes from ritually recording your miles in a log book). After a while, your brain will start anticipating that reward — craving the treat or the feeling of accomplishment — and there will be a measurable neurological impulse to lace up your jogging shoes each morning.

Photo of Mark Twain in his writing study.

Mark Twain in his writing study built in the shape of a pilothouse..

So there’s the key. Cue-routine-reward.  And here’s my effort to rethink my first-thing-in-the-morning habits.

Old pattern

  • Cue = breakfast plus paper plus coffee and so up to PC.
  • Routine = check emails, Facebook, Twitter, blog comments, and pump out quick output responses and new content.
  • Reward = warm glow from seeing actions of my friends and various audiences responding to my stuff.

New fiction-writing pattern

  • Cue = breakfast plus paper plus coffee and so up to PC.
  • Routine = write my latest story for 60 minutes minimum each day.
  • Reward = ?

You’ll note that I’ve set the bar low; one hour is a modest amount of writing to accomplish per day. My thought, though, is one step at time. Get in the habit of working my imagination’s muscles daily, establish the routine,  and then gradually build up to a longer stretch.

But that question mark after Reward signals the problem. What’s the immediate, daily reward for writing? When I was younger and had a job as a staff writer on a magazine, I used to reward myself with a donut upon completion of an article. It worked in a positively Pavlovian way. I try not to do donuts any more. But I need to figure out some immediate reward for the day’s output.

Any ideas?

Consecutive days of cranking fiction at this point = 1

13 Responses to Writing vs. Social Media

  1. I do not know, so don’t know as I face, or don’t face, same question about a different objectives. One idea is to have/build circle of fiction writing friends, ideally might be able to meet for coffee or whatever weekly, and you only allow yourself to contact, post, brainstorm w them IF/AFTER you’ve done daily writing objective. My far more mundane issue is unpacking from 3 big overseas housing assignment and doing triage/downsizing needed for small condo which in Florida means no attic, no cellar, no garage. A great fellow FSO retiree friend has agreed to be my coach. I set 4 monthly objectives, do weekly check ins, all by email as we’re states apart. It has been so positive re results. We have a high trust friendship so she can speak frankly, can ID excuses and the like. Results have been amazing. Good luck and best wishes. joan

    • Some good ideas here, Joan, and they could be fairly easily applied to another field of procrastination – writing fiction. I like the way you’ve broken your task into four specifc objectives per month and also the way you have another human being waiting to hear about your results. I’ve usually found it quite easy to break promises to myself, but much harder to break when there’s a friend involved. Probably the best writing streak I ever had was a few years back when Kaze and I engaged in the Great Short Story Challenge. It was pretty simpe:l we each had to deliver a story to the other on an agreed-uopn date.

      • Thanks. For me it is very helpful, maybe essential, that my buddy is another retired FSO who understands moving back to USA, retiring, downsizing, unpacking and letting go of overseas treasures and habits all at once. I would think a writer be more helful to you than others.

  2. Sometimes the reward can be the feeling of accomplishment. That fact that you just wrote for 60 minutes, and you did that yesterday, and the day before, etc. This semester, I started “music Wednesdays.” I don’t come to school, I stay in the studio all morning working on mixes, remixes, recording, organizing, etc. The fact, that I’ve been able to actually do that each Wednesday (so far) and that I can see the results, is more rewarding that I can tell you. Great post.

    • Thanks, Hondo Mesda. I know you lead a rich, full life so carving out a day for music must have been tough. I flirt with the idea of a Black Screen Day one day a week – no email or social media at all that day – but have never quite had the oomph to implement it. Your point about the reward being the sense of accomplishment each day at having done it is a good one. I know that feeling well. But I get habituated pretty fast to that one in a way I do not for a donut. Ultimately, I’m convinced the greatest reward you get from writing is the rich life of heightened awareness that writers in the zone lead.

  3. Lesley Pendleton Feb 28, 2012 at 9:27 pm

    I got through studying for grad school comps by literally putting smiley faces on a huge calendar. I’ve used something called habitcalc (online smiley faces for goals), in recent memory. If you are a visual person, it actually works. All those kindergarten teachers must be on to something!

    • Thanks for the tip, Lesley. What always surprises me about the reward is how small it can be and still work. My version of a smiley face is a tiny hand-written F (for fiction) jotted on my calendar on the days I manage to perpetrate writing.

  4. Smiley faces? Bah! One reward popular among authors in the past (and probably still) was alcohol. So, promise yourself a nice bottle of red wine at the end of a successful day of writing. A glass/hour of productive writing, for example. A great burgundy or shiraz on a particularly good day. Another approach is to forget rewards. Get very depressed. Many writers have written their best when depressed. Perhaps writing had an intrinsic reward if it helped a writer to extricate himself from his well of darkness, to escape the “black dog” as it were. It’s not the most pleasant incentive for writing, but if results are what you seek, and if you are truly committed, then this might be worth a try. If really serious, double down. Combining depression and alcohol–well, now there’s a combination used by some very successful authors. Sadly, this approach could lead to unfortunate family tensions, but that could lead to even more depression and alcohol and perhaps even deeper writing. So much reward! Anyway, these are just ideas, but they have allowed me to procrastinate for at least 10 minutes, which is its own reward.

    • Well said, BillVA, though if smiley faces work for a person, I’d be the last to denigrate smiley faces. Red wine is a routine I know quite well, but my daily ration usually appears about 4:30 or 5:00 pm, long after the day’s writing has ended. The problem is that my brain seems to need the immediate Pavlovian pay-off. Rewards deferred seem like no rewards at all.

  5. Hi RasoirJ, I just noticed you discussed my comments about the distractions of social media for writers…(hmm and I suppose if I were spending more time online I would’ve noticed sooner!) Anyway–thank you, I’m glad to hear you found my post helpful, and I hope your efforts to avoid the online time-sink are working out for you. P.W.

    • Thanks, Paula. Your post triggered my post as I immediately identified with the problem you outlined. It’s ironic perhaps that we’ve just put 317am in mothballs as a way to find more time to write other stuff, mainly fiction. In any case, best of luck on your efforts to keep two versions of your writing self going.

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