Improving Productivity with Writing Rituals

Once upon a time, I believed all time spent writing was created equal. It didn’t matter if I wrote my essay in a coffee shop, on my bed, or sitting in the grass. It didn’t matter if I started writing after coming home from church, eating dinner, or watching TV. It didn’t matter if I sometimes started with a prayer or a snack or if I simply jumped right in. Once upon a time, I was wrong.

I wish I could say that I realized my mistake quickly, but I didn’t until graduate school. Before that time, I created writing practices without even realizing it, but because I didn’t know the importance of such practices, they were mostly a byproduct of chance rather than intentional, thoughtful rituals. My freshman RA, for example, once distributed packs of Smarties to everyone on our hall for us to eat while studying for finals; I found the idea so amusing that I began buying Smarties for every finals week until I graduated. I didn’t realize the benefits, but my brain began to associate finals with Smarties, and Smarties with “smartness,” which improved my retention as I studied. I also found that I enjoyed drinking iced mochas and sitting in a comfortable orange chair at the Student Learning Center (SLC) to complete projects and papers. Just like the Smarties improved my productivity and success when preparing for finals, the mochas, SLC, and comfy orange chair helped me produce almost all of my best written work. I kept both of these traditions throughout my undergraduate career, and though they served me well, they weren’t nearly as helpful as they could have been had they been created intentionally.

When I began my Master of Arts in Professional Writing program, my traditions became much more pronounced. Doing as much of my reading and writing as possible in my backyard,I would sit on a blanket right next to my roses, sip a tropical-flavored LaCroix, turn off my phone, and focus on the paper in front of me. I used paper and pen rather than a computer for all of my brainstorming and early drafting in order to stay in a technology-free environment. Because I spent most of that first semester working on cheerful creative writing, the bubbly LaCroix, tropical taste, smell of flowers, and outdoor environment effortlessly stimulated ideas for my writings. I was focusing on subjects involving travel and feelings of personal freedom, so beaches and flowers reminded me of freedom and vacations.

I joked with myself that I was creating traditions, but I soon learned in class that what I called “traditions,” experienced writers called “rituals.” At first this confused me because I associated rituals with religion or ceremonies, and it even had a negative connotation in my mind. The word “ritual,” however, is defined by Merriam-Webster not only as “ceremonial” or “according to religious law,” but also simply as “an act or series of acts regularly repeated in a set precise manner.” In other words, any action or choice we make repeatedly in particular order or fashion is a ritual. I had not just been creating traditions all of this time, I had been refining writing rituals.

Successful writers have chosen to use rituals for centuries, and modern writers continue to use them even now. Famed author Stephen King, for instance, combats nerves and distractions with a morning writing routine of tea, vitamins, and a favorite chair, claiming “it’s not any different than a bedtime routine” (Ahlin, 2016). Stephen King’s rituals have worked so well for him that he is considered one of the most successful writers of all time. He is just one of many, though, who have benefited from ritualistic behaviors. In her essay “Time, Tools, and Talismans,” academic Susan Wyche points out the varied practices of writers,some of which are rather unconventional:

Charles Dickens traveled with ceramic frogs…. [Mary Angelou preferred] a hotel room furnished with a dictionary, a Bible, a deck of cards, and a bottle of sherry….[other writers] describe eating, drinking, pacing, rocking, sailing, driving a car or riding in a bus or train, taking a hot bath or shower, burning incense, listening to music, staring out windows, cleaning house, or wearing lucky clothes. 

(Wyche, 2006, p. 31)

The evidence showing the effectiveness of writing rituals is astounding. Such practices might be particularly important for college students because they are often asked to complete writing tasks that are brand-new to them, thus requiring extra high levels of concentration (Wyche, 2006).

It may seem like a ritual will take up writing time that is already scarce, but it actually saves time long-term by making the time more productive. Have you ever sat down to write and spent agonizing minutes or hours writing just a very small part of your assignment? Of course you have; we all have. This can be avoided, though, since wasted effort usually occurs due to a lack of concentration and an overwhelming feeling of stress or even panic. Rituals help alleviate or even end those problems.  By giving yourself a visual, auditory, or other sensory clue that you have changed your goals for the moment, rituals train your brain to know that when you do this, it’s time to write, therefore making time more productive and less intimidating.

Time

The first ritual you should establish is when you will write. If you tend to live by the philosophy of “I will write when I have time,” you may have realized that this way of thinking, more often than not, leads to severe procrastination. There is never a perfect time to write, especially when you are a busy person. The best favor you can do for yourself is to set aside particular days and/or times to write,read, and study—and choose those times sensibly. This is even more important if you have a writing project that is either particularly long or spans a significant length of time, such as a thesis, dissertation, capstone, or term paper. The following are tips for creating time rituals  that will minimize procrastination:

  • Choose a specific day(s) and time(s) every week that is designated for writing.

  • If you are a morning person, write in the morning. If you are an evening person, write in the evening.

  • Try to set aside a sufficient period of time. Make a point to discover what length of time produces your best work; for example, some people work best in short spurts while others work best with long stretches of time.

  • Designate some time prior to writing to do something relaxing and get in the right state of mind (ideally, the same thing every time). The relaxing activity could be taking a walk/run, reading the Bible and/or praying, cooking, playing an easy game, reading, listening to music, putting together a puzzle, doing a craft, etc. This will calm your mind and distract you from stress that may be building about your assignment.

Location

In addition to time, choosing a particular location for when you write is important, and that location should be chosen carefully. For example, if you try to write in the same room in which you usually watch tv, your brain associates this room with a time to relax or have fun (even if you turn off the tv), so your time is consequently less productive. Being in a room that reminds of you anything else,in fact, is distracting—being in the kitchen with dirty dishes you need to wash,in your bed where you typically sleep, at someone else’s house where you typically hang out, and the list continues. Even visiting a different coffee shop can provide exciting distractions like new kinds of coffee or decorations you aren’t used to!

Choosing a specific writing location with minimal distractions and a positive vibe puts you in an environment and mindset that is comfortable and motivating. The following are tips for creating effective location rituals:

  • Find a quiet, convenient space that relaxes you. Being in the same space tells your brain that it’s time to write whenever you are in that space.

  • Choose a space that makes you happy but is familiar to you so that you don’t become distracted by new, exciting things.

  • If being at home makes you want to do other things (like laundry, cooking, cleaning, etc.), find a place outside or in a coffee shop.

  • Discover what kind of lighting works best for you. For example, some prefer natural light (i.e. outside or a room with many windows) while others prefer dim lamplight (i.e. a room with few or no windows).

  • Pay attention to the colors surrounding you. Specific colors affect mood differently, and reaction to color can vary from person to person. Reds, oranges, and yellows, though, tend to increase anxiety, so it maybe best to avoid such rooms.

Environment

Though choosing the right location is important, it’s not always enough. Some writers and scholars find it helpful to incorporate other environmental rituals to further improve productivity including sounds, sights, and smells. Take, for example, Friedrich Schiller, the 18th-century German Poet and author of the lyrics in Ode to Joy. He even sniffed rotten apples from under his desk as the stench permeated the room where he always wrote. It sounds crazy, but he swore it improved his creativity (Wyche,2006; Blanchard, n.d.). Create some rituals like this one that are unique to you, but it doesn’t need to be as unusual as sniffing rotten fruit. The following are samples of rituals to improve your writing environment:

  • Sight: See above about lighting and color. Also avoid visual distractions by turning off your phone and closing all internet browsers, games, etc. from your computer. Make it so you can only see the document you are working on.

  • Taste: Make a particular drink to sip while you write or bring a particular candy.

  • Smell: Designate a specific scent (e.g. a candle, essential oil, spray, flowers, etc.) to fill the room each time you write. Smell is the sense most strongly associated with memory, so choosing a different scent for each type of project will calm your nerves and stimulate memory for that particular project or subject.

  • Sound: Play a relaxing white noise such as a fireplace, ocean waves, or rain sound or turn on a fan, open the window for a nice breeze, or play relaxing instrumental music.

  • Touch: Choose a particular place to always sit that is comfortable, but not so comfortable you will fall asleep. You may even want to have something else to touch such as a warm cup (your coffee/tea) or a particular pen, pencil, or keyboard cover.

Ultimately, only you can decide what rituals will help you efficiently produce your best work,but I encourage you to create those rituals intentionally and quickly. Waiting until you are near the end of your school career or never creating them at all will do nothing but waste time and keep you from reaching your potential. Discover now what days and times are most effective, what location stimulates your brain function and concentration, and what environmental factors improve or detract from your writing productivity and quality. You may find, like I did, that you have subconsciously been creating and refining some rituals already, but it is still important to review whether or not they are effective. In no time at all,you may have found your own version of eating Smarties, lounging in a comfortable orange chair, or sitting outside next to roses. In no time at all,you may be producing the best work you have ever created. Happy writing.

References

Ahlin, C. (2016, November 14). The daily writing habits of 10 famous authors. Retrieved from https://www.bustle.com/articles/194001-the-daily-writing-habits-of-10-famous-authors

Blanchard, A. (n.d.). The smell of rotten apples. Retrieved from https://aliceblanchard.com/blog/2018/5/28/q4jjz92dcwz41ika2l30ztuqwjk6bz

Wyche, S. (2006). Time, tools, and talismans. In W. Bishop & J. Strickland (Eds.), The Subject Is Writing (4th ed.)(pp. 31-41). Portsmouth, NH: Boynton/Cook.  

Mandy Hinkley

From the moment she began writing stories at seven years old, Mandy has held a passion for all writing genres. Pursuing that passion, she earned a Bachelor of Science in English Education from the University of Georgia and a Master of Arts in Professional Writing from Kennesaw State University. Mandy writes fiction, creative nonfiction, and screenplays in her spare time, believing that writing allows us to explore ideas and experiences without limitations. Mandy also enjoys singing, reading, traveling, attending plays, and enjoying God’s creations on a mountain or at the beach.