Our brain is like the hedge maze from Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining. Too easily we can wander the twists and turns of our thoughts and then get utterly lost. Yet as we age, our brains do some amazing things — they prune away neural connections. A baby, in fact, has more neural connections than an adult brain, but is often helpless because of a plethora of choices. Only by pruning, can we make these connections faster. You can use the technique of habit stacking to increase your writing time but capitalizing on the brain’s ability for synaptic pruning.
The Power of Synaptic Pruning
We are all born with a blank canvas in our heads. The whole world is possible. Yet as we age, our brain prunes away unused connections, while strengthening the ones that we use frequently. It’s why addictions that develop in our teens are the hardest to break — they are literally hardwired into our skulls.
Sean Covey, author of the books “Seven Habits of the Highly Effective ____” said that “We become what we repeatedly do.” And science backs him up. By pruning away unused neural pathways, the remaining synapses operate much faster. It’s the difference between practicing the piano or practicing the guitar. Each instrument requires a different set of hand and finger movements. The more we practice, the faster those movements become.
What Makes a Habit?
Over the years, our brains build a network of neurons to support our current behaviors. Anything that becomes habit is strongly ingrained in our neurons. For example, our brains hardly forget to make the morning cup of coffee or take a shower. These are actions we have performed thousands of times. Then why is it, when we come to something passionate like writing or drawing, do we often put it off?
Stack onto Established Habits
The best thing we can do is exploit the habits we’ve already developed, and stack new ones on top. Rather than pick a random time in the day to write, you can say, right after I take a shower, I will write for ten minutes.
BJ Fogg, a behavior scientist at Stanford University, developed this method with his Tiny Habits program. The formula goes like this:
After (Current Habit), I will (New Habit)
Before (Current Habit), I will (New Habit)
By latching onto a preexisting habit, we increase the likelihood that our new habit will stick around. Yet there are some pitfalls along the way.
Timing is Essential
Some habits, like pushups, brief meditation, or practicing Duolingo, are easy to squeeze into virtually any routine. Yet if we want to get churning on that new novel or increase our sketching time, we need to choose our time very carefully.
Think about a time where you can be the most successful. This would be sometime where you have at least 15-20 minutes to spare. Don’t worry, if you can even find that block of time, you can start with something smaller and build up.
You also need a clear goal and a specific habit to follow. If you say, after I put the kids to sleep, I will write, both the goal and the time are vague. What if the kids don’t go to bed right away. Maybe say: While the kids brush their teeth, I will set up my writing area. Then you can follow it with: After I kiss them goodnight and shut the door, I will write for 10 minutes. These are much more specific and thus much more achievable.
The goal is to reduce the time from the trigger activity (kissing the kids goodnight) and the new habit (writing for 10 minutes).
Keep Things Brief
We all want to lock ourselves up in a snowy cabin and write for hours at a time (Thank you Stephen King), yet this dream is often unattainable to us busy mortals. Instead, look for brief moments to write and then, once the habit is established, you can lengthen the time.
Ask for too much time, and the habit you stacked it on will likely tumble down. Or worse, you might start avoiding the initial habit all together for fear of the new one you want to establish. Let’s say you create this scenario: After I brew my morning coffee, I will write for one hour. Such a daunting chunk of time might lead you to skip making your coffee altogether.
Think baby steps. This is a better path to achieving your goal than taking huge leaps.
Have a Contingency Plan
Sometimes life throws us a curveball. Stuff happens and our regular routine gets disrupted. It’s at moments like this that we can struggle to preserve even our most basic habits.
Create a contingency plan — Something writing or art related you can accomplish in just 2-3 minutes. Collecting together some notes, or searching up a descriptive phrase to use in your writing. It doesn’t matter what it is. The most important thing here is that it trains your brain to still associate writing or art with this time and activity.
You can also use this technique if your initial habit doesn’t have much time after or before it, but you want to establish a new routine. Think of this as gaining a foothold in a new territory. Once you’ve established a new creative habit, you can always expand and expand the time you spend on it.
Time is not our enemy. We all have habits hardwired into us. We simply need to exploit them to trick our brains into accomplishing the goals we really want.