Use the Power of Habit to Achieve Your Goals

by Leanne Sowul
published in Community

It’s time for the final installment of our series on the WHY-WHAT-HOW of your writing life. In the first post, we discovered our writing purpose. In the second post, we turned that purpose into specific goals. Today’s focus will be on creating routines and habits that bring our purpose and goals into reality. 

Step One: Do I need a habit, a routine, or a list?

Let’s start by discussing the difference between routines and habits. A routine is a step-by-step process that you follow to achieve a desired result. It can be either simple or complex, but generally requires thinking through. A habit is a behavior that feels automatic. They sometimes overlap because a habit might be part of a routine, and a routine might become habit, but for the purpose of our discussion it’s important to differentiate between the two.

If you’re trying to create an automatic behavior that enforces your goal, such as getting up at a certain time every morning without having to wrestle with your alarm clock, you’re seeking to make a habit for yourself. If you’re looking to create a step-by-step process, you’re seeking a routine.

You’ll probably need both habits and routines, working in synchronicity, to be most effective at meeting your goals and achieving your purpose.  You’ll also need a to-do list, because some parts of your goal will require one-time tasks (but often crucial ones) that support the process. 

Step Two: Break Down Your Goals

After going through part one (WHY) and part two (WHAT) of this process, you should have a list of goals that fit your writing purpose. Goals are specific aims that are achievable. For example, “I want to read more writing craft books that will help me structure stronger plots” is a clear goal that connects to the larger purpose of being a better writer. 

But how will you achieve that goal on a daily, nitty-gritty basis? You’ll want to break down the implementation of it into habits, routines and items on your to-do list. 

Let’s take that example again. If you truly want to achieve your goal of reading craft books, you’ll need: 

  • A list of writing craft books that serve your purpose
  • Time in your schedule to read them
  • Regular access to those books, whether they be on your bookshelf, e-reader or through the library system. 

The first point, making a list, has both an up-front and a cumulative component. You need to decide where to keep the list (phone, bullet journal, planner) and set up a reminder system to check in with it. Next, you should set aside some time to do research on the books that best serve your purpose. This can be done all at once, or over a period of days. Once you’ve started the list, it will likely grow as you receive other recommendations. Soon, you’ll have completed the initial step of the process.

The next step is finding time in your schedule to read them. Decide how much time you’d like to devote in a day or a week. You might consider tracking your time for a few days to find out where pockets of time exist. You’ll also want to buy or borrow the first book on your list and put it somewhere accessible (if you’ll be mostly reading on the go, put it in your bag or purse; if you’ll mostly be reading before bed, put it on your nightstand). 

Finally, you’ll need to feed your new system by ensuring a continuous supply of writing craft books. When you’re halfway done with one, queue up the next by buying or borrowing it. Make sure you’re ready with your new title as soon as you finish the last one so that your routine doesn’t slip. 

There you go! You’ve implemented your goal into a three-part system: to-do list; time habit; book-reading routine. 

Step Three: Find Your Trigger

Habits and routines need one final component: a trigger. For some people, a trigger is placing their sneakers next to their bed so they are immediately prompted to start their day with exercise. In the previous example, a trigger might be needed to remind you to read the writing craft book instead of watching Netflix. The book itself can be a trigger, or an alarm on your phone, or a helpful partner reminding you of your goal. I like to use the snooze function on my email app to remind me of things I want to do weekly or daily. 

A trigger can also be disconnected from a specific point in time. In the book-reading example, a trigger could occur each time you’ve read 75% of your book; that serves as your reminder to download or buy the next book on your list. A successful habit is created through the “cue-routine-reward” system established by Charles Duhigg in The Power of Habit. You’ve already established your routine through the process above, and your reward is fulfilling your goal; the cue is the final element, your trigger. 

It will take some time to complete the HOW process for all the goals on your list, but the result will be a system that can take you all the way from purpose through goals into reality. 

Here’s to your most productive, accomplished and rewarding 2020!

Leanne Sowul is an award-winning music teacher and writer whose writing has appeared in such publications as Hippocampus, The Rappahannock Review, Mothers Always Write, Confrontation, and Hudson Valley Magazine, and in live performances such as Read 650’s “Gratitude” show at Lincoln Center. She writes the “Be Well, Write Well” column for DIY MFA, where she helps writers live full, happy lives while pursuing their creative dreams. In 2017, Leanne won both the Scott Meyer Award for personal essay and the All-American Dream Champion Award for music teaching. Her novels are represented by Suzie Townsend of New Leaf Literary Agency. Connect with Leanne at, via Facebook at Words From The Sowul, and on Twitter @sowulwords.

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