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Viewing: Blog Posts Tagged with: writers rooms, Most Recent at Top [Help]
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1. How to improve your working habits - by Nicola Morgan

Note 1: No shed necessary. That's a promise!

Note 2: Those who came to the SAS Conference in Peterborough this year know all about this and know that it's called Stimulus Generalisation

Working well shouldn’t be difficult. Make a list of things to do; tell yourself that you will do a, b and c before lunch; apply posterior to chair; do a, b and c. But most of us know what actually happens: in the absence of a boss to enforce when and where we produce a piece of work, bad habits come into play and we (I) play Spider Solitaire, go on Twitter, answer social emails, pay bills, make more coffee, dust behind the fridge…

That was me, until May 2011. Years of self-employment and working from home had created appallingly chaotic working habits. I got the work done – never missed a deadline yet – but it felt unhappily ill-disciplined, ineffective, pathetic. Social, domestic and work tasks were mixed up; the hours spent at my desk were too long and ineffective; real writing seemed to come last, if at all. Work-life not so much balance as collapsed in a heap of tangled intentions.

In May that changed. Now, if I say “shed”, you’ll roll your eyes and want to switch off, but I promise this is not about getting a writing shed. It’s about stimulus generalisation, as I now realise, thanks to my clinical psychologist friend who nodded wisely when I told her how my working habits changed instantly, the day I got a shed. Stimulus generalisation is something psychologists harness when dealing with addictions and negative habits, she said. Hmmm, sounds like me. Does it sound like you?

I’ll briefly explain the relevant aspects of stimulus generalisation but then, more importantly, unpick the elements of what I accidentally did, in order to make suggestions that anyone can use to alter poor working habits, including internet addiction. (Disclosure: I’m not a trained psychologist, though some of my work involves a degree of understanding of how our brains work; I’m just making sense of what happened to me and what might help others.)

Stimulus generalisation is akin to a Pavlovian response, although reflexes are not necessarily involved. Behaviour (leading to habits) is conditioned subconsciously by stimuli around us. So, if you tend to have a glass of wine while cooking the evening meal, cooking the evening meal becomes part of the set of triggers to have a glass of wine. Aspects of cooking the evening meal are the general stimuli around you: the clock saying 7pm, the light falling, the sound of a partner coming home, your own body clock, the smells in the kitchen, all the cues to anticipation of a relaxing evening. Together, these stimuli subconsciously reinforce a habit; and breaking the habit will be very hard if you don’t break the stimuli. In theory, you could just say, “I won’t have a glass of wine,” but the stimuli play heavily on your desires and behaviours and you are pretty likely to have that glass of wine. Thus speaks the voice of experience.

So, let’s unpick what happened with my shed. Effectively, I had suddenly changed almost all the stimuli around me, in one go. This made my existing desire to change working habits much easier; it enabled an immediate fresh slate, allowing new stimuli to create new habits. In the same way, an addict is encouraged, as part of therapy, to remove all physical aspects of the situations in which previously he took the addictive substance. Move house; throw away posters, furniture, possessions; avoid the friends who accompanied the addictive behaviour; take up new activities; change as much about your life and environs as possible. Every repeated stimulus has a hold on the person, each one like a strand within a rope.

Let’s move away from the specific shed example and generalise the conditions which may make new behaviours possible, conditions which any of us could replicate if we wanted to break undesired working habits.

1. Desire to change. We need to know what we want to change, and to want it strongly enough that we will make effort and think positively about the outcome. Part of this may involve feeling sufficiently negative about the current situation.

2. Planning ahead. Making detailed advance decisions about the changes, and setting a date on which the changes will start, help prime the mind to activate those changes.

3. Investment. It makes sense that if we have invested time, money and/or effort in the changes, this will help motivation.

4. Rising anticipation. If we have to wait eagerly for the start date, this is likely to help.

5. Support from others. Support from partner, family or friends, and their own investment in your success, are likely to have a positive effect.

6. Out with the old and in with the new. The tendency of the brain towards stimulus generalisation means that the more physical surroundings you can change, the better. You may not be able to afford a whole new room, or to replace all the furniture in it, but the more you can alter the physical surroundings, the better.

7. The use of all the senses. Our brains learn best when several senses are used. 

8. Blitzing it. I suspect that doing it all at once makes a greater impact.

Based on those principles, there follow some specific suggestions to help change working habits. Some are small and may seem trivial but your brain will notice more than you think. Some of the larger things won’t be practical for everyone and I’m not suggesting anyone does them all: pick a few that suit your situation; plan when to instigate the new regime; then do them all at once. Remember: once you have selected your new stimuli, make sure you apply them to your working hours, not your social or domestic hours. The point is to use a specific setting to teach your brain that it is supposed to be working, not doing social or domestic tasks. Or playing Spider Solitaire… The new environment will perform the role of a boss.


o Move your work-space to a different room.

o Rearrange the furniture in your work-space, including the position of your desk and your view.

o Redecorate with new colours, changing as much as possible.

o Choose new furniture, particularly chair and desk and whatever is in your range of sight while working.

o Create a time-table for arriving and leaving work; leave your office door open if just taking a break, but close it (lock it?) when your working day ends. Make sure you take everything you will need during the evening, just as if you worked away from home; use a briefcase?!

o Have a separate in-tray for domestic/social tasks, and only deal with them outside working hours.

o Even something small can help, such as using a specific mug during working hours, or a particular pen or notebook for “real” writing.

o Anything separate for “work” use will help: stationery, clothes, shelves, diary, etc. Make use of the visual element: eg if you use blue files for work docs, have only the blue files in front of you during work hours or in your work space.

o Use all the senses. The suggestions above are all about what you can see but consider the following: you might play music when working (or when not working); you might harness the sense of smell by lighting a scented candle when doing writing work, or enjoy the smell and taste of real coffee; and yes, you have my permission to eat chocolate to herald the start of a writing session… Anything that you can commit to doing every time you start what is supposed to be a proper working (or writing) session.

The more we can change, the more coherently we plan the changes and the more simultaneously we effect them all, the easier it is for our brain to break old habits and allow new behaviours.

But you’ve got to want to, as much as I wanted that shed, and you’ve got to keep wanting it. Old habits not only die hard, they can return. Be vigilant!

By the way, a new edition of my book, BLAME MY BRAIN - The Teenage Brain Revealed, is available from May, also with an ebook version.

8 Comments on How to improve your working habits - by Nicola Morgan, last added: 3/23/2013
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2. No Room with a View by Savita Kalhan

It’s gone, my cherished writing space. Up until Christmas I worked at my laptop in the dining room. I used to have the whole of the dining table to spread out in, surrounded by a chaotic array of files, piles of paper, notebooks, post-its and an assortment of pens and pencils. But I’ve had to vacate the dining room while the kitchen and dining room are being knocked into one room with an extra three metres added on. I’m looking forward to the end. However, in the meantime, icy gales rush through, making a cup of tea requires me to negotiate an obstacle course. I need to wear several layers of fleeces inside the house to avoid frostbite, and I’ve had to stack my WIP and all the notes and various versions of the manuscript in one teetering, homeless tower.

I’ve had a garden room built, completed just before Christmas, which will be my new working space. It’s sitting there gazing at me, (or maybe that's me gazing longingly at it!) To reach it, I would have to cross a ten foot ditch, a quagmire of mud, and fight off a plague of rats, and even if I made it there alive, there’s no space for me and my laptop and my tower of notes as it’s doubling as storage space for everything that was in the dining room and much of the kitchen that there’s no space for in the living room. I won't be able to get to it until April.

So I’m back in the box room, where there’s no room to swing my hair never mind swing a cat, and there is no view. I’ve been trying to convince myself that it’s cosy, that I can shut myself up inside it and pretend I can’t hear the constant banging and drilling and other noises emanating from the building site outside my non-existent back door. It’s not working, yet. I've hit a block with the WIP too and I'm wondering whether it's because I'm not in my usual writing space, physically and in my head. I know I have to make it work or find another temporary home for writing. I’ve never been a coffee shop writer. Coffee shops are for meeting friends, chatting, drinking coffee, nibbling on a slice of cake, idling time away. I can’t see myself sitting at a table with my laptop and being creative. People-watching and eavesdropping yes, but writing? Probably not.

I didn’t think I was such a creature of habit, tied by routines and patterns, but now I realise that I am. All this building work has probably been a good thing for me in that it’s forced me to realise what a stuck-in-the-mud person I am, and how changes in a writing space might actually be a good thing. So if the shoe-box room doesn’t work, I’m going to try a different room, and if that doesn’t work, I might even venture into a coffee shop or a library. I’m sure that I can write anywhere – I just haven’t had to write anywhere for a long time! Does anyone else have this problem, or can you write anywhere?

I’m in the shoe-box room right now. Hopefully I’ll be writing...

14 Comments on No Room with a View by Savita Kalhan, last added: 2/6/2013
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3. A Room All Of My Very Own - Elen Caldecott

A huge and momentous thing is happening on Monday. I am uber excited. Imagine a child who is spending Christmas in Disneyland with Zack Efron and Dr Who. I am that excited.

On Monday, we are moving house. I should say, rather, that we are moving flats. We are moving exactly two doors away. However – and this is the good bit – instead of living in a one-bed flat, we will have A Second Room. A Writing Room, no less! I loved John’s shed idea earlier this year. But I would have settled for a door that closed to write behind.

And now, I’m getting one!

So far, I have written four novels in my one-bed flat. I write at the dining table (which is, in fact, the only table); while people cook a few feet away; while the Champions League plays over my right shoulder; while the washing-up glares at me from the sink. Whoever invented open-plan living was painfully and abnormally attached to their family, imo. Here is the view from my table:

Did you spot the washing-up being glarey? It is, oh, it is.

I read Virginia Woolf when I was a teenager. I scoffed at it. There was a lot of the bolshy about me in those years. I thought I would be immediately successful and rich as soon as I left school. I thought the whole ‘room of one’s own’ thing was a bit whiney. Ha! I could happily give my younger self a stern talking to (not that she would listen, she’s bolshy, you see). It is hard, trying to produce good work in a bad space. Especially if it is chores getting in your way. I hear myself say things like, “I must finish Chapter 14, but only after I’ve put the rubbish out,” or “That character needs a lot of work, but then, so does the bathroom floor.” Being able to see all the mess and all the jobs needing to be done really intrudes. Like Catholic guilt, but about housekeeping.

But on Monday, all that changes.
There is a small part of me that worries – what if I can only write while the world and his dog are there? What if closing the door on the world sends me into tailspin? What if I need clamour and clatter and chaos to write?

I guess in that case, I just have to pick up my lap-top and go back to the dining table. And we can have a guest bedroom instead!

Now, you must excuse me, I have some packing to do!

10 Comments on A Room All Of My Very Own - Elen Caldecott, last added: 9/4/2009
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