It’s a Writer Thing –Harness the Power of Stimulus Control in your Writing

This is a guest post by Jessica Bayliss. 

Welcome back to It’s a Writer Thing. Over the last few months, I’ve been writing about all things feedback. I hope you found those posts helpful, and if you did (or didn’t), I’d LOVE to hear from you. Please go ahead and leave a comment below. 
Today I’m switching gears. I’m very excited to write today’s blog post, because I get to dig into my psychologist bag of tricks for this one. From nine-to-five, I’m a clinical psychologist, and so much of what I studied all those years in school is applicable to our experiences as writers.
One concept that comes up A LOT on blogs, Twitter feeds, and in craft-related articles is our environment and the habits we keep. Some people insist we must write every day, at the same time, in the same place to build a good habit, while others prefer a more flexible approach.
But who’s got it best?
The answer is neither and both!
Over the course of a few posts, I’ll dig into a couple psych concepts that can put this debate into context. I’ll be talking about the differences between stimulus control versus stimulus generalizability and how that relates to cognitive control. Today, I’ll focus on stimulus control.
Despite the formal-sounding lingo, these concepts are very simple, and most of us writers are well-acquainted with these already, just maybe not the names. 
So here goes. First a few definitions.


A stimulus is just anything in the environment (external or internal) that will trigger a response. Sometimes the response is automatic and unconscious, but it can also be voluntary.
Stimulus Control is the idea that a particular behavior will happen in response to specific stimuli. So, the simplest one we can all relate to is the good old-fashioned stop sign. We have well-ingrained responses to that big red octagon. If it’s present, we stop, if not, we keep going. Of course we stop at other times too: for red lights, for a crossing family of geese, because we just noticed a donut shop we can’t pass up. You get it. 
Some behaviors only occur in response to a particular stimulus, but most of the time, behaviors will happen outside that context too. So, that brings me to…
Stimulus Generalizability, when a particular behavior is likely to occur in many contexts and in response to many stimuli. In dog training, a good pet owner will train the dog to sit using one controlled environment to start. But, in order to have a really well-trained dog, she needs the pup to sit in the living room, the kitchen, while walking down the street, at the park, etc. And it’s no good for the dog to only sit if the original trainer gives the command. All members of the household should be able to get the same response. To get there, a trainer will vary the learning environment and stimuli that are present, and viola, she’s got a dog that’s not an asshole in public. 
But what does all of this have to do with writing?


Many authors talk about the importance of establishing a routine that’s repeated every day. Sit in your writing spot, at the same time, with the same drink, with the right playlist, and you’ll ingrain a habitual behavior that will make it easier to write consistently. 
Are they right? YES!
By repeatedly pairing the behavior of writing with these stimuli, the writer will come to crave the behavior of writing whenever these stimuli are present. This is why I itch to write first thing every morning. I have my chair, my coffee, and my computer in my lap, and it’s awesome. The days when the world has other plans for me, I miss my writing time and my I don’t feel quite right.
This is good, especially for writers struggling to be productive on a regular basis.


To harness the power of this classic psychological principle, create your own routine where you pair certain stimuli with your writing. Pick a time, a place, music, a candle scent, a beverage, or snack. Anything works as long as it’s consistent. If you want to get really into it, you can pick an item of clothing like a favorite sweatshirt or comfy slippers. Be sure to write under those circumstances every day (or, if one of your stimuli is something like day of the week, be sure to not miss a Sunday or Tuesday or whatever). Do that for a week or two (the more chances to practice, the faster the connection will be established), and you’ll have a very strong urge to write under those circumstances thereafter. 


It will work for you, I guarantee it, but there is one thing to watch out for: distraction. If you get into your writing zone and instead of opening that WIP you open Twitter, you won’t condition the stimulus-behavior link you’re going for. So resist the social media and the pull to do other things during that time. 
Other things that might hinder your progress are interruptions. Kids, husbands, dogs, chores, the phone. All of that can intrude on our designated routine, so be sure to choose a time where you’ll have the least chance of being interrupted. 
Five AM on weekdays is perfect for me because I’m the only one up and there ain’t none of my friends awake calling me at that early. And if they did, I’d think they were crazy.
Next time for It’s a Writer Thing, I’ll continue this discussion and talk about the way stimulus control can hinder the productivity of an author. Yes, there can be too much of a good thing. Until then, another HUGE thanks to Amber Gregg for welcoming my series on her awesome blog, and of course… You can do it! You can write!

This article was also posted on as a part of the “It’s A Writer Thing” series. 

Jessica Bayliss is an author of commercial fiction who loves nothing better than getting lost in a good story, whether in print or on film. When not busy with her latest fiction project, she can be found loving her friends and family—especially her husband, Eric—playing with one pesky Havanese, or trying to appease an ornery cockatiel, typically with a cup of coffee near at hand. 

Do you agree? Disagree?