The truth about New Year’s resolutions

Reading time: About 4 minutes​

Do you usually struggle with your annual self-improvement plans? Here’s a better way to view New Year’s resolutions for writers….

You may wonder why I’m writing about New Year’s resolutions on Jan. 6. Haven’t I missed the deadline — the biggest scariest, most important deadline in the entire year?
Actually, no.… I’m six days ahead of schedule. That’s because — whether you’re trying to lose weight, increase your exercise or improve your writing — you’re probably going to fail at your goal surprisingly quickly. (Some 60 percent of people make such resolutions but only about eight percent achieve them. Those are bad odds!)
In fact, the specific failure date is calculated to be next Sunday, Jan. 12. That’s the day by which your motivation will tank and you’ll be prepared to abandon your wildly optimistic and yet somehow strangely non-specific goal.
But don’t despair! I’m going to give you a new paradigm for thinking about your resolutions — particularly your writing ones.
Instead of focusing on things you want to improve, I suggest you consider developing new habits. You may think that specific tasks — like writing or exercising more — require discipline and willpower. But, in fact, pure grit won’t support you over the long haul.
We have only a set amount of each virtue. Like sand in an hourglass, there’s a predetermined amount of discipline and willpower and once its run through the neck of the funnel, it is used up for that day. Only sleep will reset it. As well, counting on willpower and discipline is exhausting. It takes all of our energy and leaves us feeling depleted rather than excited and engaged. We all procrastinate over tasks we “should” do because we don’t want to take orders — even from ourselves.
The big benefit of forming a habit is that it will become self-sustaining. I’m going to bet that you no longer think about brushing your teeth, right? It’s just something you do without worrying. You don’t think about the time it takes. You don’t delay and feel hard-done-by because the job is so boring. You just squeeze the paste onto the brush and put it in your mouth. Then you brush.
Did you know I approach writing the same way? I don’t worry or fret about it. I don’t have to screw up my courage. I just do it.
Here is how you can develop your own writing habit for 2020:
  • Be realistic and start small: Many people are overly ambitious when they try to set their writing goals. Most commonly, they’ll want to start with a pretty big chunk of time — usually an hour. As soon as I hear a proposal like this, I always try to talk the potential writer down off the ledge. Did you know that 15 minutes is a great way to start? It’s small and defensible and won’t take up a huge part of your day. Even if you’re really busy, you should still be able to squeeze in 15 minutes. (And if 15 minutes traumatize you, understand it’s perfectly reasonable to start with just five. Your first goal is to build a habit — not to change the world.)
  • Write down the habit you want to develop and include the reason why: Even though the majority of people don’t write down their goals or resolutions, you will increase your own chances of success if you do. Be sure to articulate your desire for this habit and to vividly describe all the benefits you will gain when you’re able to establish it. Remind yourself why it’s important to you. Make the statement as colourful and meaningful as possible.
  • Tie the habit to something else you’re already doing: When I’m working on a book, I go up to my office at 6 am and spend the first 30 minutes of my day writing, before I do anything else (especially before I check email!) Arriving at my desk reminds me of my habit. But you don’t need to be a morning lark to write. For example, you could eat your lunch and use that trigger as the reminder to go spend 15 minutes on your writing. Ditto for dinner (although, be aware that dinner time is often more variable and therefore harder to self-enforce.)
  • Vigorously protect your new habit: Be aware of all the ways in which you might be derailed and make plans, in advance, for how to handle those situations. For example, I occasionally have very early morning meetings (e.g.: a 7:30 am breakfast downtown). On days like that, I know I’m going to be unable to write in the morning, so I’ll pick another time of day to do the job. Be extra careful about “after dinner” writing times. What will happen if you want to go to a movie? What will happen if you’re going out for dinner? Make your plans in advance so you know what to do and you aren’t surprised. Finally, be sure to remind yourself that your writing is important — and you should do what’s important BEFORE you do anything that is ‘merely’ urgent.
  • Be accountable to someone: If there is no consequence to you for failing to maintain your habit, you may have a hard time forming it. Find a supportive but stern-minded friend who can help you during your early days of habit development. You might want to give them a largish cheque for a political campaign that you particularly abhor. Then you can instruct them to mail it in if you fail to maintain your habit. Or, if that seems too radical to you, consider my Get It Done program.
How long will it take you to establish your habit? English social scientist Phillippa Lally has discovered it’s not 21 days – as pop psychology has long held. Instead, there is considerable variation. Overall, she finds it takes most people somewhere between 18 and 254 days, depending on how ‘hard’ the habit is to follow.
Does that sound like too much work? Yes, of course it’s work. But once you have the habit nailed, it will cease being like work and it will just become something you do.
That means, if you start today, you’ll have your habit firmly entrenched somewhere between Jan. 24 and Sept. 16/20. And that’s a New Year’s resolution that will really change your writing life.
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If you want some help developing your own writing habit, consider applying to my Get It Done program.  I’ll be holding a no charge intro webinar on Jan. 17 and all you need to do is email me to hold a spot. If you already know you want to apply to the program go here, scroll to the very end and select the bright green “click here to apply now” button.
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My video podcast last week gave instructions on how to find a plagiarism checker. Or, see the transcript, and consider subscribing to my YouTube channel. If you have a question about writing you’d like me to address, be sure to send it to me by email, Twitter or Skype and I’ll try to answer it in the podcast.
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How do you protect your writing habit? We can all learn from each other so, please, share your thoughts with my readers and me in the “comments” section, below. And congratulations to Elaine Ness, the winner of this month’s book prize, for a Dec. 11/19 comment on my blog. (Elaine, please email me with your address!) Anyone who comments on today’s post (or any others) by Jan. 31/20 will be put in a draw for a copy of my first book, 8 1/2 Steps to Writing Faster, Better. To leave your own comment, please, scroll down to the section, directly underneath the “related posts” links, below. Note that you don’t have to join the commenting software to post. See here to learn how to post as a guest. It’s easy!