Rather like the energy that accompanies the back-to-school buzz in September, the beginning of a new year has a vibrant, positive feel to it. We’re done with the Christmas feasting, the overindulging and sitting around. And for some of us, we’re done with a year that didn’t amount to much, writing-wise. Yet the year ahead is a blank slate. It beckons to us, filling our minds with dreams and resolutions. For the year ahead has the possibility of being the year that you finish your [insert writing project of choice] and make it big!
However, as Tom wrote in another post:
“Our brains work in a way that resists cognitive strain. Thinking or working deeply requires effort, and unless our fundamental needs are forcing us to exert ourselves, we will effortlessly choose comfortable habits and distractions.”
Gym managers know this and exploit this tendency of humans to dream big while resisting the hard work that actually makes dreams come true; so by mid-February the gym isn’t as crowded as it was in the first few weeks of January yet it’s still receiving each member’s monthly membership fee whether they turn up to pump iron or not.
So how do you avoid letting an intention or two slip by, bringing about the inevitable resolution blues?
Well, you can either banish resolutions altogether – which is certainly effective! – but there’s a huge amount of value in dreaming big.
So the problem isn’t the resolutions/dreams (though taking a ridiculously oversized dream down a notch or two can be helpful) – it’s in the understanding of the deep work that it takes to accomplish those dreams that’s the issue. Deep work, by its very definition, is hard work. And our brains want to resist it.
Beware the paradox!
First, it’s important to acknowledge that, basically, we’re hardwired to be lazy and that willpower will only take us so far along the path to success. So cut yourself some slack when you don’t write x thousand words in the allotted two hours writing time and instead only manage 500. But also, know this: our amazing brains are plastic – that is, they’re malleable and can be rewired to new ways of thinking and doing. This is accomplished, in the main, by enforcing new habits and installing new thought patterns. So encourage yourself with the fact that you have at your disposal all the cognitive tools you need to achieve success; now your next step is to master those tools!
Set smart goals
Second, smart goal setting can make a huge difference to achieving the success you want. Start by sorting your goals into short, medium and long-term projects and then further break each of them down into manageable chunks. So, a long-term project (taking anywhere between 9 months and two years) would be something like writing and editing a novel so that it’s agent-ready. A medium-term project would take several months to complete – say, the outline and first three chapters of a non-fiction book. A short-term project would take just a few weeks to accomplish – writing a short story or a series of guest blog posts. The skill – and fun, if you’re a list geek like me! – is in breaking down each project so that you have a weekly (and then a daily) list of ‘Things to Do’ which you know you can fit around work stuff/household stuff/family stuff. Once you have that in place and then stick to it, projects will get completed without you even really noticing.
Turn writing into a habit
Thirdly, there’s that “stick to it” issue. Aargh! The best way to do this is by turning your writing into a daily habit, just like brushing your teeth. You write 500 words of your novel on the train to work simply because that’s what you do. It’s just part of your daily routine: it’s always what you do and so you always do it. However, if you’re still finding yourself battling inertia, a small thing like simply opening up Word on your laptop and promising yourself ‘one sentence, nothing more’ can be enough to move past the first hurdle and get you writing. The glow of achievement when you go on to find flow and easily write more than your allotted word count is a brilliant way to reinforce the habit.
Sometimes, though, continued inertia is actually a symptom of a more deep-rooted issue, rather than simple procrastination. Maybe the inertia is to do with self-esteem or other emotional or psychological barriers. New habits and smart goals will only do so much – it’s the psychological deep work, such as counselling or therapy, that will need to be done before the writing inertia can be properly addressed.
However, whatever your writing goals are, know that they can be achieved. You’ve got all that you need within that amazing brain of yours to accomplish your goals. Dream big but also plan big (and detailed). Start with small positive steps, incorporating them into your daily routine, and before you know it you’ll have smashed that target. Here’s to a great 2019!