How to Make Writing Resolutions That Stick

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One of the greatest struggles for any would-be writer is finding the time, space, and — most importantly — motivation to actually write. To be sure, figuring out how to produce creative work consistently has been one of my own challenges. Over the years, I’ve come to a number of effective solutions.

In this article I’m going to make use of two pieces of my experience: what my studies of motivational psychology have taught me in relation to goal-setting and what’s worked well for me thus far. And with a current output of about 20 pages — or 5000 words — per week, things are certainly going well by my standards.

So, as you set your writing resolutions for 2017 and beyond, here is my advice.

Consider a Shorter Goal Timeline

Annual goals don’t tend to stick. In fact, only about 8 percent of people achieve their New Year’s Resolution. There are many reasons for this — some of which I’ll go into later in this article — but I firmly believe that one contributor is the length of time we’re working with. Conceptualizing a full year is difficult, and the goal you’re trying to reach can feel both distant and overwhelming: not a formula for increased motivation.

I personally use quarterly goals. That way, I have space to revise, a chance to reaffirm my goals for the next quarter, and an objective that feels close enough that it continues to motivate me. Plus, talking myself into “just five more weeks” is far easier than “just forty-five more weeks.”

Remember, you can always do quarterly goals four times in a row to meet the same final objective. You’ll just have a more manageable, motivating timeline to work with as you get started.

Focus on Process

In the moment, it may be highly motivating to set end-point goals such as “finish my novel this year.” However, this type of goal isn’t very sustaining. Studies in motivational psychology have found the “process goals” (i.e., goals that focus on the necessary, day-to-day work) are far more effective than “outcome goals” (which are goals that look to the final, desired objective). Not only are these process goals more effective in keeping you going, they’re actually more likely to lead you to your desired destination.

A process goal for writing will focus on the sort of outcome you can accomplish in a day, and that has unambiguous definitions. For example, “write 300 words” or “write for 30 minutes.” These may seem like the minutia of the goal, but that’s very much the point. I find it reassuring to remember that the word “resolution” actually comes from a term meaning “the process of reducing things into simpler forms.”

Choose a Moderately Challenging Goal

Multiple studies have found that the optimal type of goal is one that challenges you … somewhat. Too little challenge and the goal will feel unimportant and unmotivating, while too much challenge can lead to frustration and the eventual abandonment of the goal.

For many years, my goal was the ambitious one of writing every single day. What I’ve found to be more sustainable is something that gives me a few days off each week, and where each individual step feels doable. I like to be able to say to myself, “Remember, Rob … you only have to write 500 words.” And while I often write far more than that once I’m into the writing process itself, knowing my day’s check mark is only a short writing burst away is incredibly helpful for me.

Do these goals feel insufficiently ambitious for you? Don’t worry. You can always overshoot the goal and feel proud of yourself for doing so. But start with something simple.

Keep Momentum in Mind

For me, creative work becomes far more intimidating when I haven’t written for a while. When I’m writing on a regular basis, my brain starts spinning over the story, I get excited for the writing itself, and I find myself coming up with ideas during the hours between my writing sessions.

Your mileage may vary, but I’ve found that I need to write at least a few times a week to keep this momentum going. So, to expand on the previous example goals, you might choose a goal such as “write 300 words in my novel at least three times a week.”

That beast known as perfectionism can also interfere with momentum. For that reason, I would strongly recommend not focusing on quality during your initial drafts. Produce the pages or write for the time limit, but don’t fret about how rubbish it all is. I could talk a great deal about why perfectionism during early drafts is counter-productive, but let me instead paraphrase Shannon Hale: the first draft is about shoveling sand into a box so, later, you can build castles.

Just keep moving forward, and you’ll be surprised how much the built-up momentum improves your work.

Latch the Writing to Your Existing Routine

Look at your schedule and figure out where you can legitimately and consistently work writing in. Immediately after work on odd-numbered days? During your lunch break on Tuesday through Friday? Tuesdays and Thursdays before picking the boys up from soccer practice? Weekends after the kids are asleep? Be honest about where you’re likely to find the time, and try to staple your writing goal to an established part of your weekly routine.

This strategy of “piggybacking” can be highly effective, since it removes the need to independently think of completing the goal. If it’s tied to something you already do, the established task will serve as an automatic reminder to get to writing.

Figure Out Your “Before” Conditions

Maybe you know you want to write as soon as you get home, but it’s 1) inevitable that it won’t always be the very first thing you do and 2) far too easy to get absorbed in other tasks. To avoid the pitfalls here, figure out another part of your routine that will book-end your writing process. Choose a standard, established behavior will you refuse to do until after the writing is done.

For example, you could have a rule that you don’t get started on dinner until your writing goal has been met. Or, if you want to write after dropping the kids off at school, you could have a rule that you won’t check Facebook until your writing is done.

Consider Eliminating Distractions

I don’t do my writing at home. I do it at work. And even if every other element of my goals were the same, I honestly don’t know if I could be as effective if I was surrounded by my usual distractions and bad habits. To avoid the same problems, I know other writers who do similar things: staying at their office late, going to a coffee shop, locking themselves in their home office with a “do not disturb” sign … you get the idea.

Be honest with yourself about how your home environment impacts your productivity, and take the necessary steps to eliminate the potential hazards.

Tell People About Your Progress — Not Your Goals

The human brain is weird in that it feels satisfaction from having thought about doing something good. People who think about giving to the homeless feel better about themselves, whether they actually give or not. People who consider getting a healthier item on a menu feel self-congratulatory, and actually tend to choose less healthy meals to reward themselves. This bizarre tendency is the reason why you shouldn’t talk about your grand ambitions.

That isn’t to say that social support isn’t useful. Feeling that you have a support network and a cheerleading squad can be immensely valuable. The key shift to make is telling people about what you’ve done rather than what you plan to do.

Track Your Production

Tracking improves outcomes. That’s true in almost every sector, and I’ve personally found that it’s true in my writing. Tracking my total word count, which I do in a Google spreadsheet at the end of each writing session, helps me see my progress and feel that I’m building toward something worthwhile. Beyond that, I’m driven by the knowledge there will be a giant, shameful hole in this document if I miss a day or fail to meet my goal.

And there you have it: My advice for getting into a writing groove. But what have your experiences been? Any strategies not mentioned here that have been highly effective for you? What about experiences that run counter to my thoughts? Be sure to leave your own ideas in the comments, below.