Happy New Year! Many of us feel a sense of renewal in January, and it’s tempting to resolve, “This year I’ll start a brand-new writing habit!”
The power of resolution has worked for me exactly once. In 2008, I decided I wasn’t going to be late any more. That’s mostly held true. But sustained behavioral change is genuinely difficult for all of us, and roughly 90% of New Year’s resolutions fail.
I haven’t chosen a behavior-change resolution in a while, but I do make yearly goals. Usually four biggish things I’d like to accomplish: 1–2 writing goals, an income goal, and a personal goal (“happy marriage”). Every week, a to-do automatically pops up on my list app: Check in on goals. For each goal, I write down the next small, immediate step I can take that week—the smallest task possible, so that it’s actually doable:
- Novel #1: Gather notes from last writing group meeting and put them on my desk
- Novel #2: On hold until #1 is done
- Income: Review slides for next webinar, list updates needed
- Personal: Ask husband to pick a movie for dinner
Sometimes the steps are ridiculously small, like “think about Chapter Four.”
Sometimes the step is “on hold,” and I check in with what’s stopping me from moving forward—no brain space? No time? Missing a resource or information?
Instead of a big change, a shiny new habit, think of one small thing to do to support your writing in the new year. Ditch “I’ll write every day,” for something like “I’ll open my project and look at it, possibly writing, once a week.” Ridiculously small? Yes. But think how much better it feels to discover you’ve written for an hour twice this week after sitting down, rather than feeling shitty you skipped five days because life. A small, low-commitment habit helps us feel like a “real writer” even on the days when no words appear on the page.
Pick a time
The next step is key: I write the task on my to-do list, on a specific day that week I’m making time to do it. If I can’t do it that week, it goes back to “on hold.”
If the task can’t start with a verb (Ask, Review, Gather), it’s not doable.
If it’s not specific, it’s not doable.
When I catch myself writing a reminder that’s a noun, like “Webinar slides,” I rephrase as a verb and a doable step: “Make 6 slides for webinar.”
Quantities help set boundaries for tasks—I know I can slog through 6 slides in an hour whether I’m “feeling it” or not, and Future Me will be glad that Past Me did some rough drafts.
I break writing down the same way. My focus this year is finishing two novels, one in a last draft and the other about halfway through a first draft. If I thought about them both at the same time, I wouldn’t have enough focus for either one. Setting January aside to finish Book One lets me work without that divided brain. I’ll start Book Two in February, and I can work without guilt, knowing I’m not supposed to be thinking about it now.
Make a specific location and time for writing. If you know your partner/children/pets will disturb you, get out of the house and turn off your phone. Even writing in your car in the parking lot of 7-11 is better than having one ear open for household excitement.
Know how you work
Most writers are either “gym workers” or “theatre workers.” That is, some of us do well writing most days at a set time that’s part of our routine, like going to the gym. Others do their best writing in a series of binges, like the madcap rehearsal process before opening night of a play.
I’m a theatre worker, so my Book Two goal will be 4500 words/month of new material. I might do 450 words a day for ten days if I hit a routine, but I’m far more likely to lock myself in a room and do them all at once, once a month. If I do more, hurray! But that’s a number I know I can do if I get to February 27 and it’s not done yet.
Assemble your tools
If you sit down to work, and discover your laptop battery is dead, or your pen’s dry, or you really need a drink of water, or Scrivener hasn’t synced yet, solving those problems will interrupt your flow. Anywhere from the night before to an hour before, prepare your space and your tools as if you’re making a mini-retreat for a beloved writing friend. What would you set out for them to have the best possible writing experience? Would you adjust the lighting? Put fresh flowers on the desk? Make sure a snack is close at hand? Look online for how to properly adjust the chair? Treat your own work as worthy of that care.
Track your work
If you’re a paper person, make a checklist and color in those bubbles for every 1000 words, or 100 words, or whatever feels like a small, doable step. Seriously, small! You’re more likely to come back to the work if you left feeling, “Yay I wrote 300 words!” instead of “I didn’t make it to 1000…”
If you’re an app person, use a tracker app that counts your streak or grows a tree while you work. It seems ridiculous that the desire to “not break a streak” can get me to the page on a day I might not otherwise make time, but it works, so I’ll take it.
Allow for grace
Small steps. Doable steps. Use a verb. Pick a time. Set your tools. And…forgive yourself. You’re writing a book, not coal-mining. It’s unlikely your children will be eating lead paint chips for dinner if you don’t finish this year. It’s OK if you take a break and come back. Treat your beautiful, wonderful words with joy and lightness. Be thrilled with each tiny step.
Allison K Williams has edited and coached writers to publication with many of the best-known outlets in media. As a memoirist, essayist, and travel journalist, Allison has written craft, culture and comedy for National Public Radio, CBC-Canada, the New York Times, and many more. She leads the Rebirth Your Book writing retreats series and, as Social Media Editor for Brevity, she inspires thousands of writers with weekly blogs on craft and the writing life. Allison holds an MFA in Creative Writing from Western Michigan University and spent 20 years as a circus aerialist and acrobat before writing and editing full-time. Her latest book is Seven Drafts: Self-Edit Like a Pro From Blank Page to Book (Woodhall Press, 2021). Learn more at her website.