At the start of every new year we find hordes of friends and family setting out with the best of intentions. They create these resolutions, you see. Ostensibly to better themselves. I hate resolutions and I don’t use that word lightly. I find resolutions destructive to goals and almost completely lacking in their ability to help create good habits and behaviors that last.
I think that when people create New Year’s resolutions they rarely do more than say “Hey, I’m going to finally get healthy and do it by going to the gym.” Or “I’m going to be a better writer and get pages written, starting right now.” They don’t think it through to be sure. Sure they start with the best of intentions and may even go to that gym for a while. In fact they may even go for more than a few weeks. The sad truth is that usually within 30 days the vast majority of them will have made so many excuses for why their resolutions aren’t working that they’ll have given up without a fight. And then the cycle repeats itself at the start of the new year. But the real problem as I see it is that people don’t think about what got them where they are in the first place.
I spoke to some of my fellow writing friends about this. Not because I was hoping to make a resolution to write more or better. No it was because despite my desire to write regularly, I still found myself feeling as if I was struggling with the words I was putting on the page. Even free-form writing with no real purpose seemed like an uphill struggle that resulted in the goal, yes, but with no satisfaction for the effort I put into it. I was ready to give up thinking my willpower was just too weak and that I’d have to find another way. It took a chance comment by another friend for me to realize that it wasn’t the lack of willpower that was the problem. The problem was the bad habits that I’d gained over the last few decades of my life. Habits that had been repeated so frequently that I’d reinforced them enough that they were incredibly difficult to beat. I did a lot of navel gazing once I figured this out.
Frankly, as writers we can’t afford to let our desire and willpower to become great, published authors be crippled by the bad habits and addictions that have become ingrained in our lives for (at least for me) decades. Heck, who am I kidding. Nobody can let any habit or addiction beat out the willpower that drives their goals in life. So what do we do? How do we fix these bad habits as writers or as anyone else? These bad habits that we have fulfill needs that are reinforced each and every time we perform them. So let’s take a look at this. In order get rid of a bad habit, we have to figure out a few things.
Step 1: Figure out what need you’re trying to fill with the bad habit.
Figuring out the need you’re trying to fill with your bad habit is probably the hardest part of beating that habit in the first place. Why? Because it requires absolute honesty with yourself. For me, I discovered I was frantically trying to stay on top of things. I didn’t want to get behind with communications and I found myself constantly checking my email and my social media sites. I hated the idea that I might miss answering someone else’s need. I couldn’t bear the thought that I might be “late to the party.” To fill this need, I checked communications constantly and didn’t get writing done. Even while I was writing, I had social networks and email running in the background, checking them any time I paused or got stuck. Again, not as much writing got done as I needed to, all because I didn’t want to be left out or late in hearing information. Being aware of any need, real or perceived, is the first step in letting it go or changing it.
Step 2: Figure out what kinds of actions trigger your habit and stop doing them.
This is a tough one because of the temptation to constantly say “Yes, but…” and explain away the trigger of your bad habit. Don’t be tempted. I found that when I woke up in the morning or walked into the house after a hard day of work, one of the first things I used to do was sit down at my home computer and clear my personal email inbox, which I kept running all the time. Simply sitting in my office chair and looking at the counter of unread emails was my trigger. What I should have been doing was writing when I sat in that chair.
How did I stop? I turned off the notifications on my smart phone, and I powered off my electronic devices when I went to bed. That way I wouldn’t be tempted to look at them first thing in the morning. They were off. They could wait. And after a hard day at the office, the first thing I did when I got home was set my devices in my office and walk back out of that room immediately. Simple, right? Ah, not so fast. Just doing that meant I left this big gaping hole. I WASN’T COMMUNICATING. I felt empty! What the heck was I supposed to do now? Most people would say “Start writing more, dummy!” Well, sure, writing might be a good idea, but I needed something that gave me a more immediate and noticeable reward.
Step 3: Figure out the best replacement for your bad habit, but start small.
Frankly little changes are easier for us all to stomach in our lives. Starting with something too big risks potential failure (like those people I mentioned at the beginning who made those radical New Year’s resolutions). When you start small, you don’t dread it. You don’t look at it as an obstacle when the new habit is little. And you get near immediate gratification when you do it. Success breeds success. The euphoria you feel from accomplishing even that small goal is priceless. It makes you want to do it again and again.
My replacement habit as a writer started with exercise, oddly enough. Instead of checking my email first thing upon walking into the house after work, I did sit-ups. Ten to start with was my goal, and always with perfect form. Even after only a few days, I saw my strength increase, my back problems decrease, and my stamina in my martial arts classes start to improve. Once I did those sit-ups for a week I started adding to my successful good habit.
First thing in the morning, instead of sitting down at the computer desk, I sat in my comfy chair and meditated for 10 minutes. Just 10 minutes in the morning. That gave me better focus through the entire day and allowed me to be more calm during the rush rush go go go of my day job. It wasn’t until I’d been doing these things for a couple of weeks that I actually started adding writing into the mix. Instead of writing right away at my desk after exercise and meditation, I grabbed a pad of paper and started writing long hand in a comfortable chair for a little while first. It was just free form writing with pen and paper, on any topic I wanted. Sometimes during these sessions ideas popped into my head for my work-in-progress and sometimes i just wrote “I am powerful, beautiful, and without regret” over and over as a sort of affirmation. It wasn’t until a month into these habit changing activities that I actually started writing at my desk.
I’m sure a few of you wonder why I didn’t make the replacement habit something like writing words somewhere else in the house right off the bat. Ah, the joys of being married to a technology geek. No, that didn’t work for me. I had too many places where I could access that email, and the temptation was too great so soon into replacing my bad habit. Which leads me to the next step.
Step 4: Immediately perform your new habit when you encounter your trigger.
Consistency and immediate action are the keys here. When you encounter the trigger for your bad habit, immediately perform your good habit. For me, any time I felt I was checking email at the wrong time, I went into the living room and did a few sets of sit-ups. It gave me the time to reset my intentions and I got the added benefit of healthy exercise that strengthened my core and reduced my back problems. I found it broke a mental cycle strongly enough that I could sit down and get those pages written or sections edited instead of checking email and social media for “just a minute.” Those just-a-minutes invariably turned into hours. Hours of not writing what I should have been: that romance novel I’m working on, remember? But was getting words and exercise enough? Not entirely.
Step 5: Set yourself up for positive reinforcement.
This immediate feedback that got me into the bad habit in the first place needed to be replaced right along with the bad habit. What’s going to give you the best positive feedback for your writing? For me, it’s been posting my writing progress on Twitter and on Facebook (via a small client for posting only) and getting feedback from my followers.
I’ve found that telling the world about what I am doing drives my success. I want to succeed because I know people are watching. They’re my accountability buddies whether they realize it or not because I know at least a few of them are waiting for the next time I say “Hey, got this much further.” I also keep track of my progress in a spreadsheet (fair warning, dear Critique Partner, you’re going to start getting reports). I like to think of it as a savings account of my words.
Step 6: Ask for help.
Sometimes the urge to repeat my bad habit is too great. I’ve found that when I’m really struggling to keep my good habits up, simply telling my accountability partners about my struggle makes it seem that much less of an issue. These fantastic people still give me positive feedback (“Look at what you’ve done so far!”) and they also get me back to thinking about my writing by asking me questions (“What’s next? Who’s zooming who?”). They also help me understand that I’m not alone. By admitting my struggle out loud to people, I get to let it go. I can resist the urge to do the bad habit as it rides on on past me. And that in itself is a huge rush, no?
I guess what it really comes down to, at least for me as a writer, is that my willpower isn’t the problem. My bad habits are the problem. I don’t lack the willpower to do something; I never did. I simply didn’t pay attention to why I wasn’t writing more words. Are my bad habits gone? No, but they’re ridiculously less. I completed NaNoWriMo and I’m getting my work out for critique very soon. That’s progress.