Let’s face it, January 1st is not the time to wake up early and go to the gym, to take on the grueling commitment of writing 5000 words a day, to clean out your fridge and swear off meat, or to quit your job and join the circus. It is not the time for rash decisions or drastic life changes. No. January 1st is the time for nursing an epic hangover and hiding out in your pajamas while you avoid reflecting on the past at all costs. Not to say that the new year shouldn’t be taken advantage of as an opportunity to make positive changes in one’s life but if you want your commitments to stick then you might want to wait until January 2nd when most of the bourbon has left your system and you’ve finally put on clean underwear.
Now what does the perfect timing have to do with writing? No doubt we’ve all set writing resolutions. But if we try to bite off more than we can chew, or if we carry all of our self-doubt into the new year, or if we’re already comparing ourselves to others, discounting whatever we’ve managed to accomplish in the last five days just because someone else was able to accomplish more, or if we maintain the illusion that writers block only afflicts failures then we’re never going to reach our goals. How do I know? Well because I’ve been working my way through this list for the past five days and getting absolutely nowhere. But I tell you it stops right now and from this day forward I will have the diligence of a machine.
So what’s my foolproof method for making achievable goals and crafting habits that will actually stick?
The first step: Acknowledge previous accomplishments.
No one is more guilty of neglecting this first step than me. I like making plans. I like working towards goals. In other words I prefer living in the future to living in the present. Drawbacks to having this sort of mentality are that not only am I always anxious but I’m never satisfied and because of this I always have this expectation that it’s the NEXT project or the NEXT book that’s going to solve all of my problems and I never stop to reflect and be GRATEFUL for the things I’ve already managed to accomplish. So before you make all of these amazing plans for 2014 stop and take a moment to remember that you are awesome! And that the groundwork you laid in 2013 will be put to good use only when you learn to appreciate yourself and finally allow yourself to take pride in all that you’ve already accomplished.
Step two: Be realistic but not complacent.
I anticipated devoting even more time to writing this year and because of that I laid out an incredibly ridiculous itinerary that I’m already regretting. I’ve already missed one of my deadlines and we’re not even a week into the new year. Why? Because I’m incompetent? No. Because I’m crazy! And all of the guilt I’ve felt over not meeting my first goal of the year isn’t due to me not being good enough but it’s due to me being unrealistic. Which is also another detrimental side effect of my tendency to live in the future. Goals are meant to challenge us and push us out of our comfort zones but they aren’t meant to cripple our sanity and totally derail our lives. Now I’m taking a step back to reflect and reevaluate how to top last year’s productivity while also preserving my mental health.
Step three: Be specific about what you want.
Make a list, a pinterest board, tattoo that shit on your arm if you have to but if your aspirations aren’t crystal clear you’ll never make them come true. So stop with the vague wishing for fame and riches and start searching your soul for whatever it is that you truly desire. Then place that dream at the forefront of your mind and allow it to maneuver every move you make until it’s not a dream any more but reality.
Step four: Set deadlines and let others hold you accountable.
Deadlines are your friend because they give you a still target at which to aim every hour of every day. And thanks to all of that guilt-induced productivity it will also keep you from becoming one of those writers who takes ten years to write just one novel. Those people are lunatics. You don’t want to be a lunatic do you? So set deadlines. But don’t just set deadlines, set a deadline and shout it from the rooftops. Or maybe just tell your spouse or your best friend or your mother or your critique partner. The point is tell someone who can help to hold you accountable or else you’ll be inclined to reward yourself with breaks or give yourself some leeway and then suddenly it’ll be ten years later and you’ve only made it to the third draft. Another perk of having someone else hold you accountable? You have someone to whip you into shape on those days you’re busy making excuses and you have someone to help you celebrate with cupcakes and a pitcher of margaritas. Unless you’d like to keep those all to yourself. Let’s face it, after writing an entire novel you probably deserve it.
Step five: Devote yourself to a routine.
I know not everyone will agree with this one. Some will argue that inspiration can’t be confined; that it’s random and spontaneous. But the truth is inspiration is not only something organic but it’s also something learned. Something that can be manipulated and summoned and harnessed. But only after hours and hours and hours and hours of practice. After sitting down at the same time every day, devoting the same amount of hours, cranking out the same amount of words. Trust me, the “muse” is not as unpredictable and elusive as everyone thinks. She can be tamed. You just have to show her who’s boss. And that means telling her when and where she needs to show up every day for work. Because forcing those words out of her will be work. Hard work. But by creating good habits from the get-go it will only make achieving your dreams that much easier.
Step six: Finish.
Even when you don’t want to. Even when you don’t think you can. When bills are due and you’ve just come down with the flu and your radiator just went out and you’re fighting with your spouse and your dog just died and you’ve been working overtime and the entire world is falling down around you. Finish. Just finish. Because there is nothing worse than breaking the promises we make to ourselves.
Step seven: Celebrate.
For at least one day, one night just celebrate. Don’t think about what more you could have done. Don’t think about what’s next. Don’t think about anything at all if it’s outside the realm of just how awesome you are. Because you finished. Because you kept your promise and now you’re one step closer to making your dreams come true.
Step eight: Start over.
Because you should never put all of your eggs in one basket and because the only way to prove that the first time wasn’t a fluke is to do it all over again. And now you know you can.