At the start of the year, we tend to set goals and resolutions. This year is going to be the year I start eating healthy, the year I finally learn guitar or the year I start running. Then, inevitably, around this time every year, most of the resolutions are discarded or broken. Maybe they never even started.
I’m by no means immune to this. I tell myself I’m going to Do Things Better. I might even do the thing for a week or two. But by the third week in, its often forgotten about until I decide to Do Things Better months later. That’s the downside of habits, it can be easy to fall out of them as it can to fall into them. That’s why I’m writing this blog post, mostly to remind myself of the power of habits.
I think the problem is that for most people, life gets in the way. Maybe you start to run. Maybe you even do it for a couple of weeks. Then one day there is torrential rain and you say to yourself, maybe tomorrow. Then tomorrow rolls around and you’re tired from work and you don’t want to go. Then the next day is Friday and you’ve had a hard week and before you know it you’re out of the habit.
Another problem is that it’s easy to focus on the end goal, but not so much the day to day aspect of any resolution. We focus on being a person who is fit, rather than a person who goes out to run in the torrential rain. Before I started being strict with myself, I wanted to be the person who had written lots of books, not someone who wrote every day. The focus is always on the destination, not the journey. Which is a shame because the journey is a lot more fun.
I need to hear this, I am writing to remind myself.
A big resolution for many people this year, including myself, is to get back to a creative routine. Last year was terrible in so many ways. It’s hard to find the time to write when the world’s on fire. Even though I have always believed in the power of a good creative routine, I got seriously blown off course last year. I didn’t heed my advice. I moved across country and changed my life and writing was just not part of that time. I went back to only really writing when the time was optimal and even then, not always. My writing became scattershot. Every time I sat down to write it was harder because I did not have that regular connection any more.
An issue with habits is fitting them around your life. I don’t have the luxury of writing full-time. Most people don’t. I have to fit it around work, exercise, going out and endless other distractions. I used to get up at half six every morning, crank out 500 words then get on with the rest of my day. It’s how I wrote my first book. This routine worked really well for me until suddenly, it didn’t. I was exhausted all the time. I struggled to get out of bed and I couldn’t focus on the words. So I gave it up. Since then, I’ve been floundering, trying to find a new time that works for me. Instead, I should have just focused on writing every day when I could and trust a routine would work itself out.
This is what I’ve tried for the last couple of weeks. It seems to be going well, but I might be fooling myself into Doing Things Better.
In practice, I’ve found the daily writing is where the magic happens. If I focus on the finishing line, I can never motivate myself. But writing every day, that’s where the fun is. You can mess around with language and experiment with story. You can feel the words dancing around your fingertips I think it’s better with resolutions to focus on the daily work, every single day. That way you can build something to be proud of.
It’s not an original idea. I’ve been reading Neil Gaiman’s collection of non-fiction, The View From The Cheap Seats.[^1] He writes this about Terry Pratchett:
He wrote four hundred words a night every night: it was the only way for him to keep a real job and still write books. One night, a year later, he finished a novel, with a hundred words still to go, so he put a piece of paper into his typewriter, and wrote a hundred words of the next novel.
That’s the real key to resolutions, to realise they take time. You have to focus on the daily targets, not the larger ones. Because 400 words a day sounds easy. It’s about one typewritten page of A4. But enough of those build up. Then suddenly, you have a book. It’s the same with being fit. If you set out to run a marathon immediately you’ll probably fail. But if you focus on running or moving daily, you’ll suddenly find yourself fitter.
It’s also important to not let the momentum run the other way as well. Failures accrete in much the same way success does. I beat myself up for not having written one day, so I put more pressure on myself the next day. Which leads to another day not writing. So it continues. I happened to read Jordan Aspen’s blog this week, which helped guide my thoughts:
More than halfway through January I haven’t actually written every day. My little one’s imminent birth is distracting to say the least, and makes it quite difficult to focus on my business, but I’m choosing not to let a skipped yesterday be an excuse not to write today.
The best way to stick to a resolution then is to ignore the big picture. Focus on the here and now and don’t beat yourself up too much if you slip. Tomorrow is another day. Don’t just make a resolution in January but monitor it throughout the year, doing a bit at a time to make something big.
In the coming year, I look forward to ignoring most of this advice.
[^1]: Very much recommended for anyone interested in writing or in the power of stories.