Monday, December 16, 2013

New Year’s Resolutions: Get Ready, Get Set, Get...Writing!

By DeAnna Knippling

Why do we start a bunch of resolutions on January 1? It shouldn’t really matter when you make your resolutions...

...Except that it does.

Changing your habits is always hard; you’re fighting against your survival instinct. Habits increase survivability and decrease calorie consumption (they let you go on autopilot during a fight or flight situation, and they work just like “sleep mode” on your computer, putting your brain into a low-energy state that’s more easily interrupted than waking up fully). Habits are supposed to be hard to change--they keep you from walking out of the house naked, from getting lost on your way to work when you’re not really awake, and more.

Mostly, habits are good.

But what about when habits need to change?

Even though we’re wired for habits, there are ways that we’re wired to make changing habits easier, too. Because you are constantly reprogramming old habits that no longer work, like when you change jobs or move desks: the first couple of weeks are weird, but soon enough you’ll be moving on autopilot while driving to the new job or sitting at the new desk. We’re perfectly okay changing habits when the right conditions are met.

The trick is understanding and planning for the right conditions.

First, you need to know the process of your habit. It starts with a trigger (some condition that tells you when to start the habit), continues through a routine (the actions that you take during the habit), and ends with a reward (an immediate tangible or intangible benefit).

We’re not really built to stop habits. But we are built to replace them. This process will vary from person to person and habit to habit, but in general, you should start with the following:

  •          Identify the trigger that starts the existing habit that you want to change. (For example, you want to write for 15 minutes in the morning every day--the trigger might be the alarm going off).
  •          Identify the routine. (When does it start, and when does it really stop and your conscious mind take over again--for example, after you have your first cup of coffee at work?).
  •          Identify what rewards you get from continuing the old routine. (Knowing you’ll be getting a paycheck, getting to sleep in later after hitting the snooze alarm, etc.)
  •          Optional: Establish the attitude that change has meaning. (You can’t change a habit if you’re too pessimistic that the attempt will do any good).
  •          Optional: Gather support from your community in changing your habits. (We are social creatures, and approval from our peer groups is a big reward).
  •          Optional: Release your doubts to a “higher authority.” (A good explanation for this is in Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way. The point is to have something you can fall back on when things go awry--“This isn’t working!” “It will, eventually!” Whatever you normally use for that kind of thing is fine).

Once you have those things figured out, make sure that when you hit the trigger, you have planned a different routine--and when you complete it, you immediately give yourself some kind of tangible or intangible reward.

To help reinforce the new habit, you could make sure you’re not defeating yourself by saying that you’ll never change the habit, make sure that your community supports you in changing your habit, and release your doubts to your personal higher authority (say, your spouse, your faith, or “the writing process says that I have to fail a lot before I can succeed”).

Don’t think these techniques can work? But they did for a ton of people last month, during NaNoWriMo:

  •          NaNo forces you to find time to write 1667 words every day--or at least to explore different solutions to the problem of finding time.
  •          NaNo clearly defines the routine (1667 words or more).
  •          NaNo rewards you for completing the routine (daily bar graphs; comparing yourself against others; encouraging emails from professional writers, etc.).
  •          NaNo continually sends the message that any writing you get done is valuable.
  •          NaNo certainly sends support both through the writing communities (we’re all in it together) and in the wider world (“look, a lot of people are doing this, honey”).

NaNoWriMo taps into valuable habit-changing techniques. But for a lot of people, the habit dies down once November is over (or before then, if you’re not setting up a powerful enough trigger/routine/reward process).

Now it’s December, though. NaNo is over, and we’re all back in the same boat again: how do we accomplish our writing goals?

My suggestion: Start on January 1 with a year-round National Writing Year.

So why January 1?

Because January 1st has a national, if not worldwide support group for starting new resolutions. January 1st is a holiday that will help boost you in forming habits and provide a little extra push for people who find community support rewarding.

How can writers use this?

  •          Spend time now, in December, studying the writing habit you want to change and setting your goals (might I suggest 1K a day?).
  •          Identify the community that can support you through this change (like Pikes Peak Writers!)
  •          Accept that iterative success is not the same as failure, and that yes, anything you get done has value.
  •          Set up a test phase for the new habit in December; make sure to include the trigger for the habit, the routine, and the reward.
  •          Be prepared to change your routine if it’s not working, both during the test phase and after you officially start.

For example:

  •          You want to write every day and have identified that you want to write every day first thing in the morning.
  •          Study your early-morning routine. Where does it start, and where does your brain click off autopilot? What triggers it, what do you actually do, and what do you do to reward yourself after you’re done?
  •          Figure out a new habit: what’s going to trigger you to start it (pour first cup of coffee), what the new steps will involve (pour first cup of coffee and put it down by computer, start computer, start writing program, write until x words written OR until y time, backup work, close program, open email/web browser), and what the reward is (adding running total to a spreadsheet, announcing word count by way of bragging, staring at the bestseller list for 10 seconds while imagining your book at the top).
  •          Tell your support community about your new routine.
  •          Report in to your support community about both successes and failures.
  •          If you get stuck writing or if your writing isn’t very good, trust the writing process: “writing more now leads to better writing later” and ignore that day’s crap.
  •          If you drift off track, look at your routine to make sure it has a trigger, routine, and reward--and that those things are actually meaningful to you.

Finally, a note:

Pay attention to the things you do that don’t make sense; those are usually pretty telling indications of a habit that you need to eradicate or one that you can use to your advantage.

Keep flipping over to FB in the middle of writing? Then make FB part of your reward (and make sure it’s not otherwise part of your routine). Upset when you meet your goal but don’t exceed it (this is one of mine)? Then lowball your goals so you can have the reward of overshooting them. Hitting writer’s block every time you sit down to write? Establish a habit for when you’re stuck to get you writing again and remove the word count requirement (change it to time spent instead).

You could use the same techniques to teach yourself how to stop snacking on food you really don’t need or getting your butt in the gym--but why bother? Being a famous writer is so much sexier anyway :)

About the Author: DeAnna Knippling started freelancing in May 2011 and wouldn’t be able to do it without her wonderful family and friends, especially her husband. In fact, she owes a lot to Pikes Peak Writers for helping her be a better writer, especially through the Write Brains, both in the lectures and in meeting lots of other writers.

Her reason for writing is to entertain by celebrating her family’s tradition of dry yet merry wit, and to help ease the suffering of lack of self-confidence, having suffered it many years herself. She also likes to poke around and ask difficult questions, because she hates it when people assume something must be so.

For more kicks in the writerly pants, see her blog at or her ebook How to Fail & Keep on Writing, available at Smashwords, B&N, Amazon, and OmniLit. 

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