Writers and other creative types aren't immune to the impulse to start anew each time we unwrap a new calendar. I began making New Year's resolutions back in elementary school, and at best, my resolutions, like most people's, were always qualified failures. Yet there's something highly symbolic about believing there's a right time to start again. Give yourself the edge this year...
A compelling image sticks with me from B. F. Skinner's Walden Two. In his psychologically advanced society, Skinner imagined hanging lollipops around the necks of young children in order to teach them self-control. (Of course, today someone would sue at the mention of hanging anything around a child's neck.)
As far as self-control goes, too much can be as counterproductive as too little. Psychologist Roy F. Baumeister, co-author of Losing Control: How and Why People Fail at Self-Regulation, explains that if you over-control your urges (telling yourself you'll only check your e-mail once a week) you're bound to lose control before long and plunge in the opposite direction.
Moderation, dull as it sounds, works far better. Set your goals too high, you'll feel as though you've failed even if you come close. Instead set lower goals and surpass them frequently. That takes the pressure off. Baumeister recommends recording your progress on a calendar (an unbesmirched new one, perhaps?) to help with the self-monitoring process.
FROM RESOLUTION TO REALITY
If your resolutions relate to your deepest values, you don't need to use self-discipline and self-control as much. In my writing classes, would-be novelists are always saying something like, "I know I just need to force myself to write every day." The funny thing is, when I interviewed dozens of highly successful novelists, I found that most of them love what they do and can't wait to get to it, even though there are times when beginning is indeed difficult. They've succeeded at getting to the easier part, the flow, often enough to know they can do it again. If you're doing what you truly want to do, you won't need to ask anyone else or yourself to make you do it.
Make only promises you can keep. That is, resolve to take action steps, not to achieve results out of your control. Devise a simple method of keeping track of your successes. Simple check marks on the days you stick to your writing resolutions will add up to new habits. And remember: Successful people start again and again and don't waste energy feeling bad about having to.
ONE WRITER'S RESOLUTIONS
Now, keeping all the above psychological wisdom in mind, I resolve to:
- Write regularly. That, for me, means at least an hour, five or so days a week. Five minutes here and there when the spirit moves me won't count.
- Stare down rationalizations. No more "but blogging counts."
- Clear the decks the night before, rather than leaving all those piddling tasks for first thing in the morning (my best thinking time). I will reduce my RSS feeds to the essentials, ignore junk mail, let friends wait before responding (though not too long).
- Set weekly goals. What worked when I was writing articles and my goals were very market-oriented (much like this writer's), was to "have something in the mail every Friday." Now, working on a novel, what counts is accumulating words.
- Carry a notebook when keeping or accompanying someone to a medical appointment. Rather than leaf through a magazine, I will make a few detailed notes about my surroundings to use creatively later.
- Read only very good novels. When a book I've begun reading is deeply flawed and annoying, I will stop reading it. No more "let's just see what happens."
- And finally, because I'm only too aware that people drop dead unexpectedly, I resolve to ask occasionally: Is the way I'm spending today the way I want to have spent one of my precious days?