Revolutionize Your Writer’s Resolutions With Habits That’ll Manifest Your Best Life

We’ve all said it, “This is the year I finish my novel.” Or worse, “This is the year I write half a million words!” Writers tend to make grand declarations at the start of the New Year, never taking into consideration how to put such ideas into action. And I am not simply talking about the logistics that go into creating specific, measurable, attainable, relevant, and timebound (SMART) goals. Granted, becoming familiar with those five tenets will indeed help you devise a New Year’s resolution that is more motivational and career-focused than the ones above. However, I’m talking about how to create and maintain the positive habits that will be the multi-layered girder system that keeps your goal afloat whether your plan is to write more consistently or secure that coveted book deal. The problem is that most people don’t have good habits and have no clue how to create them. Cue the introduction of James Clear, the author of Atomic Habits — a book that will revolutionize the way you look at goal setting, especially those easily broken New Year’s Resolutions.

What Is A Habit?

Here is the definition provided in Atomic Habits: “A habit is a behavior that has been repeated enough times to be automatic. The ultimate purpose of habits is to solve the problems of life with as little energy and effort as possible.”

To build a better habit — and hence, a better New Year’s resolution — Clear teaches that the new activity should have a cue that makes it obvious when to start, be attractive enough to implement, remains easy enough to repeat consistently, and provide a satisfying result upon completion. He refers to these as the "Four Laws of Habit Formation." But how do we incorporate this new concept into our lives as writers, particularly when it comes to shaping our career goals for the New Year? Let’s start by examining each component separately.

Cue: Make It Obvious

Providing a cue that makes your new goal or resolution an obvious part of your daily routine could be as simple as putting a notebook by your bed so you can spend a few moments writing immediately upon waking, or it could be as complicated as creating a home office so you’re less likely to turn on the TV when you’re supposed to be working. The choice depends on the habit you plan to build and how your life is shaped around the chosen cue.

Clear states in his book: “The more tightly bound your new habit is to a specific cue, the better the odds are that you will notice when the time comes to act.” 

The problem is that most people don’t have good habits and have no clue how to create them. Cue the introduction of James Clear...

Two strategies Clear suggests to create obvious cues for your habits are “implementation intention” and “habit stacking.” The former is just a fancy way of saying that you should adopt a formal statement that defines when and where the action of your habit will take place. The latter is exactly what it sounds like — use an already ingrained habit as the prompt for a new habit, so that several good habits are strung together. Let’s review what this would look like against a typical writer’s New Year’s resolution.

Here is Bob’s goal before applying the above lesson:

To ensure I sign with an agent this year, I will update my query letter with a cohesive pitch and my recent awards list so I can contact three agents each week until the end of quarter.

First, I should point out how this is clearly a SMART goal, because it includes a clear action plan rather than the vague desire of “obtaining a literary agent.” But to ensure Bob’s goal becomes a reality, he should make it a habit by clearly defining where the behavior will take place and at what time. By lending specificity to his goal and automating it, he increases the likelihood he will follow through. 

To lock in the desired behavior even further, he can add that action to an ingrained habit that currently matches the desired frequency of his resolution. Thereby changing an already SMART goal into a game-changing strategy that he’ll be less likely to abandon at the end of the month. 

Here is a new look at Bob’s goal with the habit added to help intention turn into action.

To ensure I sign with an agent this year, I will update my query letter with a cohesive pitch and my recent awards list so I can contact three agents each week until the end of quarter. I will send out those letters from the laptop in my home office every Monday, Wednesday, and Thursday after I finish my 5:00 a.m. run.

Do you see how this will prove much more effective than the arbitrary declaration, “This is the year I get that New York agent”? If there’s one thing I've learned on my writing journey, it’s that successful authors don’t leave anything to chance, especially activities that can put them ahead — and neither should you.

Craving: Make It Attractive

To develop a habit that is attractive enough for you to implement (even if you’ve had trouble in the past), Clear suggest using “temptation bundling” to make the habit irresistible. The purpose of this method is simply to make the habit fun or to reduce negative stimuli so that you’re more likely to take action. To use temptation bundling, Clear provides a formula that I have modified slightly for our use as writers: “I will only [POSITIVE “FUN” HABIT] when I [NEW HABIT I WANT TO IMPLEMENT].”

For example, let’s say Lisa’s New Year’s resolution is to create a daily writing habit. She can increase the attractiveness of that action by telling herself, I will only listen to my favorite musical artist Lady Gaga when I sit down to write my 1000 words for the day.

Lisa doesn’t necessarily need to listen to music to write. It’s simply the incentive she’s giving herself to sit at her desk during those days when she feels indolent. On the flip side, she is indeed committing to forgo Lady Gaga at all other times so that the listening remains a special motivation tied specifically to the act of writing. In other words, if you’ve picked a strong enough temptation, the statement should create a craving that draws you to the computer (or desired activity) each day.

Now, for the sake of drafting this in the form of a resolution that sticks, let’s look at this goal through the lens of the two habit formation laws we’ve learned so far. Here is Lisa’s new and improved goal:

To ensure I finish my novel by the end of the quarter, I will write a 1000 words a day toward my 70K-word novel so I can start querying agents next quarter. I will write those 1000 words at 5:00 a.m. in my home office. And to make this habit attractive, I will only listen to my favorite musical artist Lady Gaga when I sit down to write my 1000 words for the day.

If temptation bundling doesn’t work for you because you don’t have trouble starting a task as much as staying focused once you start, then you may want to develop a “commitment device that locks you into future actions.” For example, if Lisa wanted to use this second strategy toward her daily writing resolution, she would change the last line of the above goal to read: And as a commitment device, I will not turn on my home wi-fi until those words are complete.

Even though in this case it appears the commitment device is the inverse of the temptation bundle, a commitment device doesn’t need to follow a specific formula. Anything that forces you to act toward that positive goal could be deemed such a device. For example, if you know you want to increase your grammar skills, but you are dragging your feet, commit to paying for the class upfront in full so that you don’t shirk on the installment plan or back out last-minute because no money was required to register.

Are you able to follow how temptation bundling and commitment devices can get you started and keep you on the road to success? Remember, if you’re new to habit building, you’re welcome to use both techniques to solidify a resolution that’s on shaky ground.

Response: Make It Easy

The third step to habit implementation is to develop a habit process that is easy enough to repeat consistently. Hard or traumatizing actions — anything that feels like a chore — will rarely become a habit because humans always pick the easiest option. Clear puts it this way: “The less friction associated with a habit, the more likely it is to occur. Create an environment where doing the right thing is as easy as possible. You want to make your good habits the path of least resistance.”

To do this, he suggests “priming the environment” or developing favorable conditions for the habit you’d like to adopt. For instance, let’s return to Lisa’s resolution. Since she aims to write more consistently, she may decide to keep the story bible for her novel on the nightstand by her alarm to remind her that the moment she wakes up, she should go to her office and write. An alternative, especially if she’s not great at awaking on time, is to place her alarm on the opposite side of the room, set to play a personal voice recording reminding her of the goal, its importance, and her commitment to rise early to complete this task. There is a free iPhone app called Memo Alarm that makes this possible. Or if there is a song that reminds you of your goal, you can easily make that your alarm within the default iPhone Clock app.

Bob can also use priming the environment for his resolution by taping the next three agents on his list to the screen of his computer so that he is always ready to move forward when it is time to tackle his goal. This way, he won’t spend time rummaging through files or making lengthy decisions about who is best to contact next. He’ll have done that research at the end of his last session or in bulk at the start of the quarter so that as the year moves forward, he never finds himself stalled.

Can you see that by removing negative temptation, potential road blocks, avenues of discouragement, and time sinks, a writer can easily reduce the friction around her by optimizing her environment in order to get more done?

Reward: Make It Satisfying

In his book, Clear points out an obvious but mind-blowing truth: Most people ditch the habits that would put them on the road to success because they don’t see immediate results. When the reality is that those incremental gains, when compounded over time, would eventually produce the desired goal.

So how do we convince our impatient little writer brains to bridge that gap between who we currently are and where we want to be? Simple. Honestly assess where you stand toward said target then keep a daily tracker of your progress moving forward.

We can do this with any goal. For example, let’s go back to Bob’s new and improved resolution:

To ensure I sign with an agent this year, I will update my query letter with a cohesive pitch and my recent awards list so I can contact three agents each week until the end of quarter. I will send out those letters from the laptop in my home office every Monday, Wednesday, and Thursday after I finish my 5:00 a.m. run.

To track his habit, Bob should create an excel spreadsheet that lists each agent’s name, contact information, genre preferences, and the date he contacted each person. Updates can be made to the spreadsheet with each response (or lack thereof). While Bob obviously won’t get an agent from this action alone, he will be able to see over time what’s working and what is not, and course correct along the way. 

Whether it’s maintaining your daily word counts or charting the weekly sales of your self-published title, the purpose of tracking is to give yourself an emotional boost that says “I’m making progress,” while at the same time keeping you focused on maintaining healthy habits.

For Bob’s example, maybe after a month of tracking, he notices that he’s getting a series of fast “no” responses. That could be a sign the query letter needs tweaking or that he’s contacting the wrong agents for his genre. He would have never recognized this solution if he hadn’t followed through on his goal and had data to analyze. The reward or satisfaction here is that a tracking system allows him to see immediate progress being made toward the habit/action part of his goal, and opens the door for solutions to getting unstuck. Rather than the typical scenario where insufficient data leads to his frustration over the apparent lack of progress and, hence, his abandonment of the goal before success takes root.

Has this convinced you of the importance of habit tracking? Well, if you don’t believe James Clear’s view on this, see the work of authors Rachel Aaron, Becca Syme, and Sarra Cannon, all of whom have spent years encouraging the writing community to track their progress as a way to develop clarity and increase productivity.

Final Thoughts

Hopefully, this advice is enough to get you started on your New Year’s habits, but I am by no means an expert and encourage readers to review Clear’s book for additional strategies. As you may have now realized, Clear doesn’t believe in goals as much as he believes in creating systems of action that maximize your potential. I hope this article succeeds in demonstrating a few examples of that approach. However, if you take nothing else away from this interpretation of his work, remember that in order to make your New Year’s resolutions stick and achieve those big career goals, you must start with the daily habits that mirror the person you want to be, because that will take you in the direction you want to go.

Get Atomic Habits at Bookshop or Amazon 

Andrea J. Johnson

Column by Andrea J. Johnson

Andrea is a writer and editor who specializes in mystery and romance. She holds a creative writing M.F.A. from Seton Hill University and a copyediting certification from UC San Diego. Her craft essays can be found on several websites such as Funds for Writers, DIY MFA, and Submittable. She also writes book reviews and entertainment news for the women's lifestyle website Popsugar and is the author of the Victoria Justice Mysteries by Polis Books. These killer courthouse cozies follow a young stenographer who realizes her transcripts hold the key to solving a string of murders (think Law & Order meets Murder, She Wrote). To learn more about Andrea’s work, visit ajthenovelist.com or follow @ajthenovelist on Twitter.

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