This is about the time of year when shiny New Year’s resolutions start to look a little tarnished.
Those thousand fiction words a day I was writing at the beginning of January? Yeah, not so much now. All that sugar I’m not supposed to be eating? Well, I may have made brownies a few days ago. And I may keep sneaking bites of my husband’s desserts.
I wrote last week about one important tool you can use to keep on track with resolutions and goals: accountability groups. But I think one of the biggest things you can do on your own is to create a system designed to support your new goals.
I’ve noticed a pattern in the goals of mine that have succeeded. It goes something like this: resolutions that begin life without intention and support never last for long, while those that I boost with good habits tend to get met.
I don’t know about you, but as I look back over the last month I can definitely see that same pattern emerging. The goals that I built up support around have actually gotten met. The ones that I just wished out into the universe? Nope.
Here’s the problem I see a lot with creatives, though: we resist building structure around our art.
We tell ourselves that we’ll wait for the Muse to strike, instead of committing to carving out 30 minutes every lunch break to practice our craft. We tell ourselves we’re too tired at the end of the day to write or paint or play music, instead of making the effort to arrange our schedules to support our art.
But I say that building structure around your goals is especially important for creative people.
Are you willing to take that step?
Do you want to carve out time for the work you love?
Or do you want to make the same resolution next January?
Set your intentions
I love this fantastic post by James Clear on setting intentions. In it, he talks about a study in which three groups were asked about their exercise habits. The first group (control) was simply asked how often they exercise. The second group was given a motivational pamphlet and speech. The third group was given the same motivation, but also asked to complete the statement, “During the next week, I will partake in at least 20 minutes of vigorous exercise on [DAY] at [TIME OF DAY] at/in [PLACE].”
Two weeks later, the third group was 3 times more likely to have exercised than the first two groups.
The moral is that simply saying “I want to write and submit a short story this month” isn’t nearly as effective as saying “I’ll write 300 words every morning before breakfast.”
Give yourself the best chance at hitting your goals by explicitly stating where, when, and how you’ll do them.
Set up a system
Great goals aren’t achieved in a vacuum – rather, they’re reached as a result of hundreds of tiny steps. Try thinking of your goal not as one single thing, but as a system of steps and habits.
For example, I’m working on the rough draft of a novella that I hope to have done by the end of February. To do that, I need to write to 20,000 words. Taking into account that I normally only write five days a week, I need to start writing 1000 words a day. I can write 1000 words in an hour – less time if I’m really into the story.
Knowing all that, I know I need to sit down at my desk one hour earlier every day during the week and get out those thousand words before I check my email and get sucked into client work.
Once I’ve set this system of Time + Place + Avoid Email into place, sitting down at my desk to write becomes easier.
Clear away your obstacles
As humans, we’re often our own worst enemies. It’s so easy to let excuses, inconveniences, and obstacles get in the way of working towards our goals – and so hard to let them go.
The biggest thing you can do for yourself as a creative person is to identify what obstacles are going to be get in the way of your goals, and nip them in the bud.
If I want to write fiction first thing in the morning, for example, that means I need to finish that pressing client project the night before, and install Freedom on my computer so I can block the internet. If I want to cut down on my sugar intake, I should probably (maybe) give away that box of chocolates grandma gave me for Christmas. If I want to stop getting distracted by Twitter, I should take it off my phone.
Track your progress
How do you know you’re improving if you’re not charting your progress? If you’re technologically minded, try using a goal-setting site like Lifetick or an app like GoalsOnTrack to keep track of goal progress. (For a nice rundown of different goal-setting apps, check out this post from Michael Hyatt.)
Or you can go old-school like me, and just hang a calendar above your desk with a color-coded system of check marks. (Feel free to give yourself a gold star when you’ve done extra well – I totally do whenever I hit 1000 words!)
Check in, and tweak as you go
The important thing is to not view your goals as static, but rather to allow them to adapt and change.
If writing three times a week before breakfast just isn’t working, try writing at a different time of day. Or try dictating while you walk, or some other form of writing that gets the words out. Scheduling yourself regular check-ins gives you the ability to adapt your resolutions as you go, rather than simply deciding they’re failures if they don’t work out on the first go around.
I saw this great post today on ZenHabits.net about conducting a monthly review. In it, Leo Babauta talks about taking a few minutes at the end of every month to check in with yourself and see where you’re succeeding, and where you could be doing little better.
How are your creative New Years resolutions going? What are you finding to be the biggest obstacles to making time for your creative projects? Let me know in the comments!
(This post was adapted from an article I originally wrote for GovPilot.)