Why New Year’s Resolutions Don’t Work (and What Does)

The idea that next year could be different–that we could be different–it’s almost irresistible, isn’t it? Next year could be the year we lose that weight, get organized, and write the novel that’ll make us famous.

So many of us set ambitious goals for ourselves in December, only to drop them before the end of January. The goals we dub “New Year’s resolutions” aren’t enough.

Sure, you start with the goal. Write a novel. Or a non-fiction book. Or a collection of short stories. Or a memoir.

That’s the “what.”

But you also need to create a system to help you achieve that goal.

What Is a System?

A system is a collection of actions and rules that get you where you want to go.  Systems specify how you’re going to achieve your goals.

For example, if your goal is to start exercising, your system might be to go for a 20-minute walk every morning after breakfast. Or to sign up for a different workout class each month of the year. Or to use one of those websites where you bet on your own success, and plunk down some money that gets donated to a charity you hate if you don’t show up at the gym three times a week.

If your goal is to add meditation to your routine, your system might be to set up a cushion in a corner of your bedroom and set a timer for three minutes every night before bed. You might add another minute every week until you’re up to a full half-hour per day.

What’s that, you say?  Writing is so fluid and organic that it can’t possibly be systematized?

Sure it can. National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) is a perfect example of a writing system.

The NaNoWriMo System

The parts of the NaNoWriMo system are:

1. Write every day (or most days).

2. Write 1,667 words each day (or however many words you need to reach 50,000 words based on the days you have set aside to write).

3. After you write, record your daily word count and see if you’re on track or if you need to adjust your daily writing sessions.

4. If you get stuck, go to the forum and ask for help.

In fact, that’s the bare minimum system for anyone who has to write a book on schedule.  It covers all the bases by telling you how much and how often to write, how to tell if you’re on track, and how to get unstuck if you don’t know what to do.  Systems are all about the “how.”

It’s not a coincidence that so many people succeed in writing 50,000 words during NaNoWriMo, and that so many of the people who don’t finish still discover that they wrote more words than they thought possible.  The system keeps them on track.  If you follow it, you almost can’t help but make progress.

And if you don’t have the four parts of the NaNoWriMo system available to you, that’s a pretty good sign you’re going to struggle to meet your writing goals this year.  If you don’t write regularly…if you don’t have a way to tell whether you’re on track…if you don’t have a solution ready for those times when obstacles arise…your writing system is incomplete.

What If I Want My System to Address Other Aspects of Writing?

One of the great things about systems is that they’re completely customizable.

  • If the only place you have to write is noisy, you could add “put on headphones or earplugs” as your first step.
  • If you’re not in the habit of writing regularly, your word count could be as small as 100 words per day.
  • If the pressure of hitting even a small word count is too much, you could set a minimum amount of time that you will write each day, even if that means you just add a sentence to the draft.
  • If seeing the word count go up every day isn’t motivating enough, you might also add a reward component for the days you’re using the system:  time playing a video game or doing some other fun activity.
  • If you don’t have people to help you when you get stuck, your rule could be that you do a brainstorming exercise or go for a walk or pull a tarot card.  Whatever works for you.

Another great thing about systems is that they’re diagnostic.  For example, if your goal is to write two 90,000 word novels this year, but you’re only able to write 100 words per day, it’s clear that you need to come up with a more achievable goal…or you have to figure out how to build up your writing stamina so you can write more than 100 words per day.  A good system makes it a breeze to calculate whether or not the goal is achievable.

You probably already have some systems around your writing.

Maybe when you get stuck on your story, you flip through a folder of writing exercises and prompts until you find one that’s relevant to your problem.  Or maybe you draw a map of the problem scene and start sketching out your characters’ action with stick figures.  Or maybe you have a buddy on speed-dial who’ll brainstorm you out of the corner you’ve written yourself into.  Each of these could be an effective system for overcoming writer’s block, depending on how you work.

Maybe you dictate your first drafts into dictation software, but you edit them in Word the next day.  Or maybe you get up at 4 am and write for an hour while your dreams are fresh and your kids are sleeping.  Or maybe you scribble your rough draft in a notebook during your morning commute and retype each day’s new words into your laptop after dinner.  Each of these could be an effective system for writing a first draft, depending on how you work.

Maybe you only write to a specific soundtrack for each novel, and you use that soundtrack to stay immersed in your story world. Or maybe you read through your story notes or the previous day’s scenes each night before bed, to increase the likelihood of dreaming about your story. Or maybe your writing corner is plastered with photos of actors who you’d cast to play your characters in a movie, and every time you walk by that corner, you get the urge to spend more time with them.  Each of these could be an effective system for keeping yourself positively engaged with your current project, depending on how you work.

Designing Your Writing System

First, make sure your writing system covers the four basics spelled out in the NaNoWriMo system.

Second, if there’s a particular part of the writing process where you get stuck, ask yourself:  what could I add to this system that would get me unstuck?

If you’re not sure what gets you unstuck, think about times in the past when you’ve struggled, and what helped you then.  Or read about how other writers work and experiment with their systems to see if any of them might also work for you.

Don’t change anything that’s already working, of course.  Just look for the holes in your current system and fill them.

Once you think you’ve got a working system, write it down. As a checklist or a flowchart or a list of rules.

Put it next to your computer, or make it your screen saver or post it in the place you’re most likely to procrastinate. Refer to it daily until following the system is a habit that feels natural.

My writing system for 2015:

1.  Write (or edit) three hours each Monday-Friday while listening to a focus-enhancing brain entrainment program.

2.  Start each day’s session with fifteen minutes of brainstorming about the part of the story I’m writing that day.

3.  Record my word count on my progress tracker.

4.  If I get stuck, email my writing buddies with a specific description of the problem and the possibilities as I see them. Then do something physical for five minutes (like walking or stretching) before I move on to another part of the story.

5.  Check in with my writing mentor every week for help.

Need a system for writing your rough draft? For improving your characterization skills? For editing a completed manuscript?  No problem…

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