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2021: Rethinking Resolutions and Habits as Writers

Please welcome Sarah Penner to Writer Unboxed as our newest regular contributor! Sarah’s debut, THE LOST APOTHECARY, releases on March 2nd. You can learn more about her HERE [1]. Welcome, Sarah!

[2]

At long last, 2021 has arrived on our doorstep. I’m an optimist, and I imagine a number of you will agree with me on one thing: 2021 is destined to be better than 2020.

This holiday season has looked nothing like we anticipated. Old traditions—New Year’s Day brunch, traveling to see family—have been set aside. But no matter the quarantines and restrictions in place, there’s one tradition many of us will still keep: we’ll sit down with a pen and paper to make a list of resolutions for the shiny new year.

Personally, I love this tradition. It’s an opportunity to revisit the goals I set twelve months earlier; identify the strategies and habits that worked; and set new priorities to pursue in the coming months. I’ve always been a goal-setter, and I can’t imagine rolling into a new year without a bit of introspection.

But before we take out our pen and paper to set goals for the new year, let’s talk through a few things.

Resolutions that stick

It’s been well-established by psychologists that new year’s resolutions simply don’t stick, and the reasons for this are varied.

Most of the time, resolutions fail due to lack of specificity. Some resolutions are too vague (“I will improve my craft this year”) or too all-encompassing (“I’ll be more active in the writing community this year.”) So, when setting goals for the new year, remember to be specific: “I will sign up for a class about better dialogue-writing,” or “I will join an online critique group aimed at YA writers.”

Also, ensure your resolution is something you can control. “I will sign with a literary agent” is a nice resolution to make, but you only have so much power over this. No matter how polished and on-the-mark your manuscript might be, it still needs to hit the sweet spot for an agent—a person with their own thoughts and behaviors that should not drive your sense of success. Instead, set goals you can control, like how many agents you will research or query this year.

You might be tempted to think that resolutions don’t stick due to a lack of willpower or desire, but this is a sure-fire path to low self-esteem: this is not a matter of how badly you want it. It is a matter of strategy and approach. Your desire to achieve a goal is there, but it needs to be transformed into a step-by-step approach that will bring your goal closer.

Said another way, successful resolutions require good habits.

Habits are better than resolutions

Resolutions are often big, life-changing visions. Habits, on the other hand, are subtle. They require less change to our behavior, making them more likely to stick.

When writing down your list of goals for the year, it’s perfectly fine to write down the big goals. But then, beneath each one, write down the smaller habits necessary to make them happen (daily or weekly is best!) A habit, by definition, is a practice or a tendency. Keep this in mind when listing behaviors that will support your goals.

Let’s take a few examples.

Perhaps your resolution is, “I will finish my memoir this year.” That’s a great goal—albeit a lofty one—so beneath this, list a few habits you’d like to build to support this goal. For instance, “I will get in the habit of working on my memoir during my lunch breaks,” or “I will get in the habit of emailing my chapters monthly to my beta reader as a form of accountability.”

Another resolution might be, “I will increase my social media following.” Platforms are important, so this is a great goal, but it’s not very specific. A couple of supporting habits might be, “I will engage with one new bookstagrammer each day,” or “I will add ten bookish hashtags to each of my posts.”

The intent is micro-steps. As a final example, let’s say your goal is to query 50 agents this year. A lot of steps will go into this, so list them out as habits to build for the new year: “I will check #mswl on Twitter once a week,” or “I will get in the habit of reviewing QueryTracker daily,” or “I will research three new agents a week,” or “I will create a new Word document with agent submission instructions.”

Aren’t each of those micro-steps so much less intimidating than a single, lofty resolution? I think so.

Remember, visions (resolutions) are important. But rituals and habits? That’s where the magic happens.

Looking back at 2020

Okay, I promise we’re not going to rehash much of 2020. But I would encourage you to do this: before you build out your goals and habits for 2021, take a quick look back and “inventory” habits and goals from the prior year. If you’re a regular goal-setter like me, chances are you have a few lessons to learn.

Here’s an example. Looking back at my 2020 goals, one of them reads, “Say yes.” It sounded lovely at the time—I would be eager! open! willing to take on opportunity! And yet, as the year progressed, I actually found myself weighed down by this goal. Not only was it too vague and broad, but it left me feeling guilty anytime I said “no,” and saying “no” is often a very, very good thing. In 2021, I’m going to practice saying “no” more often.

Be honest with yourself: are you striving for behavior changes that haven’t worked for you in the past? Is there something you can learn from the stumbles of last year? Keep those little “failures” in mind as you look forward to 2021; chances are, there’s a lesson to be learned from them.

Evaluate as you go

On a regular basis, evaluate what’s working with your goals and habits, and what isn’t.

I’d recommend that you don’t fill out a year’s worth of habit-tracking goals in January. Start with a month (or a week) and assess once it’s over. If you found a habit easy—and it led to progress—congrats! Consider expanding it. For example, if you found it surprisingly easy to read a craft book for an extra fifteen minutes each day during January, consider making it twenty minutes a day in February.

Some habits naturally fit into our normal routines, and we might be pleasantly surprised at how little work that habit becomes. But on the flip side, if you struggled greatly with a habit, consider nixing or reworking it. This isn’t failure—it’s life.

The benefit of accountability

Last fall, when diving into a big revision on my next manuscript, I approached a writing-related Facebook group with a brave question: “Is anyone up for an accountability group?” I got lots of replies and teamed up with two other writers, Julie Carrick-Dalton [3] and Nancy Johnson [4] (as it turns out, both are contributing writers for Writer Unboxed!)

We began chatting every Sunday evening. At first, it was a true accountability check-in: we began by sharing our goals and resolutions for the next month or so. During our calls, we would discuss the word count or outline progress we made that week, and sometimes we’d even let each other know when we’d logged an early-morning writing session.

But in time, what began as an accountability group evolved into more of a “support” group. The three of us have debut novels coming out early this year, so we’ve been able to lift one another up and share advice, stories, etc.

The fact that our weekly sessions evolved in their purpose is a great lesson about resolutions and goals in general: they can, will, and should evolve as your needs and interests change. Nothing should be so rigid; life goals, writing goals, and our approach to both should be flexible.

I’m wishing all of you a happy, healthy, and successful 2021. And whatever resolutions, goals, or habits you set, I hope you conquer them with flying colors.

I’d love to hear from you. What writing-related resolutions, goals, and habits are you aiming to chase in 2021? Do you have any goal-setting tips for your fellow writers? How have you learned to keep resolutions?

About Sarah Penner [5]

Sarah Penner is the debut author of THE LOST APOTHECARY, forthcoming March 2, 2021 with Park Row Books/HarperCollins, in the US, UK, Canada, and more than fifteen territories worldwide. Sarah lives in St. Petersburg, FL with her husband and their miniature dachshund, Zoe. When not writing, she enjoys running, cooking, and hot yoga. Find Sarah on social media or learn more at SarahPenner.com [6].

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