How to Create Habits for the New Year

How to Create Habits for the New Year

I started this series talking about setting goals, last week I talked about meeting goals, this week I’m digging a little deeper and talking about habits. Habits are the unconscious or semi-conscious behaviors that we routinely carry out each day, like reaching for our phones first thing in the morning or getting a candy bar from the work vending machine every afternoon. It’s something automatic, programmed, we’re barely aware we’re doing it.

Some habits are good, some habits are bad, some are neutral. Everyone has them, and they can be hard to control or change or even understand. But setting the right habits can have major impact on your productivity.

Why are habits important?

Habits are the small little things you do everyday that build to large goals. Running every morning will eventually let you compete in a marathon. Writing for an hour every day will eventually lead to a 200,000-page manuscript, but more than that, habits are nearly automatic.

As a society we mythologize willpower, but in truth we’re creatures of habits, reaction and emotions. We can’t will ourselves to achieve our goals, the best thing we can do is manage ourselves. Anyone who has tried to lose weight knows exactly what I’m talking about. Intellectually you understand that you have to stop eating junk food. But if you keep those Oreos in your house and try to will yourself not eat them, guess what, eventually you’re going to eat some Oreos.

The Habit Loop

To set good habits we have to first understand them. Habits are made of three components that act together to form a ‘habit loop’. These are ‘the trigger’, ‘the action’ and ‘the reward’. First, we see or experience something that causes us to do an action, and then we are rewarded for that action. The most famous example of this Pavlov’s dog. The dog heard the bell: ‘the trigger’, it started to salivate: ‘the action’, and then received a treat: ‘the reward’.

If you want to set up a habit you need to think of these three components. The trigger doesn’t need to be a literal alarm, it can be a time or a location. I used to write at the same coffee shop every day before work; being in the coffee shop acted as a trigger to start writing. The reward was I could get a cup of coffee on my way out.

The reward too doesn’t need to be a physical treat though. It can be something you were going to do anyway, or even just a dopamine hit. Going to the gym to lift weights always makes me feel better after I’ve done it, it’s a purely chemical thing. Likewise, to prevent me from laying in bed and playing with my phone, I put it in the other room to charge and only let myself look at it after I get dressed. My reward for that action is I get to check my phone.

Bad Habits

The habit loop is something that happens to all of us constantly, and you probably have habits right now you would like to break. The only successful way to get rid of a bad habit is to replace it with a good one. Dismantle the habit. You probably already know the action, figure out the ‘trigger’ and ‘reward’ and replace them.

Now this is admittedly, easier said then done. Almost anything can be trigger and it’s hard to figure it out exactly. Rewards too can be something different than you initially expected. I used to get up and get a candy bar every afternoon at work. I thought that the reward was the sugar from the candy bar. But when I went to break the habit, I realized that while I was eating the candy bar I wasn’t working. I tried replacing the candy bar with a walk instead, and it worked. I realized that the reward I was seeking was really just a break from my desk.

If you have a habit you’re trying to break write down what you did right before the action and what you did right after. Experiment, change your environment, pay attention to the time of day, your physical state, are you tired or hungry? What’s the consistent thing that seems to trigger you?

The Willpower Myth

Willpower is not a limitless resource. Everyone, even the most successful people, only have so much of it. Try to focus on managing yourself, you’re not a create of pure logic, you’re going to mess up or have a bad day or just feel too exhausted after work to do something. That’s okay, give yourself that break, figure out a way to decrease those barriers.

If you want to do more of something make it easier for yourself to do it. Pack gym clothes the night before, to get yourself out on a run. If you want to not do something make it harder for yourself to do it. Don’t carry cash to work so you can’t use the vending machine. You’re still going to mess up, but the harder you make the task the more willpower it takes, it’ll be easier to say ‘no’ if it takes too much.

Habits, focus, goals, these things aren’t easy. They take work. I hope these blog post helped you get started. If you’re looking for more information on habits check out The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg. I also can’t recommend this article on self-control enough.

After you do some reading go out there and create some habits! (like following this blog)

How to Meet Goals for the New Year

How to Meet Goals for the New Year

Last week I discussed setting goals, this week we’re talking about how to actually meet them. The truth is, that while important, setting goals is the easy part. It takes at most a couple of hours to map out your goals, but meeting them requires daily attention and will, and that’s tough. Here’s some tips to get you started.

Get Things Done Early

Okay, I admit this one is a little groan inducing. There’s definitely a wing of the ‘productivity world’ that fetishizes getting up at 4am and getting all your work done before noon. But when I say ‘early’, I don’t mean 4am. I mean trying to do your most important task first, as soon as possible, as early as you can.

Most days all you really need to do is one important thing. If you can get that out of the way before anything else, you have already succeeded. If you want to be a novelist get up at 6am and write for an hour before work. If you can’t get up early because the kids need to get to school, or your work begins at 6am, write the second you clock out. I stay at my desk at work and write for an hour before I go home and have dinner.

Willpower is a limited resource, it drains from the second you get up in the morning so make sure you spend it on what matters. This is especially true if you’re starting a new habit. You’re going to face a lot of resistance at first.

So, pick one task, and one task only, and make yourself do it as early as you possibly can. I know this sounds stupidly simple. But in practice it can be extremely difficult. We tend to procrastinate and the thing we push off the most is the thing that is often the most important. We do this because with importance comes weight, anxiety and pressure. Wake up and it get it out of the way before all that pressure can build.

Consistency is Best

Getting up at 6am and writing for an hour might sound realistic on paper, but there’s going to be that Monday were you stayed up too late last night binging Narcos on Netflix because you were depressed the weekend was over and didn’t want to go back to work; that Monday is going to suck and when you first start you’re going to have a lot of those Mondays.

The important thing here is not to go back to bed and try again on Tuesday, it’s to get up. Yes, that’s going to be hard, yes, anything you write is probably going to be awful, and yes, you almost assuredly aren’t going to write for a full hour. But that’s okay. The most important thing is that you consistently get up and try. If the idea of an hour is too intimidating that day, tell yourself you only have to do twenty minutes. If you’re worried about quality, give yourself permission to suck, just do it.

Goals are not met by crushing it one day a week and sleeping in all the others. They are met by consistently doing a little every day. Some days are going to be a wash, but that’s fine, if you got up and write, then you succeed, even if you’re just deleting it all the next day. You learned something, you strengthened a habit, you earned yourself a gold star.

Track Your Progress

When I say ‘earned a gold star’ I mean that literally (or, kind of literally? The word ‘literally’ has been in a weird place for a while now.) Rewarding yourself for completing a task is an important part of building a habit. And tracking tasks can help you set more realistic goals and modify goals you’ve already set.

I keep a white board where I give myself a tally for every day I write for an hour or for every query letter I send or even for every blog post I write. I then feed all my tracked goals into a spreadsheet, so I can figure out how much I’ve progressed or where I need to improve. The tallies also have the added benefit of acting as a reward. I feel a rush of dopamine every time I put up a mark on the board.

Tracking your goals helps build momentum and rewards can keep that momentum going. Pick rewards that are manageable or that will link the habit in your mind. Maybe you write in café every morning and the reward is a cup of coffee. Maybe you can only listen to your favorite podcast while on the elliptical at the gym. Think of small, pleasurable things that you can often repeat.

The end goal is to create good habits, habits are the building blocks that goals are constructed out of. They assure that you keep going without having to put in much will or thought. I’ll discuss habits in greater detail in my next post, for now pick that one important thing and get started!

How to set Goals for the New Year

How to set Goals for the New Year

January is the beginning of a new year, a time for renewals and resolutions. I find this period to be extremely cathartic. For the last five years, I’ve spent every January 1st reflecting on the previous year and setting goals for the new one. If you don’t set yearly goals, it’s not too late and it can really help you push forward with your writing, weight loss or anything else you’re looking to accomplish. Here some tips to help you start.

Pick the Right Goal

Goal setting is tough. Most people have a general idea of what they want: more money, a romantic partner, a three-book deal (Yes, please!). But it can be hard to deconstruct these general desires into achievable goals. A goal should be something you can track and something that can be broken down into further steps and due dates. Getting a new job, is a good example. You don’t have the ultimate say in being hired somewhere, but you can plot ways that can improve your odds or output like apply to five jobs a week, or go for a certificate, or go to a conference to do some networking.

It’s important to pick something that is achievable, but not easy. Losing five pounds in a year is doable, losing fifty might be unrealistic. You want something in between, something that feels slightly out of reach. This is a ‘Stretch Goal’. A Stretch Goal is a goal that while, not impossible, feels unlikely. It requires dedication to meet and creates just the right amount of pressure to force you to think creatively.

My stretch goal this year is to write a new novel draft in six months. I have never completed a draft in less than nine months. This goal forces me to reevaluate my novel process, maybe do an outline first, or pick a smaller project (100,000 rather 200,000 words) or find a more consistent writing schedule.

Steps and Due Dates

Once you have your goal it’s important break down the steps you need to complete in order to achieve your goal. For example, another goal I have is to get Ghets published. In order to do that, I need to find a literary agent. A literary agent will want a query letter and a summary, so I’ll need to write those. They’ll also want a trimmed and edited draft, so I better make sure I finish entering my line edits first.

Once I have all the steps needed to complete a goal, I’ll assign a due dates. I do this by breaking the year into quarters and see what I need to accomplish by the end of each quarter to achieve the goal by the end of the year. I then focus on this first quarter and I get more granular. I figure out what I need to have done this month to meet my quarter goal and then what I need to have done this week to meet my month goal. Personally, I like to get so granular that I have a set of daily tasks that I can do each day to move forward on my goals like enter twenty pages of line edits or write two thousand words a day.

You don’t need to go as specific as I do, but it’s important to set markers and due dates. Goals should be fluid, you’re going to mess up or life is going to get in the way and it’s good to have points where you can sit down and reevaluate, see what you need to do or cut in order to stay on target. I use the months and quarters for this. If at the end of the month I’m lagging because something is taking too long to achieve, or I had to move or whatever, I modify my steps and adjust the quarter goals, so I can still meet my year goals.

If you’re looking for a tool to use, try trello. It’s free and it’s easy to make lists, categorize tasks and see it all in one big board.

Don’t Put it Off

Planning goals feels good. Plotting and a declaring a major life achievement can make you feel like you’ve already done it. You’ve written the equation and now time will answer it for you. Or maybe the opposite, writing all that down made you realize how daunting a task this really is, and you feel like you’ll never get it done. I often feel both those things at the same time (I know, right?).

That’s why it’s important to start immediately, don’t put it off, grab that momentum and start working. It’s thrilling to take things off your to-do list, that’s why I like goals that can be broken down into daily chunks like exercise for twenty minutes or research for an hour. I keep a white board where I track my daily completed tasks. It’s nerdy, but I feel a pinch of happiness each time I add a tally and it helps me push forward to the next one.

I hope you found this helpful, next week I’ll have a post on maintaining goals and building habits. Until then, start setting some goals!