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7 ways to turn New Year resolutions into lasting action

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It’s the time of the year when we begin making resolutions. By the end of January lots of those resolutions will be waning and by Spring most will have been forgotten. Why? Because lots of resolutions are not things we desire, for a start. So often we focus on things we ought to be doing, whether it’s dieting or writing the magnum opus rather than things we want to be doing. This stacks the odds against us before we begin. Or we set off armed with willpower and good intentions, thinking we can resolve to do a hundred things a day (preferably before breakfast), but find that willpower is an exhaustible trait. We end up overwhelmed, achieving none of the resolutions on the list. At other times, we fail to set up environments that nurture success or don’t leave any time for looking after ourselves. How do we break through this self-defeating pattern? How do we move beyond the kind of resolutions that we admit we have no confidence in from the outset?

1. Keep your list focussed

You don’t have to have twenty resolutions, or even five. How about a couple of big priorities? Or one important project? As David Allen says:

You can do anything, but you can’t do everything.

When we are overwhelmed we give up. If we try to expend energy in lots of areas, then even if we make progress it’s likely to be by increments. To achieve an important goal takes focus and attention so the more you hone your resolutions the more likely you are to stay with them. If you want to write that book this year and you also need to get fitter and lose weight, of course you can do both, but try making one of the goals the key priority for the first 90 days of the year to get the rhythm established. Once you’ve given it the time it needs you are likely to be able to keep the diet going while you prioritise the next big goal for 90 days. And while you are majoring on overhauling your nutrition you can be planning the book. Then, when you are ready to refocus, gather your notes and drafts and work on the creative project.

2. Make your environment work for you

If your environment is full of distractions, it will be much harder to achieve your goals. It doesn’t matter whether you are trying to write a novel or learn to dance, you need to focus. If you are serious about your project, having a routine that gets you into the right head space is vital. It might be meditation, journalling or listening to particular music. It might be eating protein for breakfast or sitting with a bowl of mint tea. It might be starting your day with a walk to find the creative flow, as Virginia Woolf describes in her 1953 diary:

I walk making up phrases; sit, contriving scenes; am in short in the thick of the greatest rapture known to me.

Or as John Berger describes when walking:

Everything was shifting. The three pear trees, their hillock, the other side of the valley, the harvested fields, the forests. The mountains were higher, every tree and field nearer. Everything visible approached me. Rather, everything approached the place where I had been, for I was no longer in that place. I was everywhere, as much in the forest across the valley as in the dead pear tree, as much on the face of the mountain as in the field where I was raking hay.

(From Our Faces, Our Hearts, Brief as Photos)

There are lots of ways to find the luminous moment or the state of flow in which to create. But it’s unlikely to be through from Internet surfing, checking your friends’ Facebook updates or sending tweets. It’s unlikely to be sustainable if your phone is six inches away and pinging to let you know you have a new message, a new text or that five apps need updating. Whether you’ve resolved to do daily yoga, read for an hour every day, improve your photography skills or write and post three blogs a week, you need uninterrupted, undistracted time.

A creative environment will eschew the endless noise in favour of something deeper. In the words of T.S. Eliot:

Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge?

Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?

3. Eliminate the small stuff

Achieving goals takes time and energy. Focussing on a couple of important aims and creating an environment in which you won’t be distracted make a huge difference, but you also need time. That book won’t write itself. A great way to make time is by saying no to many calls on our attention that land in our inbox. If you’re a people-pleaser this can be hard — some of us feel we should say yes to every request. But that way lie frustration and breaking promises to yourself. Being in reactive mode is draining, not only in time, but emotionally, leaving us scooped out and in no state to be creative.

You need to think about how you use your time. We all have important commitments to family or work or simple life processes, but there will also be things we do that could batched into one time-efficient block to. I now answer emails at one time each afternoon. It’s still a timely response to those who email me, but it prevents me go from and back and forth to the inbox all day, wasting time in the process. Some tasks might not even need doing at all. I used to reply to every email. Now, I no longer respond to emails sending unsolicited manuscripts for publication. Many of these arrive while we’re closed to submissions and contain genres we don’t publish. The senders have no sympathy for the press or they would have taken the time to find out anything about Cinnamon Press so I delete the emails. It was a big step for me to do this. It felt ungracious and harsh, but it makes me less distracted and ragged with more energy for essential Cinnamon work and my own writing. As Greg McKeown says in Essentialism:

To eliminate non-essentials means saying no to someone. Often. It means pushing against social expectations. To do it well takes courage and compassion.

4. Nurture yourself

It seems obvious, but a lot of busy, creative people forget to look after themselves. I’m not talking about being selfish, but we do need nurture to achieve our goals and to make a contribution to the world. Quoting Greg McKeown again:

If we underinvest in ourselves, and by that I mean our minds, our bodies and our spirits, we damage the very tool we need to make our highest contribution.

If you don’t get enough sleep, if you can’t remember the last time you laughed, if you haven’t done some relaxing activity in the last week or month or … (for me it’s long hot bubble baths) then achieving dreams is going to be harder. If your nutrition is poor or your diet is full of sugar, you’re likely to be more sluggish and less focussed. And the same applies to the way we choose relaxing activities. Several hours of low-quality TV every evening only serves to sap time and energy. A challenging film that makes us think, a great book or taking up fencing or yoga … is much more likely to be relaxing. And high quality relaxation feeds the mind and body, making us more energetic, more full of ideas, more creative.

5. Find a partner in resolution

Trying to goad ourselves forward through a major project is demanding and if we have only ourselves to account to we’re more likely to give up. When I was writing the poetry sequence Slate Voices, I had a co-writer who was writing a sequence about the Scottish slate islands while I focussed on a tiny Welsh valley. If I hadn’t kept up the writing, I’d have been letting down another poet. The current trilogy of novels I’m working on, beginning with This is the End of the Story, has a publisher. I have a commitment to an editor and to Liquorice Fish Books. This year I’m working within a mentoring programme that includes small groups of people with similar goals. We aim to hold each other accountable. I also see the value of this when working in my capacity as a writing mentor with Cinnamon Press. Goals that are public and shared are much more likely to be sustainable.

You might find a mentor or agree with a friend or small group that you will keep one another accountable. However you do it, make the promise to yourself bigger than your own willpower.

6. Break the big goals into manageable steps

If you need to lose 40 pounds it’s going to take time. You will have to make a lifestyle shift to a sustainable long-term diet, not starve yourself for a month. If you are going to write three interlocking novels, you need to think about what to do first. Are you the kind of writer who starts with character studies or a seed for the story? Do you plan chapter outlines or dive in and restructure it later? Will the books need a lot of background research?

In the last couple of days I’ve broken my 2018 goals down into tiny steps and hand-written them into a diary with an entry every day. I’ve got a plan for how many words per week I need to write for novel 3 whilst finishing the editing and beginning some promotion for novel 2. I have a morning routine of journalling and yoga, which I’ve entered daily. And I’ve written in deadlinees to plan trips, buy train tickets and book accommodation for travel to research and write. The problem with a lot of New Year resolutions is that we make them as though we are making three wishes or asking Father Christmas for new toys. It’s not surprising that they fail to materialise. As Antoine de Saint Exupéry says:

A goal without a plan is just a wish.

7. Choose goals you care about

Resolving to do things we ought to do or things that others expect of us won’t make for lasting goals. The truth is that if you have no intrinsic motivation you’ll give up. On the other hand, if you choose goals that you are so zealous about that you have to do them, then you are setting yourself up for success. Your goals should be your passions and, if they are, then it will no longer be a matter of forcing yourself on by dogged willpower.

Writing about home education (home schooling) in the book, Doing it Their Way. I argued that intrinsic motivation is the key to real education. Children learn best when they are engaged with the learning, when they are making choices and pursuing their passions. We are no different as adults. The most important way to transform your New Year Resolutions into plans that you will put into action is to ask yourself what you most want to achieve. What is it that’s so important that you have to do it in 2018?

I’m going to prioritise my writing in 2018, completing the third novel of a trilogy for publication in 2019 and publishing at least one blog each week. I’m going to take some time out to travel for research and writing. What is it that you absolutely have to do in 2018?

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