New year’s resolutions? Bah! Here’s a better idea for writers

Set up if/then statements. Contingency plans remove guesswork and eliminate the nebulous element of willpower.

It’s resolution season.

New year’s plans seem to lurk in blogs like dangerous creatures in swamps, but not here. I don’t believe in new year’s resolutions, mainly because they don’t seem to work.

Although 45 percent of Americans make such promises to themselves, fewer than 8 percent manage to keep them. Don’t let the statistics depress you—or, worse, don’t think you’ll be part of the tiny minority who can overcome them. Instead, concentrate on something more positive and useful.

This relates to a little nugget I hid in a post last year when I wrote a guide on reducing writing stress. It derived from a notion from psychologist Peter Gollwitzer. His idea: if/then statements. As an authority on goals, Gollwitzer encourages us to talk to ourselves in the following way:

  • If I haven’t exercised by 9 a.m., then I must go for an hourlong walk after dinner.
  • If I want to spend time on Facebook, then I must write for 15 minutes beforehand.
  • If I’m going to watch TV, then I first have to read 20 pages of a book.

This kind of planning, which allows us to consider contingencies (when things go wrong or sort of wrong) is brilliantly effective. As soon as we make the statement, our brain automatically starts checking the environment.

It’s searching for the “if”—rather like a bat looking for mosquitos or a dog seeking treats. Once it finds the “if,” the “then” follows automatically. No thinking required; we don’t have to consciously track our goal.

Better yet, if/then statements don’t require any willpower. They help us reserve our self-control for when we need it and compensate for it when we don’t have enough.

I started using if/then statements last year, and I find them astonishingly effective. I use them to help myself manage difficult interactions. For example:

  • If I get an angry email from someone, then I will say, “I won’t let this get under my skin,” and wait a day before replying.
  • If one of my kids tells me they don’t like what I’m making for dinner, then I’ll smile, shrug and say, “Cook what you want instead.”
  • If my back is sore, then I’ll stand up (or lie down) and do a five-minute stretch right away.

Almost a hundred studies have shown that deciding in advance when and where we will take specific actions can double or triple our chances of success.

Of course, if/then statements (psychologists call them implementation intentions) can help writers as well. Consider adopting these:

  • If I haven’t written by 9 a.m., then I will immediately spend 15 minutes writing.
  • If I catch myself saying negative things about my writing—e.g., “My boss is going to hate this; I’m such a boring writer.”—then I’m going to read a positive memo someone has written to me.
  • If I really, really, really don’t feel like writing, then I’m going to identify a nice reward I can give myself for writing today.
  • If I’m procrastinating about writing, then I will list the things I must do as part of the job (e.g., researching, interviewing, mindmapping, writing a rough draft, self-editing), and I’ll start with the one that will take the least time.
  • If I’ve written at least 500 words, then I can quit writing for the day.

We all have our own shortcomings or blocks with respect to writing. Identify yours, and come up with an if/then statement to deal with each of them.

A version of this article first appeared on LinkedIn.

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