This is a reworked and revised version of a post that originally appeared on this blog on February 9th, 2018. It’s still relevant—even more so, in this distraction-filled suddenly-structure-free world we’re in.
New Year’s Resolutions are complete crap. They simply do not work.
But they’re very tempting. New year, fresh start, no stains on the copy pad. If you find new year’s resolutions alluring, it’s possible you’re a perfectionist or have strong perfectionist tendencies.
Have you ever looked at your goals at the start of the year and wished you could just wave a magic wand and have it all happen for you? Because you know that, deep in your gut, very few of your goals will actually be met, even though you fully intend to knock yourself out this year, to achieve them.
But it’s not just new year’s resolutions that fade away.
Every productivity approach and get-things-done system you’ve ever put in place fizzles out after a few weeks of intense practice and you start looking for the next magic bullet that will absolutely solve all your problems.
And as every single system/approach/app/tool/bloody-expensive-course out there encourages you to set your goals first, you obediently set out your goals. Hell, you don’t even have to think very hard to get them written down because you’ve done this so often you’ve memorized them.
I applaud the intention behind new year resolutions and productivity system adoption: They indicate a desire to change.
But that’s where the problem lies.
You can’t just white-knuckle your way through massive changes. You don’t have the will power. No one does. You can’t just summon up enough discipline and determination to gut it out. That’s why most resolutions fail by February.
If new year’s resolutions don’t work, and the desire to change isn’t enough, what can you do?
There is one productivity strategy that will cut through all your procrastination, your time issues, and every justification your incredibly creative mind can come up with for giving up on your goals.
Strategy, not system.
Yes, this is a strategy. A simple approach you can incorporate into whatever system you currently follow…or even if you have none at all. This will still work, even if you do nothing else all year.
That’s how powerful it is.
So what’s the freakin’ strategy?
Build habits, not goals.
Sounds simple. Is anything but simple to execute.
However, if you focus on nothing else but the development of productive habits, everything else magically takes care of itself.
I am walking, talking proof of this.
You may have noticed that I spend a lot of time talking about schedules, and quotas, and other anal concepts. There’s a reason for that.
They’re types of habits.
Write a million words this year.
I’ve actually hit the 1,000,000 words/year mark several years, including one year shortly before I quit the day job. I’m aiming to hit 1M again in 2023. I’d love to try for 2022, but this year has a vastly reduced release schedule so I can focus on major background projects—after five years of high output, lots of administration and other things have reached a point where they need attention.
One million words may seem like an impossible la-la dream of a goal, that could never, ever happen. That’s fine. Pick a number that you want to hit, and do the math.
But let’s use 1M as an example. Say you decide that you want to write one million words this year. Or 12 or 15 books, or whatever your production ideal would be for the year.
Now, 1M/yr. IS a goal, but it doesn’t have to be a SMART goal or a constructive goals, or whatever type of goal you’ve been taught to make. It is simply your ideal end point. It’s what’s on the right hand side of the equation, which looks like this:
HABIT + daily practice = goal
The goal is there simply so you can figure out the left side of the equation.
In other words, what small habit, practiced daily (or weekly, if that is the ideal frequency), will give you your goal?
In the example, how many words must you write every day, to reach 1 million words by the end of the year?
Answer: 2,740 words every day.
2,740 words + every day = 1M words a year.
Now, 2,740 words isn’t a tall order. It’s not a stretch even for writers with day jobs. For me, it’s a little over two hours work. Your word rate per hour could be lower or higher (and it doesn’t matter, either way) — just do the math with your own rate.
You can spread two hours of work across a day — an hour on the train to work, and hour coming home and another hour for good measure once the kids have gone to bed.
Or use your lunch break to get 40 minutes in, and two blissful hours after dinner at night.
Or…well, there’s dozens of ways you can squeeze a couple of hours or more out of your day. You may have to give some things up — TV is usually a good first step, and socializing, net surfing, etc. are all good candidates. Try not to sacrifice sleep, though.
You’ve read dozens of productivity books, I’m sure. You know how to prioritize.
When I was writing with a day job, I got 60 minutes on the bus in the morning, and 90 minutes on the way home (when it mysteriously took 30 minutes longer to leave the city than get to it), plus an hour in the boardroom at lunchtime. That got a huge number of words written each year, including, as I mentioned, one million words in one year.
This same “formula” can be used for any goal or ambition you’d like to achieve; figure out what you need to do every xxx (hour/day/week/month) to reach your goal, then knock yourself out doing that little daily thing.
Keep your habit SMALL
If you freak out at the idea of writing 2,740 words a day, every single day, the habit is too large for you. You need to find a habit that is simple, a near-no-brainer that you know you can do with virtually no pressure at all.
What would be easy for you?
A client I worked with couldn’t get himself to write 1,000 words a day. He felt like a complete failure, because he just couldn’t seem to bring himself to write what everyone else said was an easy-to-write amount.
So we set an even smaller goal: 250 words. A traditional page of writing. Even he said he could write that much.
But he had to write a page every single day.
The Real Trick
You have to complete your habit every single day (or week, or every second day–whatever is required to reach your goal…but daily is best, especially when you’re establishing the habit). That’s the real trick: Consistency.
If, when my client went to bed one night, he suddenly realized he hadn’t written his page, he had to get up and write it, before going to sleep. There was no out-clauses, no get-out-of-jail-free card. The habit had to be repeated every single day. Period. Missing a single day is the first step on a slippery slope.
As soon as you miss a day, suddenly you have to catch up if you want to reach your goal. Using my example, that’s another two-plus hours extra you must carve out of the day, or an extra hour over the next few days.
This is where a well-built schedule that evolves into a habit is so effective: You avoid the spiraling black hole syndrome I just outlined.
Habits put tasks on auto-pilot. If habits are well-established, you can sometime roll into that thing you do after doing something else without thinking about it. If you’ve ever slapped the alarm off, got up and dressed for work before remembering it’s Saturday, you know exactly what I mean.
Imagine that auto-pilot approach to writing every day.
My client did form the page-a-day habit. He had to apply a minimal amount of pressure to make sure he got the page done each day, for around 40 days. The often quoted 30 days it takes to form a habit is a nice meme, but depending upon what habit you’re trying to form and how much it changes your former behavior and shifts your life around, you might find it takes 40, 60, even 90 days to be truly comfortable with the new routine.
Or you could nail it in a week, if the change is simple enough.
After 40 days, my client felt as though he was applying zero pressure to get the single page written, and actually felt as though he was missing something important if he went too long into his day without getting it done.
That’s when you know the habit has been formed.
But even better, my client was piling up the pages, and finished an entire novel—something he’d never done. Once he’d written his single page for the day, he often went on to write a few more. He didn’t have to—he had full permission from his conscience to quit once he’d put down 250 words. But he usually had a few more words piled up in his mind, to finish the paragraph. Then the next paragraph formed. And the next, while he was writing that one…. And on it went.
Focus on the habit.
Once you’ve figured out what habit you need to get you to your end goal, forget about the end goal. Don’t do progress checks. Don’t monitor how close you’re getting. Forget it’s there.
I’ve spent most of this post talking about word counts, but this habits strategy applies to nearly every single change you might like to make in your life. Figure out the end goal, then figure out the habit that will get you there.
Then spend all your energy and efforts on establishing that habit.
Have you ever white-knuckled your way through a new scheme/system/behavior that promises the world, only to collapse after 30 or 40 days of sheer will-power driven effort and given up?
What if you turned that early enthusiasm upon the formation of a habit, that once formed, will automatically pull you along day-by-day until you reach your goal? When those 30, or 40 days (or however long it usually takes you to lose your enthusiasm for a new system) have lapsed, you don’t have to white-knuckle it anymore, because the habit will take the place of that initial push.
As long as you pay minimal attention to keeping the habit going, day after day, the rest will take care of itself.
Magic, as I said.
Habits are the key. You can set triggers, habit-stack, and fool yourself into completing prodigious amounts of work, because of them.