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Writers Talk About Writing

Why You Should Ditch the Resolutions and Make Rituals Instead

The lure of making resolutions for the new year is practically irresistible. Lose ten pounds. Go to the gym three times per week. Stop smoking. Start meditating. Save more money. Do a better job of managing stress.

But I've been re-thinking the subject lately and realized my earlier notions about resolutions were misguided. I'm now inclined to think we should abandon them altogether and replace them with rituals. Here's why.

1) Ritual is a nicer word than resolution. It sounds friendlier and more relaxing. If I play the word association game, "resolution" makes me think willpower, deprivation, pain and hard work. On the other hand, "ritual" brings up: incense, bowing, fine ornaments and calm. Rituals are particularly important for writers who, after all, do something quite magical. Did you ever see the show "Murphy Brown," starring Candice Bergen? I didn't watch it regularly but one funny line has remained with me. Murphy had just given birth to her baby and was reflecting on the wonder of breastfeeding. "The next thing you know is someone will tell me I can slice off pieces of my arm and serve them up as ham," she said. I feel just as incredulous about writing. Isn't it remarkable that we can create entire sentences when nothing existed before?

2) A ritual is something we're more likely to do willingly rather than resentfully. Because we can chose the rituals we follow — and we chose what feels right to us — we're more likely to do them. When my husband and I married 25 years ago, we chose to meet all our guests at the door to the church. To us, this felt friendly and welcoming and, besides, I didn't want the pressure of being the bride who is expected to surprise everyone with her fabulous dress. The ritual didn't suit all of our guests but it pleased us.

3) Rituals create safety and security. We know what's going to happen next so we feel calm and relaxed. If you're a student and you have a ritual of using a particular pen to write exams, taking that pen out of your pocket or purse lets you know it's time to write an exam. I once took a writing course from a New York based author who worked from his dining-room table. Every morning he'd clear off the table and place half a dozen tchotchkes on it — his symbols that the table where he ate his meals had suddenly been transformed into his writing desk.

4) Rituals allow us to take advantage of automaticity. Once we learn how to ride a bike, we don't have to think about how to maintain balance. Our bodies know exactly what to do. The same principle is true of reading. Once we get past grade 3, we don't "sound out" words any more, because we recognize most of them immediately. This automaticity allows us to sidestep the need for willpower and instead, relax into our work. (Isn't that delightfully ironic? The idea of relaxing into work?)

5) Rituals don't require our belief — or even any logic — to work. Tennis player Serena Williams wears the same pair of socks, without washing them, through a single tournament. Check out this list of seemingly crazy sports rituals that apparently work.

Here is my writing ritual. Upon waking at 6 am, I pull on my housecoat and quietly grab the clothes I've carefully laid out on my dresser the evening before. I tiptoe out of my bedroom so as not to wake my husband and I go into our kids' bathroom to dress. (I don't have a shower or breakfast until I've done at least an hour of work.) I climb the stairs to my office, which is in a loft in our house, and put on the kettle for tea, a cup of cream of Earl Grey.

While waiting for the water to boil, I set my Action Enforcer — a Mac-based digital timer — for 30 minutes. (Whenever my husband hears it he says the ticking sound reminds him of a crazy Tinkerbell. I never thought I'd be able to write with that blasted noise in the background; turns out, it helps me focus!) Then, as soon as the tea is steeping, I open the file for my book and I write at least 500 words.

I do this five consecutive days every week. Paradoxically, while the ritual is rigid and highly structured, it gives me a delicious sense of freedom and possibility.

In the same way a frame helps define a photo or a piece of art, my writing ritual helps define me. It can do the same for you.


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A former daily newspaper editor, Daphne Gray-Grant is a writing and editing coach and the author of 8½ Steps to Writing Faster, Better. She offers a free weekly newsletter on her website Publication Coach. Click here to read more articles by Daphne Gray-Grant.

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Comments from our users:

Monday January 5th 2015, 9:14 AM
Comment by: STMahlberg (Las Vegas, NV)
I made a resolution a few years ago to no longer make resolutions... so far, I'm right on track.

Another really good article on here. I love Visual Thesaurus.
Monday January 5th 2015, 9:34 AM
Comment by: Anne B.
I agree the urge to make New Year's resolutions is strong; however, this year I haven't gotten around to it yet. So I'll make rituals instead. Subconsciously I must have been waiting to read this article. Many thanks. Anne
Monday January 5th 2015, 12:16 PM
Comment by: Beverly J.
I love the rituals instead of resolutions! I attended the Hidden Riches with Janet Bray and Chris Attwood this last October, which is all about rituals, and I'm finding it very helpful to incorporate rituals into my life. Thanks for sharing this wonderful article and idea. Beverly
Monday January 5th 2015, 2:36 PM
Comment by: Saul G. (Winthrop, MA)
I tried to email to the address provided for Action Enforcer in order to obtain info about pricing, etc. I received a note from "Postmaster" stating that the message could not be delivered because the recipient address (5buckguy@5bucksaday) was "illegal host/domain name found".
Monday January 5th 2015, 4:03 PM
Comment by: catwalker (Ottawa Canada)
Yes, let's trash the resolutions, at least the New Year's variety. Rituals are a much nicer way to reinforce our values and improve our lives.

The effectiveness of your daily writing ritual is not paradoxical at all. It provides structure that lets you take bigger chances in the content of your work. Corporate HR folks, take note: people need stability to feel comfortable taking the chances that lead to innovation. If the organization itself is constantly changing, people may be less likely to try out new ways of working; with a constantly changing work team, they will not know what or who they can trust.
Monday January 5th 2015, 4:33 PM
Comment by: Daphne Gray-Grant (Vancouver Canada)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
Thanks for all the feedback everyone! If you're interested in my rituals for 2015, you can read about them here: http://www.publicationcoach.com/rituals-for-2015/

Saul, I don't know what's happening with Action Enforcer. I bought it from this page:
http://e1kad.com/r/action-enforcer
and had no difficulties. I found it odd that they seem to want everyone to become a reseller, but I've never done that myself and have had no problem. Let me know if you solve this problem. Best, -daphne
Monday January 5th 2015, 9:24 PM
Comment by: Ferial E R (Woodbridge United Kingdom)
I DO have a resolution - to STAY IN. Then I will be able to carry out my daily ritual - housework, exercise bike and a walk, computer work, eat (always the same) craftwork, writing, without interruption. That will make me very happy

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