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Writers Talk About Writing

Here's a Non-Resolution That Could Change Your Writing Life

I know 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% of Americans make such promises to themselves, fewer than 8% manage to keep them. But don't let the statistics depress you. (Or, worse, don't think you'll be part of the tiny minority that can overcome them.) Instead, concentrate on something more positive and useful.

This relates to a little nugget I hid in this column a while ago when I wrote a definitive guide on reducing writing stress.  I'm not being immodest when I call it a "nugget" or even a "gem."

After all, it wasn't mine. It came from psychologist Peter Gollwitzer. His idea? Simplicity itself: If/then statements. As one of the world's leading authorizes on goals, Gollwitzer encourages all of us to talk to ourselves in the following way:

If I haven't exercised by 9 am, then I must go for an hour-long walk after dinner. OR

If I want to spend time on Facebook, then I must write for 15 minutes beforehand. OR

If I'm going to watch TV, then I have to read 20 pages in a book, first.

This kind of planning, which allows us to consider contingencies (ie: when things go wrong or sort of wrong) is brilliantly effective. Here's why: As soon as we make the statement, our brains automatically start checking our environment. It's searching for the "if" — rather like a bat looking for mosquitos or a dog seeking treats. And, once it finds the "if," the "then" follows automatically. No thinking required! We don't even have to consciously track our goal.

Better yet, if/then statements don't require any willpower. (Remember that sinking ship? We wake with the maximum amount of willpower every day and it runs out as the day wears on, like sand running through an hourglass.) If/then plans allow us to conserve our self-control for when we need it and compensate for it when we don't have enough.

I can testify this system works. I started using if/then statements about a month ago and I find them astonishingly effective. I tend to 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.

And, of course, if/then statements (psychologists call them implementation intentions) can help writers as well. Here are some you might want to consider adopting:

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 [i.e.: "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 [have this saved on your desktop for easy reference!]

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 make a list of all the things I need to do as part of the job (e.g. researching, interviewing, mindmapping, writing a rough draft, self-editing) and I'll begin by doing the one that will take the least time.

If I've written at least 500 words, then I can quit writing for the day.

This list is not definitive. We all have our own shortcomings or blocks with respect to writing. Identify yours and then come up with an if/then statement to deal with it.

And this column is not a resolution. It's just one more arrow in your quiver as you work to turn yourself into a productive writer in 2018.


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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:

Sunday January 28th, 8:54 AM
Comment by: Sam T. (Tucson, AZ)
Excellent suggestions! Thanks, Sam
Monday January 29th, 8:58 AM
Comment by: ROGER H.
Love your ideas! I will implement immediately. Thank you.
Tuesday January 30th, 9:07 PM
Comment by: Daphne Gray-Grant (Vancouver Canada)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
Glad to hear this will help both of you. Happy writing!
Sunday February 4th, 2:37 PM
Comment by: Jean Anne DU'PRATT (Gargenville France)
Daphne,
thank you for these remarks which are so very comforting. I actually thought these were my faults. Coming from you, they appear to be gifts. I have always bargained with myself over 'duties' in the house, 'writing' out my administrative tasks like letters to the income tax office for instance. You know, a Mars bar if I get them done.... AND it is wonderful to know that you endorse this. Your article has made my day. It has made me feel worthy, ............. of myself.

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