“Goals cannot be achieved without discipline and consistency” – Denzel Washington
What are your writing goals? To finally write your first novel? Put together a collection of short stories? Submit your query letter to agents? Pen that memoir you’ve always wanted to get around to but never did?
We all have goals. Goals about our writing career, but also goals about our health, our hobbies, and our lives. And yet, it seems we are always failing at our goals. But why?
One of the main reasons people fail at their goals is that they don’t have a good goal plan. On Sunday night they think, “tomorrow I’m going to wake up an hour early and finally start writing that novel.” They set their alarm for 5:30 am but don’t plan any further than that. Come Monday morning, they roll over, hit the snooze button, and dredge through another week without a single change to their lives.
No shame here—we all do it. But it doesn’t have to be that way. You can achieve our goals whatever they are, you just need to know the right way to go about it. As Denzel Washington pointed out in his 2015 commencement speech at Dillard University, to achieve your goals you need discipline and consistency (the guy is worth over $150 million so he must know something about achieving goals). But that’s easier said than done.
For this post, let’s just focus on the consistency part. To be consistent, you need a good plan. One that will ensure that no matter what your day is like, you will still get off your butt and work on your goal no matter what. Lucky for us, psychologists have figured out exactly how to develop such a plan. Even better, you can do it in under 60 seconds. Here’s how.
A good plan should specify five things:
- when you are going to work on your goal,
- where you are going to do it,
- how you are going do it,
- how long you will do it, and
- your backup plan in case any of these components fall apart.
For instance, if you are trying to stick to a writing routine, it’s not enough to just want to write every day. It’s not even enough to set your alarm for 5:30 am. You need to develop a plan that states exactly
- when you are going to write (“I will write at 6 am Monday thru Friday”),
- where you are going to write (“I will write in my chair on the back porch”),
- how you are going to write (“I will grab a cup of coffee and then write my novel on my laptop”),
- how long (“I will write for one hour” or “I will write until I get 1,500 words down”), and
- your backup plan in case something interferes with your above plan (“If I don’t have enough time for a full writing session that day, I will spend just 15 min outlining my next scene”).
Psychologists call this type of goal plan an implementation intention. Implementation intentions refer to an if-then statement that specifies the exact behavior you will perform in a particular situation. Implementation intentions are referred to as if-then statements because they typically take the form of “IF situation Y occurs, THEN I will engage in behavior X.” So IF it is 6 am on Monday morning, THEN I will go on the porch and write. And IF my schedule gets too hectic and I don’t have enough time for a full writing session, THEN I will outline my next scene.
A number of research studies have shown how beneficial implementation intentions are. For example, one study by Orbell and colleagues had women set the goal of conducting a monthly breast examination to check for potential tumors. For women who just intended to complete this goal, only 53% actually completed the exam during the next month. But when the women wrote down exactly when and where and how they would conduct the monthly exam, 100% completed the exam during the next month. Other studies have found similar effects using different goals, such as taking vitamins, exercising, eating a low-fat diet, or recycling.
So why are these nifty little plans so effective?
One reason is that, because of how specific they are, they are easy to follow. This ensures that your goal-directed behavior is the same every time. There’s that consistency Denzel was talking about.
A second reason is that because of their specificity, it is really easy to see when you’re falling behind. If your goal is just to “write more,” that goal is so abstract it’s hard to tell when you’re succeeding at it and when you’re failing. But if your goal is to “write at 6 am on Mon-Fri for 1 hour” then it is really easy to see when you are hitting your mark and when you are falling short.
A third reason is that implementation intentions make our goal-behaviors automatic. Anyone who has tried to kick a bad habit knows that the beauty of habits is you don’t have to think about them or will yourself to do it. You just do it without even thinking about it. For example, if every day at 4 pm you grab a Snickers bar out of the vending machine, chances are when the time rolls around you will find yourself mindless standing in front of the machine and wondering “how did I get here?” That’s because overtime, your repeated behavior caused your brain to create a connection between the behavior (eat a candy bar) and an environmental cue (4 pm). Now here’s the cool thing—implementation intentions harness this automatic power for good. For example, if you form the implementation intention, “IF I enter a building and see an elevator, THEN I will take the stairs instead,” you’ve linked the exercise goal (taking the stairs) with an environmental cue (seeing an elevator). By routinely linking your writing to a time (6 am), a place (on the porch), or an already formed habit (the smell of coffee), those cues become unconscious reminders to your brain that it’s time to start writing. Do this a few times and you’ll find yourself automatically grabbing your laptop and heading to your designated writing area without having to think about it.
So, enough talking, let’s start doing. Once you finish reading this post, take just one minute of your day and write out your implementation intention on a piece of paper. Then post it somewhere where you will see it every day. Do this one simple step and you will double your odds of achieving your writing goal (or any goal for that matter)!
And as a bonus, here is another one-minute motivation hack to really sky-rocket your success. Get a calendar (or print one out for free here) and mark a big X on every day that you actually fulfill your implementation intention. Once you see those X’s all lined up in a row, you aren’t going to want to spoil your winning streak. But if you do, no biggie. Treat it like a game. Maybe this time you got through five days in a row until you fell off the wagon. Start again and see if you can’t go for six! Or start a competition with a friend and post your streaks on social media.
If you try this technique and have success, I would love to hear about it! Shoot me an email or note it in a comment.
Now get going!
[This post includes excerpts from my Pearson textbook, Motivation Science].