A Year of Finishing Novels: Designing Habits

Orange and blue lights reflected in a room of mirrors.
Playing in the Mirrorworld by Maria L. Berg 2022

I wanted to get this post out yesterday for my new habit of Sunday Assessment and Accountability, but my internet was ridiculously slow and not loading the site, then not loading this page, so I stopped trying to force it. There was no point in fighting and making myself miserable when the information is just as relevant today. One of the important lessons I’m learning about sticking with my new habits to reach my large goals is to be flexible.

Goals

When I started breaking my dream goal of finishing my novels into its smaller goals, I came up with:

  1. Finish First Draft
  2. Read and Revise
  3. Get Feedback
  4. Revise
  5. Edit
  6. Polish

Each of those goals can be broken into smaller goals with steps and deadlines. At first, I tried creating some S.M.A.R.T. goals. This mnemonic stands for: Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, and Time-Bound. Then I read about S.M.A.R.T.E.R. goals which added that the goal has to be Exciting and have Risk.

After breaking some of my goals into SMART and SMARTER goals, I realized there was a fatal flaw in the system for me: Time-bound goals set me up for failure. If I defined my goal around doing things at certain times and then something came up that made me late: I’ve already failed before I started.

Then I read Tiny Habits by BJ Fogg, PhD and his ideas clicked for me. Instead of using a specific time to cue a habit, create a system using the cue of “After.” Such a simple change, but it makes all the difference.

Habits

In The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg, he identifies the habit cycle as:

  1. A cue or trigger
  2. the behavior
  3. reward

To understand and change a habit, you need to identify you triggers, and rewards. This was hard for me at first, and I will talk more about the steps I took in my next post. To get started creating tiny habits, it helps to identify an anchor habit, something you already do on a regular basis. For BJ Fogg, it was going to the bathroom.

Tiny Habits

The idea of tiny habits is to break your goal into the tiniest, easiest thing you can do toward your bigger goal. BJ Fogg wanted to get in shape. The easiest, smallest thing he thought of was doing two push-ups. Every time he went to the bathroom, he would do two push-ups.

For my goal of finishing novels, the smallest thing I knew I could do every day toward my goal was write 500 words. I already had a habit of writing morning pages, but I wasn’t always consistent, so I lowered my morning pages to two pages instead of three, and created this habit: “After I write my morning pages, I will do my writer’s meditation. After I do my writer’s meditation, I will type 500 words of my novel.”

A Tiny Habit System

As you can see, using the word “After” instead of “At 9 am every morning” creates a system of small successes instead of setting you up to fail if your schedule changes for some reason.

Once I knew how my writing habit fit together, then I worked backwards to attach it to the one thing I know I will do every morning which is–Wake up.

Mt. Rainier at sunset as a flock of water fowl swim through its reflection.
Reflection with Diving Birds by Maria L. Berg 2022

Assessment

My weekly check-in:

  1. What went right last week? Last week my morning writing habit continued solidly. The increase to 600 words worked every day. Another group of small habits paid off. I started looking at myself in my tablet camera (back on January 26th) every time I turned it on to do my writing meditation. And over time, I fixed the lighting in the room and where I placed the camera, etc. until I thought it looked like me. Then, on Tuesday, I showed my face to my Zoom writing group for the first time. It was a big step for me. And I did it again on Thursday.
  2. What didn’t go well last week? Though I did sleep two nights without the laptop, my nightly habit attempts are still not going well. My morning pages habit was a good anchor habit to build from for my daily novel writing, but I don’t have a strong night time anchor that leads to my sleep goals–yet.
  3. What small steps will I add this week? This week I’m adding a revision goal. I’ve found that I enjoy printing out my stories as booklets then reading and revising them as separate little books, kind of my own version of the journal “One Story.” I would like to read, revise, and type up the changes of two stories this week. Since the reading and making notes part of that goal doesn’t include the computer, I will add reading a page of my story a tiny habit as part of my night time system.
  4. Is it time to increase one of my habits? Not this week. Last week’s increase to 600 words was good, but was challenging on a couple of days when I was tired. I’ll stay at 600 for now. My daily walk goal last week didn’t stick. I walked four days. And since it’s supposed to rain for the next week, I have changed this goal to using my cardioglide while I watch a Masterclass lesson.
  5. What else did I try? I moved my gratitude journal and my morning movement out of the bedroom and into the office because they are part of my waking up system and I want my bedroom to be only for sleep. I was going to give up on the topical magnesium spray because it felt greasy and sticky, but then I saw Jessica Baumgardner’s article about massaging it into her feet before bed and though it still makes my hands feel icky (I can always wash my hands), I’m going to try to make it a habit.

Accountability

One area that every resource talks about is social accountability. I have found many times in the past that if I share my goals here on Experience Writing, I am more likely to achieve them.

I would really enjoy if you would like to join me in an accountability club. Every week, type your goals in the comments, or leave a link to your post and we can check in with each other to see how we did with our goals.

My goals this week are to:

  1. Write at least 600 words of my novel every day
  2. Increase movement by using my cardioglide while watching a Masterclass
  3. Review my novel for 15 minutes every day

That’s it. I hope you will hold me accountable.

We Can Reach Our Goals Together!

A Year of Finishing Novels: The first tiny steps

Mt. Rainier and its reflection in the lake in pastel hues at sunset.
Today’s Reflection by Maria L. Berg 2022

For my year of finishing novels, my first step was identifying where I became derailed in the past. I identified three areas where I would like to make changes: 1. Sleep 2. Hormonal Imbalance 3. Priorities. I read books in these three areas and looked for simple steps I could implement right away.

Mindset Matches Identity

To make lasting changes, I needed to identify why I want to make these changes, and part of exploring my whys is also redefining my identity to match my goals.

When I started this writing journey, I self-published my photo-illustrated picture book Gator McBumpypants Hears a Scary Noise, I also had a short story published in Five on the Fifth. At this point I identified as an author and set my goals and measured my successes as an author.

This, however, is too broad an identity for my main goal of finishing novels. As an author, I submit short stories and poems; I write novel drafts, screenplays, and blog posts. I get excited by every opportunity and find myself writing constantly, spreading myself thin, and finishing the shorter projects, because I need to have pieces to submit for publication.

This year I have defined my identity more precisely to fit my goal: I am a novelist. What do novelists do? They write novels. They revise, polish, and sell novels. They eat, sleep, dream, and breathe novels. They read novels, discuss novels, plan novels.

How did that help me change my behavior? It helped me focus my priorities.

Priorities

In the past, I often found myself overwhelmed. I had a list a page long of all the things I wanted to do in a day and never could find enough time. I often felt like I was failing because I wasn’t revising my novel, or stories and though I was working all the time, I didn’t appear to have much to show for it. My problem was focus. I have so many interests, I would pursue whatever caught my eye, work for a while, and then move to the next shiny project.

Many friends said to choose three things each day, but that made me feel like I was letting important things slide, and I couldn’t choose. Then I landed on Six Rolling Priorities and it started working right away. Each morning, I list what I, the novelist, need to do.

Once I have my list, I spend some time evaluating the importance of these activities toward reaching my goal of finishing novels. Keep in mind that balancing my hormones, and getting enough sleep work toward getting words on the page, too. So my first day of Six Rolling Priorities I wanted to finish the things that already had deadlines, to clear my plate as it was, and my list was:

  1. Watch Today’s “The Best Year of Your Life Summit” presentations
  2. Make The Answer Books and send them
  3. Finish my PAD Chapbook and email it
  4. Work on fairy tale found poetry
  5. Novel
  6. Revise Short Stories

As you can see, that first day, I hadn’t quite stepped into my identity as a novelist, but patience is the key ingredient when making these small changes.

The next step is to break each of these priorities into their smallest steps. Let’s use my third priority as an example. I wanted to finish the Chapbook of the poems I wrote during the Poem-a-Day Challenge and submit them before the deadline. Here is how I broke down that goal:

  1. Revise opening poem
  2. Revise ending poem
  3. Revise re-mix poem
  4. Make word document (it was in Scrivener before)
  5. Create Title page and Index
  6. Print
  7. Read aloud
  8. Make final changes
  9. Submit email entry to Writer’s Digest

Breaking each goal down like this really worked for me. It helped me see very manageable actions instead of one overwhelming demand.

That first day I was able to check off the top three priorities for that day.

So how is that different than just picking three things like my friends said? Because it feeds my imagination of thinking I can do more while being realistic at the same time. It also plans for future success by breaking down the necessary steps of the priorities that will be at the top of the list soon.

The next day’s priorities were:

  1. Watch Summit Videos
  2. Create found poetry
  3. Novel
  4. Revise Short Story
  5. Sew
  6. Read

Look how quickly my novel was rising in the priority list. Now it is priority one, every day.

Easy Wins

Once I started enjoying my six rolling priorities, I turned my attention to simple changes I could make to increase my chances of success. The very first thing I did was clean my room to make it more conducive to a good night’s sleep. That lead to cleaning my office, making it more inviting and conducive to my work as a novelist. Then I cleaned my closet that I use for meditation.

Once I cleaned my environment, I found some simple suggestions that I could implement right away.

For sleep: I put a couple plants in my room. I started a gratitude journal. I changed my breakfast to include a healthy oil, a protein, & leafy greens. I added movement (stretching, push-ups, and sit-ups) first thing in the morning.

For hormonal balance: I color-coded a calendar specifically for charting my cycle.

Look for overlap

I quickly noticed that a lot of the things I was reading for improved sleep, hormonal balance, and goal setting had significant overlap. To make changes, I needed to create small habits, and replace the ones that weren’t helping me toward my goal. There were also similarities in dietary changes, morning exercise, morning sun, increased magnesium, and self-care.

Tools

I discovered that I already had almost everything I needed to work toward my goals. One important change I’m making every day is asking myself, How can I make this habit easier? For example. I want to increase my movement and exercise. I have a small rebounder (trampoline) and like to jump on it, so I put it in the office next to my desk. Now, when I get up I jump on it for a little while, I’m working on using it in my reward system for creating my habits.

I like using Microsoft OneNote for my daily priorities and planning. I created a 2022 calendar in Publisher and copied it into each of my categories, so I have a copy that is my novel planning calendar for my deadlines; I have my Sleep calendar to mark my successes and evaluate what’s working and not working; I have my hormonal cycle calendar which I color-coded for the phases of my cycle. I really like the notebook-like interface for organizing all of the things I’m learning, along with the small steps I’m taking.

A reflection of pink clouds and dark trees on the lake.
Each Small Step by Maria L. Berg 2022

Assessment

An important aspect of successful change is evaluating what is working and what is not working. Every little change I am making is its own experiment in the search for what is pushing me toward my goal of finishing novels, and what is pulling me from my goal. Every Sunday I will set aside time to hold myself accountable, honestly evaluate my progress, and plan the coming week’s course of action.

For this first assessment, I wanted to evaluate my original assumptions before setting up a weekly assessment. So I asked myself:

  1. Was my identification of my three main areas for change correct?
    1. Answer: They appear to be. Focusing my priorities has shown the fastest and most rewarding changes. My focus on getting derailed by my cycle paid off today when I was surprised by cramps a week early. I was able to work through it and adjust to the realities of my body. My focus on sleep is my most challenging, but acknowledging my fear of nightmares and the origins of my bad habits is a good start.
  2. Do I need to change the definitions of my three main change areas?
    1. Answer: I think I will refine my focus of my hormonal imbalance to Perimenopause. I will focus my sleep issues on PTSD and fear of nightmares. I think honing in on the underlying causes will help me with identifying the small, easy steps that I can turn into positive change. The Priorities area is defined by my identity as a novelist.

Now for the Assessment I will be developing for my weekly check-in:

  1. What went right last week? Here’s my exciting news! My morning routine is working. Even through stressful situations, I worked on my novel every day this week. I’ll talk about tiny habits, and my tiny habit system so far in my next post, but the exciting news is it is working! This week, not only did an unexpected computer breakdown make two days worth of work disappear, I also got my period a week early–cramps, fatigue, the works–and yet, I did my morning writing routine every day. So exciting.
  2. What didn’t go well last week? My night time routines. So far, all my good intentions and plans and steps lead to me just saying No, I don’t want to. However, I believe that many of my techniques aren’t working due to the weather–gray days, early sunset, cold, etc.–which will change soon-ish. If I keep working on every aspect I can, and try to concentrate on the root cause and the why for now, it’s possible the systems may fall into place as spring arrives.
  3. What small steps will I add this week? This week I am going to take a short walk after my first writing session.
  4. Is it time to increase one of my habits? I chose the goal of 500 words per day to create my writing habit. I almost always write more than that. So this week I will test 600 words and see how that feels.
  5. What else did I try? I wanted to review what is in my novel draft so far. Really look at my characters, props, clues, etc. and brainstorm an outline for the rest of the draft. I set a goal of “After lunch I will spend one hour reviewing my novel.” It only worked one time. Even though I enjoyed it, I haven’t done it again. So I will try it again this week as “After lunch I will review my novel for fifteen minutes.” That’s something I can definitely do.

Collecting and Organizing

Another priority that I’m adding to my Sunday is a period of time set aside for organizing all my notes and thoughts. I saw this in Welcome to the Writer’s Life by Paulette Perhach. As writers, we make notes. I have so many notebooks all over the house and yet make most of my notes in notepad on my laptop, or on random pieces of paper all over the house. I like the idea of creating a time and a place to organize all the week’s notes and thoughts. They aren’t doing me any good wandering all over the place.

Starting this week, I will create a system for organizing my notes and ideas into ways they can be useful for my novels, and toward meeting my goals as a novelist.

Next Sunday I will set aside an hour (or so, flexibility is important as you experiment), to organize my notes into useful categories and think about how they fit together.

Accountability

I know this has been a lot. I felt overwhelmed trying to figure out where to even begin to talk about everything I’m exploring having to do with finishing novels and motivation. This is a quick overview to share the main areas of my experience so far, and the first steps I took that were successful right away.

One area that every resource talks about is social accountability. I have found many times in the past that if I share my goals here on Experience Writing, I am more likely to achieve them.

I would really enjoy if you would like to join me in an accountability club. Every Sunday, type your goals in the comments, or leave a link to your post and we can check in with each other to see how we did with our goals.

My goals this week are to:

  1. Write at least 600 words of my novel every day
  2. Take a short walk each day
  3. Review my novel for 15 minutes every day

That’s it. I hope you will hold me accountable.

Can you help me with one other goal? I’m trying to create a consistent blogging habit. How often would you like to read these posts about finishing goals? Which day or days are your favorite to read Experience Writing? Thank you so much for taking a moment to type your answers in the comments.

We Can Reach Our Goals Together!