Starting a new year feels exciting. Full of possibilities. We can write a novel — no, publish a novel! — or start a freelance writing business or attend a new conference. It’s a clean slate, right? We can do anything!
Well, not quite. The new year can provide inspiration to redouble our efforts or set a new goal, but we’re still the same people we were on December 31. Most of us will return to work or school with similar schedules and obligations. After the magic of the ball drop, the champagne, the kisses and Auld Lang Syne, we have to figure out how to remake ourselves in the same old world.
I don’t mean to rain on anyone’s parade. In fact, I love making a plan for the new year. But to get the most out of that clean slate, you need a strategy. Here are three tips for a productive new year.
Make a plan from the top down.
To ensure your writing time is well spent this year, sketch out a strategic plan. Start with the big picture and work your way to the daily grind. This will help you avoid tangents that suck up your time but don’t support your long-term goals.
First, define your mission. Why do you write? What do you want to accomplish? Do you want to shed light on heavy social issues or write the next hit beach read? Distill your endgame into one sentence that answers the question, “What do you want to accomplish with your writing?”
Once you know your mission, move on to your vision. What does your ideal writing career look like? Where do you want to see yourself in five years?
Now you can set a few big-picture goals that move you a little closer to that vision. Keep your goals limited to three or so and make them attainable. Keep the results within your control. For example, apply to three residencies or finish the draft of one novel. No amount of effort can guarantee a publishing contract or admission to a prestigious writing program. Set goals you can accomplish through your own hard work and dedication.
Once you have a few goals, start filling in concrete tasks to make them happen. These should be quantifiable activities like writing 3000 words per week, making a list of 10 conferences you’d like to attend, or exchanging chapters with your critique partner once per month.
This process — using a mission and vision to inform your goals, and only then defining the actual work you plan to do every day — will keep you focused. Even if you aren’t thinking about the big picture as often as you’d like, everything you do will be informed by those long-term desires.
If you set a big goal, make a lot of small progress.
Big goals — take writing a novel, for example — are intimidating. Use small daily actions to make those goals approachable. I’m drafting a novel right now, and I have a daily word count goal of 100. That’s not a typo. I didn’t forget a zero. I’ve finished two full-length books and gotten nearly 30,000 words into my third by setting daily goals so low they’re embarrassing to admit out loud.
You don’t need to squash your ambition — just redirect it to your vision. Your vision, and to a lesser extent your goals, should reflect your drive to do something great. Once you get to the daily grind, you need to figure out how to make yourself show up. Every day. Set the bar as low as necessary to make that happen.
Narrow your efforts.
It’s so easy to get caught up in the idea of this being the year. However, you won’t magically have more time in the day just because a ball dropped over Times Square. Your family won’t suddenly give you hours of uninterrupted writing time every weekend. Writing that first draft — or editing the fourth — won’t somehow require less effort. A new year doesn’t necessarily mean a new you or a new life.
That’s where your strategic plan comes in. If you define your core values and what you’d like to accomplish in the long term, you can bring your short-term efforts in line with those goals. While this can sound boring and business-y, these activities help clarify where you should be spending your precious time — and where you shouldn’t. Hopefully, you’ll discover a few things you can let go to make more room for what matters. Because while the new year won’t bring a whole new world, it can bring a new start to a more focused writing life.