It’s a new year. Maybe you’ve set up a new planner. Maybe you’ve been thinking about goals for your business. Maybe you’d like this to be the year that you finally finish that novel, find the time to go for more walks, meditate, read more books, or learn a new skill.
Or maybe you’re thinking that making plans is daft, because you struggle to stick to schedules and never met a goal you couldn’t miss, and—hey, doom scrolling much? Sure, why not. I mean, it’s been a year (or ten…).
Listen, I hear you. I know only too well about best-laid plans…you read the latest productivity hack, download a snappy new habit tracker, set up schedules, make lists of your goals…
But then nothing goes according to plan and you’re left feeling like a failure.
So, what to do?
After years of setting and failing to follow through on countless writing schedules, creating fancy new exercise plans, and generally setting unrealistic/unattainable goals, I realised that I was trying to fit my life into the plan when what I needed to do was fit the plan into my life.
So how do you turn things around? How do you make plans that you can stick to?
Before you try a new habit, take some time to get to know yourself. Are you more likely to exercise if you put your workout clothes out the night before?
Are you more likely to finish a project if you work on it first thing in the morning? In the afternoon? What about if you tied it to another activity that you like to do? Don’t be above bribing yourself! Nothing beats a little *reasonable* incentive to help get things done (but maybe don’t do the the one chocolate chip per math problem thing with your kids unless you want them pinging about like t-i-double-guh-urrs).
Ahem…where was I?…
Finally, if you’re setting goals or trying to build new habits, keep it simple! Take that first step and then decide what comes next. You don’t have to have all the answers now. Just have an idea of where you want to go and take a step that will point you in that direction.
Does it take effort, setting goals and building habits? Absolutely. Will things work the way you want them to every day? Not a chance. But life is not about perfection, it’s about being flexible, being kind to yourself, and ultimately, showing up for yourself every day.
Start with baby steps. One thing at a time. And don’t be afraid to abandon a plan that isn’t working. Think of it more like a dance than a march.
Case in point? This very blog. In 2021, I planned to blog every week. I had a beautiful schedule–colour-coded and everything. But the blogs I wrote were rambling and took far too long to write (not to mention the time to source photos, create hyperlinks, set up social media sharing).
So I sat down with a notepad and thought about what I wanted the blog to be. Which was more important: long posts or regular posts? The answer was regular posts. So I created a new format for my book reviews, which will hopefully keep them consistent and more straightforward, and set myself a shorter word-count. My goal for #TheBookshelf in 2022 is to share weekly snapshots of what I’ve been reading, tips for writers and editors, or new things I’ve learned.
So, here’s to 2022. It’s been a brutal two years, but we got this. In this new year, be kind to yourself and others, learn something new, and above all, never lose your wonder!
Maybe it’s because I was trained as a scientist. Maybe it’s why I became a scientist in the first place. Either way, I love to measure stuff. I love to make plans, set goals (both short- and long-term) and then use planners and schedules and habit trackers to see how I do.
Do I hit every target or meet every goal? Nope. Do I stick to my schedule every day? Absolutely not. But I keep coming back to it because there’s something comforting about planning–being mindful about how you want to live your life or nurture your business–and then creating a framework to guide you.
And to be perfectly honest here, I’m a busy freelancer and mum, with probably far too many creative outlets, so making time for the people, work, and activities that I love, requires some organization!
“If you want to make God laugh, tell him about your plans.”
This week on #TheBookshelf, I’m sharing some of my favourite books, apps, tools, and websites to help you set goals (or not), improve your productivity, build better habits, and stay motivated.
1. Setting goals…or not!
I like to set goals. But my goals are a very fluid thing. I reevaluate often. Some people like to set their goals in January for the new year, but I look at my goals every three months or so (January, March, June, and September are the general time frames for me), and check in on how things are going and where things need tweaking. I mean, stuff happens, right? We learn as we go and sometimes plans change and we have to adjust accordingly.
Nathan Bransford is a writer, book editor, and former literary agent. His book How To Write A Novel is brilliant (I’ll be giving it an in-depth review in a future post) and his newsletter never fails to be interesting and helpful. Back in January he posted his thoughts on goals and a handy-dandy spreadsheet that you can use for your own goal-setting. It’s good stuff, so if goals are how you roll, I highly recommend that you check out his blog post here.
If, on the other hand, goal setting is just not your thing, then my favourite productivity guru Chris Bailey, author of The Productivity Project and Hyperfocus, agrees with you! Chris doesn’t set goals for himself, but rather focuses on building habits. He rationalizes that it is the process that matters; as he explains over on his great website A Life of Productivity:
“Instead of aiming for a metric, focus on what will get you to the metric. Usually this means completing projects and developing habits that serve you.”
To read more of what Chris has to say about goal setting, check out these two blog posts: (and, of course, his books!)
This brings us to habits. I’ve been following James Clear’s website for years, and I snapped up his book Atomic Habits as soon as it came out. James also has a great weekly newsletter that you can sign up for here: https://jamesclear.com/3-2-1
Habits are a tricky thing for me. I love a routine, but with a busy family and a freelance business, my days are often unpredictable, and I am so frequently interrupted that it’s frankly maddening. This makes building new habits a challenge for me. Committing to sitting down at a certain hour for a set amount of time is difficult bordering on impossible. So I’ve had to learn to be flexible. James’ book has really helped with that.
When you’re building a new habit, James advocates shifting your mindset–making changes at the identity level and shifting how you see yourself–then tying the new habit to something that you already routinely do and building up in small steps. Read more about the compounding power of small here.
“Improvements are only temporary until they become part of who you are. The goal is not to read a book; the goal is to become a reader. The goal is not to run a marathon; the goal is to become a runner. The goal is not to learn an instrument; the goal is to become a musician. This year, focus on the identity you want to build.”
The best way to both cheer yourself on and figure out what’s working and what isn’t, is to measure your progress (like all good scientists). I recommend the Loop habit tracker app https://loophabits.org/ It’s a simple, intuitive interface that allows you to track more than a dozen different habits. It displays data in a few different formats, and allows you to export your stats.
(I found it in the Google Play store, I’ll post an update if I find something similar for Apple devices.)
3. Tick, tock!
Whether you’re working towards a goal or building a habit, the key thing for me is finding the time. And this is the beauty of Chris Bailey’s philosophy; the more productive you are with your time, the more time you have to do the things you want to do! So the first thing you need to do is to account for your time.
In my freelancing business, I use Toggl track https://toggl.com/track/ to keep track of billable hours. So when it came to accounting for all my time, I put this clever app to use, tracking everything I did–for an entire week! It was an eye-opener to see the kinds of things I spent time on and how much time was spent on each. Self-care, work, sleep, household activities like preparing meals, cleaning, shopping, family time…seeing a pie chart of all the things you spend your time on can help you spot areas where you’d like to focus more or less of your time.
TIP: From a freelancer’s standpoint, Toggl Track is a powerful business tool, allowing users to generate project-specific reports on a weekly or monthly basis. When it’s in use, it will even prompt you if you’ve been idle (not typing or clicking) for more than a specified amount of time.
When I’m working on personal writing projects, I like to work in sprints or Pomodoros (periods of focused work separated by a series of short and long breaks). To keep track, I could use a kitchen timer, or the clock function on my phone, or even Toggl Track, but who among us couldn’t use a bit more cuteness in their lives? I love the Mouse Timer app from LITALICO (linked here to the Google Play store for Android devices). I love listening to the wee mouse nom-nomming through apples as I rattle away on my keyboard. The ticking (munching) sound is pleasant and not at all obtrusive, and the bell at the end of the set time is not jarring. This timer is also great for setting focus times for my middle-schooler to do some homework!
4. Motivation and burnout
Building habits and creating routines are important from more than just a productivity standpoint. They’re also good for both your physical and mental health–especially during the pandemic.
Over the past year, many of us have found ourselves feeling tired, unmotivated, and burnt out. In a recent interview on CBC Radio’s The Current, Dr. Roger McIntyre (Professor of Psychiatry and Pharmacology at the University of Toronto and Head of the Mood Disorders Psychopharmacology Unit at the University Health Network) talks about chronic, unpredictable stress; brain chemistry; and the importance of a routine to combat burnout. Have a listen here: https://www.cbc.ca/listen/live-radio/1-63-the-current/clip/15836533-understanding-pandemic-burnout
Do you have any tips, tricks, or tools that you use to help stay productive, motivated, or build habits? Do you have advice for burnout self-care? I’d love to hear from you! Share your strategies in the comments below!