A New Year, A New Routine (Or, The Problem With Goals)

As much as I detest New Year Eve’s with all its enforced fun and depressing reminders that yet another year has gone by and you haven’t achieved all the stuff you swore you would, it does have two things going for it: it comes with fireworks, and it throws open the doors on another fresh, exciting 365 days in which anything could happen.

someecards.com - I can't believe it's been a year since I didn't become a better person.

I had a bit of an epiphany in 2013 about how I go about achieving my goals. (Or not.) I’ve read a lot of books about goal setting and positive visualization and the law of attraction, and the more scientific consensus seems to be that rather than visualizing yourself having achieved your ultimate dream—sitting under an oak tree with Oprah while she insists that everyone in the world runs out right now and buys a copy of your book, for example—your time would be better spent visualizing you doing the work that might lead to it. For example, if you dream of losing 50 pounds, don’t bother closing your eyes and trying to convince yourself that you are already 50 pounds down, as per The Secret and its mystical friends. Instead, visualize yourself doing the things that would lead to such a weight loss, like getting up early every morning to hit the gym, because you know what? You’re going to have to hit the gym, and the main problem is that you’re not that doing it already.

So this New Year’s Day, I didn’t bother with my annual list of things I wanted to achieve in the next 12 months. There’s enough of them laying about the house already, and they all say the same thing. Instead I went about designing an everyday routine that looked like what a person who had achieved those things would be doing on a day-to-day basis.

(That may not be the most elegantly constructed sentence in the history of the English language, but let’s just go with it.)

For most of last year, my ‘work day’ routine looked something like this (I work from home):

  1. Wake-up
  2. Go back to sleep
  3. Wake-up again
  4. Lie in bed for a while
  5. Get up
  6. Dozily make some coffee
  7. Take coffee to computer
  8. Check e-mail
  9. Catch up on my celebrity news
  10. Oh, that looks like an interesting link my friend has posted on Facebook…
  11. Two to four hours pass by
  12. Is that the time? Why, half the day is gone! I’ll never get much of anything done now, because I didn’t start early enough. Oh, well. There’s episodes of Catfish on my Sky+ box and tomorrow is another day…

Do you think that’s what Michael Connelly’s day looks like? Karin Slaughter’s? Gillian Flynn’s?

I think not.

Things needed to change, and I knew from experience that writing ‘write every day’ or ‘finish a novel’ on my list of goals wasn’t going to cut the mustard.

I started by identifying a major problem: I didn’t get up early enough, or more to the point, I didn’t get up when my alarm went off. How could I change this? The first thing I did was I stopped using the alarm on my iPhone to wake me up. Instead I downloaded Sleep Cycle, an app which wakes you up within a 30 minute window of your alarm and at the most optimal time in your sleep cycle. Therefore you aren’t jerked awake only to feel as if you haven’t slept at all. It’s more like you’re sleeping soundly and then you start to swim to the surface and when you get there gentle music is playing and you wake-up feeling refreshed and rested.

(Most of the time, anyway.)

But the urge to snooze is strong with this one, so I needed a little extra help. I needed an incentive. The thought of a cup of coffee is usually what gets me out of bed in the end, but the problem with coffee is that you have to make it before you’ve had any.I needed something really tasty to push me the distance from my bed to my Nespresso machine, and lately I’ve been getting seriously bored of the Nespresso range of capsules.


Then I discovered Bar Italia Nespresso compatible capsules, and I fell in love. They. Are. Delicious.  Now I am closing my eyes at night in anticipation of getting to drink a cup of it when I open my eyes on the other side.

(I know. I should really see someone about it.)

Hooray! I was up early and feeling fairly human. What could I do now to ensure that I started my day with the things that mattered, and not what Jamie Dornan was wearing as he walked to his car yesterday? Coffee takes about 20 minutes to hit the system, so that was a window in which to gently set me up for some work. And this is where it was a good idea to go and think about the big picture. I took my coffee, sat at the dining table that offers a nice view, got out my Erin Condren planner and reviewed my short, medium and long-term goals, keeping in mind that if I want these things to happen, I have to take some action on them today.

Like, next.


Then, writing time. Three hours of it. It’s taken a lot to get me to a place where I write every day and I want to, but this was what helped me the most: a few months ago I was watching crime writer Declan Burke on Writers Web TV, and he mentioned the writing advice of Lawrence Block. I went immediately to my Kindle and downloaded his book — which is actually a collection of columns he wrote for Writer’s Digest — and read it straight through. There’s lots of great advice in there, but one thing that really stuck me with that if you write first thing, you can enjoy the rest of your day guilt-free. If you don’t, you spend your day, whatever you’re doing with it, feeling guilty and anxious and regretful and unworthy and stressed, all because you haven’t written. So: DO IT FIRST.

I have a Post-It on my noticeboard of a clock-face showing noon, and a smiley face. (Well, I know that’s what it is, okay? That’s all that matters.) It’s a reminder that my day can go one of two ways. Either I can get to noon and be happy because I’ve already done my three hours writing time, OR I can get to noon and feel crappy about how I’ve wasted half the day and crappy about whatever else may happen during the day because I wasted the first half of it.

What happens at noon? Well then I do my actual work, which depending on the day might be self-publishing stuff for myself (i.e. the business side of my writing life) or one of the freelance book-related jobs I get paid by someone else to do.

Then come five or six p.m, my favourite bit of the day: LYING ON MY ARSE. Or doing whatever it is I want to do, which can be anything, because I’ve done everything I should’ve done and tomorrow morning, when I open my Erin Condren planner and look at my short, medium and long-term goals, I know that I’m a little bit closer to them than I was yesterday, because consistent effort quickly begins to add up. In just one week of this, I’ve already written 10,000 new words and I feel on top of my To Do list.

(There might also be three empty boxes of Bar Italia capsules in the bin…)

I read Commander Chris Hadfield’s book An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth just after Christmas, and Hadfield’s take on chasing dreams is wonderful: if you take pride in the every day work you do towards them, if you do everything within your control that will get you closer to your goals on a daily basis and you take pleasure and pride in that effort, you will be happy — even if the dream or goal never materializes, or doesn’t for a long time. This is how Hadfield managed to never fret about the terrible odds of him achieving his dream (he was a Canadian who decided to become an astronaut at a time when only US citizens need apply and then, once that changed, got chosen out of thousands for an Astronaut Corps that would see many of its members never fly in space). Instead did everything he could to prepare for the opportunity to fly in space should it arise, and enjoyed every minute of it. Then, when his dream did come true, it wasn’t a relief but a bonus.

How are you tackling 2014 so far? Do you write down your goals? What are you doing different this year? Let us all know in the comments below!