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!

45 thoughts on “A New Year, A New Routine (Or, The Problem With Goals)

  1. Diane Tibert says:

    I usually make a small list of goals for the new year. Last year I didn’t make any, and I didn’t get very much accomplished. This year I set out to change that and made an extensive list. Usually I keep the list to myself, so if I don’t get things done I’m the only one who knows. This year I posted them to my blog (http://dianetibert.com/2014-goals/), so I can keep track, and by making them public I’m kept accountable…somewhat. 🙂

    I think the way you’ve annualized your routine to see why your writing goals weren’t being met is a good idea. I also work at home, and sometimes it’s the afternoon before I realise I didn’t get anything done.

    Great post for the new year.

  2. Katy Gilmore says:

    Hi Catherine, I so enjoyed this – and I am so curious how the iPhone KNOWs when you are in the good bit of the sleep cycle? But mine is not to question, but to download, and stop pushing the snooze repeatedly! Thank you for great post – one of many!

  3. amandadawnclothier says:

    Oh dear! Reading this is like looking in a mirror. Yes, I do write down my goals and review them every so often. I try to make them realistic and try not to be self-critical about my progress too often. I think I have a healthy approach, but unfortunately I still do too little writing to meet my goals with anything like the speed I want to. I make slow progress and still waste time beating myself up about not spending enough time writing (a recurring topic in my own blog!). I do like that because I’ve written down my goals I can see that I have made progress, despite the negative way I perceive my daily activities. I love that you have latched on to writing first thing in the day, allowing other activities only after lunch. I think I will try this and see if it works for me as well. Thanks for more great advice!

  4. amandadawnclothier says:

    Oh yes! And Sleep Cycle is a worrier’s nightmare – if you thought you were getting a relatively good night’s sleep, just wait till you see what it tells you about your sleep quality! One more thing to obsess about. I deleted it ;))

  5. Jon says:

    Catherine, can I just say how I absolutely love your blog. Yours, Konrath’s and one other authors blogs are the only ones I subscribe to. Keep up the great work. You are so down to earth ;0

    I recently worked with a client who referenced a book that said this. A better way of looking at goals is to have standards. Certain standards for yourself. i.e instead of saying I want to lose 7 pounds by X. You have a standard that is measured by a certain pair of jeans you want to stay in. Same can be applied to writing.

    Instead of saying, I will write 4 books this year. You say I will maintain x amount of words every time i write. This way the likely hood of actually getting out X amount of book is simple math. If it doesn’t happen it doesn’t happy but at least you maintained x amount of words as a writer.

    I dunno, just another way of looking at things.

    I liked your list


    Go back to sleep
    Wake-up again
    Lie in bed for a while
    Get up
    Dozily make some coffee
    Take coffee to computer
    Check e-mail
    Catch up on my celebrity news
    Oh, that looks like an interesting link my friend has posted on Facebook…
    Two to four hours pass by
    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…


    Amazing how the internet sucks us in. Usually happens when I try to bang out some words and then i get an email and boom before you know it. Hours have gone past and its time for another cup of coffee 🙂

  6. The Drowning Octopus says:

    I’m going to try this sleep cycle thing, as I, too, am a shameful snoozer. It’s awful. Since I schedule my own work hours though (I teach English online at home) I have realized that I just have to schedule myself to start working at 8:30 in the morning. That’s the only way to force myself out of bed at a decent time (so, like, 8, haha). It would be nice to a chipper and awake at 7 though . . . here’s hoping!

    Thanks for all the tips!

  7. trashtaylor says:

    Catherine, this is such a wonderful, well-written and timely post. I am currently making the same mistakes; going back to sleep, procrastinating and wasting time on the internet.

    I really need to get out of this terrible cycle, and posts like this remind me that I’m not alone, and that change is possible! Thank you!

  8. frugalfirstclasstravel says:

    I’m a blogger, and while I’m moderately successful and my readership is growing, it hasn’t been to the extent I would like. Rather than set myself a goal of X page views per day, I have the taken the path of setting myself a task of posting 3 days per week. On set days each week. All of this is completely new for me – I’ve been very unstructured in my approach up till now. I bought myself a pretty planner, and mapped out a master schedule of the broad topic I was going to write about on what days. Doing all of that has given me a lot more inspiration of specific things to write about – so I’ve scheduled those posts into specific dates. At almost the end of the second week of January, I’ve managed to still with the plan so far (how many weeks does a regular activity take to become a habit again?). And guess what? My page views are up by 30%!!

    I agree wholeheartedly – having a goal is important. But having a plan to follow every day to get to the goal is priceless!

  9. Elaine Jeremiah says:

    I’ve decided to try and write every day in January even if only for 20 minutes and even if that 20 minutes is planning. It’s any work on it that counts. I was inspired by a blog post I read which suggested it and so far it’s working!

  10. Big Dan says:

    Interesting that you have come up with a system instead of goals. I just read Scott Adams’ new book (although most of the content is already on his blog) and his main message is that focusing on systems (routines to increase your chance of success) are better than goals. I don’t know if that’s true, but you seem to have independently come to a similar conclusion. (Btw, his writing is a lot more interesting than his cartoons.)

  11. Robin says:

    i love your post. Writing out goals is good for me. I spent about 6 months in a funk and once I specked them out here on WordPress and published them to the world to see, for some reason I’m really pumped and excited (just took a watercolor class today, how’s that for fun, and something new??)! Love your idea about the app for waking on time–I don’t have this problem but my hubby does…The anticipation and aroma of Peet’s coffee and the lure of drinking that first cup by myself in the dark before anyone else wakes and ruins my morning time alone, is incentive enough. My problem is writing too, because if I don’t get it done first thing in the morning, my mind just isn’t into it at all. And I have very specific exercise goals too and that’s big, I don’t allow for wiggle room on exercise. Oh, and I want to figure out a new career How is one to compete with all these great things we want to accomplish?? Anyway, again, I enjoyed your post and love your writing–glad I found your blog a few weeks ago.

  12. Rebecca says:

    Hey Catherine, I’m doing a series of posts on “theworminmyapple” about this very thing. Goals and resolutions are worthless if you don’t know how to achieve them. What I’m doing is just what you’re doing, looking at my daily routine and identifying what’s preventing me from achieving these goals. My morning routine is also where I experience some roadblocks. I’m also making notes every day as ideas come to mind. It takes me the whole month of January to nail it down. Good luck with your goals.

  13. annstanleywriting says:

    This is helpful advice. I love the way you’ve altered your perspective. I notice that, every time I get caught up in the big goals, I get a little depressed because I haven’t reached them yet. Plus, they seem overwhelming. But if I sit down and do something, pretty soon I’m happily engaged in my task and I end up feeling good about myself because I got a lot done and I had fun. I don’t think that I can get up and write first thing every morning, because I have a day job, but I can certainly try it on the days when I don’t work in the morning. Usually I set a timer for 45 minutes, so I’ll stop and stretch, but I often get into the writing or other task so much that I don’t want to stop.

  14. D.L. Kamstra says:

    This is great advice. Especially about writing first then you don’t have to feel guilty about it.

    One of the things that I have done this year, is made a calendar with a short to-do list on it each day. A couple of things are just big projects I want to finish up and just need to dedicate time to, but it feels good to cross them off the list, and not have to feel guilty about those either. So far this year is is working quite well at keeping me on track.

  15. bookbakeblog says:

    This was such a motivational post! I’m also one of those people who, if they can, snooze until about 10 or 11 am. And then I feel demotivated to do anything because the entire morning has gone already… I don’t exactly work from home, but I’m a student with very little contact hours, so I have to do most of my studying and essay writing and stuff at home, which requires some discipline as well.
    I hope this method will continue to work well for you! I don’t think I’ve ever commented before, but I’m following your blog for a few months now and really enjoy your posts. 🙂

  16. Polkadotjo says:

    Thank you for an interesting, entertaining and timely read! I feel more motivated after taking in your very practical advice. Every year I make the same ridiculous promises to myself and I never keep them 🙂

  17. Petit Manan says:

    This is absolutely true. I’m up most days at 6 AM, but waste most of my morning watching Morning Joe and CNBC before hitting the computer for email and link following which eats up half my day and then my motivation is lost and guilt settles in. I’ve even noted to myself in my planner (in RED ink), “exercise daily in the AM”, otherwise I just think about all day but if it’s done early I feel better about myself – like I’ve accomplished something. Time to set my DVR for Morning Joe to watch in the afternoon and write in the morning when my mind is fresh and most focused. Thanks for steering me in the “write” direction! Love your blog!

  18. Jacqui Pretty says:

    Hi Catherine – which Lawrence Block book did you read? I just went on Amazon and he had 17 pages of them (great for him, not so great for me when I’m trying to figure out which one’s the right one ;p )

  19. Lara O'Brien says:

    Catherine, I am now a follower, but let me tell you how I got here. I read the tweet from Indie Author news who posted a list of 5 must read blogs, I retweeted and followed you. You possibly have this posted somewhere, but I am fairly new to social media (I saw a mullet one, a real one, this will tell you my age) anyway congratulations and I will be following along as I debut my first children’s novel in NY and DC soon.
    What was great about that list was seeing an Irish girl, right there. The other great thing was hopefully finding one source of information to follow and find it funny! This helps. I’ll be hours reading your material to get up-to-date, so my deadline is banjoed – but all for the greater good!

  20. piarve says:

    Loved the post. Haha love the whole idea of getting something you love to wake you up too. Now I am trying to figure out that one thing I love the most. I think that having a daily schedule does it all, since you are living in the moment rather than day dreaming about the ‘fantastic’ looking future which you are not working towards (although in your mind you are, despite the fact none of your actions contribute towards meeting that goal).

    I think it is good to have that one big goal that you write down somewhere, but it takes hard work to do it, and I think occupying your mind in the mean time by doing the small tasks is a good way to get there.

    I must admit I need so much self discipline lately

  21. jane ayres says:

    Hi Catherine – I have just discovered this post (a year late!) Brilliant stuff, and cheered me up no end! I laughed when I read your daily work routine – so like me, it was uncanny! But there was so much positive and helpful advice, and it did the trick of motivating me to try more self-discipline so I achieve more and stop beating myself up. My partner is a runner and has tremendous motivation, and he runs first thing every day, so that by noon he feels relaxed that he has achieved his goals. And social media is a time vampire that has to be tamed. I’ve just closed one of my writing fb pages and my pinterest account and planning to scale down on all of this, otherwise I will end up talking about writing instead of writing (like I am doing now, for instance!) Anyway, great blog – wishing you success and peace for 2015. (sorry if you get this twice – struggling with wordpress)

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