January 1st has always seemed an arbitrary time for making resolutions (other than ones involving taxes or fiscal issues—if so, then you have my condolences, particularly if you’re in California). So I haven’t been too fond about New Year’s resolutions and it should be no surprise that random resolutions involving writing, e.g. “I will write for one hour every day,” haven’t worked for me.
However, after some recent research into how our brains work, I’ve discovered why arbitrary resolutions don’t work. I’ve also learned that effective resolutions aren’t about willpower and if designed correctly, they can eventually change our behavior.
Improving Concentration and Focus
I haven’t had full-fledged writer’s block, but lately my brain just doesn’t seem to be performing up to snuff. Granted, I was distracted by the back surgery and had to give myself slack for six weeks of pain medication (see post Writer’s block can have physical causes). But I’m out of the heavy medication, and I’m still struggling to concentrate and write with the intensity I’ve had in past years.
Looking for answers—or excuses?—I read The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains, by Nicholas Carr. I also read study results on whether our brains can multi-task (apparently, our brains can’t process input simultaneously without losing time/details to switch context). I also read about deliberate practice and improving skills/talent (e.g., Talent is Overrated, and The Talent Code which recommends “deep practice” and has an accompanying author’s blog).
What’s the upshot? It turns out our brains are incredibly malleable and we’re always training them. But that’s a double-edged sword:
- The bad news: if I spend most of my time doing “research” (mindlessly surfing) or “promotion” (blogging, Facebook, Twitter) then my brain will build up my synapses for hopping around and making connections between small chunks of (superficial) information. This can be useful, but unfortunately, synapses built for critical analysis, deep focus, and concentration will rust away. In a section toward the end of The Shallows, Carr admits to having to totally unplug his online life with Twitter, Facebook, email, etc., so that he could finish the book. Hmm.
- The good news: my brain can also build up synapses for critical analysis of my own writing, as well as improving my concentration and focus. I can also get my brain to improve my writing—through “deliberate practice,” which is my favorite term from all the sources above. The phrase “practice makes perfect” is too simplistic but it has a grain of truth: research has shown that highly talented people practice a great deal, in deliberate structured ways to improve their skill.
Resolutions That Can Really Work
So how could “resolutions” help me out? I have to design resolutions that will help me do deliberate practice:
- Improving writing skills that matter to my fiction. I’ve made a goal to write a small number of pages every day on my work in progress. However, the number starts small and grows every month, with the intent of improving my concentration. I already have spreadsheets that measure progress, so this will be easy to track. That doesn’t address quality, however. One morning a week, I’ll pick an aspect to improve upon (plot, characterization, conflict, dialogue, writing style, etc) in a particular scene, and run through an exercise from one of my craft books—not a problem, because I have so many. 😉
Now it’s your turn; what resolutions can you make that will get you on the road to deliberate practice?