When I was sixteen, I set a New Year’s Resolution to stop swearing so much. (Those who know me know how well that worked out.) I said “When the clock hits midnight, that’s it, no more swearing. I’m giving it up.” I got in trouble for my swearing pretty regularly, a steady four-year habit at the time, and I wanted to stop the habit to make life a little easier.
I lasted twenty minutes and then I gave up forever.
This may seem like a silly example of unrealistic expectations for goal-setting, but the truth is, people do this same thing in their own way. Whether you resolve at New Year’s Eve to change some habit or start a new project, or whether you’re embarking on a new endeavor some other time of year, at the end of the day we are creatures of habit and we’re going to fall back on old patterns. And a lot of goal-setting isn’t just about picking your goal, but about how you go about sticking to it.
I ran a half marathon last year, in November. I had started out with the goal of running a 10K and it kind of ballooned from there. And the whole process really reaffirmed some ideas I had with regards to setting and achieving goals.
Set a Concrete Goal that You Control 100%
A million things could have happened to keep me from the actual half-marathon event. Fire, flood, cancelled flights, law suits over intellectual property and trademarks, so many things in this world are completely outside of my control. But getting my body to a state where I could go for 13.1 miles and not die or injure myself was something I was able to control. So that was my goal: be able to run for 13.1 miles and not die or injure myself.
This is pretty similar to the actual butt-in-chair hands-on-keyboard part of writing. Nobody else is going to put in those miles. Nobody else is going to get those words on the page. It’s not in your control whether or not a publisher will pick up your book, but it’s in your control to write the best damn book you possibly can.
Big Goals Should be Broken Up into Smaller Goals
Prior to my half, the only kind of marathon I’d ever done had the word “Netflix” in it. So obviously I wasn’t about to leap off the couch and pound pavement for three hours, not unless I wanted to wind up on crutches afterwards. I built up the distance over the course of a eight months, running two to three times a week. I followed a training regimen and I did exercises outside of just straight-up running in order to help the process.
When you’re writing, you’re not going to go from zero to novel over a weekend. Even a long weekend. Not only will it take time to write the book, it’ll also take time until you’re writing a thousand words a day, two thousand, five thousand, whatever your target words-per-day goal is. Be responsible with your brain. Like the muscles in your body, your brain also needs training to go longer distances. Build up. Start with small, reasonable goals, and whenever you feel comfortable, push yourself a bit, until you’re just tearing through wordcount.
Going the Distance is Less About Strength and More About Psychology
So that part where I said “running two to three times a week”? Well, yeah, okay, most weeks. Like, 85% of weeks. Okay, 80%. Maybe. Some weeks, though, I didn’t go for my runs. I cooly ignored my running shoes as they waited patiently in the entryway like an expectant labrador retriever. It would have been really easy at this point to just throw my hands in the air and say, fuck it, I’ve screwed up, I missed a day of running, a week of running, I’ll never recover, time to lay on the couch with a pack of Oreos and contemplate my failure as a human.
But this past year, I tried two new psychological tricks with regards to my goals. One, I tried to forgive myself for these sorts of things. Instead of berating myself, “gosh, I can’t believe I skipped a run, what a loser” I tried saying “okay, you skipped a run, that’s fine, there’s always the next run.” And two, I tried to re-frame skipping my runs from the whining “I don’t wanna!” to “I’m making the conscious decision not to run today.” Suddenly, I didn’t want to make the decision to not run. It seemed so much easier to get my butt in gear when I felt like the decision was 100% within my control — which, in reality, it always had been, only I forced myself to think of it that way, to say it aloud.
Writing is not dissimilar. It’s easy to let other things in life “take over” your writing time. Sometimes it’s necessary to take care of other things in life, but sometimes we use it as an excuse to avoid doing the hard thing. So this is where you need to make the decisions about how to balance writing with everything else in your life. It’s easy to think of writing as something separate from the other things in your life, but really, it’s part of it, and deserves to be prioritized as much as anything else. So, recognize the moments when you are choosing not to write as just that: a choice. Say aloud “I am choosing not to write today.” See how you feel about it when you realize that it’s in your control. You may surprise yourself by flopping down in the chair and making the wordcount.
So, it’s been six days since the new year. How are you doing on whatever goals you have set for yourself, whether they were set on January 1 or before? If you’ve stumbled already, don’t even worry about it, there’s still a lot of 2015 to go, and by the time December 2015 rolls around, you probably won’t even remember where you slipped. You’ll only see how far you’ve come.