I loathe resolutions. Who’s idea was it to set wildly audacious and unrealistic goals the week after major carbo- and sugar-loading? At that point in the year, I have no concept of time. My holiday onesie pajamas are on 24/7. My body is basically 70% Christmas cookie, 20% sweet potato pie, and 10% roast beef. How am I supposed to be clear-headed enough to chart course for the year ahead?
To be honest, it has nothing to do with the purgatory between Christmas and New Year’s. I hate planning ahead. Yup. This article is about writerly goal setting and I’m telling you up front this practice makes me wildly uncomfortable.
Chaturanga’s also make me uncomfortable. I do them anyway because being unable to carry all the grocery bags in one trip is more uncomfortable. It’s the same with goal setting. I get overwhelmed and anxious and down on myself for all I’ve failed to do. But it’s better than a dream deferred.
For most of my life I wanted to avoid the pain and anxiety of true goal planning. I simply spoke my desires into the universe. This fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants planning occasionally works. It sets your mind toward a light on a path, and your unconscious mind follows. This is how I’ve accomplished many things in my life: applying to graduate school, finishing my MFA program, landing my first job out of school. I was lucky the mere wish helped me accomplish a goal.
Unfortunately, wishing is not always enough. For so long, I willed my way to milestones. This steered me directly into the storm of a quarter-life crisis. It was time to stop wishing and get real about what I wanted out of life. The only way to do that was to set real goals.
Why Most Goals Flop
Real talk. Most goals never transform into being. Why?
Why do 80% of New Year’s resolutions fail by February?
Something’s holding us back.
This viral quote continues to make its way around the web:
Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things that you didn’t do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines. Sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.
In my conversations with other writers, writing students, and hours of research on motivation and drive, there’s a common thread: fear.
Fear leads to wishy-washy goal setting.
*Flips through The Atlantic. Feels inspired by a beautiful essay*
Thinks: I’d like to write for The Atlantic one day.
*Sees a colleague awarded a prestigious writing fellowship*
Thinks: It’d be so nice to win a fellowship and have the finances and time to write. I’ll apply for one… someday.
That sneaky, unspecific adverb––someday––keeps the goal a dream deferred.
Or, maybe we’re a smidgen less wishy-washy and use January 1st as a starting line:
I will write every day in 2019.
I’ll cut out sugar in 2019.
I will finish 10 short stories in 2019.
And like the other 80% of resolution setters, we’re fumbling off the wagon by mid-February.
We fail to set specific and bold goals because we’re horribly, terribly, debilitatingly afraid.
We’re afraid to be imperfect:
The first few paragraphs I wrote sucked, so I gave up.
We’re afraid to fail:
What if Tin House rejects me?
We’re afraid to succeed:
What if I get a fellowship and then I actually have to FINISH a book?
We’re afraid to REALLY succeed:
What if I finish my book, and it’s a wildly successful bestseller, and I never write anything EVER AGAIN?!
We’re terrified to wish for what we really want. So we make wishy-washy goals and accept breadcrumbs instead of feasting on fulfillment.
While in my MFA program, I set a goal to write 500 words per day and finish my thesis by March of 2013. It was the first specific goal I’d set in a long time. I hated goals for the reasons stated above––most of them flop. But this one seemed achievable. It wasn’t a perfect goal. I had a hazy plan––write 500 words per day before class––but I had no strategy for anticipating resistance.
How do I balance research and composing? How do I handle days when I feel uninspired or tired? How do I cope with revising a terrible, ugly first draft? In hindsight, these are questions that would’ve helped me avoid switching from writing a collection of short stories to an 180-page novella two months before the deadline.
The specificity and boldness of the original goal, however, still worked its magic. I finished my novella, defended my thesis, and graduated with my MFA.
How to Set Achievable Writing Goals
If fear makes our goals flop, how do we get around it?
We stretch. We get uncomfortable. We dream big.
To do this, we tap into our creative writing skills. We make the general specific.
To show you how, I’m doing a deep dive into goal-setting strategies for writers in next week’s LitHabits blog post. We’ll cover how to make your goals specific, how to make them align with your purpose in life, and how to get comfortable with aiming for mega-mountain-dream-big-or-bust-WOW goals.
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FYI – I’m leading a workshop for writers who want to develop a consistent writing schedule unique to their life. Want in? Shoot me an email or sign up here👇
Sources & Resources
Mulvey, K. (2017). “80% of New Year's resolutions fail by February — here's how to keep yours.” Business Insider. https://www.businessinsider.com/new-years-resolutions-courses-2016-12
Bruk, D. (2018). “This Is Biggest Regret in Life Most People Have.” MSN. https://www.msn.com/en-us/lifestyle/mind-and-soul/this-is-biggest-regret-in-life-most-people-have/ar-AAy1Gky
Quote Investigator. (2011). "Twenty Years From Now You Will Be More Disappointed By The Things You Didn’t Do Than By The Ones You Did Do." https://quoteinvestigator.com/2011/09/29/you-did/