I love some good goal setting just as much as the next guy. After all, setting goals + achieving goals = happier self. And who doesn’t want to be happier? But I’ve also developed a bit of an algorithm for my own goals, whether they be for my writing life or just my life in general.
I believe in setting goals that are ambitious, but still attainable. Ambitious so that I’m properly motivated and know that I’m pushing myself out of my comfort zone. Attainable so that I have something to celebrate because celebrating feels good and is a really important part of the process. Most goal setting happens privately, and when it’s just you and you, small victories really matter. In the age of social media, it feels like everything is for public consumption, but deep down, most of us still know that we have to make ourselves happy first.
Now, I know that the notion of attainability sort of flies in the face of all the “yay-me!” feelings that are supposed to accompany goal setting in the greeting-card sense of the phrase. We’re always telling ourselves to “dream big” and “be our best selves.” To “reach for the stars” and be “the person we were always born to be.” But you show me a person who spends a little too much time dreaming big and reaching for the stars and I’ll show you a person who regularly doesn’t meet his goals and doesn’t get to celebrate success as often as he’d like.
Let’s get specific. At the top of this page, you’ll see a picture. Now, I’m not in this picture, but what you’re looking at is me celebrating successfully meeting a goal in about the least sexy way possible: by writing numbers on a page, and then writing more numbers beneath those numbers, and then more numbers beneath those. That’s my daily word count for last week.
I was off for a week over the holiday, and I knew I wanted to make some progress on my novel-in-progress, which I’d been struggling to make traction with as of late. But when you’ve got children dominating your life and schedule, Christmas to plan, not to mention food to eat and classic films to watch, days full of free time–the thing we all want more of–can whisk by in surprisingly brisk fashion.
I needed a goal. So, I set one. I decided that during break I would try to write 1,000 words a day. Now, I tend to write fast, and so 1,000 words doesn’t feel like an overly-huge haul, but I also knew that I’d be more likely to reach my daily goal if I set it for an attainable quantity. If I’m properly focused, I can usually write 1,000 story words in 2-3 hours. However, to reach this goal, I knew I’d have to wake up early and get my pages in before the family was up and the day swept me away so that I could properly focus. I’d have to skip morning time chatting with my wife and reading the Beatles biography I’ve been working my way through. I’d have to sacrifice. And sacrifice takes ambition. As does consistency, which was part of my goal. 1,000 words a day, every day. No excuses.
And that un-sexy photo at the top of the page? It’s proof. It’s my reward for a job well done. The first two days waking up at 6:30 when I wanted to sleep in kind of sucked. But with each passing day, I wrote down my current word count before getting to work, and as the numbers grew, I felt successful knowing I’d not only reached the prior day’s goal, I was proving to myself that I could reach today’s as well. And tomorrow’s. With each day, getting up early and getting my pages in felt just a little bit easier, and a little more satisfying.
It’s easy to get romantic about writing, especially fiction. But the dirty little secret is that writing, almost more than anything, is about showing up. And then showing up again. And again. You could write for twelve hours straight and bang out 7,500 words in a marathon Kerouac-style session, but you’re more likely to do it in small chunks. A little bit each day adds up to a lot.
This year, let’s practice ambitious attainability. Let me know how it goes. Very un-sexy pictures of celebration highly encouraged.