Setting Goals

Setting goals – it’s one of those things that we all think we understand, and of course it’s especially popular at the beginning of every new year. We set these goals with all sorts of good intentions, but it normally doesn’t take us long to abandon them altogether.

Why is that?

One reason, I think, is that while we are generally determined to do better, we are often less enthusiastic about being better. Of course we want to achieve that level of success, finish that book, lose that weight, etc. We just aren’t as thrilled about having to do the work it takes to get there.

The other reason, I think, involves a simple lack of clarity. It amazes me how often people set goals that are either outrageously unattainable (I’m going to write a book a month for the next 12 months!) or so vague that they can’t be measured (I’m going to save money this year!)

So how do we fix these problems?  How do we change our patterns so that the goals that we make become achievable as opposed to forgettable?  How do we help ensure that we’re setting ourselves up for success instead of failure? What can we do differently today that will change our outcome tomorrow?

Well, everyone’s different – what works for me might not work for you. But here are a few general guidelines that have helped me along the way:

1. Get Specific. This is one of the simplest things that you can do to help make your goal achievable. If you’re serious about a goal, then you should be able to specifically define what qualifies as success in your mind. Do you want to save money? Great – how much? Do you want to get healthier? Do you want to write more? Well, that’s wonderful, but what does that ACTUALLY mean in your mind? If you can’t tell me that, then you don’t have a goal, you have an idea. Ideas are nice and all, but you can’t achieve ideas. You can’t work toward ideas.

2. Try setting goals that you can meet all on your own. In other words, don’t put your success into someone else’s hands. This can be a hard one to face up to, because so many of our goals involve approval or acceptance by other people. But when our goals involve decisions that we aren’t empowered to make, we can end up feeling like failures just because of other people’s choices. So if you want a better job – don’t make “getting hired”  your goal. That’s not in your hands. But set goals that will make you a stronger candidate for the job you want, and set goals for how and when you will go out there and apply. Do you want to sign with an agent? Well that’s not a great goal, because at the end of the day it’s not up to you. But you can start SUBMITTING to agents – and that’s the type of thing that you can control and plan.

3. Set goals for habitual change, not end results. This isn’t an absolute must, but if you’re the type of person who forgets about your goals 60 or 30 (or let’s be real, 10) days in, it will help to keep you on track. Instead of setting the goal of loosing 20 pounds, try setting goals to change what you eat or increase you exercise. Instead of saying you’re going to finish your book by the end of the year, why not set a daily writing goal – one that’s manageable – and try sticking with it for a month or two? You’ll be surprised how those small daily successes will keep you motivated, and at how quickly they will lead you to real results

4. Build gradual increases into your goals. I love those people who decide every January that they’re going to run 5 miles every day and stick to a strict raw-vegan diet from now on. I love them, but I don’t believe them, because most of the time those types of extreme changes aren’t sustainable. What is sustainable, however, is change that comes in gradual increases. So rather than deciding that you’re going to write 5,000 words a day every day, why not go for gradual change? Set a low goal for January, one that’s easy to achieve – maybe you’ll decide to write 200 words a day or 1000 words a week. And then decide that on February 1st you’ll change it to something more challenging. And then do it again in March. These kind of gradual changes give you time to adjust your life to fit the goals that are important to you.

5. Only set goals that you want to meet. There is no bigger setup for failure than the goal that you don’t actually want to achieve. We set these goals out of a sense of obligation or guilt, but deep down inside we don’t care if they never happen. News flash – those goals are not only pointless (because let’s face it, you’ll never actually do them) but they’re also incredibly harmful to the goals that you actually want to reach. They clutter your plate, so to speak. They weigh you down unnecessarily. They stifle your momentum and steal your focus. None of those things will help you to reach the goals that are important to you. So this year why not do something radical and get rid of the goals that you don’t actually care about.

6. Keep track of your progress. This is so important for anyone who has a goal that’s going to take a while to reach. If you don’t have a plan to reach your goal, you won’t meet it. But just as importantly, if you don’t STICK to your plan, you’ll fall short in the long run. So revisit your goal on a regular basis. Look at how you’re progressing, and celebrate your incremental victories. It’ll keep you focused and motivated throughout the year.

7. Make adjustments. Listen, life is going to throw you curveballs this year, the same way it does every year. That’s just how it works. Some of the goals you set now will happen more quickly and easily than you expect. Others might suddenly become impossible as a result of unforeseen circumstances. That’s all fine. Don’t throw in the towel when things don’t work out. Don’t stop pushing just because you’ve already done better than you’d expected. Make adjustments to your goals throughout the year if you need to. It’s ok to redefine success as you move ahead. That’s part of life, part of growth. If we all stuck to our original goals the world would be full of princesses, ballerinas, fire fighters, and doctors. That wouldn’t be such a bad world, but you get the idea …

I hope these tips helped! Comment below and let me know what you thought. What kind of goals are you setting for 2015? What tips or tricks have worked for you? What important piece of advice did I leave off of my list? Let me know!

Write the Book – Tips and Tricks

In my last post (Write The Book – Here’s Why) I let you all in on two very specific secrets that everyone who’s ever written a book learned along the way. The first secret was that writing a book is hard – it’s much harder than you think, and certainly harder than it looks. Even the ways in which it’s hard won’t be what you’re expecting. It is a process that uncovers your greatest insecurities and exposes your biggest weaknesses. It’s not a “fun” thing to do.

But the second secret was that all of that difficulty, all of the struggle that comes with writing your first book is absolutely and totally WORTH it. Why? Because the process of writing a book is the most effective way to turn yourself into a writer. It will teach you what you cannot be taught in any other way. It will test you and refine you. It will make you better and force you to grow. And most importantly, it will make every single thing that you ever write in your future (books included) THAT MUCH easier, stronger, and more definitively YOU.

Believe me – I’m speaking from experience here. The process of writing my first book was insanely difficult – it took me three years and probably 15 drafts to finish it. It was a miserable experience. But it left me with an indescribable sense of fulfillment when I finished. What’s more – the lessons I learned writing my first book made the second one so easy that it almost felt like I’d managed to cheat somehow!

But how do you actually get through the process of writing that first book – especially since it IS so difficult? It’s a good question, one that I’ve been asking myself for the last week or so. I wanted to be able to give my friend (remember Kelly – the one who’s just started writing her first book?) some tips that would serve as more than just generalized encouragement. I wanted to tell her something that would actually help her find success. Here’s what I came up with.

1. Find a writing buddy – You’ll need the encouragement and help of someone who’s done this before (or someone who’s willing to do it with you). Friends and family are great at being supportive, but you’ll want to be in contact with at least one person who understands the specifics of what you’re dealing with every day.

2. Create a plan – One of the best things you can do for yourself is plan what you’re going to write before you write it. The level of detail you go into will depend on the type of person/writer you are. But don’t make the mistake of going into your first writing project with only a vague sense of what you’re going to do.

3. Write every day – (or 4 days a week, or whatever works for you) The point it – you have to make it mandatory. You’ll have good writing days and bad writing days. Some days you’ll write entire chapters, and others you’ll struggle through a few sentences. That’s all fine (and it should be expected). But you have to make writing a habit, or you’ll never get through it.

4. Make yourself accountable – Again, how this happens will vary depending on who you are. Are you the type who won’t be able to sleep if you haven’t met your daily writing goal? Or do you need the pressure of external deadlines (like someone asking to see pages every week) to keep yourself on track? Figure that out – and then set up a system that works for you.

5. First write, then refine – If you’re busy freaking out over your chapter length before you’ve written your first 500 words, you’ll never get anywhere. You have to start by writing. Until you’ve written something down, there’s no way to assess its strengths and weaknesses. Don’t paralyze yourself with fears and worries before you get the words out. Just write.

6. Don’t give up – You’ll have plenty of opportunities. You’ll have days when you want to throw it all away. Don’t let those days get to you. Just keep moving forward. Eventually, you’ll reach the end of this journey, and when you do, you’ll have something to show for it all. You’ll have a book, and a wealth of experience and knowledge that you wouldn’t trade for the world. You’ll have that secret little smile that creeps on your face when someone tells you how they’ve always wanted to write a book – and you’ll have plenty of words of encouragement and sage advice to give them – because you’ll know exactly what they’re facing, and  you’ll still be able to assure them that it’s well worth the effort.

 

Finding time to write

I’ve been reading a lot (or at least it seems like a lot) recently about the synergy of creativity and routine – specifically about how people are most effective when their creative output is structured by habit. Since I’m a writer, my reading on the topic has included several recent blog posts and articles about the benefits of having a writing routine. All of the best writers (so they say) had routines. They would wake up at the crack of dawn and start writing – finishing their day’s work around noon.  They would walk every day before they wrote, or lock themselves in an office all day long with nothing but a notepad. They would wake up every night at midnight and write until the sun came up. They did the same thing every day, and their genius flourished. blah blah blah

Yeah, … I don’t know about you, but that’s SO not me. It’s not that I don’t appreciate the comfort of the routine. It certainly makes sense to me. I have always been a creature of habit, and there’s something about going through the motions of what you “always” do that helps to focus, ground, and settle the  mind. It’s just that this kind of routine-building has no connection to my reality.

You see, my reality doesn’t include the will (or the energy) to wake up super early and get instantly productive. I don’t have 5 hour blocks of time to sit at a desk and pour words onto a page. I work full time. My commute is long. And my evenings and weekends are always jam-packed with church functions, Bible studies, special events, little kids’ birthday parties, community service programs, meetings, seminars, get-togethers, dinners, and 4 hour phone calls with mom 🙂 What little time I spend at home is normally busy with the thousand little administrative tasks that I have accumulated over the years. Update a database? Sure. Send a weekly report? Why not. Write a children’s church lesson? Of course! None of these things take a lot of time, but they’re there, and they require my attention, and each one of them chips away at the little time that I have when I am both 1) home and 2) awake.

I’m not complaining – I love my life, and I wouldn’t choose to live it any other way. But it doesn’t leave me with a whole ton of free time to dedicate to a structured writing program. It certainly isn’t predictable enough for me to schedule consistent writing time. So to me the idea of blocking off a time in the day, or even a space in my apartment that is solely dedicated to writing seems a little far fetched.

So during a recent phone call my BFF/SNOO (Best-Friend-Forever/Support-Network-Of-One) was asking me about the progress of my latest manuscript. When I told her that it was almost finished she asked me a very simple question that’s been rattling around in my head ever since: “So when do you actually find the time to sit down and write?”

In the moment I was able to give her a quick and messy rundown of how I manage to get words on paper. But the question has stuck with me, because I think it’s important to know how and when I get my writing done. I decided to share it here, because I think it might be helpful for other people with crazy schedules and zero free time to see what I do to keep myself productive.  So here’s what works for me. If something here resonates with you, feel free to steal it. If not, that’s fine too – we all have our own processes. But at the very least I hope it helps you to think about your writing habits, and where you find time to get your writing done.

1. I write at night. Night-time seems, in my life anyway, to be the only time when any writing gets done. It’s the only time when I’m likely to be home, sitting in one spot, and relatively undisturbed. I don’t have a specific time set aside for writing. I’ve noticed that it normally starts not long after I walk in the door – but that can be any time between six and midnight, depending on the day. The key, for me, is to get at it while I’m still UP from my day, before my mind starts slowing down and unwinding. I’m not sure why, but I have always found writing to be a high-energy activity. It always seems to involve jumping up to grab a cup of coffee or a snack. It often means typing as quickly as possible before I lose my train of thought – and maybe even throwing both fists in the air as I read back what I just wrote and find it sounds just as good on paper as it did in my head (we’ve all done that, right? …. Hello? Wait, where did everyone go?) The point is that it takes energy – and that energy is easiest to find in the evening, after my day is done.

2. I know what I want to say. The biggest advantage of writing in the evening is that I’ve had the whole day to think about my work and where I want to take it. I don’t spend hours pondering my manuscript, but it does sit in the front of my mind as I go throughout my routine. As the day goes by I pick up little bits of inspiration, random ideas, points that I want to make, phrasing that I want to use, or new insights I’d never considered. I store them all away in my head so that when I finally sit down to write, it’s not a matter of trying to come up with something to say. It’s more like pouring out onto paper everything that’s been bottled up in my head. Somehow it always seems so much easier that way.

3. I write in short bursts. I admire people who can sit and write for an hour without checking their email. Really – I admire them. I also sort of don’t believe them. Or at least I don’t believe that I could be one of them. I don’t have the concentration or the willpower to say I’m going to write for an hour uninterrupted. What I can do it write in short, manageable clips. I timed myself once and discovered that when I’m actively writing (assuming I know what to say and how I want to say it) it takes me about 10 minutes to put together 200-250 words of prose that I actually like. That is a quick burst of productivity – and even I can manage to concentrate for 10 minutes. So instead of trying to find an hour to write, I grab the little pockets of wasted time that I can find. I’ll write uninterrupted while my pasta cooks, or I’ll sit down 15 minutes before my favorite TV show comes on. With short, specific deadlines and one eye on the clock, I can produce a lot more in a much shorter time than if I’m trying to fill an hour. Often that little burst of production is all I need to get myself into the groove, and from there it’s easy to keep going (during commercial breaks, of course).

4. I pick (and embrace) a frame of mind. I have two different approaches to my writing – and when I say different I mean they are polar opposites of each other. The first I call “Jump Around” and the second “Hunker Down.” Every day, before I write, I ask myself “What are you doing today, Paula? Are you going to jump around or hunker down? Answering this question honestly helps me get into the headspace to write in a way that’s in harmony with my frame of mind. If I’m Jumping Around, its usually because I have a dozen little nuggets of information that are dancing around in my head that need to get on paper before I lose them. It involves (as you might guess) jumping from section to section, or even from chapter to chapter. This mind frame is all about getting ideas on paper and fleshing them out, but has little concern for transitioning or even finishing each thought. This kind of writing is often fun, inspiring, and energizing. Hunker Down, on the other hand is a mentality of plowing through to get something done. It has its own motivations, its own sense of productivity, but it requires that I be in a specific mood, or it turns into a giant waste of time. I normally find myself hungry to hunker down when I’m closing in in the end of a chapter or on a day when I’m lacking any specific inspiration. That’s when I’ll sit down, read through what’s there, and add the nuts and bolts that turn what I have into a coherent argument or idea. It’s not very inspiring work, but it’s solid, it’s practical, and it gives me an incredible sense of accomplishment.

5. I “Paint by number.” In case you haven’t figured it out, allow me to state for the record that I am not a linear writer. I cannot start at the beginning, continue through the middle, and then finish at the end. To me that is the most tedious writing process imaginable. It gets boring, I lose my train of thought, I start feeling stale, and before you know it I’m stuck. No thank you! I prefer to start at the beginning and to write until I get bored, and then skip ahead until I find something that I’m inspired to stick with. Of course, this kind of writing requires a very solid outline – otherwise things can get wildly confusing and unfocused. But as long as the structure is already there, I have no problems working on multiple unconnected sections of my book at the same time, starting them where I feel like it and writing until I lose interest. I have developed a handy highlighting system to help me keep track of where I’ve left off – hence the painting by numbers (don’t be jealous … you can totally steal this. I don’t mind a bit!) Sometimes I think my work looks more like modern art than a manuscript.  But it works for me, and that’s the point.

6. I have a daily word count. There is no better way to feel productive (and actually BE productive) than to meet a minimum daily word count. I’m obsessive about my word count. I have a dedicated spreadsheet where I track it by chapter – in part because it’s an easy way to judge my progress, but mostly because I’m a giant dork. My daily minimum is small – just 1000 words, but once I start writing I can’t really stop until it’s met. So the very first thing that I do when I’m going to sit down to write is to reset my daily count so that I can track just how much I’m about to write. That spreadsheet stays open, and every time I run out of things to write I stop and update my totals to see how far I’ve come. On days when my writing is flowing, I can plow past my goal in less than an hour. That’s an awesome feeling, and when I’m in the zone I have no problems doubling or tripling up. I’ll keep writing until I feel like I’m done. But not every day is a good writing day, and there are times when every sentence is painful, and finding enough words to string together seems impossible. On days like those, I’m thankful for a low count, and I stop as soon as I reach it. But that’s ok. I feel no guilt. My goal may be small, but meeting it every time I sit down to write is the most surefire way I know to keep myself writing.

So what about you? What are your writing routines? Where and when do you find the time to get it all done? Leave a comment and tell me what you think.