Monday, September 08, 2008

Realistic Goals, or Why You Shouldn’t Swallow Things Whole

This past July, Laurie Halse Anderson challenged her blog readers to write for fifteen minutes every day. I thought this was genius. Fifteen minutes is nothing. A drop in the bucket. You can squeeze that in at lunch time. Or your kid’s nap time. Or right before bed. Or first thing in the morning.

But that’s not why I think her fifteen minute challenge is genius. It’s genius because it gets us sitting down, ready to work. And once we’re sitting, we often do MORE than fifteen minutes. Because, you know, we’re already sitting so we may as well keep going.

That got me thinking about goals in general. When I was growing up, goals were always defined as some big think you work toward. But there was never any detail between START and FINISH. No rules. No guidelines. Just, here’s the goal, now find a way to get there. As a result, I did a lot of flailing early on in my life. There were things I really wanted, like a college degree and still make writing a big part of my life, but no one was there to help me figure out how to get them. I took a lot of wrong roads, learned a lot of things the hard way, but managed to get my degree and then collapse in a heap.

At that point in my life, I was attacking goals with a full-on vengeance. Kind of like shoving an entire steak into your mouth. If I had known what I was doing, I’d have thought to actually cut the steak into chewable pieces, then slowly work my way through it. And, if I got full, I could set it aside until I was ready to come back to it. But I didn’t know I could do that back then.

I think that if I’d known more about goals, and effective ways of reaching them, I wouldn’t have been so exhausted once I’d attained this particular goal. Laurie’s method of fifteen minutes per day illustrates a more effective use of attaining goals.

A good friend of mine, Lori Howard, is also a genius goal-setter. She can take any goal and break it down into manageable chunks. She has written a five-day set of steps which will get you on the road toward obtaining any goal you want. It’s brilliant, and I highly recommend reading it.

Since I’m a planner and goal-setter by nature, all of this rang true for me. But I’m curious, what about those who aren’t natural planners or goal-setters? Do you create a path based on what pops into your head each morning? Do you just wander along the path and see what comes up? Or do you have a destination in mind? Inquiring minds want to know!


Carrie Harris said...

I'm a natural planner, but I also have three children under the age of five and a husband who works crazy hours, so my plans often go awry. Then I spend the next week or so berating myself because I didn't finish my edits, was short on word count, or didn't write 15 minutes or whatever. So now, I set flexible, more global goals. Currently, I want to get through my next two chapters in two weeks. That gives me a lot of flexibility, even if I end up sitting down at the computer on the last day and banging them all out.

Kids. Gotta love 'em. Didn't you say that your little one starts school this week? Hope it goes well! If you need Kleenex, I've got extra. :)

Angela Ackerman said...

I find I need to plan my day or end up not getting a lot of writing done. And instead fill the time with lots of little things that need to get done around the house or for school or volunteering. I tend to make lists outlining my goals for the day so, how many critiques I want to get done, how many chapters I want to edit, that sort of thing.

Unknown said...

I am horrible at goals, but need them. I've found through trial and error that a word count goal works much better than a time goal for me: a time goal makes me more relaxed, and I'll spend part of that time goofing off and on the internet. A word count goal means I have to sit there till I'm done, so, personally, I work much better with that.

Jacqui said...

I'm a project-based soul. Go go go 180% until it's done and then have to be inert for weeks at a time. The hard times come when I have too many things with which to be obsessed at once.

At times like these, I repeat Anne Lamott to myself like a mantra: "Bird by bird...bird by bird" (a brilliant book, if you haven't seen it).

PJ Hoover said...

I fall in the natural planner and goal-setter category, but my input (for what it's worth) is the best way to accomplish anything is to write it down, break it up, and begin working on the smaller steps.
Write it down!!! So many people never take the time to do this!

Tabitha said...

Carrie - I just dropped off my oldest at school...augh!! He did pretty well, considering he doesn't like change. But I think he's going to adjust fine. We were running a bit late because my youngest decided to melt down. Of course. So tomorrow we'll try to be earlier and that should help a lot.

Angela - I need to plan my day too. If I sit down with a general idea, then not much will get done. But if I sit down with a detailed agenda, I'm much more productive.

Beth - that's awesome that you found what works for you. It sucks that we have to go through that trial and error period though, doesn't it? I hate flailing around not knowing what I'm doing. :)

Jacqui - yeah, I'm that way too. I tend to pick something up and then run with it full speed ahead, then collapse in a heap when it's finished. I'm trying not to do that so much anymore, because it's getting harder and harder to recover lately. I must be getting old or something. :) These "little bites" are helping me a lot.

Tabitha said...

PJ - so glad this works for you! The tiny step thing makes things so easy, doesn't it? And I totally agree about the writing it down. It solidifies things. Makes me feel accountable or something. :)

Anonymous said...

I do both.

I need long term goals.

And I need short-term victories along the way.

However, I hate a lot of structure, and i like to create each day as it comes; that's why I freelance.

But I create them with the goals in mind.

I have zero tolerance for people who claim they have "no time to write". We all have 24 hours in the day and it's how we use them that defines us.

The question, if you're looking at writing as your career, your vocation as well as your passion, is "how badly do I want this?"

If you want it badly enough, you sit in the chair and you do it. No excuses.

Adrienne said...

I have a favorite quote by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. on my blog - "You don't have to see the whole staircase. Just take the first step." It always helps me focus.

On days when I feel too overwhelmed or short on time, I tell myself even putting in five minutes is better than nothing. Often that five minutes will turn into an hour.

Gottawrite Girl said...

Agent Linda Pratt completely reinforced this. She stressed the importance of breaking down your writer-goals into reasonable, bite-sized accomplishments... just like your example of writing 15 minutes a day, no matter what! The big-picture goals often feel too overwhelming!

Tabitha said...

Devon - I'm with you on the "no time to write" thing. If there's something you really want, you can figure a way to get it. You might have to work yourself to death, but if you want it badly enough it's doable. Even if what you're doing isn't working, you don't give up. You find another way, and keep searching until you find something that does work.

adrienne - great quote! I think I'm going to print that out and hang it in my office. :) All those tiny steps sure do add up, don't they? It's like change. If you keep collecting it in a jar, eventually you'll have $50 to spend. :) And all you did was take the two seconds to drop it in the jar.

GWG - They sure can feel daunting! That's why I love this "tiny step" approach. I wish someone had told me about it many years ago. :)

Jim Danielson said...

I need to be reminded to take little steps to meet the larger goal. Revising my entire novel was overwelming, but now that I'm back in "chapter mode" it's moving MUCH better. I do most of my work on the train commute downtown and have discovered I'm most focussed if I put only one chapter in the briefcase at a time. (I guess I'm easily distracted.)

Jim Danielson

Tabitha said...

Or, it could be over-enthusiasm. :)

I get that same way when presented with an entire novel to revise. My brain can't handle it, and it explodes. :) Breaking it down by chapter really, really helps.

For me, it's because I like to think about everything I"m revising. If I'm revising an entire novel, I'm going to think about *everything* in the novel. That's too much for my poor brain. But if I'm only revising a chapter, I'll just focus on that chapter. The tiny step thing saves my brain much hurt. :)

Marcia said...

But that’s not why I think her fifteen minute challenge is genius. It’s genius because it gets us sitting down, ready to work. And once we’re sitting, we often do MORE than fifteen minutes. Because, you know, we’re already sitting so we may as well keep going.

Exactly. What this little rule does is acknowledge that the hardest part for a lot of people is sitting down to write in the first place. Once you're there, chances that you'll do more than the minimum really rise.

I tend to use time goals, because I find that word count goals as a daily thing coax me to work at a faster pace than a certain section of the work might need. I like to organize and make lists, but I can get to feeling overwhelmed with "too much to do" if I do it exhaustively. So I do it to the point that helps me, and quit if I start to feel smothered.

Bish Denham said...

I need this sort of thing. Great stuff. Thanks for sharing.

Tabitha said...

Marcia - most definitely. Giving yourself an easy goal is the best way to get on the path toward those harder goals. LHA really illustrated that point well, didn't she? :) Lots of comments on her blog were people who did far more than the required fifteen minutes.

Bish - glad you enjoyed it!

I'm loving all the different things everyone does. It's so diverse, and so interesting. :)