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The Allure of the Fresh Start
I love the idea of a fresh start, don’t you?
It doesn’t matter when it happens (New Year, the first day of spring, the start of a new academic year), I’m always ready with my list of “this time it’ll be different” resolutions.
- This time I’ll get my assignments done ahead of time!
- This time I’ll write every day, even if I don’t feel inspired!
- This time I’ll floss three times a day!
And What Happens Next?
You know what I’m going to say, don’t you?
I’m excited to follow through on my plans for about three days.
Then I start to force myself to stick to the new regime.
Then I start to miss a day here or there…
…and suddenly it’s June and I’m flipping through my journal and I find that massive, guilt-inducing list of Things I’m Going To Do Differently This Year, and my shoulders slump, and I spend the next three weeks in a slump, wondering why I can’t get anything done.
Why Resolutions Don’t Work
We’re not crazy.
The quest to improve is built-in to human nature. It’s laudable. We’re not stupid for trying to change.
We might, however, be a little bit crazy for blindly trying the same thing every year.
Your Mileage May Vary
Have any of these worked for you in the past?
- Resolving to write a certain number of words every day
- Resolving to write on a certain number of days
- Logging your word count
- Setting deadlines
- Working with an accountability partner
Sometimes some of these have worked well for me, but at other times they’ve failed spectacularly. And I could never figure out why.
Deadlines without accountability, for example. Doesn’t work for me because I’m an Obliger (see Gretchen Rubin’s personality quiz for insights into what kind of motivation works for you).
- I need to know that someone is waiting for my words, before I can force myself to do them (most of the time).
- You might hate the idea that someone is waiting to read your pages, and be much more motivated by the idea that they are your little secret, and that no-one is going to see them until you’re completely satisfied with them.
The trick to succeeding is to assess what you’ve tried in the past and, if it hasn’t worked, do something else. But also to ask why it didn’t work. (We’re going to work on that in a later section!)
Remember, just because That Writer You Admire writes first thing every the morning, doesn’t mean you have to. And just because it worked for a particular project at a particular time in your life, doesn’t mean it’s always going to work.
Tasks, Not Goals
The other big problem with the examples I gave, above, is that everything I listed there was a task (e.g. ‘write 1000 words a day’).
Or, in the words of our childhoods: a chore.
I don’t know about you, but (Obliger status aside) I have a strong rebellious streak running through me. I don’t like being told what to do. Even by myself.
That might not be your problem. But even if you thrive on checkboxes and crossing-things-off-your-list, it’s hard to go in the right direction when your eyes are focused on the few feet of road in front of you.
Tasks are focused on the short-term. and are the opposite of inspiring.
So What Does Work, And Why?
Think about the times you’ve been most productive or happy-busy in life; or the times you’ve had the most energy or accomplished more than you thought you could.
- You ran all the way home from your friend’s house and arrived right before the street lights turned on, in spite of the fact that your gym teacher couldn’t get you to run one quarter of a lap of the track.
- You somehow managed to get to 50,000 words, or 31 stories during NaNoWriMo or StoryADay May, even though life didn’t stop in those months.
- You had a thousand things to do when you were organizing your wedding, but you did them, while holding down a day job.How did you manage these things, and yet you can’t manage something as ‘simple’ as “writing every day”?
You succeeded because challenge had a powerful emotion associated with it:
- You ran home because you were afraid: of your parents, of the dark, of being grounded, of disappointing your mother…You were afraid of something.
- You finished the writing challenge because, as the end of the month drew near, you grew more and more excited. You were going to be part of something, and you were so close, it was exciting!
- You did All The Things for your wedding not because you had a deadline, but because you were so in love, or because you were excited about the big day or because you were afraid of looking stupid in front of your guests.
It wasn’t the deadline that motivated you. It was the emotion behind it.
How Can Emotions Help You Set – And Reach – Your Goals?
Your goals must be concrete and specific to you. There’s no better way to make something specific than to make sure it resonates with you emotionally. It’s true of your characters’ inner journey in fiction, and it’s true of your journey in your writing life.
And I have a worksheet to help you come up with goals that are meaningful to you. (Right click to save it somewhere. Print one for each goal, and go to town, scribbling all over the sheet until you are satisfied.)
How To P.A.C.E. Yourself & Succeed All Year Long
There is no point in setting goals if you’re not going to follow through on them.
So I’ve come up with a handy acronym to help you pace yourself and keep your goals in mind all year: P.A.C.E. Goals.
PERSONAL: Your goals must really matter to you. Does publishing a book matter to you, or is it just what everyone expects of ‘a writer’? What might matter more to you?
Maybe you’d be more fulfilled volunteering for a prison writing program, or going on a writing retreat, or simply ‘finishing that project I’ve always wanted to write’. Maybe this year’s goal isn’t ‘get a publishing contract’ at all.
Set your goals based on what matters most to you, not some external idea of success. It’s hard to get excited about someone else’s vision.
ACHIEVABLE: Even if your goal IS to get a publishing contract from one of the big publishers, it might not be a useful goal for this year if you haven’t finished your mansucript yet, or if you haven’t researched how the publishing industry works, or if you don’t know anything about agents, or if you are having a baby this year…
There’s nothing wrong with having long-term goals, but you might need to break them down into a series of other goals (not tasks) that you can achieve in a reasonable amount of time, and over which you have control.
“Write a kick-ass manuscript so that publishers will fight over it” is a better goal than “Sell my book to a publisher and become a best-seller”.
CHALLENGING: “Achievable” is good, but nobody gets excited over a goal they KNOW they can achieve. Push yourself a little bit. You know you could finish a short story in six months, but would that spur you to get to your desk every day? How about trying to write a draft of a short story every day for a month?
Think about setting a goal that is a little outside your comfort zone.
EMOTIONAL: This is the key that will make all the difference. Your goal must elicit some strong emotion in you.
Write down why you want to achieve or pursue the goal. How will it feel? How will you feel as you pursue it? How will you feel when you achieve it?
Excitement, pride, accomplishment, love (you simply love these characters and must tell their story), these are all positive emotions that can help you remember why you’re pursuing your goal.
Fear is another motivator. It’s not always the best, but there’s something to be said for the motivation of fear (for example, knowing I’m going to die at some point, is a powerful reminder to pursue my writing goals, on certain days. I don’t want my last moments to be ones where I’m regretting not writing my stories!)
Write down the emotion associated with your goal.
For each goal you set yourself next year, go through this Individual Goal Worksheet and fill out each section, keeping in mind the P.A.C.E. principals.
Pick A Motto For The Year
It can be helpful to pick a motto or theme for your goals this year. It’s a short-hand, a tagline, for your aims.
Last year I was being pulled off course in a number of areas of my life, so I chose “Be More ‘Me’!” as my motto. I made brief notes on how I could do that in my personal life, and in my writing life, and kept referring to it all year long. I think it worked out pretty well. Next year is, I think, going to be “Keep Going!” or maybe “Don’t Give Up!”
If you spend some time and work on distilling your hopes for the coming year into a pithy phrase, it can really help point you in the right direction any time you’re losing focus. Glance at your motto instead of reading through all your Individual Goal Worksheets again.
Keep Checking In
So I have one last tool to help you out. The Annual Goals Tracking Worksheet.
It contains two pages:
- An overview of this year’s motto/theme, each of your top goals, and has some space for notes
- A sheet where you can collect your achievements – use this throughout the year, to note down things that went well, things that made you feel happy/proud/surprised. They don’t have to be big things (some of mine included: making a connection with a key influencer while at a conference. It hasn’t had the result I though I wanted, yet, but it was a definite ‘yay!’, and some good things have already come out of it.)
Keep It Visible
I strongly advise printing out this form, filling it in, and then taping the first page somewhere you can see it.
(This could mean taping it to your monitor or pasting it into the front page of the notebook you use as a journal. This is especially useful for the “Yay” page!)
Set A Reminder
Whatever you do with it, there is on more step that is essential to your success:
Set up a reminder system, and review the goal sheet every month.
(I recommend setting a monthly reminder in your digital calendar, Evernote or writing it in your Fil-o-fax, if you’re a refugee from the 1980s.)
It takes about a minute to review your goal sheet, but this step is a powerful way to reinvigorate yourself—because they are P.A.C.E. goals, not tasks.
The Power of PACE Goals
Because they are goals, associated with (hopefully positive) emotions, reviewing them does not induce guilt.
Imagine, instead, looking at a task list and seeing all the things you’ve failed to do. That, I think you’ll agree, is profoundly depressing and demotivating.
Instead, reviewing a list of “things you’re excited to achieve” is a positive kick-in-the-pants.
“Oh yeah,” you say. “I didn’t just want to write six stories this year. I wanted to do it because I was excited about self-publishing a short story collection and trying out all those Kindle marketing strategies I’ve read about. I wanted to find out if I could take charge of my own career instead of waiting to be discovered. But I need to write the stories first. I’d better get on that!”
That sounds a lot better than, “Oh crap, I was supposed to have written two new stories by now and I haven’t done it. Why am I such a loser?”, don’t you think?
What To Do
You don’t want to spend another year wondering why you aren’t reaching your writing goals. You don’t want to spend another year feeling like a failure. Nothing saps creativity so fast, and ain’t nobody got time for that!
You’re not a failure. You were just approaching goal-setting in a way that didn’t work well for you.
Try some of the techniques in this article today, or schedule a couple of hours in your calendar when you can sit and work on them. (No more than a couple of hours. The law of diminishing returns kicks in after that much self-examination!)
- Use the Annual Review Worksheet to figure out what worked well last year and what you can improve upon.
- Use the Individual Goals Worksheet to drill down into each goal and find its personal and emotional core.
- Use the Goal Tracking Worksheet to list your top few goals for the year. Paste it somewhere you’ll be able to find it, and set a reminder to review it every month, to keep your goals in the forefront of you task planning.
- Use the “Yay” Tracking sheet (page 2 of the Goal Tracking Worksheet) to record anything that goes well. This will help with motivation during the year and will also be hugely helpful with the ‘review’ section of this process when you repeat it in future.
Targeted Task Lists
With all these pieces in place, you can now create meaningful tasks lists for each day, week and month, that keep you moving towards your priorities – no one else’s!
The Future’s So Bright I Gotta Wear Shades
I put a lot of these processes in place last year, somewhat skeptically. (I’m used to having good intentions and not living up to them.)
This year I have a page of achievements from the past year that include: sending out a book proposal and getting to talk to editors and publishers about it; finishing a first draft of a novel I’m really proud of; writing an article for Writer’s Digest Magazine; increasing sign-ups to StoryADay; giving talks at writers’ groups…all thing that were related to the goals I set myself.
You can do this, too.
This time next year, you could be staring at a list of achievements that are directly related to the goals that matter to you, personally, emotionally.
Download the materials now, and let me know in the comments what’s your biggest, most audacious, most exciting, most beloved goal for next year.