To kick off the first Writing Craft Wednesday post, I think that the topic of setting goals is especially pertinent.
There is something about new beginnings where everything seems fresher and the possibilities are infinite. Just yesterday I was talking with one of my good friends whom I’ve known since kindergarten about how inspired I have been feeling lately now that it is a new calendar year, a new school semester, and a new perspective for me coming back to the United States from abroad.
One of the challenges I face regularly is having too many interests and things I plan to do and not enough time to do them all. In short, I’m a habitual over-achiever, and the reality is that I just can’t do it all. However, rather than become overwhelmed by everything I not only want to do, but also the things that I must do, I find it helpful to prioritize these activities and set goals in order to make the most of what limited time I have.
Goals, however, are one of those tricky things that can end up hurting you more than helping you if you don’t know what you’re doing.
Here is a list of goals I could possibly conceive for things I’d like to do this year:
- Work out more often
- Finish revising NaNo manuscript
- Become more involved with student activities
- Keep blog about writing
- Return to playing piano like I did before I left for France
- Try to compose more music
- Learn more about freelance writing
- Figure out what to do after graduation
- Begin learning Arabic
This is a horrible set of goals!
Why? Well, the only good thing about it is that it is written down. One of the most fundamental aspects of goals is that you must take them from out of your head and place them into reality, otherwise, they are worthless. This point is linked to the question of why we write in the first place: While there is a proper time and place for ideas to germinate in our minds, they will never grow unless they are exposed to the light of day, or, in a more dramatic analogy, until we “give birth” to them by putting them down on paper. With regards to my writing, I have found that until I finally make a decision of some kind from amongst the many branching ideas I have for my story by writing them down where I can see them, they will never congeal; they remain ethereal and nebulous, constantly shifting shape and never coming to anything more than vague wisps of thought.
So, let’s analyse why this list doesn’t work:
First of all, it is random; there is no logical order to any of these things, nothing to indicate what will demand more time than others, or which things I would value above others. It is simply a group of ideas, sitting there like a herd of cows, waiting for nothing in particular while they chew their cud and stare blankly back at you.
It would be much more helpful to consider which of these activities I’d like to accomplish more than others, and which will probably take the most time or effort.
In my case, I place a premium on continuing to revise my novel manuscript, maintaining this blog, working out regularly, and becoming involved in some student activities.
As far as playing piano goes, I do that anyway when I feel like it, but as much as I prefer not to let my abilities slip any further, it’s not my focus in life right now, so I’ll remain content to play recreationally. Similarly, while I love learning languages, with my course schedule and job as a teaching assistant, learning Arabic from square one is not likely to happen, especially since I know from personal experience how much time and energy are required to learn a foreign language. Researching freelance writing would fall under my leisure reading, and figuring out what to do after graduation will happen as a matter of course.
But there is still something missing. I can’t quite put my finger on it… oh right. Specificity.
These goals are much too vague to be of any help. What does that mean “more often?” What exactly does “keeping a blog” entail? And when do I know when I’m “finished” revising my manuscript?
Logically, “more often” implies a comparison to some previous status quo. So, as far as writing or working out goes, I need to assess how often I originally engaged in these activities in order to know whether or not I’m making any progress. Considering the fact that I’ve never been good about frequenting a gym, and my writing discipline has been spotty for the past year, there’s really nowhere to go but up from here.
Still, it’s not enough to use abstract ideas like “more” or “less.” I need to know exactly how often I want to do these things. For me, going to the gym at least three times a week is realistic, though probably not very helpful. Better to consult my schedule and actually assign particular times to go each week in order to establish a habit. Same thing with writing.
For my blog, I have decided that I will write three posts each week on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays, so as long as I can keep that commitment, I will have achieved that goal.
Finishing my revision is a nice thought, but what timeframe have I given myself? By the end of the semester? The summer? The year? Also, that may be the end target, but considering where I currently stand on that project, it’s like trying to hit the Statue of Liberty with a marshmallow launcher while I’m standing in downtown Los Angeles. I know I’m going in the general direction of New York City, but unless I know my next immediate destination, I’m going to waste a lot of time wandering back and forth instead of planning a direct route there.
So, we have established that goals are: Concrete, prioritized, specific, and measurable.
Based on these criteria, my new list might look something more like this:
- Write three blog posts per week on the topics of motivation, the writing process, and fantasy.
- Complete revision of NaNo manuscript by December 31 by reading and completing each chapter of Holly Lisle‘s How to Revise Your Novel course each week.
- Establish a workout routine by visiting the gym on Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays.
- Investigate how much time potential student activities will take.
There, that’s much better.
Next time, I will go into more detail about breaking these larger goals down into more manageable waypoint steps. For an even more comprehensive guide about setting good goals, read Holly Lisle’s article “How to Get There from Here: The Magic of Goals.”
What goals have you set for this year?