Letting Go or Giving Up? Are Writing Goals Dangerous?

One of the books I’ve read recently is The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking by Oliver Burkeman. It’s not about writing at all, but it gave me some ideas about setting and keeping writing goals — the thing that I often struggle with.

The problem with the goal-obsessed mindset

The Antidote

Looking at the title, you might think that the book is of a philosophical or psychological kind. Like dealing rather with mood and mindset and, of course, positive thinking (though in a negative way). And that’s partially true: it begins by discussing how the mostly American mantra ‘Think positive!‘ really harms the people who try to follow it, making themselves to feel a certain way. I will not go into details why this happens, because this post is not actually about mood and mindset and not even positive thinking—so if you want to know, you’ll have to read The Antidote yourself.

But the book also has a chapter on goals, and it provides a rather unconventional view on them. Namely, that over-fixation on them can be harmful too.

The first problem with goals

The most obvious reason, proven by psychological experiments, is that obsession with goal-setting makes people cheat. We all love to hit marks, we simply do. And we don’t like failures, duh. So, if we have a goal and are very close to it but not quite there, we are likely to cheat just a bit. Not much—people, in general, are decently honest—but just enough to hit the mark. I can feel it in my writing when I’m tempted to add an adjective or adverb here and there, the ones I wouldn’t otherwise use. And I bet many a story written during NaNoWriMo could be easily trimmed off one or two thousand words. (But no more. Again, most people don’t cheat too much).

Goals as an anxiety treatment—

Another, less obvious reason goals might not be our friends is that the more we invest into a goal, the harder it becomes to give up on it even if we realize the goal is bad, wrong, or unrealistic. I think the choice-supportive bias plays a part here, but The Antidote argues that it might have more to do with our hate for uncertainty. Setting a goal gives us a feeling that we know for sure what will happen in the future, so we can stop worrying. Of course, that’s an illusion.

Giving up stops being an option, because it means falling into uncertainty we hate so much, so we keep convincing ourselves that we must see it through. This mindset, paired with the mandate of positive, rose-colored thinking, makes us stick to bad decisions we had made instead of giving up, absorb the losses, and change the direction. Hopefully, with the consolation that any experience is a learning opportunity and we can do better from now on.

—and a recipe for it

Back to obvious stuff: we fail. Without exception, in something big or in very small, sooner or later, but it will inevitably happen. This is the reality of life, no matter what all those positive-thinking gurus are trying to tell us. And the tighter our grip on a goal, the harder the failure hits. Often it makes us think we are failures, because, having invested too much into a goal, we make it a part of our identity. Nothing good comes from that, and being flexible about goals and more relaxed about failures helps to fight anxiety and stress.

So, how should we treat goals?

Of course, the solution is not to have no goals at all—just not to be obsessed with them. Instead of dogged persistence, a more relaxed and flexible mindset might save us the time we’d waste on the goals we know are bad for us. And if we call it letting go instead of giving up, we might even stay within the bounds of positive thinking.

The book also goes into embracing uncertainty and insecurity in order to improve our lives, mostly Buddhist- or Stoic-style. This is a very good advice, and I highly recommend the book. But what does it have to do with my writing? Here it comes.

The things I’m giving up (or letting go)

I’m going to abandon the translation of Voyage Dream Inc. It’s time to admit it just doesn’t work. I still believe I can re-write an interesting idea from one language to another as I did with The Snake. But the thing is that this particular short story was translated, and not by me—and translated very badly. To be honest, the translator didn’t seem to get the meaning of the text half of the time. This made the editing a real pain in the buttocks and increased my proclivity for procrastination exceedingly. It got me stuck.

So, I’m letting go of the story. I’m not giving up completely, and if I ever run out of ideas, I might write this story anew in English. But I won’t translate/edit the existing draft.

The writing goals I’m keeping

I’m still putting 500 w/day on weekdays into my writing calendar. I know it’s a reasonable goal that I can reach without cheating, and it is not too small to feel stuck. But with NaNoWriMo approaching, I might need to finish outlining first so that I can write without distraction. If that’s the case, I will exercise flexibility mindset and adjust the goal accordingly. Amen.

The larger picture

But, one might ask, if setting goals is not as good as we used to believe, shouldn’t I also abandon NaNoWriMo? After all, the whole point of the November Writing is to hit a very specific word count?

True. That’s why I don’t think I will aim for 50000, though the reason is mainly that I don’t feel well right now. Maybe I will get better by the beginning of November, but I’m not making plans (flexibility and embracing uncertainty, remember?). Instead, I will focus on the habit of writing every day, and writing diligently: not meager 200 words just to jot something, but allocating time, making writing a priority, and so on. I hope to keep no less than 500 w/day, but I will not sweat if I end up with less.

The other reason is that my project is not in the ‘write the first crappy draft while figuring out where it all goes’ stage. It’s in the ‘shaping into the final form’ stage, which means that I will have not only periods of writings, but also of stopping, stepping aside, and taking a deep look into the plot. NaNoWriMo has its merits, undoubtedly so (and I don’t regret being a NaNoWriMo winner three years in a row), but unless one starts a new novel each November, there is also a merit in skipping and doing other tasks—be it plotting or editing.

The last but not least is that NaNoWriMo’s pace is not naturally mine. I know that there are very productive writers who can do it every day and even more, but I’m not one of them. Either I’m too lazy or have less energy or imagination, but NaNo is a stretch for me. In the end, I’m ending up practically quitting writing in the next months after that sprint. So, on average, it’s probably wiser to keep a lower, but steadier pace all throughout the year.

This is my totally open-ended goal for November and later on.

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