Goals, Plans, and Obstacles

I did it! NaNoWriMo successfully failed

I know, it’s more than two months late for the results of a NaNoWriMo but better late than never, isn’t it? Interestingly, the main reason I didn’t write about this earlier has nothing to do with writing and writing goals per se: it’s just that out of the blue I decided to learn a more ergonomic keyboard layout (Dvorak). Only after I started, I began to appreciate how fast I typed in QWERTY. I don’t know the precise WPM, but I was able to type as I composed sentences in my head without much delay. Now I type so slowly that after a couple of paragraphs of my WIP I have to take a break or I’ll go crazy in frustration, and the idea of writing more would give me a headache. No blog, therefore. Time will snow if this switch is a success or failure, but closer to the topic: what’s this all about failing NaNoWriMo successfully?

As I wrote in the middle of November, I planned to fail NaNoWriMo, and let me announce, “Mission accomplished!” One might ask, though: If I really wanted NOT to write 50 000 words in a month, why am I calling it a failure? Shouldn’t I simply say that I decided not to do it? Shouldn’t I use my own writing goals and be with it instead of sticking to NaNoWriMo and then making myself fail? Or just ditched goals altogether and wrote as much or as little as I wanted?

The reason is psychological and has to do with my attitudes to goals. Since NaNoWriMo is a very goal-oriented and goal-specific, I used it as an exercise and as an example.

Goals, plans, and obstacles

Let’s start at the beginning

Goals for writers

I’m a writer. Writers write. That’s the maxim you’ll be bombarded constantly from all direction if you venture to read anything about writing.

You will also be assured that you absolutely must write every single day without exception, even if only a handful of words. You will be surprised, though, how different ‘a handful’ can be for different people. For example, Stephen King, God bless his kind soul, concedes that a beginner might start with only a thousand words a day six days a week, but only for a start. Don’t you dare to skip a day after you hatch into a professional writer, if you ever will, that is.

Also, goals, a.e. daily word count. There are many a thick tome (and a multitude of overblown blog posts turned into self-published books) that will tell us how to set, reach, and maintain goals. No one seems to question the underlying assumption that having a goal is always good and when we don’t get the result we hoped for it’s because we failed our goals, not that our goals failed us.

Until someone does, at last, that is to challenge this assumption. As I wrote in the post about giving up, setting goals is a double-edged sword.

Pros and Cons of Goals

On one hand, a proper goal can be extremely useful: it can motivate, it adds accountability, and it lets us push our limits.

On the other, rigid goals have some drawbacks:

  • The need for a strict goal means fear of uncertainty. Having a concrete goal makes us feel like we know what will happen in the future, filling us with confidence. Which is, of course, an illusion because–
  • –life happens, which means that we’ll inevitably fail at some point, in something. With rigid goals, it means FAILURE. With aspiring writers not being the most confident lot, missing a daily word count can bring all kind of doubts, up to conviction that one should quit the whole idea of writing altogether. Or–
  • –we might start to fight those doubts by setting more and more goals, trying to capture the feeling of security, and by forcing ourselves to stick to goals that are not suited for us for some reason, now or in general. But since life is uncertain by its very nature…

In other words, obsession with goals can really hurt. Which happened to me in November.

What went wrong with NaNoWriMo?

In short, this:

  • Half of the month I followed the schedule just fine, writing about 1700 words a day.
  • But with each day my waking hours moved into stranger and stranger territory until I completely flipped day and night.
  • It couldn’t be good for my health, especially in winter, when days are short anyway and daylight is sparse.
  • As a result, I switched day and night completely and began to feel crappy all the time.
  • While I could continue, and might even have won, I decided to quit.

In other words, blind pursuit of that very rigid goal keeps harming me two months later, even though I dropped it half-way. Of course, NaNoWriMo couldn’t be the only reason because I managed to do it normally three years in a row, but it was the main reason and it made me rethink goal setting for my writing.

Write or Not To Write

So, what’s the solution? No goals at all? Of course not. You will hardly go anywhere if you wander aimlessly. And there are real benefits to writing every day. It creates a nice habit, a building block of your work ethic. As Dave Fox, a travel writer, succinctly said, “Writing that is at rest tends to stay at rest, and writing that is in motion tends to stay in motion.” (You might want to check his Udemy courses on productivity.) In other words, if you write today, and wrote yesterday and day before, chances are you will be writing tomorrow.

The trick is to see those goals more as guiding poles, not shackles you put on yourself in misguided attempt to drag yourself to success.

So, what are my goals, if any, for the next year?

2019 New Year Resolution

  • I will set a writing goal for the month will track how much I write every day. But it will be more of an indicator of how my life goes overall rather than a firm world count I’m aiming at. If I fall below 300 w/day there must be something needing a fix: maybe my schedule, or my health, or something else.
  • I will mark my work on non-writing projects as legitimate work, not slaking from writing.
  • I will prioritize health. Right now my real goal is to return to my normal schedule, meaning to wake up in the morning instead of the late afternoon, missing the bright part of the day.

That’s my take on writing goals so far. Let’s see how it goes.

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