Promises, Promises

“In order to dare we must know; in order to will, we must dare; we must will to possess empire and to reign we must be silent.”
-Eliphas Levi, Transcendental Magic

Photo by discoodoni on Flickr.

I used to be a big old planner and maker of promises. Now by “plan” Of course, I don’t actually mean plan, I mean talk about planning. You know, the kind of plan where you tell all your friends about this big project you’re going to start, maybe even set a vague date (“maybe next week” or the always-hilarious “as soon as I have time”), and then no one ever hears about it again? Maybe you give it a fancy name. Yeah, I’ve done that. It often starts with “Operation” and ends with something badass-sounding. No deadline, outline, or coherent goals, but man check out that awesome name it has.

That kind of plan.

I’m now convinced that this sort of thing is the fast track to Shamesville.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m sure this works for someone. But it’s certainly not me. The conceit behind this idea seems to be that public accountability among your friends and family will somehow act as surrogate for actual motivation.

And here’s why that doesn’t work.

Scenario A: Your friends are quality people who love you and don’t want to see you hurt. Therefore, when you declare Operation: Supermotivated September and then proceed to watch the entire run of M.A.S.H. in your underwear, they’re not going to call you on it. Chances are, you’re miserable enough already. And because your friends aren’t interested in kicking you while you’re down, they keep silent. And so everyone forgets Supermotivated September ever happened, until Damn-the-Torpedoes December when the whole farrago starts over again, and you feel like everyone has just a little less faith in you before, whether they do or not. Your faith in yourself is probably eroding nicely by this time, though.

Scenario B: Lacking your own internal motivation, you try to foist it off on those around you, hoping somehow that they’ll jump-start your motivational engines by badgering you. Now your friends are irritated at being handed this unwanted responsibility, and you’re irritated because of the badgering, and mysteriously you feel no more motivated than before. The subject gets dropped quickly so the hurt feelings will go away. Everyone loses.

Scenario C: You make a public declaration of goal-setting, and everyone’s behind you. You get some words of encouragement, and they really help — until the darkness comes and the wolves howl. Then you trip up, miss a couple of steps, but you don’t want to disappoint anyone. So you hunker down, hoping no one will notice. Then, because you feel shitty about that, your goals just sort of fall apart. A month or a year later, someone asks, “hey, how’s that project going?” But now the last thing you want is anyone bringing it up and exposing your shame, even though you’re the one who brought it up in the first place.

I’ve done all these. None of them have ever worked. Ever. That’s why I think the whole notion of “public accountability” in goal-setting is kinda bullshit. It’s not that I don’t care what people think — quite the opposite — it’s that disappointing others isn’t actually a sufficient deterrent against slackassery.

A close friend of mine once told me that when he starts some big new project, he doesn’t so much as mumble it into a hole in the ground. He keeps his mouth shut until he’s already started and has a reasonable chance of finishing. As a breaker of promises and a hoarder of shattered dreams, I liked this idea so much that I’ve done my best to adopt it ever since.

Just to be clear, the whole declaration-of-intent thing is not the same as getting support from your friends or your peers once you’ve started. I don’t mean that you should start your next big novel and then not say word one about it till it’s hit the shelves. That’s crazy, not to mention crappy marketing. But you have to do something first.

For me, the motivation always comes from starting, not saying I’m going to start. The evidence is right there in the neglected online to-do lists and journal entries full of new year’s resolutions I dutifully repeated every year and only thought about again when I looked back on them with regret.

Screw that.

But that’s my story. If you have a different one, I’d love to hear yours. Does declaring your intentions to write that novel / edit that story / submit that screenplay / whatever actually motivate you? Has it ever really paid off? Tell me about it in the comments. Thanks!

8 Replies to “Promises, Promises”

  1. Those scenarios apply to so many aspects of life! Operation: I’m going to exercise more! Operation: I’m going to eat better! Operation: I’m going to clean my storage room!

    And you’re exactly right. Making the declaration seems like a grand idea at the time, but doesn’t often pan out. The only times it’s worked for me was when it was a one time event that I was committing to like, Operation: Tandem Skydive and Operation: Beer Run. Oddly, both of those produced longer lasting results.


  2. I find it really depends on how committed I am in the first place and/or whether others are competing. For instance NaNoWriMo was AWESOME for me. I declared my intent I had others to compete against and I was on a real deadline. Worked perfect, even finished early.

    On the other hand, I have vaguely committed to finishing my other WIP and haven’t touched it since October. I publicly declared that and now the people that used to ask me about it all the time, no longer ask and I’m pretty sure they think I’ll never finish it. Sometimes I think that too.

    I once read a book that stated before we make any promises we need to think about what we are promising and be willing to follow through NO MATTER WHAT. The whole idea is to stop making those promises we have no desire or intention to fulfil.

    Something to think about.

    1. “before we make any promises we need to think about what we are promising and be willing to follow through NO MATTER WHAT. The whole idea is to stop making those promises we have no desire or intention to fulfill.”

      Wow, I could not agree more. Do you remember what book that was?

      Nanowrimo is kind of an odd animal, because while you are publicly declaring a promise, you’re (metaphorically) surrounded by people who are making that same promise. That works for some people and keeps them going. Others, not so much.

      Thanks for the comment, Angie!

    2. What Angie said is pretty much exactly how I feel about this.

      I don’t think this sort of approach will do any good for something you don’t truly desire to do.

      That said, I’ve found that writing up my goals and then writing up my results each month has been a good way for me to keep track of how I’m doing, whether my goals are realistic, etc.

      Now, I could do that privately, of course. But I suspect I might be a bit more inclined to make excuses for myself if this was all just a conversation between me, myself and I. It would also be easier to just sweep all my plans under a rug then.

      And the “Good for you!” comments do feel nice when I’ve had a good month as do the “But you still got some good stuff” accomplished comments when I’ve had a less good month.

      Ultimately, I’m not really expecting anyone to call me out if I don’t follow-through, but — for me at least — having the public conversation about my goals and my results does seem to have helped.

  3. I do find public motivation useful–and I also do find declaration of projects to be useful too. But I operate on a different mental operating system. When I talk projects, I am usually using it as a litmus test. Are others interested? Intrigued? Flabbergasted? Confused? What can I say about a project that will make it seem more viable? What details can I start to extract? Is it worth my time to spend a year or two doing this?

    Talking it out with a few different people usually gives the perspective I need. So I announce, brainstorm, pick at ideas, yadda yadda… and many of these projects get abandoned by the wayside. But some stick. And all of the messy discomfort and tossed-aside projects are worth it to whittle down to the projects that stick with me.

    Most of this is predicated on the fact that I don’t attach shame to projects I’ve abandoned. Maybe a bit of anger or wistfulness if the project dissolved on unhappy terms. But it never stops me from latching onto a new project idea.

    Totally different story for my goals, though. If I’m starting to commit myself to a new goal set, I’ll always try the new goal on for size, track it on a list, figure if it works before declaring it anywhere. My friends/family/blog audience doesn’t need to know all of my moves ahead of time. I like telling people after-the-fact.

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