Goals, Deadlines and Dead Men

On Wednesday, I ran into the problem that plagues all public writing events: the dreaded realization that I’d bitten off more than I could choke down my already-packed writing schedule. And its sister realization: I will need to scale back my goals. By admitting it publicly. I could imagine the cheers and boos at my next check-in.

I am, of course, speaking of ROW80, A Round of Words in 80 Days.

Dan and I decided to explore new writing communities at the beginning of October. I thought that an alternative to NaNoWriMo might help me jump start my writing (because, frankly, November can fuck itself. Dan has made the case that writing can be equally difficult throughout the year, but November offers its host of unique challenges to someone who has been a professional / grad student for seven of the past ten years.) I discovered ROW80 through Chuck Wendig’s Twenty-Five Things You Should Know About NaNoWriMo list. The novelty of its name drew me in. The length of the challenge (80 days) and the flexibility of its goals (completely up to the individual participant) were right for my needs.

I decided to give it a shot, fired up WordPress, and resurrected my long-dead blog.

Two weeks into the event and there are extra poems plumping up my journal pages. However, for two weeks’ worth of check-ins, I have come up short to my weekly goals. Really short. The pressure is building to reevaluate my goals and possibly change them. Because ROW80 isn’t a four week event, even blowing weekly goals for the first two weeks could result in finishing the event with my original goals well in the bag. So why bother scaling back only two weeks in? The deadline itself is so far away (December 22nd!). Isn’t that giving up?

Goals vs. Deadlines

As I wrote in Why Do You Write, Part Two, writing to deadlines can be one of the best motivation tools for a writer. You have a date that is a cut-off point for your creative exertions. The deadline gains its power by being an immutable event. Passing the deadline with work unfinished is to be marked. You are a dead man if you aren’t finished.

To combat the procrastination that arrives bundled with your deadline, the weekly (or daily) goal the tool that guides your writing output. By its nature, the goal is not as dire as the deadline. It is the template that we use to chart our uncertain progress. Goals are meant to encourage and challenge us; to escort us as smoothly as possible to the completion of any ambitious undertaking.

For those of us who write in more than a single-month sprint (where a come-from-behind win can leave you flush with success), the repeated flouting of goals can lead to a pattern of negative reactions to our work. When week after week passes with goals unmet or ignored, something has to change–the goal itself, or the writer’s attitude towards it.

It boils down to the question, would I rather feel good about surpassing an easy goal or feel kind of shitty about not living up to a strenuous goal? Which of these feelings actually motivates me?

The answer to the question is (like all things worth doing) complicated by the particulars of the event and of my attitudes towards goals.

The Event Itself

ROW80 is a writing contest that takes place over the course of 80 days. There are somewhere between 80 to 120 participants checking in each week. It’s a small circle that allows you to get to know several other bloggers well. It’s highly advised that you also have a ROW80 Buddy, who will be down in the trenches with you, checking on  your progress, supporting, cheering, and mocking along the way.

The goals are flexible. The hook for ROW80 is that people with busy schedules need to have realistic goals. You tailor the writing to a sprint or a leisurely stroll, state your goals publicly, link to them using the ROW80 Blog Hop and then check-in once or twice a week on Sundays and Wednesdays to announce to the group how you are progressing.

Some shoot to write every day, some set modest weekly word counts, others for specific number of minutes spent writing per day. Most participants have concurrent goals that are only tangentially related to writing (e.g. to read/comment on fellow participants’ blogs)–and some goals that have nothing to do with it, except perhaps to make a positive life change.

I respond to word counts, so I decided to set a word count goal. Because I write poetry, 50,000 words is unthinkable. I chose a word-count goal for ROW80–5,000 words or 100 poems in 80 days. My secondary goals were to write a blog posts twice a week, and to do something creative each week day.

What’s happening goal-wise?

To meet the goal of 100 poems in 80 days, I have to write at least 10 poems a week to hit the final goal by December 22nd. This is an incredibly ambitious goal, as I wrote one poem in seven days for week one, and eight poems in seven days for week two. The 5,000 word goal also seems to be a pipe-dream; many of my poems do not break thirty words. Writing posts has proven to be much simpler. I write a guest post for the Surly Muse each week, and a single check-in post for the Dusty Journal on Wednesdays. Doing something creative every week day has been off-and-on. Some days I have been entirely swamped by the mundane emergencies that motivate the working world. This goal is more of an intention than something measurable, and I don’t plan to drop the intention to do something creative each day (even if it doesn’t happen).

How do you evaluate Goals?

At the two-week check-in, ROW80 asked us to evaluate our goals according to the SMART rubric. Are your goals Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Realistic, Timely?

Specific: Hone in on what you want your goal to be. “Writing every day” is not very specific if you have a particular project to work on. “Writing a blog post every day” or “working on my novel every day” are far more preferred as goals. They offer you less room to wiggle out of your goals (“I wrote a grocery list today! That’s writing, right?”)

Measurable: Something quantifiable. I think quantifiable goals are good when you have a specific project to work on. However, non-quantifiable/non-specific goals such as “doing something creative every day” makes room for non-quantifiable tinkering, daydreaming, journaling, drawing, and other creativity that I like to infuse my life. The thing is, don’t go crazy with specific/measurable goals or you lose out on the creative sparks that often start your projects that do require specific/measurable goals.

Attainable: Can you reach your goal, in the most perfect of circumstances?

Realistic: Can you reach your goal, given your schedule demands or your inability to take advantage of every free second (which would be all of us)?

Timely: Can you make these goals happen in a timely fashion? Can you meet your goals every week, every few days, or every day? What is the block of time that you need to schedule around?

According to this rubric, my goals are specific & measurable, and in some universe attainable (I have written 100 poems in 80 days–10 years ago) but not realistic according to my recent output.

If I have set a non-realistic goal for myself, what should I do?

I can either spend the next eight weeks watching myself miss goals or spend the next eight weeks meeting reduced goals. While the reasonable thing to do would seem to be jump on the “change your goals” bandwagon, there are some things that I need to consider before moving the goalpost.

Since I have participated in large-scale writing projects before, I know how I have reacted to meeting/missing goals in the past. If you haven’t noted your behavior in similar situations, trying to achieve unrealistic goals might help you discover how you react to both big and small goals. Instead, you could just imagine how you might react in such situations. It is helpful to write out possibilities.

These are the possibilities that I see happening:

Three Possible Reactions to Missing Unrealistic Goals

1. Because I miss my goals every week, I begin to tell myself that it is “okay” to miss goals. I no longer try to achieve this goal. My writing becomes unfocused and unambitious. I end the event with far fewer poems than if I had just written poems at my normal rate (which is about 1 -2 per two weeks).

2. Because I miss my goals every week, I try to make up lost ground later in the competition. This interferes with other creative goals. I sacrifice time to other projects. I am somewhat happy to meet my ROW80 goals, but I have put aside equally-important creative endeavors to achieve this success. To add insult to injury, I have forced myself to write more than I am reasonably inspired to write. I write a lot of junk poems to finish the competition.

3. I make time out of my free time / relaxation time to write more poems. I strive to achieve my weekly goals each week, even though I am behind. I write more poems than I would have otherwise; my desire to “make up” for missed goals gives me a large number of poems at the end of the Round than if I hadn’t joined the competition. Most of them are not junk.

Two Reactions to Meeting Reduced Goals

4. Because I meet my goals every week, I do not try to write more poems once I have hit my quota. I am satisfied to write at a reduced rate. I finish the event with more poems than if I hadn’t participated, but I have also missed out on a chance to push my writing outside of my comfort zone.

5. Because I meet my goals every week, I am not unhappy week after week as I watch myself falling further behind my (completely arbitrary) initial goals. I finish the event with more poems than if I hadn’t participated. I feel energized by my successful participation in ROW80. Because I am writing to a realistic level, I do not have to sort through a disheartening large number of junk poems.

What do I see happening?

As a writer (and as a person), I am motivated by feeling that I need to catch up to a goal that has been set in front of me. Seemingly insurmountable goals makes my surly muse sit up and take heed. If a goal is demonstrably flexible (that is, if I change a goal mid-stream), I become less invested in it. Once I know that a goal can be bent, my mind will find ways of bending it again. I will make excuses and not achieve more than what is in front of me.

Therefore, I see option (3) being the most likely outcome of having unrealistic goals, and option (4) being the most likely outcome of realistic goals.

Based on my overall goal (to publish another book of poetry at the beginning of 2012), I want to have as many good poems as possible by the end of ROW80. To make that book a reality, I feel it is important to push outside of my comfort zone.

It has been several years since I have tried to write at my full potential; so much of my energy has been going towards professional/grad school (especially in the past two years), I no longer have a good idea of what my maximum capability is for writing. It would be in my best interest to try to achieve unrealistic goals than to settle for more realistic ones. So those unrealistic goals? I’m going to be keeping them. I’ll endure the weeks of feeling like I am not measuring up for the single week where I do.

Clearly, this conclusion is specific to my circumstances. What is your reaction to unrealistic goals? Realistic ones? Which outcomes motivate you? The desire to catch up, or the pleasure in exceeding your own expectations? Do you work best when you achieve small goals, or when you chase after sky dragons?