Make New Goals But Keep The Old

photo courtesy of catherine stern

I love the novel I’m writing. I’ve held the basic idea of it inside me for a few years, even while I worked on another one, and was excited to break ground last summer. Passion alone propelled me through the first twenty-thousand words. After a month or so though, I slowed a bit in the creative process; it took some work to get the ideas out on the page. Then it was my birthday, my husband’s birthday, Halloween, Thanksgiving, my youngest daughter’s birthday, my wedding anniversary, Christmas, my oldest daughter’s birthday, New Years. There were school presentations to prepare, presents to be bought, cards to write. So, I wrote here and there, taking a laissez faire approach and allowing myself to do what I could. By the time I took stock of my writing in the doldrums of a northeast winter, a wave of disappointment settled: I had only advanced a few thousand words since the end of summer.

Maybe the idea wasn’t good enough, I thought initially. Or maybe I don’t have the time right now. The kids are little. I’ll pick things back up when I’m sleeping through the night again. Like in five years. I knew there wasn’t much truth to these thoughts. The idea is still good, at least I think so; like marriage, like exercise, like Steven King says “Sometimes you have to go on when you don’t feel like it, and sometimes you’re doing good work when it feels like all you’re managing is to shovel shit from a sitting position.” Of course, there is a corollary there: sometimes you’re actually shoveling shit. But I felt confident in the former proposition. As to my schedule, with the appropriate prioritizing, there is always time.

Armed with these thoughts, I set up yet another writing schedule. This go-around, though, I worked backwards based on the minimum amount of time I could afford to writing each day, which I pegged as 75 minutes. I took a few days to see what I could do with those minutes and then set a daily word count goal that felt do-able in that timeframe: 600 words. I kept track of my progress — by hand in a lined notebook because that looks like a thing writers do, logging words written each day. Fifty-eight days later, I had added 39,105 words to my book, crossing the total words written over the 70,0000-word threshold. That means, in the last two months, I’ve written an average of 674 words per day, or 74 words more than my daily goal. There is much work ahead, but I am closing in on the end of the first draft and am thrilled with my progress.

A few times along the way, some things happened. My kids were sick, I was sick, my husband was sick, and then my kids were sick again. There were a few sleepless nights. There were trips taken and more school projects (Valentine’s Day alone nearly killed me). I kept writing through most of it though, even the few days when I couldn’t meet the daily word count. A handful of times, when I was monitoring fevers — my own and others, I could only get out ten, fifty, or one hundred words. On three occasions, I wrote nothing. I marked these days in the lined notebook with a small description of what was going on that day (e.g., fever! travel! hungover in maine!). And I let them go. Life happens! Keeping track of things kept me moving in the correct general direction (forward) and gave me perspective: there were so many more days I hit or exceeded my writing goals. Through consistency, context, and self-compassion, I met my goals and for the most part avoided ruminating on perceived failures and frustrations.

Not only has this process advanced my current writing project, it has also informed my approach to just about everything. I’ve been caught in the cycle of fits and starts with more than writing: diet, exercise, parenting approach, relationships. What I’ve learned — consistency, context, self-compassion, can apply to all of these things. We can only expect that challenges will arise and circumstances will change. By practicing consistency, yet also remaining flexible through context, and forgiving of ourselves, we can keep moving in the right general direction. So that way, if you find yourself under the weather or hungover in Maine, you can take heart: there have been many more days you’ve hit or exceeded your goals.