I have an ambivalent relationship with goals. I know they are important but I find setting specific goals with an output and a deadline stalls my work rather than motivating it. I see that a lot of you struggle with similar issues in your writing.
This post uses a long analogy to my own process with quilting. As you read consider how it compares your own experience with planning and goal setting (for writing projects, syllabus development or anything else important to you).
A deadline creates resistance
In the summer of 2013, my in-laws celebrated their 50th anniversary. I had been working on a quilt and decided that I should finish it as an anniversary gift. The plan was perfectly reasonable in terms of the amount of work that remained, the time I had available, and the deadline.
However, as soon as I set that goal the quilt seemed to develop a force field that repelled me. Everything else in my sewing room seemed more interesting.
I dropped the goal. My in-laws didn’t want gifts for their anniversary. There would be an occasion to give it to them when it was finished. Christmas was likely.
As soon as I dropped the goal, the quilt got finished pretty quickly. I think I finished it about a week after the party. The occasion for giving it turned out to be not quite so celebratory but it was very appropriate and much appreciated.
Are goals really unnecessary?
Maybe I should just dispense with goals:
- they make me dislike work I normally enjoy
- they make me feel bad about myself
- they make me more likely to not do the work
Or maybe I was just setting the wrong kind of goal. I was focusing on the product. Is there a way to set a goal that’s focused on the process?
To stick with my example, I enjoy quilting. This quilt was in colours that I knew my MIL would love. I could picture it in her home. My FIL is a napper. I could see how it might get some use. That potential to be useful and beautiful in their home made the process of making the quilt more enjoyable for me.
The type of goal that works for me focuses on the process
I know that if I spend time working on quilts, projects will get finished. Except when they don’t. Some of those quilt projects hang around for a long time.
What makes some projects get finished and others not? What does my plan need in order for “finished” to happen?
I need a clear reason to finish.
In addition to making time to work on the project, the finished thing needs to have a purpose. If the finished quilt is going to sit around in my cupboard, then there is no reason to finish it.
The final stages of quilt making are no more exciting than the final stages of writing. It’s a rare day you want to proofread for fun! The thing that makes proofreading compelling is the idea that you can get that project off your desk.
The reason to finish may be different from the reason to start
There is a point where being able to see who this quilt is for and how they will use it and enjoy it as a quilt is important to my process. That vision motivates me in the creation and helps me clarify my vision of what the quilt will look like in more detail. But until I know all of that, I can’t decide how long it will take.
The motivating factor to start had nothing to do with that, though. I started because I liked a particular fabric print I’d been given by my aunt. I played around with coordinating fabrics. I saw a pattern that I thought might work.
The early stages of the process were motivated by the enjoyment I got from making it. Seeing it unfold. Making small decisions and watching my vision be realized.
There is a point where being able to see who this quilt is for and how they will use it and enjoy it as a quilt is important to my process. That vision helps me clarify my vision of what the quilt will look like in more detail. Once I can see the finished product, I can map out exactly what remains to be done and decide when I will deliver it to whom.
Prematurely setting a deadline makes my creative process feel forced. I worry about wrong decisions. I worry about efficiency. All kinds of things come in that destroy my enjoyment of the process and the creative spark.
How about you?
Are you setting product based goals? e.g. I will finish this article by that date.
How are those goals making you feel about the process? Are you more motivated? Or do you regularly feel like you are inadequate?
Can you envision that product in the hands of a person who will appreciate it? Do you have a clear vision of who that person might be?
Do you set process based goals? e.g. I will write every day
You need a writing practice addresses that last question in more detail.
Edited May 5, 2016.