I can’t tell you the number of productivity articles I’ve read. I love planning and thinking about goals. New Year’s is one of my favorite times of year, because it means I can think about everything I want to try to do.
Goal-setting is a slippery slope, though. It’s so much fun to think about how proud you’ll be when you cross off that huge, aspirational goal (like, write 25 short story drafts! Draft two novels! Submit 10 new stories!), that sometimes you can lose sight of reality. Set your sights high! That’s the motto, right? If you aim low, you’ll achieve low, so go harder, faster, bolder!
The problem with this is, of course, the end result. There have been more years than I can count in which my overzealous goals fell flat. And when they did? I felt bad. I felt like I wasn’t working hard enough, like I was lazy, like if I’d just tried harder, I could have reached those goals and even surpassed them! The guilt was a self-perpetuating problem. Failing most of one year’s goals drove me to set more ambitious goals for the next year, to make up for the failings, to claw myself towards where I felt like I should have been at the end of the failed year.
Which meant, more failed goals the next year. More guilt. Bigger goals. More failure. And not only that, I started to feel like a failure. I started to internalize that I was just lazy, that I lacked discipline, that maybe I just didn’t have what it takes to be successful.
It also meant I switched gears a lot, trying to recoup perceived losses: Didn’t make the progress I wanted on that novel? Ok! Try writing twelve short story drafts instead! Failing at that, ok—try submitting ten stories. I couldn’t prioritize well, and I wasted a lot of time. Knowing that I was wasting time, getting side-tracked, falling behind, also fed into the guilt and self-loathing. Seriously, I was a bundle of crank!
And my internal monologue was not very kind. It became harder not to compare myself to other people in my field, to see their progress as somehow directly in conflict with my own lack of progress. The frustration mounted, I made bigger, more intense goals. I failed at them. I felt like I was working harder, and failing harder, but not in a good way. Not in a way that was teaching me anything, or moving me even slightly forward.
Any of this sound familiar to you?
There’s a better way, but it took me a long time to realize it. I had to teach myself, all over again, as an overly optimistic goal setter, as a perfectionist, how to set goals in ways that would actually help me progress, without tanking my self-worth. What did I learn?
1) Be honest about your time.
I started thinking about this loosely in college after reading The Clockwork Muse by Eviatar Zarubavel, but it didn’t really kick in until I read Work Clean by Dan Charnas. In Work Clean, Charnas discusses how top-level chefs need to know precisely how long a task will take in order to best optimize their highly time-sensitive days. They can’t be precious about it. They can’t be optimistic about it. They have to be accurate.
The Clockwork Muse addressed this in the academic writing arena by emphasizing the importance of going through your calendar and making a note of every day when you won’t be able to function at your typical performance level: holidays, vacations, work travel, big day job crunches—those kinds of things. Marking those days and accounting for a smaller achievable workload or cutting those days out entirely from your project timeline means setting realistic deadlines for yourself.
For example, I know that December is a hard month for me to get much done. With the holidays, small kids, school vacations, and (at least pre-pandemic) lots of work and friend holiday get-togethers, that period of time ends up being extremely challenging to make productive. I almost never meet my goals that month.
So lately, I haven’t been setting any goals for that month. If I get writing work done, it’s a great bonus, but it’s not expected. That takes the pressure off, and allows me to refuel and relax, without the guilt of not achieving more.
2) Forget about the End Goal.
This may seem counter-intuitive, because if you want to make progress, you ought to know where you want to go, right? But there’s a catch: just having a goal, doesn’t mean it’s attainable. I came across this idea when reading Atomic Habits by James Clear, and it blew my mind, because–ultimately–it’s true:
“Goal setting suffers from a serious case of survivorship bias. We concentrate on the people who end up winning—the survivors—and mistakenly assume that ambitious goals led to their success while overlooking all of the people who had the same objective but didn’t succeed.
Every Olympian wants to win a gold medal. Every candidate wants to get the job. And if successful and unsuccessful people share the same goals, then the goal cannot be what differentiates the winners from the losers.”–James Clear, Atomic Habits, p.25
You can set any goal you like, but that doesn’t guarantee success. So what does? Here’s where I do a slight bait-and-switch: setting attainable goals is more about establishing trustworthy, dependable habits. I just tend to call my daily habits my daily “goals.”
Creating healthy, productive habits lays the groundwork for achieving your aspirational goals. Focusing on small habits that can be improved upon as they become easier is a great way to make sustainable progress.
3) Set stupidly small goals.
One of the ideas behind habit formation in Atomic Habits is “make it easy”:
“Every action requires a certain amount of energy. The more energy required, the less likely it is to occur. If your goal is to do a hundred pushups per day, that’s a lot of energy! In the beginning, when you’re motivated and excited, you can muster the strength to get started. But after a few days, such a massive effort feels exhausting. Meanwhile, sticking to the habit of doing one push-up per day requires almost no energy to get started. And the less energy a habit requires, the more likely it is to occur.” –James Clear, Atomic Habits, p. 152
Achieving smaller goals on a regular basis will be better for your mental health and more motivating than only occasionally achieving one incredibly difficult goal amidst a pile of failures.
As a personal example: take the week right after school starts, which I routinely see as this huge opportunity to double down and get all the writing done that I didn’t get a chance to work on over the summer vacation. (HAHAHAHA—yeah, no.) Setting smaller goals for those periods makes it more likely that I’ll actually get something done because I won’t be so overwhelmed that I avoid the work altogether, and there’s always a chance I’ll get more done than my goal, which will just feel fantastic.
I did this after Goldbug was born, during those sleep-deprived days of early new babyhood, and it was a lifesaver. I was often too tired to write more than 100 words, but even then, 100 words was doable. So I never felt like time was slipping past, and I never felt like I was falling behind, and I maintained a vital habit of writing regularly.
If you set a goal for writing 1000 words every day, but you can only hit 200-300 regularly, you’re going to feel like crap. If you set a goal of 100 words a day, to get back up to speed, then hitting 200-300 words will feel much nicer. And that will give you a hit of confidence, rather than a stab of guilt.
4) Focus your goals on things you control.
I don’t remember where I encountered this advice, but it was an SF author talking about her yearly goals. Her main point was this: there are a lot of things you can’t control. You can’t control whether you sell a story or not. You can’t control whether you get an agent or not. You can’t control if you get a book contract by the time you’re 35. It’s silly to set those as goals, because achieving those goals lies completely in other peoples’ hands. A magazine editor decides if you sell that story; the agent decides if they want to represent you; a publisher decides if they want to publish your book.
Other than creating the best damn work you can, you have no say over those decisions. Setting goals based solely on other people’s decisions is a recipe for frustration. Focus on what you can control. What habits will move you towards producing more and better work? What habits will increase your knowledge-base of the field in which you work? What habits will keep you healthy, so you have fewer sick days?
This puts the focus not on on the end result, but on the process of getting there. Processes can always be improved, daily/weekly/monthly/yearly goals can be gradually and sustainably increased in scope, but the end results are often out of our hands.
5) Know your foundational habits.
Even with small, attainable habits/daily goals, there will be times you let things drop. That’s okay! People get sick. Tragedy strikes. Exhaustion happens. The key is to pick yourself back up again as soon as possible. Determine what your baseline habits/daily goals are, the ones you must do in order to feel like the day wasn’t wasted.
Pick those habits back up first, when you can. For me, that’s 500 words a day, exercising, and using my day planner. When I start missing those, I know I’m not in a good place and need to recalibrate.
As my mother is fond of saying, “Having life-balance isn’t about being perfectly stable on the tightrope; it’s about knowing how to shift your weight and recenter, adjusting to gravity at all times.”
My core habits/daily goals—just those three—are what I return to whenever life falls apart. Because life is complicated, and it happens.
^ ^ ^
As perfectionists, we want—obviously—to do more than just “enough.” We want to do the best. The most correct. The most perfect. But perfect can be a trap, too, that stops us from achieving our goals.
Setting huge goals we can’t achieve doesn’t help us, it hurts us. It makes us live in a cloud of guilt, always feeling like we should be doing more. But there’s only so much time in a day, and over scheduling a day with too many goals can quickly lead to burnout and regret.
You can always increase the scope of your small goals if they become so easy you never miss them. But there will probably come a time in your life when you’ll have to scale back, too, get back to the basics, make the goals smaller and more achievable. That’s ok. Forward motion is what matters, not the speed. And small, sustainable improvement is worth a lot more than burning out trying to make huge leaps.
Take it slow. Make small, sustainable goals you know you can reach. When those become so second-nature you never worry about hitting them, increase your goal just a little bit. See if you can sustain that. You may surprise yourself by how much you can get done when you’re being kind to yourself.
Further reading: This article about Nora Roberts talking about juggling kids and work is brilliant.