Chris Guillebeau’s post on How to Write a Life List, plus his recent book The Happiness of Pursuit, on creating meaningful quests for your life, got me thinking about how these ideas might apply to writers and other creative people.
Some people find writing whole-life lists daunting. Others find that what they write at one time in their life no longer applies ten or twenty years later (that has certainly been my experience). I like to brainstorm a list and choose one or two things to focus on for the year. That gives me a manageable time frame to work with, as well as a deadline. One of these is always related to writing.
It can be great to think about the all-time experiences you want to have, and to work toward more than one goal at a time. But I believe there’s a meaningful way to break it down so that you actually take action on your goals:
Step One: Is writing on your Life List? You may laugh at this one, but it’s important. If you write a Life List of, say, the top ten goals you want to accomplish before you die, is “Writing a book” on it? If it’s not in the top ten, where is it? Was it a goal you held as a teen? In your 20s? Is it still a major goal that haunts you? Or is it something you feel you “should” do? This is important! If it’s no longer a goal that motivates you to spend years of your life writing the book, and then dealing with the publishing process (if you want to publish), then you need to take a long hard look at whether that goal still serves your growth as a person. The most important thing we can take away from this exercise is that our time on Earth is finite. We only have so many days to accomplish all our goals. If there is one that no longer resonates for you, have the courage to drop it and find ones that do. You will thank yourself in the end for not stubbornly pursuing something that contributed no meaning or sense of fulfillment to your life, just because you thought it was cool at age twenty.
Step Two: What is the specific goal? Is it to write a book? Publish it? For it to be on best-seller lists? To publish a poem in a major literary magazine? To win a Pulitzer prize? In other words, what constitutes the ultimate success for you? You can (and should) dream big with this one. You may think, “I’ll be happy just to publish a book,” but what do you really want? Be specific!
Step Three: What can you do toward that goal this year? Yes, 365 days from now, what do you intend to accomplish? If it’s to write a book, can you complete a draft? Do you have to do a ton of research first? Is the research done, and you’re just sitting around, waiting for inspiration to actually start writing? A year is a long time – and a short one. Think about what seems doable at this point, but still a stretch. If it’s too easy, you won’t feel motivated, and you’ll just put it off. If it’s too far-fetched, you’ll be too intimidated to start.
Step Four: Break it down. Research for three months, then writing a draft for nine? Writing a poem a week for a year? Again, this will depend on the project you take on. You may want to establish a 6-month goal, so you can assess halfway progress. Or even quarterly goals.
Step Five: Break it down further. What are your goals for this month? This week? Today? This is where the proverbial rubber hits the road. The goal is no longer some vague thing in the future, but it involves taking action right here, right now. Start a journal for this. State your monthly, weekly, and daily goals. Assess your progress.
Note: this can be the part that “creatives” hate. “I need to be free to follow the muse!” they say. Great, if that works for you. But if you want to accomplish a goal, you can’t just follow your whims, and work only when you feel like it. As soon as it gets challenging, you’ll stop. You’ll succumb to self-doubt. Many creative people resist structure and organization, fearing it will kill the very creativity they seek to inspire, but the reality is, committing to goals and staying true to the schedule can help inspire your best work. Knowing that you have to show up tells your brain you’re ready to make the commitment, and surprisingly, your Muse will get the message.
Step Six: Accountability. How will you stay accountable? If you want to keep your goal private, that’s okay, but be aware that it’s sometimes easy to let things slide when no one else is watching. If you’re good at staying on track and motivating yourself, great. If not, how can you establish an accountability plan? Who will you share your goal with? Will there be rewards for meeting your goal? Or consequences if you don’t? If you don’t have a community of people, or a coach, to help keep you working toward your goal, http://www.stickk.com/ is a great way to set a goal publicly, set the stakes and consequences, and gain a community that will help you achieve your goal. Don’t get me wrong, a good writing group and/or writing coach will give you a personalized experience you can’t get online, but setting up any form of real accountability is great. Donating $100 automatically to a group you hate (political, social, any cause you really abhor) every time you don’t meet a goal can be surprisingly effective.
Step Seven: Reward yourself! Give yourself a mini-reward every time you accomplish a milestone goal, and a Big Fat Wonderful Reward when you accomplish your year goal, and a Dream Reward when you accomplish your Ultimate Goal. Take the time to bask in your accomplishments and feel pride in them.
Ready to start? Go to Step One and figure out what your writing goal is, and where it is on your Life List. Brainstorm. Mind-map. Dream Big. Writing, or any creative work, is not a “selfish” goal. Through your art, of whatever form, you communicate what it means to you to be alive on this planet. Other people will connect with that, and with you, and your lives will be bigger, and better, for it. Remember:
“Your playing small does not serve the world.”
– from Return to Love, Marianne Williamson