Aim Low! (The “A-Little-Is-Better-Than-Nothing” Approach to Goal-Setting)

This post goes out to the procrastinators of the world. The writers who have great ideas bouncing around in their writerly minds, but still find it difficult to dedicate the time needed to transfer those ideas into words. I feel you, procrastinators! But I do have some advice: Set a low daily writing goal you know you can meet and stick to it. Pretty soon, you will be not only meeting those goals, but exceeding them.

How low, you ask? Very low. As low as you think you need in order to get yourself in the habit of daily writing. For some people, that may only be a couple of sentences, even, or a couple of paragraphs. For others, it may be a couple of pages. Whatever “low” is for you.

This is how the medical community motivates people to exercise, after all. If they tell folks who haven’t walked any further than from their bedroom to their living room or out to their car in the last fifteen years to suddenly walk the hour per day necessary for optimum health, they will immediately squash the poor patient’s feeling of agency. “Why even bother?” the patient will think, “I’m gonna sit here and watch Judge Judy. I’ve been fine all my life so far without this walking nonsense.” Instead, doctors tell patients to walk or exercise an achievable amount of, perhaps, “fifteen minutes per day.” An hour seems unachievable, but fifteen minutes–a walk around the block–seems more doable for almost everyone. Of course, once people begin walking around the block, they realize (depending on their health, of course. I’m not trying to be insensitive here) that this is not only doable, but they feel better. So the next week, they maybe walk further. The next week, they may walk further. And pretty soon they are walking all over the neighborhood, five miles a day. But initially, they need to set a small goal and meet it. And even if the goal never grows, fifteen minutes of walking is better than nothing at all.

As a person who suffers horribly from writerly self-doubt and perfectionism, I set my own daily goal at an achievable 500 words. Five hundred words is a pretty easy goal to meet for me and if I’m on a roll, it takes no more than twenty minutes of my day. If I’m not on a roll, it can take longer, but it’s never more than 45 minutes to write a measly 500 words. The goal here is to just get myself writing: It’s “only five hundred words. It’s like brushing your teeth and washing your face. You brush your teeth, don’t you? You have time to do that….” So, I sit down to write my 500 words more often than not, and while I’m writing, I realize I’ve actually written 700 or 1000 because once I cross the “I don’t have time to write” threshold, I remember how much fun it is for me, how relaxing it is for me, how much I fundamentally enjoy writing. If I had never set a low goal, though, I never would have been able to talk myself into it. Because I am ever-so-busy, of course.

I stand by this little trick–it works every time. Would I be more productive to force myself to write 2,000 words per day? Maybe. But for the long haul, sometimes we just need to get into the habit of doing a little bit, every day, consistently. Because in the end, that’s how we live our lives. Bit by bit, day by day.

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