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When Good Goals Go Bad

We’re still talking about goals this week, because there’s really a lot to say about goals.  Both good and bad.

So, I have this friend. For the sake of privacy, let’s call her…Not-Erin.

Not-Erin is one of the most driven writers I know.  She sets production goals for herself every week and meets them every week. (Did I mention she sets and keeps these for herself?  When I set goals for myself, my brain treats them more like gentle suggestions…take ‘em or leave ‘em.)

But not Not-Erin. She sets goals and meets them. Now, lest you think Not-Erin doesn’t do anything else but write, I’ll share what the rest of her schedule looks like:

  • Full-time job, including lots of home-work.
  • Two writers’ group meetings a month.
  • Exercise.
  • Taking care of her home.
  • Social Life.
  • Fiancé who lives on the other side of the state, which requires long car rides every weekend to see him.
  • Oh, and did I mention she’s planning a WEDDING?

So one day, Not-Erin e-mails me freaking out that she’s not going to get her 12 pages written this week. Why? Because she has work, a work meeting, 3 meetings for various wedding planning events, a writers’ meeting, needs to make sure she keeps eating right and exercising (for her sanity), and she needs to drive three hours to the east side of the state on Friday.  There’s no way she’ll get all of this done.

Oh, she had also promised herself to finish researching agents and get several queries sent out this week, because how is she ever supposed to get published if she doesn’t get the queries out in the mail?!

It took me a minute to catch my breath after reading her e-mail, because that was just too damn much stuff to try to cram into one week, and I was tried just reading it.

Now goals are great.  I’m a fan. They point us in the right direction,  keep us focused on the “prize” and give us a benchmark of our progress.  Everyone should set goals.

Shoulding Yourself

Everyone should set goals, unless we turn those goals into “shoulds.” I should be doing this. I should be writing today. I should have that chapter done by now. I should have my first draft done already.

I should have accomplished this, but since I haven’t I must be a great big loser.

Admit it. You’ve said this to yourself before. Maybe under your breath. But you’ve said it, or thought it…that you should be doing such and such.

Because we use “shoulds” to punish ourselves, don’t we?

Psychologist Albert Ellis, Ph.D., calls it “MUSTerbation.”

Ellis says, “…musterbation is evil and pernicious…If you didn’t musterbate, then you wouldn’t awfulize, terribilize, catastrophize, say ‘I can’t stand it,’ and put yourself down. If you only stuck with, ‘I’d like very much to do well, but I never have to,’ you wouldn’t then disturb yourself.”

When  a goal turns into a “should” it becomes something we make ourselves feel guilty about not accomplishing…no matter that there are other things going on in our lives, sometimes really important things, like wedding planning.

If we are only working toward a goal because we think we “should,” the dynamic of the thing changes, going from something we look forward to doing, take pride in working on and will feel great about accomplishing, to something we are only doing because we should. Suddenly it’s an obligation.

The last thing we want is for writing to become a obligation.

Getting Real

So how to get back to Happy Writing when your goals are overwhelming?

First, recognize what you’re doing. You can tell you’re shoulding yourself by the guilty feelings that come along with it. The guilt compounds the lack-of-time problem because if we feel guilty about something, we tend to try to bury that guilt in order to stop feeling it. Most often, we bury guilt by procrastinating. You can’t think about what you should be doing if you’re playing Farmville or mindlessly plowing through endless levels of Angry Birds.

Once you notice that trying to meet your goals has become guilt-inducing instead of a fun source of pride, you need to decide if your goals are realistic for the present circumstances.  Just because you have always made it your goal to write 12 pages a week, every week, without fail, you may be setting yourself up for failure with that very goal. You need to take stock and reevaluate.

Make a list of all you have to do during your week/month. Include the basics like your job, self-care and feeding your kids, along with anything that might be temporary…out of town relatives here for the week or wedding planning, for instance.

Now see if your writing goals fit realistically into that schedule.  Especially if there is something temporary in your life right now, you may need to adjust what you can accomplish and still remain sane.

Last, make the choice to stop feeling guilty.  Guilty writers are not Happy Writers. If you’re writing out of guilt, with your mind elsewhere, you’re not going to be at your creative best.

Now, this re-assessment of goals isn’t carte blanche to screw around and then say, “Oh, well, I didn’t make my goal this week.”  It doesn’t mean you can overfill your social calendar or procrastinate to the detriment of your goals.  Sometimes you must protect your writing time as sacred. There are times it can and should be your priority.

In Not-Erin’s case, though, I reminded her that her wedding was a one-time event.  A once-in-a-lifetime experience that she could only make special by devoting time to it.  Instead, when she was wedding planning, she felt guilty about not writing, and if she took time to write, she felt guilty about all the things she wasn’t getting done for the wedding.

It was taking all the joy out of both the writing and the wedding planning.

She basically had to make a choice — to relax her writing goals and enjoy the time she did have (even if it was only a few stolen moments here and there), or continue to stress herself out with what she couldn’t do.  The wedding was only going to happen once.  It was a finite project with a firm deadline. Her writing would still be there after the ceremony, and she would be in a much better place to enjoy it.

Thankfully, Not-Erin made the right choice (after a little reminder that if she happened to sell a book before the wedding, she’d have to add THAT to her to-do list, which practically made her hyperventilate).  Her choice was to revise her goals to a more manageable level and to relax her expectations of just how much time she had.  Reminding herself that it was temporary helped, and she found some of her tension dissipating.

She was able to be a Happy Writer.

Fast forward:  Just over a week from now, Not-Erin and R will say “We do” and begin the rest of their lives together. I couldn’t be happier that they found each other, and I’m sure I’ll sob like a baby at the ceremony.  I love you guys and wish you all the happiness in the world!

So, what are your shoulds? How can you rethink things to change those shoulds back into goals?

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