Energy, goals, and success
My post last week was on time management, which is a big part of how one can become successful. But it’s only one part of it; to achieve success in writing, you need a whole set of skills that have very little to do with what you need to know about the craft of writing, and time management is just one part of that. You also need to be able to set goals for yourself, keep up your energy and maintain your momentum, and, most importantly, you need to decide that you can do it.
In order to achieve success, the very first thing you need to do is define what that is for you. Success is different for different people, and if left undefined, it is a very abstract concept, and there is simply no way to achieve an abstract concept in the concrete world. So what is success to you? Is it to have a book in print that you can show others? Is it to be paid for your writing, no matter how little? Is it to be able to make a living out of writing? Is it simply to get a story out of your mind? Once you know what success is to you, it will be a lot easier to not only recognize when you have achieved it, but it will also be easier to decide what to do to get there.
Defining exactly what you wish to achieve, what your dream is, will help you determine the amount of effort and the level of priority you need to give to your writing. For example, if you mean to make a living out of it, and so make it your full-time job, then you need to make it one of your top priorities and invest a lot of effort into it. If you just write because you have a story to tell and wish to make it into a hobby, obviously, you need to put less effort and you don’t need to make it your top priority.
There are important things to know when setting goals for yourself. The first, and most important thing, is to set high, but realistic goals. It’s a delicate balance. You need to be able to keep the bar high enough that reaching it still feels like an achievement, but low enough so that it is actually possible to reach it. I usually recommend setting the bar just a little higher than what you already know you can achieve, and to raise the bar every time you get comfortable achieving them. It’s just as important to re-evaluate something when you consistently fail to achieve it, too. Why aren’t you achieving it? Are you really trying? If you are really trying and doing your best (which doesn’t mean avoiding the task because it scares us) and you still can’t do it, then lower the bar just a little and try again. Don’t forget to raise it back up again when you find it easy to reach your goal! As we do, we learn, and as we learn, everything becomes easier, so we must learn to set the bar always a little higher.
Another important thing to do when you set goals is to establish them clearly. Write it down in words. Add a time frame to the task you wish to accomplish. Pick something concrete. “Being famous” is not a goal, it’s a dream. It’s not something you can do by a certain date, and it’s too abstract for it to be broken down into steps. Sure, you can dream, but if you want to achieve your dreams, you must start by setting concrete goals for yourself.
This brings me to the third thing you need to do when setting goals. Start with a big goal, and then break it down into smaller, concrete goals. Big goals can be scary, because they can seem impossible to achieve; it’s much easier to work on tiny little goals than a huge one. For example, you could start with the goal “publish a book”. Then, you divide that goal into three steps: writing, revising, publishing. Each of those steps are then divisible into other goals: for writing, you could first do the pre-writing, such as outlining and character bios, then the writing (which, itself, can be divided into a daily word count goal or scene per day or chapter per week, depending on what is achievable for you). Then all you need to do is consistently achieve those smaller goals, and before you know it, you’ll have reached you big one. Think about it: doesn’t “write 1,500 words a day” seem much less scary than “write a book”? Yet, they are the same thing!
Energy and motivation
Energy and motivation go hand in hand, but they should not be confused. Motivation is the reason that makes you want to continue, while energy is the inner fuel that keeps you going. Motivation tends to be an external factor. For example, the reason most people go to work in the morning is that they need the money to pay for their house and their food, and they think about that when they really don’t feel like going on some mornings. What is the reason you want to do what you do? Earlier, when I was talking about defining success, you probably found what your motivation was. Think about it when you don’t feel like writing. Of course, one can have simpler motivations for the daily goal. It can be something like chocolate, ice cream, getting to go out with your friends, or you can have a little competition with yourself or others, for example word count competitions or word races.
When it comes to energy, though, it is an internal force. You need to keep it high when you’re at work, and there are ways to do that, and the very best way is to build up enthusiasm. Is there something you do that fills you with joy and energy? Running, jumping into place, singing and dancing to upbeat music, playing a song on Rock Band? Then do those things before you sit down to write. Think of it as a “mental warm-up”. And if you ever start feeling it go down, make another “mental warm-up” pause to get it back up again. If you keep a positive attitude, you should be able to keep your energy up all day, as long as you take those little pauses.
Keeping the momentum: a game of stop and go
Starting a story, writing that very first sentence, is one of the hardest parts of writing. When we stop our work after a day of writing, it’s tempting to get to the end of the scene, or the end of the chapter, before putting down our pen (or saving and closing the Word document). While it’s true that it can be satisfying on the moment, all that it does is set you up to have to start again every single time you get back to work, and you can end up wasting a lot of energy that way. Instead, you should try to set yourself up so that you never have to start from nothing again. Hemingway said that you should always stop when you still know exactly what happens next in your novel. I recommend that you not only do that, but make a little note on a post-it of what you were going to say next, of the next little bit of scene you were going to write. Even better, do all that, and stop in the middle of a sentence. When you pick up your work the next day, there will be a tiny second of hesitation as you look at your notes, and you’ll be writing before you know it.
I also highly recommend watching when you stop. If you’re on a roll, energy-wise, it’s best to keep going. If you feel yourself peaking, don’t stop right at that moment, but wait until you feel your energy start to ebb.
Decide that you can do it
The first step in deciding you can do this is learning to recognize the inner voices that tell us we aren’t able to accomplish our goals. They are the most insidious kind of self-sabotage, because they prevent us from even getting started, and most of the time, they are rooted so deep in our way of thinking that we don’t even know they are there, that this is what is preventing us from doing what we want. We say things like “oh, I didn’t get around to it” or “I don’t know why, I just couldn’t get started”. They come in different kinds:
– The voice of responsibility: This is the voice telling us that writing isn’t a real job, and that before we should sit down to write, we should finish the dishes, the laundry, or cleaning the kitchen. It makes us push down our writing to the very bottom of the priority list, no matter what our ultimate goal is, and it makes it seem like we don’t have the time for writing because we never make the time for it.
– The voice of fear: This one is the one that tells us that we have no talent, that we won’t be able to finish, that our work will be rejected or ridiculed, that others will judge us, or, sometimes, even, that we enjoy our anonymity and that we won’t be able to handle fame, if it happens. If you find this is the case for you, write for yourself. Write to get it out of your system, write because you love it, write to hide it under your bed or to read it only to your children or best friends, but either way, take the pressure off. You don’t have to show anyone what you’ve done. You can decide what you want to do with it when it’s done.
– The voice of procrastination: This is the one that tells us “the deadline isn’t for another week, put it off!” or “you’ve done a good fifteen minutes, why not take a break?” or the one that convinces us that working in front of the TV or while listening to our music is the best way, because it keeps up morale, even if we get a lot less done. Don’t listen to it! Take the mental breaks you need to refuel your energy, but keep working. Wouldn’t it be better to be done sooner and get to sit and enjoy that music or TV show? The sense of accomplishment is well worth it, and believe me, the writing you get done without distraction is a lot better and necessitates less revision than the one you do when you’re pulling away from your writing every fifteen seconds to look at something else.
These voices are rooted in the way we think. But the way we think isn’t innate; it’s something that is acquired, learned over time, and you can change the way you think.
– The first step in doing this is to first learn to recognize and identify your negative thoughts. You can’t change something unless you’re aware of it! Every time you hear one of those voices in your mind, try to stop and think about it. Why are you thinking that way? Is what you’re thinking right now just a habit, or is it based on rational, unemotional thought? Learning to recognize a thought pattern is the very first step in changing it.
Your reality is based on your perception of it. If you change your perception, you can change your reality, too, and that begins by questioning it. Once you’ve identified a pattern, though, it becomes important to take concrete action to change that pattern. Write yourself little reminders that the way you’re thinking is not reality, and put them up on the wall, or on your mirror, or on the inside of your front door so that you see them every day. Talk to yourself, tell yourself you can do it. Change your attitude! And don’t forget: the secret to a positive attitude is to find pleasure in everything that you do. You can choose to be passive, or active, and you can start right now by learning how to say I WILL DO IT instead of I WOULD LIKE TO DO IT!!
All this basically comes down to three things: know who you are, know what you want, and be passionate about what you do; these are just the techniques that will help you achieve that.