We’re going to go on a little journey using the examples of writing a book and getting lost in the wilderness to explain why we so often can’t do the things we want to do. You can of course substitute a different pursuit to match your own situation, but the logic should remain the same. Enjoy.
You Don’t Know Why You’re Doing What You’re Doing
Writing a book is simple. It’s not easy, but it’s simple. It’s simple because we already have the skillset needed to complete the task at hand. We’re not talking about creating a cold fusion reactor. All you have to do is write 40,000 – 100,000 words, so get to it!
That bit of advice doesn’t exactly work does it?
Before we go to war with the blinking cursor, we best be sure we know why we’re heading to battle in the first place.
- Is it because the joys of writing bring us such pleasure that not writing would cause us strife?
- Is it because we have a story that would be sinful not to tell?
- Is it because we yearn to educate or entertain others?
- Is it to make a living?
- Is it because in writing the book, we’ll gain knowledge on a subject we admire?
- Is it to bring relaxation and reprieve to someone else who might read the book?
- Is it because what we’re writing could cause positive change in the world?
- Is it because our words will brighten someone’s day?
Figure that part out before you decide to mix and match the inhabitants of the dictionary. Writing a book or (insert your main goal) solely because you’re trying to keep boredom at bay is not a motivator that will serve you well.
Just because you like mountains doesn’t mean you should become a mountain guide.
Your Goal is Too Big
So let’s say that you do think you want to write a book in the next 12 months; how are you going to attack that? Writing a book is like eating the 96 oz steak from The Great Outdoors. You do not take that baby down in one bite.
If we can’t manage the process needed to handle the task at hand, we’ll suffocate ourselves before finishing.
Breaking up the book into physical checkpoints is the best way to handle it. For instance:
- Create the story arc by Sept 1
- Have basic outline/table of contents by September 30
- Finish 3 chapters by November 30
And so on. Baby Steps. Rome wasn’t built in a day.
If you did become a mountain guide and had gotten a group lost in the wilderness, would you tell them that safety was a 200-mile walk away or would you tell them that you needed to make it to the next hill by sunset?
Your Goal Is Too Vague
Maybe you’re not entirely sure it’s a book you want to write but you know you want to write more. Unfortunately, “more” is vague, and vague keeps us from starting because vague is by definition, unsure.
Our motivation does not do well with unsure.
If I write more in this notebook does that count for “writing more”? If I write more verbose emails do I let myself believe that my goal is being reached each day?
How are you going to make the vague more specific? Break it down into a small, explicit chunks that have to do with the act of writing more:
- Write for 2 hours a day
- Write 500 words a day
- Write 2 blog posts a week
Find out whatever your easiest short term motivator is for whatever it is you want to do more of and stick with that for a few weeks.
If you were the same mountain guide leading your lost expedition, would you tell them that you needed to walk “in a direction” until sunset or would you tell them that you had to continue walking East until sunset?
Your Goal Is Too Specific
You decided to write a book because you thought that’s what you wanted to do. But there is no way of really knowing if a book is something you want to write until you start writing it. That’s the Catch-22 of setting a big specific goal.
- Maybe you learned something about yourself after 4 months that you could have never known before you started
- Maybe after writing for a while you find out that a full length book is not what you want to write
- Maybe you find out that your true joy is writing short stories. Maybe you want to write children’s books or maybe your skill is better fit as a journalist writing articles
Create mental checkpoints for yourself along the way to make sure the carrot on the end of the stick is what it looked like the day you put it on. Businesses have pivots, human endeavors can too.
If you were leading your lost expedition East through the woods, would you continue East on Day 4 if you received new information that said maybe you should now be walking South to safety?
Your Goal is Out Of Your Control
You say you want to write a New York Times #1 Bestseller. That’s a noble pursuit but so much of that will be out of your direct control. Hanging your happiness on writing a bestseller is a grave risk. You won’t find as much joy in the process of writing, editing, designing, finding a literary agent, having people read it or anything in between.
You’ll be a lot happier if you focus on the path that leads towards your dream than if you focus on the dream itself.
Have your goal be more of a mastering type endeavor (write better prose, write faster, improve your grammar, write more often) instead of it being solely about the performance (sell more than this person, top that list, make $1,000,000).
If you were the same mountain guide leading your lost expedition, would you tell them that they all had to make it to town by Saturday at 5PM or would you just tell them that each day walking was getting closer and closer to town?
How To Put It All Together
The best way for attacking a goal is to start with something specific but within reach. Get yourself doing more of whatever you want to do more of for a month. Fight tooth and nail to stick with it. After a month, you can let vague creep its way into allow room for mental feedback and processing. You might also have to redefine why it is you’re going after what it is you’re going after and then, figure out how you plan on making your next move and in what direction that will be.
Play-doh not steel.
Walk your hikers in an educated direction but give yourselves way-points to reassess where you are and where you might need to be heading.