Goals that Work: Homework You Assign Yourself

I know for many, the “h” word is probably a dirty one. Maybe you had a terrible fourth grade teacher who tortured you with busy work all weekend, or a Chem prof who delighted in droning. But those are exactly the experiences I want you to tap into right now. Think about those times when you were given an assignment that didn’t seem to have a point, or a took hours of rote memorization only to be forgotten the next semester. All that time, all that energy you could have been using to do things YOU wanted to do. 

Annoyed? Good. That’s how you should feel when your time and talent are wasted. 

Let’s make sure it never happens again, shall we?

Even if you couldn’t always see the point of those assignments, I guarantee your teachers had something in mind when they planned them out. As an educator myself, I know the goal is always some version of you gaining knowledge or mastering a skill. Of course, not all teachers are created equal, and neither are their methods. Luckily, you don’t have that goofy basketball coach/American history teacher calling the shots when it comes to your writing!

You are both the teacher and the student, the boss and the client, which means you choose not only the desired outcomes, but the assignments to help you reach them. And better yet, you get to define what it means to successfully complete any assignment you set for yourself and give out your own grades (which is called assessment when it comes to goals).

If that sounds overwhelming, remember that teacher-you has already spoken, and teacher-you wants a piece of writing as the final product. And you want it on your desk by… oh yeah. The deadline.

Using Units of Time to Track Progress

Even though we can sometimes cheat a little by writing our characters in a non-linear way, us flesh and blood folks are beholden to the traditional passage of time. Most goals you’d want to set will have a time component to them because our time on this planet is finite. By definition, if you finish something there is a time when it didn’t exist, and you’ve now entered a time where it does. So as with assuming your overarching goal is to complete a long-form work, let’s assume that measuring time is going to come into play in some way as you set your writing goals.

More than likely, you have more going on in your life than just this writing project. There will be things that occur annually, monthly, weekly, and daily that will influence your ability to reach your goals. Before you can set reasonable goals, you have to be honest with yourself about how much time you actually have to spend on your project and your skill level. If this is your first novel, it is going to be a much different experience than if you are on your 10th.

The “All the Things” Method

I named this “method” to my madness after a panel in a hilarious web comic. (Read it here) I call it “All the Things” both because it starts off with making a list of every single thing that needs my attention, and also because the punchline of the comic was that doing things in small, concentrated bursts doesn’t lead to long-term productivity. It leads to burnout.

This is an exercise that takes a little while to master because you don’t always know what you don’t know. However, it is a great way to start training yourself to take true stock of how much time you really have to accomplish your goals and anticipate obstacles in advance.

Dump Your Brain

Thinking about doing work is approximately 13,726 times more exhausting than doing it. But if a task seems too big ever to start, all you’ll ever do is think about starting. So, the first step to mastering your time and harnessing its power is to make a list. I like to use Google Docs or something else that is flexible in case I realize I need to add things later, but many people really like the process of writing things out by hand. We’ll come back to that all in the next post, but I wanted to throw it out there in case you weren’t sure where to start.

What I do first is open a fresh document and call it “All the Things!” This is not the same as a to-do list in the traditional sense. I am not setting these tasks for myself, I am acknowledging and anticipating everything that takes up my time and energy. It is not a value judgment. It is not necessarily aspirational, though it certainly can be. The main difference between an All the Things and a To Do list is that there is no pressure to do these things yet; it is simply taking stock.

You could start with any area of your life, but I like to begin by listing every project I am thinking about. I think it’s a good signal to send to my brain that these things matter because they are going up at the tippity top of my list and getting my full attention. I usually group things as either “active” (things I can make progress on in the next 6 months to a year) and “passive” (things I don’t want to forget will need my attention). For example, I had the launches for Riftmaker and No Rest for the Wicked on my active list for 2019, but the short story anthology I want to put out in 2020 on the passive list. Even though it wasn’t going to get my brain’s full attention, getting the reminder when I looked at my list helped me keep it present enough in my thoughts that I recruited a lots of interested authors in the mean time. It will make this newly activated project easier to accomplish in the long run.

After you are done with your projects and other artistic endeavors, make a list of everything your household requires. Annual, monthly, weekly, daily – anything you can think of that will take up your time and energy. Don’t forget to include things like filing taxes in case you need to think about paying quarterly or keeping receipts. If your household responsibilities have dates (even loose ones) attached to them, record them on the list.

Repeat the process for your job, your family and friends, and if you have a partner or kids, write down any known milestones or obligations they have that will take away from your time. Think about holidays, reunions, graduations, weddings, annual bar-b-q’s at the lake. Last but not least, make a list of things you need to do for yourself.

Are you the type who needs to exercise to feel good, or is scheduling regular intervals of bubble baths more your style? Have you been craving a cooking class? Tango more your style? If it is something you want in your life for whatever motivation you have, put it on the list.

Take a second to bask in your awesomeness. Look at everything you have on your plate! No wonder it is hard to find the time to get everything done.

In the next installment of this series, I’ll take you deeper into the process of taking that full plate and breaking it down into bite-sized pieces.

Until next time, stay splendid, my friends!

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