Unreasonable Goals

Because I’m not silly enough, and there’s not enough going on in the month of November, I decided I would give NANOWRIMO a try again this year. For those who don’t know that particular acronym, it stands for National Novel Writing Month and the idea is to draft the first 50,000 words of a novel or non-fiction book during the month of November. To meet that goal you need to write 1,667 words seven days a week, or 2,272 over five days a week and of course, if you miss a day, then you want to squeeze in more words on a different day. (You’re trying for a total of between 6,667 and 11,667 a week depending on the length of the week – the first and last week are shorter this month.).

Are some of you hyperventilating about now?

I’m a believer in the idea illustrated by the answer to the question, “How do you eat an elephant? The answer, of course, is ‘”one bite at a time.” And it really is an important concept when faced with a daunting task. I’ve also heard it described as indentifying the next smallest action that moves things forward. When I was taking yoga teacher training, one of our instructors gave us all hackey sacks/small bean bags to teach us to juggle. Actually, he gave us one bean bag and we worked on throwing it straight up in the air and catching it on the way down. If you’ve never tried it, you might be surprised that this isn’t always simple.

Once we mastered (using that word loosely in my case) the single one-handed toss. He gave us two bags and had us toss one straight up with our right hand and while it was in the air, toss the other bag from left hand to right. Then catch the falling bag in the left. He also suggested practicing by kneeling at your bedside – much less effort to collect the dropped ones.

Then, of course, would come the third bag. I never got there. Once I had the second task to think about, suddenly my ability to toss the first bag straight in the air was lost.

But his point wasn’t really to teach us to juggle, luckily for me. It was to teach us to break down yoga poses into component parts to help people understand the poses well to get the most benefit from them. That’s taking on the task one bite at a time. And that lesson I was able to learn. When I’m daunted by a task, I go back to my juggling lesson.

But there’s another way to tackle a large task, especially if it is one like writing a book, or a book chapter, or perhaps a dissertation that needs multiple attempts. I know very few writers who can write a complete, well anything, in one sitting with no errors, typos, or awkward sentences. (Even something relatively short like this newsletter often requires multiple starts, always requires my husband’s editing, and a re-read just before I email it and I still find mistakes in the final version.)

NANOWRIMO is built around this idea – a large challenging, sometimes overwhelming project, that by its very nature will need reworked. It is designed to get us past our need to get everything right at the beginning. It’s why the blank page or screen is so daunting. We’re trying to start with the perfect sentence when a better strategy is to write a bad sentence to start off and clean it up later. Author Anne Lamont goes so far as to say we should write “a sh*tty first draft”. NANOWRIMO is designed to help you sprint, send your inner editor to a corner to sulk, promising she’ll be able to come help you find all the errors later, and just get something written.

In full disclosure, I’ve tried NANOWRIMO before and barely made it through the first week, even though they have cool calendars to help you track your words and it’s very satisfying to see the little blocks get filled in. (Yes, I’m a J in Myers-Briggs talk and yes, I add things to my to-do list after I’ve done them simply for the pleasure of crossing them off. I like visible signs of progress.) But this year, I’ve completed more than 1,667 words four days in a row which means I’m already ahead of my previous attempts. Not only that, I’m writing this newsletter on Sunday rather than Tuesday night because this is the only day I’ll have time to do both so that’s an extra benefit.

While the small bits version of completing a large project is often a great way to tackle a daunting task, so is the sprint. Next time you are faced with an unreasonable goal, let yourself off the hook about quality, set a detailed goal – amount of time, how much you want to accomplish and go for it. It’s easier, especially with writing tasks, to go back and fix what is already written than to write perfectly the first time.

We’re taught to set realistic goals, but what might happen if our goals were perhaps a teensy bit unreasonable? What Everest might you climb? What crazy new idea, might you try? I’ll let you know in December how I did, but in the meantime, what unreasonable goal might you take on in November?

Best of Luck!


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