Writing is Hard: Setting reasonable goals

Finally I am back to write some more about writing! I’m back to reflect on the importance of setting reasonable goals. This is as much about knowing yourself and your emotions as it is about spending the time to plan.

This past month has been a real shit show in my life, if you’ll pardon my swearing. For one thing, this blog was out of commission due to some wordpress files from old installations interfering with the current one. Then there was academic drama and a few events I felt I needed to attend to meet my ethical obligation, one on the same day as my first time teaching a college class in over a year. Unfortunately that was also the day my cat was found dead in a neighbor’s yard.  I exhausted nearly every social urge I could muster in searching for him that week, including making my first ever police report, and finally heard from the town that they had disposed of his remains. (And, to be honest, I am outlining this here partially so I don’t have to repeat it 100 more times.) It took me a week to get re-adjusted on a basic level. I am ok now, and my older cat has adjusted, and I’m glad to watch her explore and grow as an only cat. TL;DR – I had a 3 week period where I did not work much on my dissertation and was totally overwhelmed by other things going on in my life.

But I’m hardly the first person to have difficult personal issues arise, and I’m lucky to have had the ability to mourn for a few days without working. A lot of people do not get that luxury.

Now that I’m back to work, I have been reflecting on what I have been able to do since this took place. I was becoming overwhelmed before my cat went missing, but was not adjusting my writing goals to match. After he died, I was pressuring myself to get work done. That’s not a great plan. That’s not a recipe for success. I am starting to sound like a broken record but here’s what I’ve been doing to get myself back on track.

Re-starting Task #1: Return to my work space, again

When I started to get back to work, sometimes all I could do was sit on my computer in the place where I normally worked on my dissertation. I have a coffee shop, a restaurant and a part of the university student union where I work at least once a week each, and being there physically helped it seem less overwhelming to “write my dissertation” even if I felt bad.  I learned this during the change of the semester and it helped a lot this time, too.

Re-starting Task #2: Start a new project list based on your current frame of mind

One of my biggest challenges in tackling large projects is that I simplify my to-do list too much. For example, I said above “write my dissertation” would be what I planned to do for the day, or even “work on x chapter”. Sorry, past Kate, you are not gonna finish a chapter revision in one day. By setting unmeasurable, vague goals like that you are guaranteed to fail in gaining a sense of momentum each day.

Putting some time into a planning session may be especially challenging after suffering a setback, but it can save you from further suffering.

When I started writing again, I met with the professor who teaches writing workshops at my university, and he told me to start my project list over. My goal was to address the feedback on my draft, not realize the original version I had envisioned when I wrote my first draft. New draft, new list. This is how it’s supposed to work. I had to adjust my thinking. He told me I was doing the right thing: producing enough substantive material to get feedback and continue the recursive process of revision. I made a new list and only added what I needed to get done for this round of revisions. That mostly broke me loose of my fatalistic pattern of not finishing vague goals. Thank goodness.

Re-starting Task #3: Pay special attention to variety in your task list

In our meeting, my teacher also gave me resources for dealing with the emotional and psychological challenges associated with writing. I can share those privately with you if you contact me, but for obvious reasons I’m not comfortable sharing the specific items on my public blog. For me the key to momentum is making sure my project list has a variety of tasks on it. I have another mentor who calls this “productive procrastination”: when you don’t want to work on a particular project (your dissertation…)  or task (copy editing…) having a list of other tasks that would help your progress is key to maintaining momentum. For example, my advisor suggested I experiment with various visual representations of relationships I describe in my text, and that is something I can work on when I am tired of copy editing. I also have a few administrative items to attend to in the next 6 months like updating my curriculum vitae, making a concrete plan for future projects, and preparing conference presentations. All of those need to get done, so why not get them off my desk when I’m frustrated with something else? That way no time is wasted. Dwelling on frustration or being stuck is not useful.

Re-starting Task #4: Eat and sleep

I make this mistake often: I get back to work in such a fury that I fail to eat or sleep. I often eat one meal a day when I am very productive and the rest is junk and coffee. I lost 10 pounds the week my cat was missing and continued losing a few pounds after. I cannot recommend frozen prepared meals enough for tough times. You cannot work when your brain is literally not being fed or rested. It is important to keep tabs on your body, and not just your mind, through the ups and downs.


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