A disclaimer: This is not an entry in which I set out to make the argument that targets are inherently terrible. It’s great to have goals…at some point, you have to look forward and say, “I want to reach that point!”
But for many, targets (and the ways to hit them) become almost more important than the work. Time is lost to refining plans because it’s often easier than writing and comes with a quicker sense of accomplishment.
So for the record: I am pro-planning…as long as those plans don’t become a problem.
What I share, here, are some of the problems I’ve seen with targets…things to consider if you plan projects more than you finish them.
(I probably should have titled this:
The Problem with [Obsessing Over] Targets)
Also, this entry was inspired by the last paragraph of this Paul Lamb blog entry…
The Annual Performance Review
At almost every day job I’ve had (in an office), performance reviews cost millions of dollars and do very little.
The time involved for everyone is huge when piled up, and I cannot think of a year when plans approved in January didn’t become things to be doctored later in the year to make it appear successful — or a defense of how much plans changed as targets moved.
Perhaps that’s all I need to write, here: the target is not everything, and it often moves.
(Maybe the better goal should be adapting to change without stress taking over, rather than doing everything one can to hit ever-changing targets.)
So…here are some of the problems I see with focusing too much on targets…
They Can Be Arbitrary
Most targets are just…made up.
And I get it — you have to put something out in a field or on a wall if you want to hit it with an arrow or dart.
Some people start with the target close and steadily move it farther away as they get better hitting it. That makes sense.
But others put things out there and just keep shooting, pointing to that one lucky bullseye — and not all the arrows scattered about in the grass.
If you’re going to set up targets, at least make them realistic. (You’re most likely to keep going if they are…)
They Can Be Unrealistic
Along the lines of targets or goals being arbitrary is the human tendency to be excited about a new project and creating unattainable goals early on. And once you’re invested in a plan, it’s also human nature to keep at things — even if they’re not working.
Every November, I’m asked by someone if I plan to take part in NaNoWriMo. While the thought of writing 1,667 words a day for a month sounds great, it’s not a realistic target for me. (The few times I’ve taken on a writing challenge, it’s been 1,000 words a day for only one to two weeks…and only when I know where I’m going in a story and don’t need time to think.)
It’s a new year, and I know that — especially after 2020 — people want to feel like it will be great. But saying, “I plan to write six novels this year!” might not be the most realistic target.
Which brings us to the next point…
They Can Kill the Joy of Things
Even with those writers who love the chase more than the craft, I’ve seen so many who grow to resent what they’re working on. When everything is tracked as social proof you’re accomplishing soooooooo much, what would be an otherwise good day can become miserable:
- “I only wrote 1,478 words, today, instead of 1,500…”
- “I didn’t sell as many copies of the latest book as I thought I would…”
- “I told myself I’d double my writing income this year, and I didn’t…”
- “That last story I wrote could have been the best thing I’ve written to date, but I must move on to hit my next target…”
Factor in how life can suddenly change, and I’ve seen some writers online grow to resent spouses, children, and other things they feel got in the way of hitting their targets.
They Can Create Burnout
There are some writers online I’ve stopped following — not because they are bad people or poor writers, but because everything they do is like this:
- They announce the project they claim means more to them than anything.
- They get others invested in that project.
- And then…something doesn’t meet expectations (i.e. they don’t hit their target(s)), and they quit.
Maybe something happens in their life that prevents them from reaching those word counts that look great on social media.
Maybe they don’t sell as many copies of the first or second book in a series and…they bail.
They disappear for a while, but eventually come back to announce the next new project that means more to them than anything!
The cycle repeats.
Eventually, the rest of us are left thinking, “Why put more of my time into following a thing they’re only going to stop before completing? Again!”
They Can Lead to Weak Work
Word counts are great, but…most writers I know who talk about word counts more than craft sound like writers who vomit on a page. (Even after rewrites.)
And I get it: writing can be a slog — even those who complete novels quickly are left with long periods of time without any real sense of reward. Word counts can satisfy that feeling.
But in the charge to say, “I wrote a novel in a month!” — even after editing and other efforts — everything sounds like an exercise in completion, rather than a thing that could be so much more with a bit of patience and care.
And that’s fine if that’s your thing. (There are readers who just want a fun, fast read — and there are plenty of writers who aren’t my thing doing far better than me.)
But I’ve also seen some writers who were once all about hitting that hefty word-count target change that view. And they usually seem more satisfied when they give additional time to putting together something other than a rush to pile up words.
They Can Become a Trap
The people I know who live for productivity rarely seem productive.
It’s easier to refine that program to “increase output and maximize time to attain goals,” than it is to sit down and do the work.
I know people who have talked about the things they are going to do for years. And…they can often show people spreadsheets, mood boards, systems and programs they have purchased, and many other things.
But they can’t show a body of work.
The habits they’ve established over the years is “refinement” of a plan — not sitting down and actually producing.
Sadly, when it comes time to finally do the thing they want to do, instead of doing it, they return to planning — starting all over with another new road map that takes them nowhere.
Again, I Do Think Plans Can Be Great!
This isn’t to say one should have no plans. (I plan often — just not in any detail or complexity that takes away from completing the things I want to do.)
Looking at history — at journals and so many other things — we know people planned. But they didn’t seem to complicate those plans as much as we do today.
And perhaps that’s it with me…it seems easy to complicate a good thing when everything is a target. We can get so bogged down that we make plans to plan!
The people I know who often feel dragged down about the work they do (or never get to) are people who seem to do the work based on a want to hit numbers, rather than finding joy in doing the things they claim to love.
A Life Measured
Not everything has to be measured against a target; in fact, I’d go as far as saying a life well lived is one filled with pleasant surprises and time to just be — not something bound to an ever-stressful, bloated list of tasks.
Talk to anyone who travels, and you’ll almost always hear something like this: “Sure, we saw this and that and all the busy and crowded things on the list we’re told we must see, but the best memory of that trip was stumbling upon this little thing we didn’t know existed…”
I’ll close this with the last paragraph of the Paul Lamb entry I mentioned up top:
*I’m trying to be less quantitative about many aspects of my life. I think over-measuring and comparing my performance was one of the reasons I lost my love of running. I’m cautious about tabulating my creative life too much as well.