Do you have a hard time focusing? Do you sit down to write and five seconds later find yourself scrolling through Twitter (how did that happen??). Do you constantly start and abandon writing projects because none of them can ever seem to hold your interest?
It turns out that’s only one kind of “focusing problem.” Some writers have to work harder than others to learn to deep focus on creative tasks, practicing the art of shutting out avoidable distractions and applying techniques to calm their wandering minds.
That’s not the kind of issue I want to direct your ever-wandering attention to today.
No. Today, I want to talk about what happens when a writer sets a long-term goal, but doesn’t know how to get from “I want to do a thing” to “I successfully completed a thing and I am proud!”
You see, some people are so dependent on instant gratification — expecting to get what they want “right now” — that they have no clue how to “tolerate” the boring parts of the writing journey. You know, that part of the road trip where you’re in the Midwestern United States and everything is just corn.
A writer, for example, might really, REALLY want to get a book published. And they’re fully aware that in order to do that, they actually have to sit down and write one. They have a pretty decent idea. They might even have a rough outline of how they see things going. The next logical step is to sit down and start writing the book.
But something keeps distracting them — and each day it seems to be something different. They’re on their laptop looking at lists of agents to query. They’re looking up how much first-time novelists generally make in royalties. They’re designing their book cover, looking for a good place to get a professional author photo taken …
Yeah. Everything except for … writing the book.
It’s extremely tempting to want to always look ahead to the end result you want. And in most cases, it’s not “bad” or “wrong” to keep your ultimate goal in mind. But don’t make the mistake of focusing on that finish line so intensely that you can’t focus on what you need to do right here and right now in order to get there.
Something I’ve recently found helpful is breaking my bigger writing goals down into multiple layers — years, months, weeks, and sometimes even days. I know that if I want to write a roughly 80,000-word novel by the end of 2019, I have to chip away at it a thousand or sometimes just 500 words at a time. I can’t afford to spend all my writing time daydreaming about what it will be like if/when I’m a published author.
There is a big difference between a dream and a goal. Dreaming is something you do when you aren’t working. And when you’re working, you’re doing so with a very specific goal in mind — whether that be to write a blog post, finish a manuscript, or write just one paragraph … maybe another one after that.
Should you go big with your dreams and set larger-than-life — yet still realistic — goals? Absolutely. But you don’t wake up on the morning of a marathon and decide you’re going to run it, the same way you don’t decide you want to write a book and conquer the task with a snap of your fingers. Every writer must take their journey one word at a time. There are no exceptions, no shortcuts, and no time limits.
And if you need to break it all the way down to one word after the other to keep yourself going, then do that. Both the creative process and a writer’s productivity are all about applying the strategies that work for you, no matter how tedious or laughable that might seem. I’m currently keeping track of basically every word I write in 2019, and the spreadsheet I use is “extra” even for me. But it works. And so I use it, and it continues to work.
Do whatever you have to do to keep your focus on right now while giving yourself chances to look up and see your finish line on the horizon. I have a reminder set on my phone that pops up every day at around 6pm when I’m typically losing momentum and often call it quits. “Are you done with your book yet?” It asks. And many times, I sit back down and crank out the 1,000 words I need to get one step closer to being able to say, “Yes.”
You won’t get to where you want to be if you don’t work. Take this one step, one word, one day at a time. If you consistently put in the effort, good things will happen to you one way or another. Trust that. Believe it. Now get back to what you should be doing instead of reading this nonsense. :)
Meg is the creator of Novelty Revisions, dedicated to helping writers put their ideas into words. She is a staff writer with The Cheat Sheet, a freelance editor and writer, and a 10-time NaNoWriMo winner. Follow Meg on Twitter for tweets about writing, food and nerdy things.