What have you achieved this year?
Intensified by the hyper-filtered, rose-tinted reel of social media, many of us spend an inordinate of time worrying whether we’ve achieved enough. Perhaps the novel you planned on completing by June is still no more than a 1500 word document you mostly forced yourself through in the first week of January and two days of National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo in November). Or maybe your level of proficiency in Spanish may still be stuck at the general greetings level, leaving you still impossibly far away from being able to read Lorcas’s work in his native language by the end of this year.
And what about that award you wanted to win so badly this year , after all those hours of meticulously drafting, redrafting, editing your work and paying your entry fees? You sifted through the list of winners months later, none of them yours, and wished you’d spent the money on a book instead.
Reflecting On Your Writing Goals
As mentioned in a previous blog post, the glorification of the hyper-productive can feel all the more daunting when the world is telling us we should be flourishing creatively at home under the current circumstances and producing masterpieces with astonishing ease.
With lockdown measures, there is surely no excuse for you not to have achieved your writing goals for this year. Right?
(Ha ha, we say, working full-time, coping with redundancies or trying to keep businesses afloat while trying to to keep ourselves mentally well and/or caring for family members.)
Although I have written plenty this year, I can promise you that writing a book or winning an award or becoming fluent in a language did not feature on my list of things I wanted to achieve by December 2020, simply because I knew these goals felt too daunting to even want to begin – especially within such an unreasonably short time frame. So I didn’t bother.
In fact, I had no solid ‘end goals’ to be achieved by December at all.
Instead, I had an idea of what I’d like to achieve in a future relieved of time pressures and noted some of the paths that could help my development. I then broke these up into tiny, simple little steps I could pick and choose from as I pleased depending on where my focus was directed that day.
So now, when I pause to reflect on what I’ve achieved this year, I feel that any work written, new vocabulary learned or good race performances were simply bonuses that occurred naturally with those processes I’d set out to focus on.
Let’s talk more about these continuous processes, or even ‘journeys’ for your writing, if you prefer.
Focus On the Journey, But Be Aware of the Destination
Brian Tracy, author of Eat That Frog!, said that “excellence is not a destination; it is a journey that never ends.”
On the surface, it looks like a quote you’d eyeroll while scrolling Linkedin or Instagram, posted by somebody more driven by the prospect of more likes than of authentic belief in the words.
However, he’s absolutely right.
This does not mean ignoring your destination entirely. You need to know where you’re headed or you risk bolting off into a maze that keeps looping back on itself. You might hit a dead end, then wonder what it was you were ever looking for in the first place.
My writing process is something that doesn’t like to be boxed into time frames or strict rules. I’m at my most creative when I can engage in the little things that I enjoy, or respond to a sudden spark of creativity, or go out for a run to think about a writing project because I know going to catch that sunset will move something in me and inspire new ideas. Perhaps this is why those grand, difficult goals such as ‘finish your novel by December’ have never worked for me; the end goal is clear but the path is long, dark and choked with thorns of self-doubt.
Think about your goals, ask yourself why you want to achieve these goals (because you need to have a solid and positive reason motivate yourself), then change the language to put greater onus on the process of getting there. For example, my overall goals might look like this:
- Learn the Welsh language
- Learn to do spoken word performances (versus just ‘readings’)
- Write another poetry book
- Run another marathon
- Write a comedy novel
I can now clearly visualise what it is I want to eventually achieve. However, by only focusing on this list as it is, these goals seem so staggering that just getting started makes me want to roll back into bed and focus on naptime instead. If you’ve ever started the year with goals such as ‘learn Spanish’, ‘lost three stone’, ‘start exercising’ or ‘stop drinking’ you’ll know what I mean.
Now think about why you want to achieve these goals. By creating a personal, positive attachment to these goals they’ll be easier to visualise and it’ll be far easier to drive yourself to do something that makes you feel something when you imagine it (which is why carrying out a goal such as exercising more if you’re only doing it because society thinks you should weigh less rarely works). Make sure it’s coming from a place of positivity. So for the goals I listed above, these would form my ‘why’:
- I want to be able to read and write poetry in the language of my native country (as well as a desire to play my part in further reviving such a lovely language)
- I want to overcome anxieties that sometimes grip me at certain events and learn to add life to my words through performance, just like some other poets who inspire me
- I just like writing books, y’know?
- I want to raise money for local charities and because running long distances makes me feel most connected to nature, creativity and my body – those hours exercising in nature are a huge part of my writing process
- I love writing in this style despite the fear I have of sharing it and I like trying to make people laugh
So next it’s time to change the language so that the focus is shifted onto the journey and the little steps I can reasonably take over the course of the year that will help bring me closer to these goals:
- Practice my Welsh daily with friends or by reading/listening to Welsh resources and attending language classes
- Make time to record performances and watch them back (at least until they become less excruciating), and watch successful spoken word artists in action, noting what makes them great
- Pick a theme for poetry and write poems around that – other poems will naturally emerge like branches into other themes and subjects (my theme turned out to be medical in the end). Also take time to read poetry pamphlets on my lunch breaks
- Run four times a week and attend my running club, increasing the mileage by just a mile at a time every week or so
- Write a daily tongue-in-cheek diary to play about with making comedy from familiar situations and character, then follow any sparks of inspiration for stories
Suddenly there’s a good list of easy and actionable steps to pick and choose from. Whatever and however many I choose on one day will mean I’m another bit closer to reaching an end goal.
Every time I complete one of these little steps, I’ve ticked something off that list.
That’s a lot of little achievements by the end of the year.
Little Steps Lead to Big Changes
The pleasantly surprising thing about this approach was that as well as making improvements to each of the areas I chose to focus on and moving closer to my most of my goals, positive achievements happened naturally that I hadn’t even planned on.
I’d gone from someone who got embarrassed about how gripped by anxiety I was during a a relapse when reading last February, to being shortlisted for the Cursed Murphy International Spoken Word Award in July, which was completely and utterly unexpected. I still have a long, long way to go but this was a solid marker of my progress simply by making time to get a little bit better each time.
I was late in the year getting on board with Welsh and enrolling on a course, but already I am starting to have basic conversations and am thoroughly enjoying seeing progress every week with every new word or grammar rule learned. Of course I was never going to achieve fluency in a year. But still, I am moving towards that goal in a more realistic timeframe, relieved of the pressure.
The marathon and comedy novel?
Didn’t happen. A year of diabetes burnout and grief meant that super-long distances or the urge to write comedy weren’t quite where I felt like putting my focus.
But I’m okay with that. There’s no time limit and those goals aren’t simply going to disappear disappointingly at the stroke of midnight on December 31st.
I’ll simply continue on those journeys again when I’m ready.
This sense of peace is how I would like to end every year going forward. I don’t miss that annual crushing disappointment of missed ambitions and quiet bitterness towards others’ achievements.
Remember, you’ve already got through every single day of what is probably the toughest year of your life. That’s a pretty impressive achievement already.
Please cut yourself some slack.
If you’ve achieved the goals you set yourself, then that’s wonderful and I would love to hear about them (you’re always welcome to leave a comment below). However, if you’re trying to forget the list of things you thought you’d achieve before the chaos of this year, take a moment to reflect on whether they were really all coming from a positive place. Did you really want those things you listed? Or did you feel you should achieve them? Does your heart sing when you picture yourself reaching a particular end goal? What tiny little steps could you start taking in 2021 to lead you on your journey to that image?
It doesn’t matter what your focus is for next year, how little those steps are, or how often you take each one. It doesn’t matter if you have to change the route, turn back, pause or feel a sudden urge to run ahead. Remember, every great journey starts with a single step.
Take a deep breath, make that first one and see where the road takes you.