A while back, there was a bit of a stir around a study at New York University about how publicizing goals made people less likely to do the work to achieve the goal. Among others responding to the study, Erin had some good points about different people reacting differently in the same situation, and mentioned how important it is to try different techniques until you find what works for you.
One of the things I noticed about the study was that the goals were quite abstract. “I intend to make the best possible use of educational opportunities in law”? Okay, but I doubt that very many law school students would say “I plan to skip class today and play Frisbee on the quad,” even if that’s what they were planning to do. But beyond that, the connection between wanting to pursue one’s educational opportunities, and engaging in difficult optional case analysis, is not direct. I’m sure the phenomenon they’re studying is real, but it’s not the whole story. If I’m studying civil tort, would analyzing criminal cases benefit me much? (Or vice versa.) Especially if I’ve got a test the next day and I can either study or do the extra cases?
And I wonder where fear of failure kicked in. I wouldn’t be at all surprised to learn that a percentage of students looked at the first couple of cases (which are described as difficult), realized they were too hard, and just gave up. Or saw how hard they were, thought, “I can’t do this,” and gave up without saying that’s what they did.
Or succumbed to bad time management, thinking they had time to do everything but then realizing they didn’t.
I thought about this quite a bit while I was sick. I find it very difficult to transition from an abstract goal, like being the best writer I can be, to a specific goal, like, “What do I work on today?” Do I edit an old novel or start to write a new one? Would I be better off starting with short stories? What about planning for what to write in November?
And then even after I decide, I have trouble carrying it through. I either find out I took on too much, or I start second-guessing myself halfway through and find myself not working on either project. Right now, I’m stalled on the genie story because niggling doubt says, “Wait! You’re supposed to be editing Joey!” But I know if I switch, that same voice will say, “Wait! You didn’t finish the story!”
I don’t know whether the problem is worse when I declare a public goal — certainly when I go to Forward Motion and say, “I’m going to do this dare,” or “I’m going to participate in this marathon,” it’s a good way to make sure I have a stunning new idea for how to proceed on something else. Sometimes I make good progress on the other thing, but more often I find myself in the same bind, where no matter which one I work on, I feel like I should be working on the other one.
One of the things I’m thinking is that I need to break down what needs to be done into smaller, more specific pieces. Not just “work on this short story” or “write so many words” or “edit Joey for 5 hours,” but “finish the love scene” and “rewrite the scene where he meets Alyssa.” I’m also thinking that if I keep that list in order, with specifics for each project, it will matter less when I flip around among projects. Part of the problem with switching is that I have to reread, reorient myself, and figure out what I was going to do. If I have more specific information, it won’t take as long to change context.
On the other hand, this all might just be an excuse to spend several hours of planning, and feel like l’ve done something productive when all I’ve done is avoid real work.
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