Small Goals, Small Steps

By Alina Chase

How can it be so hard starting something we want to do, know we’ll enjoy doing and know we’ll feel fantastic about accomplishing? While we have very different life, work and writing routines, I’ll bet we share some of the same roadblocks. Some days we’re worn out. Others we’re indecisive, perhaps overwhelmed by nagging to-do’s. And sometimes, after a hectic day or week, it’s hard to switch gears. So we decide to unwind by checking Facebook or watching TV until we feel like writing later… Of course ‘later’ never happens.

The best strategy I’ve found for getting started doing anything is so old it’s a cliché. Maybe that’s why I didn’t take it seriously until life got so hectic that I realized my all-or-nothing approach had to go. It left me exhausted trying to meet (arbitrary) goals and too often giving up before I’d even started. If this sounds familiar, let’s start thinking small.

First, set underwhelming goals. Sure, you want to write Chapter 5 tonight, but then you check your list of excuses and no way that’s going to happen. Why not wait until Tuesday when you’ll have more time and energy? Then Tuesday is worse. So maybe Thursday? Stop! This is exactly how books do not get written.

And who’s in charge of goal-setting anyway? Would it be OK if you only finish 5 paragraphs tonight? It beats a blank page. So lower your expectations and write something. If, once you get started, you get fired up and crank out a chapter, fantastic! But nothing will be written if you don’t get started. And here’s where small steps come in to play.

Small steps are equivalent to sharpening pencils. (And if anyone out there still drafts longhand using actual pencils, sharpening one is an excellent first step.) You don’t even have to be positive you’re going to write. But after a few simple steps to prime your brain and make it incredibly easy to sit down and write, it’s likely you will.

It goes something like this. 6 p.m. Brain tired. Wake up laptop. Fill mug with water; set microwave. Open a new file; name it “Chapter 5”. Toss tea bag into mug. No clean socks—start a load of laundry. Whew! Time for a break. Drink a few sips of tea. Where are the notes I scribbled during lunch yesterday? Pay the utility bill. Retrieve notes from the car. Might as well read notes while finishing tea. Write 2 sentences. Put laundry in dryer. Write 2 paragraphs. Petunia drags her leash to the door and whimpers. Take her for a walk. Write 2 more pages…

Quit now, and you’re still a few pages ahead of waiting until Tuesday to get started. And you also have clean socks. How hard was this?

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