What to Do When Goals Go Wrong

The fact that I’m big on goal setting has been well-established. I set daily goals, monthly goals, yearly goals–you name it. And for them to really work (in my experience), the key comes down to those daily goals. Breaking up big projects into bite-sized pieces that you can focus on in isolation to keep yourself from getting overwhelmed.

I’ve talked to other people about their goals, and a lot of the time it seems like they don’t like using those daily goals because they get behind on them, and then once they’re behind, they feel like they need to catch up. That’s where things fall apart.

If I have a goal to write 1,000 words each day, and I miss it one day and then roll over the balance of what I missed it by, I’m essentially going into . . . “goal debt.” (It’s like credit card debt, without the risk of a collections agency coming after you. Unless your goal was work-related.)

Just like any kind of debt, goal debt can really mess up your plans. Ideally, you set a goal that was challenging but obtainable. For me, that’s 1,000 words a day for writing. I can do that. At this point, with all the experience I have meeting that goal, I know it’s reachable. But from experience, I know that 2,000 words a day is a real stretch. I tried that last year for NaNoWriMo, and while I managed to pull it off, it took a lot of work. 3,000 words a day? I don’t think I could keep it up. I’d drown.

But that’s exactly where you put yourself the deeper you go into goal debt. Say you’re only really able to get 500 words a day in consistently, but you’ve set your goal at 1,000. So the first day, you try really hard and get 1,000. The second day, you only hit 750, so the third day, you force yourself to plow through and make 1,250. Huzzah! But then you’re exhausted, and the fourth day, you don’t write at all. The fifth day, you’re supposed to write 2,000 words, but you only get in 500. The sixth day, you’re supposed to hit 2,500, but even with working as hard as you can, you barely crack 1,000. The seventh day?

You give up.

In this case, I’d say your goal should be interest free. If you’ve set it to stretch yourself, then fine. Shoot for the stars. But don’t punish yourself if you don’t make it. Reset the goal at the beginning of the next day back to 1,000. Personally, I prefer goals I can make. I’m not trying to stretch myself when it comes to writing. I’m trying to run a long marathon. I need slow but steady wins the race, not Speedy Gonzales.

But make your goals work for you. Figure out how that is, and go for it.

Then again, sometimes you might need to set those daily goals because you have a dreaded deadline. It’s externally imposed on you. You’ve got to get that paper written on time, no matter what. Escaping goal debt is pretty much impossible, if you get behind. Believe me, I know. When I was writing my masters thesis, it seemed like I’d never finish.

What do you do then?

In my experience, you avoid the debt by working harder at the beginning. Carve out some wiggle room for yourself, so that you’re ahead of the curve. If your goal is to write 5 pages of a thesis a day, write 7 a day for the first few days. It’s tough, but doable. Then, you’ve got a bit of padding between that deadline and your goal. If you have a bad day, you can afford to miss a little here or there. It’s just like money: saving up some time (or goal currency) for a future emergency can help you stay calm and collected throughout the project.

Anyway. Those two principles have been what helped me the most to get through grad school and write novel-length fiction. I use them all the time. Any tips you have for tackling big projects?

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