Give Your Goals Some Breathing Room

A friend of mine was getting married. One of her friends who was part of the bridal party was notorious for running late all the time, so in anticipation of her being late to the wedding, she was told the wedding was much earlier than it actually was. On the day of the wedding, she arrived in a panic since she was over an hour late. The bride explained how she knew her all too well, and had actually given her a fake starting time for the ceremony in order to give her some breathing room.

Maybe it was a bit embarrassing for an instant, but I’m sure that she was quickly relieved that she wasn’t late at all. I found this story both funny and endearing. We all know people who are habitually late to everything they’re invited to, and although that characteristic can be infuriating when you’re trying to meet for dinner or a movie, it can be endearing once you’ve accepted that person for who they are.

Running Late

Although I’m quite punctual when it comes to making plans, when it comes to meeting goals I can often fall behind. For example, I’ve had this recent goal to write 80 pages of a manuscript as part of an application to the University of Iowa’s Creative Writing Program. It’s one step in a larger plan to transition to a writing career.

The thing is, 80 pages of a book-in-progress is a lot to ask of me. In my experiences, fiction is SO much harder to write than blog posts or journal entries, because you have to make it all up from nothing. Furthermore, you can’t just write down a general idea — you must write down everything. Every motion, every decision, the beginning, end, and all of the in-between stuff. So although I’m good at coming up with main ideas for stories, when it comes to the task of actually writing them I lose focus.

I frequently know where I want my story to begin and end. Connecting the two using complete chapters with believable characters in a coherent storyline is the hard part. In order to even come close to achieving that, I must force myself to focus on the small parts. I keep my head down and my pen to the page and press the story forward even on days when I don’t want to.

Now, my goal was to write 80 pages by the end of October. It’s practically the end of October, and I only have 51 pages written. I’m short of my goal.

The thing is, I tricked myself — much like the bride fooled her friend.

When I gave myself this assignment, I tacked an index card to my goal board. It read: “80 page manuscript due November 30th”

While working towards this goal, this is the time frame I thought that I had. I planned accordingly and worked towards it, but didn’t quite make it. Fortunately, I gave myself some breathing room.

That is, when I set out to apply to the school I knew myself well enough to understand how it was going to be really difficult. Not wanting my future self to fail at meeting the goal I wanted to accomplish, I exaggerated the requirements for the application.

An “80 page manuscript due November 30th” was my first deadline. It’s a personal deadline that I made for myself with the understanding that it’s what I needed to shoot for, but was likely to miss.

When I reviewed the University’s website again today, I saw that the actual requirements and submission deadline were different:

30-80 page manuscript must be postmarked by January 3rd

I felt so relieved! I imagined that I needed to get 80 pages written by the end of October, so that I could have another few weeks to review and edit it, so it could be ready for submission by November 30th. As a result, I’ve written 51 pages towards an 80 page goal that’s really only the maximum number of pages. Furthermore, I have a whole extra month to finish and refine the piece I plan to submit!

The University’s website indicated other parts of the application that I had forgotten about: Letters of recommendation; official transcript; a personal statement. I started working on these other requirements today, so that they will also be ready before the January 3rd deadline. I feel like I’m going to succeed at this, because even if I don’t finish and refine all 80 pages of my manuscript, at the very least I will have enough to submit my application.

When it comes to reaching your bigger goals, especially the ones that are long-term, there will be a lot of opportunities to lose focus. My past self was really clever, purposely inflating my goal in order to ensure that I’d take action early and work towards it. I clearly knew that there would be days that I’d lose to other priorities, whether they were unexpected obligations, or days simply lost to “putzing around.”

I think that’s normal. Whenever you make plans for what you want to do with your life, you can’t be expected to be working on those plans all of the time. You’re going to lose some days. You might fall behind. If you leave yourself some breathing room, though, you’ll be pleasantly surprised at how you’re still on time.

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