Columns > Published on January 5th, 2021

Anti-Resolutions: Is It Possible to Set No Goals But Still Write Successfully?

Original image via RUN 4 FFWPU

First, we need to define terms. We talk about goals in every aspect of our lives—business, education, personal growth, hobbies, health, fitness, etc. We call them milestones, benchmarks, projections, objectives, and targets. If we make them at the beginning of a year, we call them resolutions, and nobody really expects us to stick to them. But what are they really? Are they hopes, dreams, a guilty reaction to not being further along in our lives? Or are they something else entirely?

Understanding What a Goal Really Is

A goal at its most basic level is an idea. This idea is always set somewhere in the future. However realistic, achievable, far-fetched, distant, or vague it may be, you have to envision some point or condition in the future for it to be a goal. It’s typically not something you would achieve by accident or without effort. There can’t be many examples of people who set the goal of having their business slowly deteriorate as technology advances and leaves them behind. No one aspires to watch others leave them in the dust while they flounder in their efforts. You don’t have to make a plan in order to work on a novel for ten years before giving it up still half completed and unpublished. A goal implies planning a greater effort than you would put forth without that idea that you want to become a reality. It is a decision to push against entropy, a desire to shape the future into what we envision.

Goals are often defined on the basis of time. What is the timeframe for completion? Where is the terminal point? How far into the future is your idea? This gives us short term goals, intermediate goals, long term goals, and ultimate goals.

Let’s start with the smallest and largest timeframes. Short term goals, if they are small enough, will sometimes be renamed as steps or tasks. Things that can be achieved in your next burst of effort or before going to bed would be considered short term goals. You can expand the timeframe a bit further if necessary. Today, I want to finish this chapter or reach this particular wordcount. I will finish this chapter before I quit for the day. I want to average 1000 words a day for 7000 words written by the end of the week. I will write every day for the rest of the month. I will finish this story and submit it by the deadline. All of these goals are presumably building toward something bigger. There will be more short term goals following these. They will align toward something. They point in a direction you’re trying to go.

...you can’t manage what you don’t measure and you can’t change what you don’t track.

Ultimate goals are “Big Picture” stuff. These are the type of goals that exist in the realm of vision and life-long dreams. The future idea of these goals can possibly be described as someone’s life purpose, destiny, and even legacy. I want to be a full-time writer. I want to be a best-seller. I want to write a sentence on a napkin that publishers will give me a three book deal for. I want to write stories that change people’s lives. I want to be happy and write for the rest of my life. I want my stories to be read for generations. I want my work to be studied in schools. These are ultimate goals.

Between meeting your daily wordcount and being a millionaire best-seller there have to be a few intermediate steps. Short term goals build to intermediate goals which lead to long term goals which take you to your ultimate life goal. That’s the idea anyway. If my ultimate goal is to be a full-time writer, to support myself and my family through writing, or to be a best-seller, then my long term goals need to align with that. Maybe the long term goal is to get pro pay sales. Then, the intermediate goals could be to submit to pro pay markets or to take a class on writing. Short term goals could be to work on stories, watch Masterclasses on writing, research markets and writing programs, or read the work pro markets are buying. Other goals might be to get an agent, to master Amazon ads, to develop a new author platform, to start getting invited to anthologies, to finish the next novel, to finish multiple novels, to submit more stories, or to get your first story published.

Is it possible, though, to write without goals, and is that enough to get you somewhere?

I Have a Strange Relationship with Running

I received a life-saving kidney transplant in early 2017. I have a genetic disorder that causes polycystic kidney disease. My grandmother, father, and brother all had it too. I watched them all die on dialysis. In 2016, my decline in kidney function accelerated, I got on the transplant waiting list, and reached total kidney failure at the beginning of 2017.

The guy who was my live donor, who gave up a kidney for me, went to high school with me and was in my wedding party. He is also a marathon runner. He saved my life from a fate I saw play out three times over three generations of my family.

One year after my transplant, on the anniversary of the surgery, I ran my first 5K with the guy who gave me the kidney. He was able to walk as fast as I ran during part of it, but that’s not the point of the story. Don’t focus on that part. Just pay attention to how inspiring I am.

Eight months after that, I ran my first half marathon with my donor. He finished the race, ran back to where I was, and ran the rest of the way to the finish line with me again. In the pictures, he looks all fresh and vibrant while I look like I’m about to pass out because I was about to pass out.

I have no idea what runner’s high is. I feel rough while I’m running and I feel rough after I run. So why do I do it if no one is chasing me? The average time between live donor kidney transplant and kidney failure is 13 years. High blood pressure lowers that number. Being overweight lowers that number. Compliance with medications and protocols increases that number. Staying married increases that number. Better cardiovascular health increases that number. I’m coming up on the fourth anniversary of my transplant as of the time I’m writing this. When I don’t feel like running, when I want to quit in the middle, or when I fall off the habit and don’t want to get back at it, I ask myself, “Is nine more years enough for you?” Then, I go run.

I ran a marathon. I just did it in circles in my neighborhood. No one was watching. I could have cut a few miles and just lied about it, but I really did it. I didn’t do a formal race because I don’t like crowds, getting up early, the cold, or spending money. I already don’t love running, so I got tired of paying money for it pretty quick. When I talk about my neighborhood marathon, non-runners look at me like I’m crazy for doing it at all and runners look at me like I’m crazy for not wanting to do it in an official race.

I hurt my foot at one point because I was overtraining and had to start over. I started to wonder whether I could just run without a goal. Just run. All running goals essentially operate by tracking time, tracking distance, or both. Was it possible to do it without paying attention to either one?

Lynch Hunt is a fitness guru. One of his principles is that you can’t manage what you don’t measure and you can’t change what you don’t track.

If I just run until I feel like stopping, I’ll stop before I get to the mailbox. If I run without tracking distance, I might risk another overtraining injury by running too far too many days in a row or running at too hard of a pace. I’m still captivated by the idea, though, and have not abandoned the notion entirely.

Something We Left Out

I’m not sure if there is a true “hurt my foot” analogy for writing. Maybe burnout, writer’s block, carpal tunnel syndrome, or edema from sitting too long each day, but that’s not the point.

If writing is something you think of as a hobby, people still set goals for hobbies, but I suppose the “free run” philosophy of goalless writing might be easier to maintain. Even if it is something you think of as more than a hobby, like your purpose or your gift, you can still take the posture of, "I’ll just write what I want," or "I’ll write when I feel inspired." That could be goal-free writing, and as close to living in the moment as a writer can get.

...failing to achieve New Year’s resolutions is common to the point of cliché. There is a strong argument against repeating actions that lead to failure.

There is something we left out at the beginning of this discussion, though. There is one term we did not define. To answer whether you can set no goals and still write successfully, we have to define what success means.

This is one term you’ll have to define for yourself. Whether we do it consciously or unconsciously, we develop an idea of what success looks like in whatever we are doing. "I want to write a good story and not a bad story," is a marker of success. In setting that marker—even inadvertently—we have an idea we envision at a moment in the future when the story is finished, and that by definition qualifies as a goal. This may be a semantic argument, but in essence anything we work at has a line or a spectrum between success and failure, whether we agree on those lines or not, and whereas failure is never the outcome we desire, that forms a de facto goal for us. We can use failure as a learning tool and not let it hurt us or our work, but the goal then becomes to do better next time.

So, we need to ask ourselves, is there a reason to avoid goals? Resolutions are notorious for failing. It could be because of the time of year, it could be reinforcing a pattern of failure, or a mix of factors, but failing to achieve New Year’s resolutions is common to the point of cliché. There is a strong argument against repeating actions that lead to failure.

Writers are Dreamers and We Dream Up Entire Universes

Writers are dreamers. We have big imaginations. We have ambitions to achieve success, however we define that term, in a field with a very small slate of highly successful examples sitting at the top. There is a really low bar of entry into writing. We teach it to children as early as we possibly can in school. While anyone can write a story, the path between that point and just being competent is steep. The path to being consistently good is even steeper, and the path to be great may be sheer in comparison.

So, we take big dreamers with big imaginations and the audacity to try to achieve greatness in a field like writing and we ask them to set realistic goals for themselves. This is how you end up with yearly goals of publishing a dozen books and completing first drafts on a half dozen more besides. I’m going to start a Patreon page and have a hundred supporters by summer and a thousand by Christmas, some imagine. I should make room for all the money that’s going to come in as soon as I hit publish on this first novel.

Big dreamers have big crashes when they come up short on their outrageous goals. Getting closer is still progress, but it feels like failure because I didn’t reach the peak I set my eyes upon by the date I set for myself.

Maybe breaking goals down into better short term and intermediate levels would be more helpful than trying to go goal-free.

Or we may be in another semantic dilemma. Some people like the word "plans" better than "goals". Plans can change. It happens all the time. If you keep changing your goals, well then, you might just be a flake or a failure by default.

There might be a need to divide our approaches between formal and informal goals. A marathon is a marathon, but maybe it was easier for me to complete one near my house with no one watching. Posting your goals and looking at them every day with others knowing about them may get in your head and be daunting. If you jot down what you’re going to “try” to get done on a dry erase board above your desk only for you to see and you get close or knock a few things off that list, that might be enough for you. Other people and tougher targets may require more formal goals and a system of accountability to go after them.

Even if you are casual about your approach to writing, you probably have an idea of success somewhere in your mind. If you want to work toward writing the best stories you can, that is something every writer should be doing no matter what their goals. That alone might be enough without any formal goals to muddy up the joy of it. If, however, you are going to blink one day and realize years have gone by without any success, you might be holding onto dreams that require the kind of goals that are not achieved casually or by accident.

You must define success for yourself, however you see fit. Be sure to take an honest look at yourself so that your definition of success is one that truly aligns with your dreams. Then, be honest with any goals you choose to set so that they serve to facilitate your progress toward that success and not into a pattern of failure or discouragement.

About the author

Jay Wilburn lives with his wife and two sons in beautiful Conway, South Carolina. He is a full-time writer of horror and speculative fiction. Jay left his job as a teacher to become a full time writer and has never looked back. Well, that’s not entirely true. He wants to be sure he isn’t being followed, so he looks back sometimes.

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