Your Writing Goals May Be Holding You Back

August 8, 2012 § 4 Comments

A few days ago, in my blogpost about getting to know your characters, I mentioned the concept of Goal-Motivation-Conflict (GMC). Today, I’d like to share an article not about your characters goals, but about yours as a writer.

We’ve always been told to have goals, right? “Keep your eyes on the prize,” the motivational speakers say. But here’s the thing: a new study shows those very goals may be what keeps us from achieving them.

What the what?

I know it sounds crazy-go-nuts, but the article, How Goals and Good Intentions Can Hold Us Back, makes a pretty convincing argument:

new study by a pair of researchers at the University of Chicago and the Korea Business School shows that this approach has some benefits. Focusing on goals fires up your intentions to engage in the activities that will help you achieve those goals. But there’s a major downside. Stay focused on your goals and you spoil your experience of the activities you’ll need to pursue. In turn, that makes it far more likely that you’ll drop out early and fail to achieve the very goals that you’re so focused on.

Ayelet Fishbach and Jinhee Choi started out by recruiting over a hundred students at a university gym, just as they were about to start a session. Half were told to describe their goals – “I work out to lose weight,” said one. The other participants were told to think about and describe the workout experience: “I stretch first and then run on the treadmill” was one comment. Both groups of students were told to continue focusing on their goals or the experience, respectively, throughout their workout.

Describing the goals of working out boosted the students’ intentions to exercise. They tended to say that they planned to run on the treadmill for longer than did the students who were focused on the workout experience. But here’s the thing: The students who focused on their goals actually ended up running on the treadmill for less time than the students focused on the experience (34 minutes versus 43 minutes).

Fishbach and Choi think that staying focused on our goals detracts from the inherent pleasures of the activities we need to pursue to achieve those goals. Consistent with this, they found that the students at the gym who stayed focused on their goals tended to say afterwards that the exercise felt more of an effort, as compared with the students who were focused on the experience itself.

The article goes on to offer more evidence, and it’s well worth reading. It also supports all those writers who say that you have to write for the joy of writing, as well as all of those “do what you love and the money will follow” folks.

I’ve always believed that passion shines through the work, no matter if you’re a writer, an artist, or a clockmaker. If you enjoy what you are doing, you’re going to do it better. Likewise, if you’re just doing it for the money, or the fame, or whatever, it’s not going to shine much at all. But I’ve also always believed that it’s important to stay focused on your goals—until today.

(And by the way, that article comes from a great website for creative people called 99u.com, which is sponsored by Behance. Check out some of their other articles, like Is An Inner Argument Holding Back Your Productivity? which dovetails nicely with the article above.)

What do you think? Are goals critical to your success, or do they hold you back?

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§ 4 Responses to Your Writing Goals May Be Holding You Back

  • Lauren Magee says:

    Excellent post, Dave. I think this will help me a lot with some things I need to work out to get my productivity to where I want it to be. I think my goals are definitely holding me back right now. Also, the “Inner Argument” article was incredibly helpful. I definitely have some inner monologues that need to frak off while I’m in writer-mode.

  • I’ve found that focusing on a set word count or on getting characters from point A to point B increases my productivity (i.e. just writing more) but causes me to miss out on creative opportunities. I feel like I don’t get as deep into a scene or description if I’m just slamming out words to get the characters to the next plot point. There are times where I wake up from ‘the zone’ and realize I’ve become totally engrossed in the writing process… this doesn’t happen if I’m constantly glancing at word count or the clock. So, in relation to the article, I’ll try a pre-writing mantra about enjoying the experience and hopefully bring the right self to the table 🙂 Thanks for the post!

    • I totally agree, John. About the only way I get anything done is if I’m on deadline, but my creativity suffers. But deadlines are just another type of goal, so I guess that makes sense.

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