Some people scoff at goal-setting. They think it’s new age-y. Or they think it’s fear-driven. Or they think what’s the point? Life isn’t in our control anyway. Which for many of us—especially the lower our incomes, the poorer our neighborhoods, the more marginalized our gender and orientation, the darker our skin, and the more health challenges we face—is certainly a factor. There’s a limit to how much we can control. And in the end, what we control can be quite small.
But it’s still there.
Of course there’s the old saw from Viktor Frankl that we can always “choose our attitude.” But a hopeful attitude doesn’t help in the midst of trauma or infinite loss (ongoing losses that cannot be resolved, as in chronic illness, or in the perpetual cascade of police violence against Black communities) or terminal illness. What exactly is one hoping for when things are bound to get worse or, at best, stay the same? Is there anybody who hopes to linger on their deathbed a little longer, in pain and mental confusion? Does anyone lie in the dark during a migraine, blinded by the swirl of colors and deafened by tinnitus, stomach roiling, the pain drawing tears, and actually hope to live longer so that one might experience more of this?
Hope, as most people would define it, can come dangerously close to delusion. This kind of hope is just another face of denial. Many people hope for reprieve, hope for miraculous healing, hope for the cross to be lifted. And when that didn’t happen for me with chronic migraines, I thought about killing myself. Such hope is a knife edge. Maybe, for some, it can save. But for others, it can destroy.
Hope is something I have learned to distrust. Hope led me to spend 25 years trying to build a relationship with abusive parents whom, in the end, I simply needed to leave. Because of hope, I spent 10 years in an abusive marriage, hoping he would value me, telling myself that if only I believed and was kind and patient, it was sure to get better.
In many situations, when I want to grapple with life itself, hope is an utterly useless thing.
Setting goals, on the other hand, is about action, not attitude. You don’t have to feel great to work toward a goal. You don’t even have to believe it’s going to lead to anything. Much research in the field of psychology shows that belief follows action, not the other way around. If you want to feel like you have some control, you don’t wait until you do. You don’t focus on changing your attitude. You just do one small thing that you can control, even if that’s just sharpening a dull pencil.
As an adult, I have learned that I always have something I can control (this is rarely true, I hope it is obvious, for children in abusive homes, human trafficking victims, and slaves). And right now, I desperately need something in my control. After a pet’s death, my husband’s hospitalization with a life-threatening condition and months of uncertainty ahead, and the ensuing unknowability of our future, along with my own chronic illness, there’s a whole lot I can’t control.
But there are a few things I can.
Like how much I write most weeks. Or whether I stick to my exercise routine.
So here’s where I’m starting:
1. Find the Value
For me, I want to be a writer who supports women and nonbinary people in embracing our complexity, in not having to be perfect or heroic or noble, and in interrogating the stories we’re often handed where we’re either victims or heroes or objects of desire, intrigue, and magical wisdom. In our day-to-day lives, fixing coffee or having a spat with a neighbor or eyeing a friend with suspicion, we’re neither. And that doesn’t make us “petty.” It doesn’t make us “selfish.” We shouldn’t have to prove to anybody that we have a right to live our own lives. We are not reservoirs of sympathy, support, and nurturing for men to draw from. We are not defined by our relationships with men, our attractiveness to men, our desirability, or our power and status. We deserve respect. And we deserve it simply because we are here. We don’t have to rescue or guide or redeem others. We can’t even rescue ourselves sometimes. And that doesn’t make us “pathetic.” It makes us human. Most men in most stories (from Mad Men to Updike to Baldwin) can’t rescue themselves, either. And our lives, just like theirs, are compelling and worthwhile. Our lives are art. Our lives are unimaginably beautiful and powerful just as we are.
2. Set the Initial Goal
The typical advice is that it should be specific, measurable, achievable, relevant to your values and long-term goals, as well as time-bound. It also should change. So for me, that goal for now is:
Write three times a week for 15 minutes.
3. Anticipate Obstacles and Plan for Them
Shit will happen. Some of it is pretty easy to see coming. Some of it will blindside us. To make it easier to cope with the blindsides, it helps to plan for the predictable shit.
- I have chronic migraines, so some weeks it won’t be possible to sit at a computer (which triggers migraines as well as worsens any current migraine). That’s okay. The goal is to ensure the general trend is three days a week.
- My migraines tend to hit at certain times of the day, and I tend to be more functional at other times. Since evening after dinner is best for me, I’ll aim to write after dinner.
- Since my husband and I can talk for hours and lose track of time, I’ll set an alarm to remind myself to get started.
- I’ll initiate my writing session by fixing a cup of tea after dinner, which can give us time to end our conversation gently rather than abruptly.
- If it’s a really bad migraine week, working in my writing notebook will count. This relieves the pressure of relying on a migraine trigger (screens) to achieve my goal.
4. Commit to Weekly Progress Reports
Every week on this blog I’ll report what worked, what didn’t, and what I think the next steps are for the best outcomes. Accountability is key to successful goal-setting. And that can include rewards.
For this past week, I just squeaked in with three writing sessions of 15 minutes each. I was able to use the screen each time and make progress on an outline. This seems to be working well for me, so I’ll continue doing the same next week. If that works, my goal is to bump it up to 4 times a week by May. We’ll see how it goes. But for now, this gives me something to focus on that I have some control over. And that’s all I wanted.