Lower your writing expectations to actually write and feel great about it.
I know, I know, lower your expectations? WHAT?
As a writing coach and book coach, I’m supposed to push you, help you raise the bar, set high goals and reach them!
But is setting goals so high that we don’t reach them and get discouraged really the best way to encourage people?
Hmmm…I’m not so sure. After the past few weeks of looking back, confirming my own personal findings with a little resarch, and adjusting my own writing practice accordingly.
Let me explain…
This is the season of goal setting, of looking ahead, but before we do that or even if we do that we’ve gotta look back which isn’t always fun. For me at least who has “activator” as her number one strength of the Strengths Finder, which is all about taking action, doing things, while looking back is slower and well, kind of boring to me. Looking to the future is always more fun than looking back.
Looking back can feel boring because I’ve already done the things I’m looking back at, I’ve already had those experiences, and me being me, I’d prefer to ponder something new that I can act on and explore. Or looking back can feel frustrating if I look back adn realize that I failed to reach a goal I set for myself or my business or my writing.
But this year, I’ve been a dedicated looker backer. Invite you to join me.
Why looking back over the year is helpful for us as writers
One of my teachers, Janet Conner, who’ve I’ve had on the podcast in episode 25 teaches a prayer intensive called the Lotus and the Lily every year. This is her eleventh year of teaching it and perhaps my 6th year of taking it.
It’s all about looking back to discover the wisdom and lessons from the current year before we open up to and even begin looking at the upcoming year. And honestly, this program is THE reason I look back every year. There have been years when I wanted to skip over the looking back and I would, but this year, it’s been an almost mystical experience because when we look back and learn and forgive and find the lessons, it gives us the foundation to look ahead.
We look back to celebrate, to glean the wisdom of the events in our lives and how we responded to them, to see the patterns and cycles of our lives, to look at how we felt not just what we accomplished. It’s not just about celebrating our accomplishments or noting our failures so we can make a big list of goals or intentions for next year – we all know how New Year’s resolutions go. They often don’t go much of anywhere though it’s so easy to get caught up in the hype of setting goals, planning your whole year, doing that new thing, but then we fall back into how we live and those things go by the wayside because they’re not necessarily aligned with who we are and how we want to feel.
That’s why looking back is important. To uncover the depth of the wisdom in the past year, to learn about ourselves and why we’re here and doing what we’re doing, to continue doing what is in alignment and to release what’s not.
And this is where the topic of this podcast comes from, from the lessons from looking back.
How do you look back?
First, let’s talk about how you look back because this is about more than what you did or accomplished.
- Review your planner for what happened.
- Review your journals if you write regularly to remember how you felt about what was happening in your life – all those things that might not have made your planner.
- Look at what you’ve written on blogs or in social media if you write about things that are happening, or if things in your life inspire the topics or focus on the content you create.
- Take some notes. I created a chart with a box for each month in my journal and noted events, things that happened and ALSO I noted how I felt about htings, when I felt frustrated or joyful, sad or annoyed. It’s not only about what you do it’s about how you felt. This year, one of the emotions that came up was frustration and it was often in conjunction with times when I was striving or pushing. Huh. That’s interesting information. When I approached things in a more gentle, exploratory way, like it was a fun experiment, they felt better and often stronger outcomes. This happened in several different areas of my life – that’s good to know. That’s a pattern – there’s wisdom there. A playful exploratory more gentle approach works in my writing, my business, and even in my health.
And this brings us right back to why we look back.
When we do a thorough look back like this, we find the wisdom and the lessons. We find our way forward. We find things to celebrate and things to let go of like I just shared above.
I also found much to celebrate which I had forgotten as we tend to focus on where we fell short rather than where we soared. Look at where you soared? What did you write or publish? How did you positivley impact those in your life, maybe your loved ones or possibly total strangers? What relationships grew? What relationships did you let go of? How did you support your creative or writing practice? What worked? What didn’t?
I’m still in the process of gleaning the lessons and wisdom from this process, and I’m approaching it from a playful experimental place. It’s not been a regimented, scheduled thing which will make me avoid it. Instead, as I’ve gone through my planner and my journals and posts, I’ve also pulled cards and thought about the messages there in relation to what I’ve done and written about, I’ve done freewriting, I’ve re-read journals with my morning coffee. I’ve thought about 2021 on my walks. I’ve listed things I’m proud of, things that frustrated me.
And I’m doing this without judgment, accomplishments aren’t better than things that frustrated me. There’s no good or bad here about what happened in 2021. There’s just what happened and how I felt about it. Being objective about it has also been interesting and has allowed me to see the patterns and themes for the year.
How I discovered that high expectations did NOT help me as a writer…
Let me give you an example of what I’ve noticed about setting expectations for myself that I’ve realized in this looking back process
I spent much of the spring, summer, and early fall diving into writing faster and becoming a more productive writer which I talk about in episodes 73 and 80. I’d been frustrated with my slower writing pace. As I discuss in episode 80, I’ve finally embraced how I write, but in looking back, I saw a pattern of me setting super high expectations for myself that I didn’t reach and which made me feel frustrated and like a failure.
I did this over and over in different areas of my life whether it was something I wanted to achieve in my business or in my personal life or with my writing. By doing this month by month looking back, I realized that I tend to set the bar so damn high that it’s almost impossible to reach if I work in alignment with who I actually am rather than with how I think I’m “supposed” to do something. Then, when I don’t reach it, I think I’ve failed and completely miss the celebration of what I did actually accomplish.
I’ve done this with my writing, with business goals, with fitness goals.
I think this comes from the whole productivity world that we live in, that whole idea that we must set SMART goals that have all of these criteria that goals need to be specific and measurable and attainable, NONE OF WHICH include how you feel or your way of being as you STRIVE and exhaust yourself to reach this attainable goal.
How do you even know it’s attainable? It’s exhausting. It causes migraines, in my life at least.
I’m learning that I must show up and live my life and run my business in a way that FEELS good. How I feel about a thing, about my approach matters, a ton.
Let me give you an example that I’ve put into place since I began looking back and really looking at the lessons and patterns from 2021.
One of my lessons from this year is that I write how I write and lowering my expectations for myself to a goal of 500 words a session has actually led to more consistent, enjoyable, and productive writing than I’ve had all year when I was setting super high goals of thousands of words per session that I wasn’t reaching and then was beating myself up about. When my goal was several thousand words per writing session which I often didn’t hit or I wouldn’t even start writing b/c I knew I didn’t have time to hit the goal so I’d just put it off until tomorrow. I was striving to write, pushing myself, and it felt exhausting, BUT I thought that in order to write more, to publish faster, I needed to set big goals, high word counts.
Um, nope. Not this girl.
With a 500 word goal, I write MUCH more regularly, I often exceed that it feels good and doable. I join the writing sessions with the other members of my Let’s Write Club, and I write in community which feels great. And I almost always hit my 500 goal word count. I’ve already hit it today, and it feels so good. Like oh, wow, I wrote!! I’ve also started counting any writing toward my writing goal. Why was I only counting fiction words Before? I have no idea. I wasn’t counting anything else, like drafting podcast episodes or blog posts or email newsletters or anything else! What? Why did only one genre “count” as writing? I have no idea. But that’s the lesson in looking back. I learned that I only considered writing my “fiction” as official writing which is BS. Lesson learned. Now I can celebrate writing all the things, developing my voice and platform in other ways.
I found this whole idea of lowering expectations for myself to actually achieve my goals AND feel way better about them kind of intriguing. It was working.
So I did a quick google search and discovered that there’s (of course) a team of neuroscientists that has studied this and one of their key findings was how important the role of expectations is in determining our happiness.
Neuroscientist Robb Rutledge did a study in which 18,420 people played a simple risky decision game on their phones while tracking how happy they felt. The results showed that happiness depended not on how well they were doing, but whether they were doing better than expected.
This is exactly what I discovered about myself and my own writing. When I not only achieve my goal of 500 words but exceed it, I’m so freaking happy with myself and my progress and my writing.
The study findings say, “Our computational model suggests momentary happiness is a state that reflects not how well things are going but instead whether things are going better than expected. This includes positive and negative expectations, even in the absence of outcomes.”
High expectations don’t always lead to happiness. Instead, realistic or even lower expectations for our outcomes work best to help us feel our best and be happy.
And for me, enjoying something is HUGE for my showing up to actually do it. If it’s not fun, if I don’t enjoy it, I have to hack myself into doing it and this is NOT how I want to show up for writing.
So, in looking back, in looking at how failing to achieve writing goals that didn’t align with how I want to feel as a writer has allowed me to align my writing practice with how I actually write – shorter more frequent writing sessions with a word count that I both achieve and exceed.
I’ve had more fun writing this past month than at any time when I was focused on writing fast and just looking at massive word counts in every writing session, in comparing myself to writers who write fast naturally. In fact, I’m almost done with The Fiddlers Son, well with the first completed draft. Then, I have a pile of revisions to do which will take a solid month or so before it goes off to the editor, but it’s coming along! And I’m happy with my progress. I’m having fun writing.
I’ve also seen this in other areas of my life whether it’s with fitness, learning, or my business.
I’ve been regularly reading 5-10 pages a day of non-fiction rather than looking at entire books I want to read and feeling overwhelmed. I don’t need to read a book a week. But, I’d like to read and study my craft, whether that’s in writing or growing my business or podcasting, or whatever. I love to learn, so again, lowering my expectations has allowed me to actually do that!
Now, I have absolutely NO idea if lowering expectations for yourself will work to help you show up more consistently for your writing practice or anything else.
It might or it might not. This was one of my lessons and the wisdom that 2021 offered to me.
I invite you to look back at 2021 for yourself and see what you can glean from the year. Perhaps lowering your own expectations for yourself when it comes to your writing might also lead to greater enjoyment and happiness for you.
As you look back, explore your writing through the year. When did it feel good? When did you enjoy your writing? When was it frustrating and hard? What were you writing? When were you writing? How often did you write? How long were your writing sessions?
What can you shift or play with in your writing practice?
What wisdom is there in 2021 for you to discover and learn from as you begin to look ahead to the new year?
I’m still deep in the looking back and this year, it’s been a joyful experience, one that will be lasting this whole month. I’m not rushing it. I’m not looking at this as a to-do to mark off of my list, though I love marking things as done.
Instead, I’m stepping into this as a gift, as a process, and opening up to it before I even begin to look ahead at 2022.