January blues: Part 2 – Goals

As I wrote yesterday, I started 2011 feeling down on myself. It’s not like I just woke up on New Year’s hating life; I’d been fretful and anxious for, well, probably months, but I only noticed it during my weeklong vacation that began on Christmas. After the initial family reunion was over, after the festive meals, I had some time to myself, and I discovered I felt ungrounded.

At first, I thought it was because I was away from my computer. Unlike most people my age, I have a desktop, not a laptop, so that “using the computer” always means the same physical spot and setup. So when I’m out — even if I can access most of my usual programs on borrowed machines — things just don’t feel right. But after several days of computerlessness, I realized my unsettled feeling wasn’t just from not having that computer setup, but also from being away from the computer, period. Most of my work doesn’t require computer access, and yet I act as if I’m tied to the thing. I didn’t fully realize that until I got to my parents’ house and felt like I couldn’t do any of the work I’d brought, because I was away from my computer… even though I’d specifically brought things that could be done offline. An addiction indeed!

Moreover, after I realized this, I had another, more unsettling, revelation. Without being on the internet all day long, I had more time to think (specifically, to fret),  and what that showed me is that the free-floating, unrooted feeling had nothing to do with my computer; it was in my head. I just didn’t feel tied down. I think this might be the same sensation I experienced right after Tisha’s death, and as I said at that time, it does mean I’m more flexible and receptive. But it’s also a problem, because it’s much too easy to just drift through from day to day, without goals or active projects. Ideally I’d have momentum while maintaining openness and lack of attachment, but I’m not sure how to do that.

Why is it — I seem to be always asking myself this question — so hard for me to focus and work? I recognize now that focus and work are actually two different things; when I focus, I write intelligent journal entries and make helpful lists, but that doesn’t mean I get any actual work done. On the other hand, I can paint for three hours, but if I haven’t figured out how it slots into existing goals, I’m still left feeling scattered and vaguely anxious. A couple of weeks ago I decided the problem was that my action list didn’t reflect my daily life, which is true, but while on vacation I wrote this in my morning pages: “Lately it even feels too hard to focus enough to put the action list together, which I guess means simply that I don’t know what my main goals are, or when I want to finish them, or how to reach them.”

I’ve read that goals need to be SMART (specific, measurable, attainable, realistic, and timely), but with a gigantic project like the family history, it’s hard to break the vastness of it down into manageable small goals. And this creates a discouraging cycle, because when I don’t meet my goals, I lose motivation to set more goals.

My trouble with goal-setting falls into these categories:

  1. My goals are too vague, e.g., “I will get better at watercolor painting.” Goals like this might as well not be made, because they’re so huge they overwhelm me, and without specificity, there’s no way to measure success (what qualifies as “better”?).
  2. My goals are unrealistic, e.g., “I will finish the family history by the end of 2011.” Not only is this unlikely to happen, it’s still vague. Goals like this one are usually set during a burst of optimism and productivity, but they only leave me depressed when I don’t meet them.
  3. My goals are not time-bound, e.g., “I will write a first draft of this story” with no deadline. This may be my toughest goal-setting issue, because without bosses, agents, editors, or publishers breathing down my neck, there’s no outside impetus for getting anything done by a certain date. I can set my own deadlines, but my lazy side always whispers, “Come on, let’s play; you know that’s just a fake deadline you invented,” and I listen! My lazy side knows I don’t really care about those deadlines, and it takes advantage of that to make me procrastinate. I need to persuade myself to care about those deadlines so I will honor them.

Goal-setting is an important skill, but goal-meeting gets even more tricky. Tomorrow: work-life balance!

(PS. I haven’t had a chance to respond to them yet, but yesterday’s comments were brilliant and so, so encouraging and loving. Sherry and Ré, you are two amazing friends and I am so grateful to you!)