Set Those Goals!

“There was a little girl,
            Who had a little curl,
Right in the middle of her forehead.
            When she was good,
            She was very good indeed,
But when she was bad she was horrid.”
– Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

When I was about nine or ten, I read a picture book illustrating the entirety of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s poem “There Was a Little Girl” or as I always think of it “The Girl with the Curl in the Middle of Her Forehead.” For some reason, that poem, especially the first stanza, has always stuck with me. I don’t think there’s a week that goes by when I don’t reflect on it: the dichotomy of extreme goodness and horridness existing within one package, humanity’s capacity for good and evil.

The more I embrace the fact that I have an attention disorder, and the more I come to understand my relationship with that disorder, the more I return to the Girl with the Curl. You see, when I’m focused, I’m very, very focused and when I’m not, I have a horrible time focusing. It’s like my attention is that little girl.

A couple weeks ago, I wrote a blog about my issues with hyperfocus and many people reached out to me with strategies for coping with hyperfocus (e.g., checklists, goal-setting, accountability buddies, etc.). I use all those things; nothing gives me more satisfaction than finishing a to-do list. Without goal setting, I wouldn’t have been able to complete a single draft of my novel, let alone four; and my mother has been my accountability buddy my entire life, but I’m getting older.

My life is getting more complicated. I work full-time. I’m in a band. I’m taking music lessons. I’m in a relationship. I’m writing and revising two novels and various short stories and novellas. I’m in two critique groups. I have a dog. I have to buy groceries. I have to do dishes and laundry and vacuuming – basic adult things, but made so much harder to do because of my attention disorder. When I’m focused on doing any of these tasks, I do them very well, but the trouble is getting myself to focus.

Enter goal setting.

Thomas Olde Heuvelt gave an excellent lecture on the Writing Excuses 2017 Cruise, where he talked about sitting down and writing out your goals in a layered approach. First, write a mission statement. This can be as practical or as fanciful as you want, it just has to be faithful to you. Once you have your mission statement, create a five-year-plan for achieving that mission (or getting you closer to that mission), then a one-year-plan. Then break that one-year-plan into a general task list and assign those tasks on a month by month basis. I took it a step further and split the monthly task list into weeks.

I’ve heard all this before. I’ve set a five-year goal (make substantial progress towards publishing a book by the time I’m twenty-four) and achieved it (started submitting short stories to paying markets). But I’ve never taken it quite to the level Thomas described and I’d never even considered reviewing and revising each level of my plan on a regular basis. I’d always just set a vague goal in mind and then in five years I’d either achieved or failed to achieve that goal. Thomas suggested reading your mission statement weekly and reviewing each of the described levels on a quarterly basis to determine how well they’ve been reached. And if those goals aren’t working, adapt them so that they will work. I’m a rigid thinker, so this was kind of revolutionary to me.

When I got back from Europe – after recovering from Jet Lag, Con Crud, and an intense string of gigs – I sat down and wrote out my mission statement, five-year-plan, one-year-plan, task list, monthly and weekly goals for writing and music and then I paused. What was going to hold me accountable for reviewing and revising these goals?

Enter Habitica.

Habitica is an app for iPhone and Android that turns your to-do list into an RPG. You input habits you want to build or break, daily tasks you want to complete, and one-off tasks that have a due date. You set the difficulty of each task, and you earn gold, mana, and experience for completing each task. You gain access to quests, and you can join guilds with similarly-goaled people. It’s a fun way of tricking yourself into getting things done.

I’ve been using Habitica for almost two months now, and it’s working. I’ve gotten better at doing the things I usually forget to do (namely chores), I’ve been working on refocuses my use of social media from something I do obsessively to a tool I use with purpose (this one has been somewhat difficult for me and requires more work), and I’ve set a weekly reminder to read and review my mission statement and attached goals.

It’s working.

Instead of getting overwhelmed by a mental list of all the things I have to do and then shutting down and hyperfocusing on something irrelevant, I’ve been able to break my goals down into manageable bites. I’m still figuring out how much I can actually handle since I tend to pile more onto my todo list than I can actually achieve, but instead of beating myself up as a failure, I’ve been analyzing why I couldn’t attain those things and revise my to-do list so that it’s more realistic.

I set myself the goal of finishing my novel revisions by the end of October. This is an ambitious goal, and when I first set it, I really overwhelmed myself, but by breaking the revisions down into week-by-week chunks, I realize that it is in fact, doable.

I set myself the goal of using my blog more and started off with the aim of writing three posts a month (instead of writing one post every three months, like I’ve been falling into the habit of doing). I’ve written six posts this month (this will be the seventh), and I think I’ll revise my monthly goal to write a similar number of posts each month. What I’ve realized is that because I set a quantitative goal, I’ve written about things that I would have shied away from before or considered not important enough to write about, but with a quota to fulfill, I wrote them anyway, and they’re posts I’m really proud of.

So, I guess this goal-setting and reviewing thing is working out for me so far. Hopefully, with the help of Habitica, I’ll be able to follow through on some of the more ambitious goals I’ve set. Maybe I’ll even develop the adult-like habits of vacuuming on a regular basis and keeping the refrigerator stocked.

Thank you for reading.

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