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Creativity coach, writing and creative process instructor, speaker, author of Around the Writer's Block: Using Brain Science to Write the Way You Want (Penguin/Tarcher 2012) and Dancing in the Dragon's Den (Red Wheel Weiser), Teaching Artist at the Loft Literary Center.

Trivial Pursuits

Not exactly what I mean by clearly defined goal...

Not exactly what I mean by a clearly defined goal...

By Rosanne Bane

“In the absence of clearly defined goals, we become strangely loyal to daily trivia until ultimately we become enslaved by it.”  – Robert Heinlein

Performing daily trivia is one of the many varieties of distraction, and distraction, as we know, is one of the most common forms of writer’s resistance. Not knowing exactly what you want to achieve makes it that much harder to take action. Effective action is even less likely.

It’s easy to understand why daily trivia is so attractive – clearly defining your goals means figuring out what your life is supposed to be about and that’s overwhelming. So let’s scale it back to defining your writing goals. If that still feels too big, pick one writing project you’d like to make progress on. Don’t worry which one, you can always add more goals later, but for now, just pick one writing project. Write one or two sentences describing what it’ll look like when the project is successfully completed. Go ahead; I’ll wait.

Heinlein’s quote suggests this will make it easier for you to take effective action because now you know where you want to go. However, I observed that even when you have a clearly defined goal, resistance can push you away from the writing. Goals are vital, but by themselves, they are not enough to eliminate daily acts of trivia and other expressions of resistance.

3d stepsEach goal must be accompanied by a list of actions you will take to achieve the goal. These actions must be specific, you must know what you’re going to do and how. Of course, if the writing project is large or something you haven’t done before, you can’t foresee everything you’ll need to do and how you’ll do it. That’s okay – the action list doesn’t have to be exhaustive, it just needs to give you a place to get a toehold and make a start. You need traction to take action.

The actions must also be simple and small enough that you can take the action in one day. You may need to repeat the action tens, even hundreds, of times to achieve the goal; that’s also okay. But the action must be small enough that you can do it at least once on any given day.

“Write a novel” is a goal; “draft for 15 minutes” is an action.

You can’t write a novel in a day. But you can draft for 15 minutes on any given day. If you repeat that small, specific action (and add other actions like “revise for 15 minutes” or “research topic x”) eventually you’ll achieve the goal of writing a novel.

If you loose sight of where you’re want to go and what you can do today to get there, you will revert to performing daily trivia. When you start spending time on trivia or experience other symptoms of resistance, identify what action you can take today. Break an action into smaller and smaller steps until you say “Well, I can do that today.”

Today’s challenge is:

  1. Identify a writing goal.
  2. Clearly define this writing goal (if you don’t write one or two sentences describing what it looks like when you’re done you must at least have a clear mental vision).
  3. Write a list of action steps (the list will be incomplete and imperfect, but give it your best shot). Writing just one action step will immeditately make a project feel more manageable.
  4. Take one small action. If you can’t see a step small enough to take today, your action is to break the steps into smaller steps.

For today, everyday, take at least one small action step toward a writing goal that matters to you. You can go back to performing acts of daily trivia after that – if you still want to.

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