At the turn of the year, I wrote about my New Year’s Resolutions or lack thereof. (See “Listen Hard, Love Life.”) I decided that in an effort to reinvigorate my life, 2013 was going to be a “goalless year.” Backed by the latest research, I stated that I was going to love the life in front of me and allow myself enough flexibility to follow my happiness and passion. This was a daring and somewhat frightening departure from the norm for me. My past is littered with goals–those accomplished (but often at a price) and those not quite achieved.
At first, goalnessless was great. Without my daily list of goal-achieving “shoulds,” I moved through life feeling weightless and free. I slowed way down, and since I had no goals, it was okay that I didn’t get a lot done. I caught up on my reading, made new friends, and cut my chores down to the minimum. I laughed a lot, and bit by bit, much of the worry and anxiety that had been shadowing me for the last few years evaporated into thin air. I felt better than I had in years.
Yet, after a month of goalless living, I began to feel adrift in my new freedom. It turns out that I have trouble functioning without a guiding list of resolutions tacked to my bulletin board. I was drinking way too much coffee, and my body felt stiff and achy after weeks off from my daily yoga routine. My to-do list around the house read like a novel, and I woke up in the morning feeling aimless. I began to wonder about the meaning of it all. I was like a broken compass that didn’t know where to point.
The most upsetting aspect of my new goallessness was that I wasn’t writing much. In the spirit of my new year’s resolution, I had dropped my short- and long-term writing goals as well as my writing schedule, figuring that my passion for the written word would get me to my desk each day. This turned out not to be the case. Having a passionate idea for an essay is many steps away from actually sitting down and doing the hard work of putting those ideas into words. Whole days passed without me writing a word. In my goalless state, it was much easier to run errands, read a novel, or take a second walk. As I mindlessly poured myself another cup of coffee, I asked myself: What was my purpose in writing anyway? What did I really want or hope to achieve? Was this my life work? Was I good enough? Would my time be better spent elsewhere?
In the face of these daunting questions, it wasn’t long before I lost all my writing confidence. It was like when you start thinking about the mechanics of walking up the stairs as you take a step and then stumble. I thought about why I should or shouldn’t write to such an extent that I couldn’t do it any more. I was considering quitting writing for good, even though the very idea of giving up made me miserable.
Here I was, two months into the new year, and unhappier than before, even though I’d stuck to my resolution. I explained all this to my friend Carrie. She and I tended to be mirrors for one another, an invaluable asset in a friend. She, like me, likes to create goals and destinations in her life, and while she was initially intrigued by the idea of goallessness when I broached that subject at the beginning of the year, she had some trepidation about how it would actually work. After listening to my woeful tale of two months without goals, she said thoughtfully, “It seems like what you need is not so much a goal, but a plan.”
In my head, the Answer Jackpot went “Ding! Ding! Ding! Ding!” even though I wasn’t exactly sure why. “Tell me more,” I prodded.
“Goals are stationary, you move towards them or you don’t,” Carrie explained further. “But plans, plans can be flexible depending on the situation or need. Plus, when you have a plan, you don’t have to think through on a daily basis why you should or shouldn’t be doing what you are doing.”
Over the next few days, I worked on a plan to get my writing life back in gear. Usually, I loved plans. Plans are my forte. Plans are within my skill set, but, as I discovered as I tried to adhere to some simple guidelines, I’d slid so far down the goal-less slope that I couldn’t get anything to stick. I wasn’t able to follow through and show up at my desk no matter how many plans I made.
Then, an article by writer Aimee Bender entitled “Why the Best Way to Get Creative Is to Make Some Rules” fell into my hands. Bender wrote how she and a fellow author created a writing contract. Faced with the same dilemma as me–balancing the need to follow creativity and passion (the aim of goallessness) with actual writing productivity (a plan)–Bender hired her writing colleague as a contracted writer. They drew up a formal contract with a beginning and end date, outlined clear guidelines, set up accountability (daily emails upon fulfillment of writing hours), and signed.
I hadn’t even finished reading the article before I’d drawn up a contract and written out my own guidelines. I emailed Carrie and asked her to hire me. As much as the formalness of a contract seemed a little over the top, I knew that I needed the accountability. I needed someone to hold me to my plan.
When we met a few days later to sign, I was excited to learn that Carrie had created her own version of a contract. Although not a writer, Carrie had taken the idea of a contract and applied it to her own life: She wanted to exercise on a consistent basis. While my friend actually likes to exercise and loves how it makes her feel afterwards, the time for it often gets lost in the busyness of her career. To bring together this passion for exercise with a plan, she wrote up a “Health Contract.” She outlined a twelve-week program in which she would follow a specified exercise schedule. After reviewing each other’s guidelines, we signed our contracts and were off.
Riding on the excitement of something new, I was at my desk bright and early the next day. I have to say that it wasn’t one of my best or easiest writing sessions–just as I’d gotten out of shape from lack of exercise, a few months of not putting the pen to paper had dried up the inkwell–but, I sat and wrote for the allotted contracted time, because I was “hired” by Carrie to do so. I was relieved when my time was up, but there was a certain thrill in sending her an email confirming that I’d fulfilled our agreement for the day.
Breaking or making new habits is tricky. It’s easy to talk yourself out of following through, and I had to rebuild my writing commitment muscles. In the early days of my writing contract, it was challenging to make time to write. I’d put it off–finish one more email, fold one more load of laundry, take the dog for a long walk–before plopping myself down at my desk leaving barely enough time to complete my hours. I’m sure that without the accountability to Carrie, I’d have let several more weeks slip by with nary a word. I’m pretty certain I would have quit.
Luckily, each consecutive day got easier. By week three, I was back in the groove. I woke up in the morning excited about what I was going to write that day. I squeezed in more hours than required, and often regretted having to quit mid-afternoon. The structure of my contract gave me room to be creative. Or more accurately, set limitations that enabled me to unleash my creativity.
Because that was the problem with goalless living. There were too many options, too many choices. I needed to narrow the focus of my life in order to be productive, and once the focus was determined, not question it on a daily basis. On the other hand, the writing contract allowed me to sidestep the pitfalls of having a hard and fast goal to achieve at all costs. When some unexpected conflicts ar0se in my schedule, I did a little jiggling of my writing guidelines, emailed Carrie regarding the changes, and managed to stay on track without a lot of extra stress.
Carrie found success within the guidelines of her Health Contract as well. I received daily emails from her after each completed exercise session. Occasionally, a little message was attached: “Finished Week One!” “Got up at 5:30 to fit in exercise but I did it!” “Day 20 and I am exercising consistently!” “Starting Week 5!”
My writing contract expires the week my girls get out of school, but I’m not worried about sliding into a writing funk again. Finishing my contract is not like achieving a goal. While reaching a goal initially feels great, the aftermath can be unsettling. Athletes after the Olympics frequently experience what they call “post Olympic depression.” Said one Olympian, “After winning the gold medal, it dawns on you the most important race of your life is over.”
But life isn’t over when Carrie’s and my contracts end. While goals are finite, our contracts can be renewed and adapted as needed. So at the beginning of June, I plan on asking Carrie to hire me again and will sign a new contract with my summer schedule guidelines. But in the meantime, all I have to do is concentrate on fulfilling the terms of my current contract, and let my creative energy flow.
This is not to say that I have given up my resolution of goallessness. Without the pressure of a long list of resolutions, I’ve relaxed my grip on day-to-day living and do feel much more able to love this beautiful life of mine. Without the goal-driven pressure to sit down and write a bestseller, I find it is much easier to write with passion during my contracted daily session. And if that best seller happens, I will have a contract to answer the post-goal “Now what?”
So the update is this. My New Year’s resolution stands firm. I am practicing goallessness, with one important caveat: I have a plan.