Maybe this is you too. You’ve got a goal, you know what you need to do. You set out to achieve it. You’re making great progress until that inevitable day when the goal starts losing its luster. You still want it, but things are getting hard and you’re encountering problems you don’t quite know how to solve. Your enthusiasm starts fading. You procrastinate until your progress grinds to a halt. You decide that it’s probably just better to abandon your goal. You never really wanted to reach that stupid goal anyways. You wonder what’s wrong with you.
Congratulations! You’re having a totally human experience! Setting goals is often the easy part. Achieving goals, on the other hand, challenges the best of us. Many people set goals that they never reach because they don’t know how to keep going when things get tough. Then they beat themselves up and wonder what’s wrong with them when they quit.
Here’s some truth: there’s nothing wrong with you. I have total faith that you have absolutely all the skills necessary to get to where you want to go. So what’s the problem? Why is reaching a goal, particularly those really big and complex ones, so incredibly difficult?
In popular imagination, we assume that people’s passion and singular desire for their goals keep them focused on moving towards their goals. We also like to think that sheer determination and persistence (”grit” in popular parlance) is the reason that some people reach goals and other don’t. In reality, no matter how much you want Thing X and how determined you are to get it, your feelings about it will change. In fact, if you’re anything like me, you won’t actually even like your goal much of the time, no matter how much you want it. Your feelings alone are not enough to keep you on track to reaching your goals.
What you’re looking for is structure. Structure is the thing that keeps you moving forward towards your goal when taking another step towards it is the absolute last thing you want to do.
If your goal happens to be a creative one (making some art, writing a book, throwing pots, whatever), structure sometimes seems antithetical. People engaged in creative processes often times resist structure, reasoning that the creative process cannot be scheduled. Instead of blocking out time on the calendar and creating structure, some people (read: me) prefer to wait for inspiration to strike like lightning. When it doesn’t, we loudly blame ourselves and others for our inability to reach our goals.
Structure, however, is what you need to reach your goals. Without structure, you’ll only make progress towards your goal when you’re in love with your goal. When your feelings dictate your progress on your goal, you’ll quit the minute the honeymoon period ends. You’ll also only want to work on your goal when you feel happy and inspired. When the going gets tough, you’re outta there like a shot. Be forewarned: you’re going to have a lot of moments in your progress towards your goals in which you don’t want to do anything. You’ll stamp your feet and refuse to go an inch further. Or you might become suddenly bored and lose interest in your goal. Or maybe the goal is so huge that you can’t see the light at the end of the tunnel and things seem very dark. Suddenly, you want to leave that dumb goal behind and chase the new shiny thing that’s appeared on the horizon. You might find that you don’t even like your goals very much. You might come to actively dislike them, regardless of how much you want X thing. When you start moving towards your goals, shit sometimes becomes hard and outright difficult. It’s at this point that a lot of people quit.
[This isn’t, of course, to say that once you set a goal, you’re absolutely beholden to it. Goals exist to serve you, not the other way around. If you find yourself wanting to give up on a goal, that’s okay. But make sure that you’re doing it for the right reasons. If you still want Thing X, think about whether you feel like giving up because things are getting hard or because the goal truly isn’t serving you anymore. There’s a difference.]
When you get to that point in your process where you feel like things are difficult and you don’t want to keep going and you feel like you’re just going to have to learn to live without fulfilling X goal that you’ve wanted forever, you need structure to keep you accountable to the goal you set out to achieve.
Left to their own devices, however, people are kind of terrible about making their own structures. A to-do list, for example, is not a structure. It’s part of a structure, but without creating a whole structure, a to-do list on its own doesn’t help move you towards your goals. I’ve made zillions of to-do lists in my life and many haven’t done a damn thing as far as getting me towards a really big goal when things get tough.
When other people make structures for us and hold us accountable to them, structures and deadlines seem a lot more real. When we’re the ones in charge of making our own structure, we often we flounder around and don’t make any progress on our goals. A structure creates accountability.
Structure is one of the main reasons that my Tuesday morning #shutupandwrite sessions are so effective. I provide structure for people to get their writing done. And truthfully, I don’t do much magic. I tell a bunch of committed people that we’re going to write for 25 minutes, break for 5, and write for 25 more. Even creating that little tiny bit of structured writing time for people has helped people get huge amounts of writing done. (Remember, your writing practice doesn’t have to take up massive amounts of time in your life. I rarely write for more than 25 minutes a day, but I get a lot of writing done because I show up consistently.)
In business jargon (bleeeech), a productivity system (ugh) is a structure. It’s project management with an end goal in mind. The Pomodoro method, for example, is a structure. GTD is a structure. A Bullet Journal is a structure.
Creating your own structure is harder, but still entirely possible. If you’re working within an institutional structure of some kind, you have some external structures (like non-negotiable deadlines, dissertation submission dates), but may still find it hard to figure out how to organize your time to get things done. If you don’t have an institutional structure to keep you on track, use someone else’s structure or build your own.
Structure is the reason that a writing retreat works, too. For my recent (AWESOME) online writing retreat, I made a structure. And people got writing done because I created these containers of writing time for them. And as I’ve said online somewhere (was it Twitter?), when you’ve got structured time to get stuff done, you’ve also got structured time to NOT get things done. The down time and breaks become sweeter because you no longer have that “omg I have to do all of the things right this minute” pressure. You work at certain times. You rest at certain times. Rinse and repeat.
With structure, you’re not getting stuff done because you particularly feel like it or don’t feel like it. You’re getting stuff done because you have created a plan, broken down big goals into manageable pieces, and put shit on your calendar. And you’re doing it. There’s no actual “feeling like” getting things done with a structure. It’s just what you do.