The Blank Page: Motivation and Goal Setting

A window cleaner hanging precariously on a scaffolding outside the upper levels of a skyscraper, a matador staring down the raging bull with nothing more than a red cape, a deep sea diver well below the surface of the ocean with only a measly tank of air to keep her alive, and a writer sitting down at the blank page equipped with nothing more than an idea, if that. What do these things have in common? They’re all jobs that are friggin’ scary as hell, that’s what.

I just did it. Stared down the bull. The page was blank and every click of the keyboard that goes by gets fuller and fuller, making things a bit less scary with each thumb tap of the spacebar. As writers, we’ve all had that feeling. While the window cleaner and the deep sea diver deal with possible life threatening dangers, the writer deals with something that can seem even more frightening, psyche threatening dangers.  It’s scary to sit down to write because of the negative dialogue that scrolls through our mind, the pressures we put on ourselves to write, and the fear of failure that is an ever looming dark cloud over our head.

I imagine if the window cleaner focused on the fear of falling daily, she would be paralyzed to do her job. Our job, however, is mental, spiritual, internal, and at times, the voices in our head can paralyze us, keeping us from writing.

Sitting down and staring at the blank page can be a rather intimidating job, but it is something writers must deal with in one way or another. Goal setting and rewards are effective ways to stare down the bull.

I teach a business course on goal setting. In the course the students learn how to write SMART goals for themselves. Goals should be SMART which stands for specific, measurable, attainable, results bound and time oriented. Having goals of any kind can be motivating. Small goals can build confidence while large goals give someone a reason to be proud. I highly suggest using goals to help writers combat their fear of the blank page. The SMARTer the goal, the better.

An example of a SMART goal would be something like this: I want to lose 4 lbs by the end of the month. This goal is specific, attainable, measurable…all of the elements of the SMART strategy. However, saying something like, I want to get in shape, doesn’t. Get in shape how? How will you know once you’ve accomplished it? When is your deadline?

For us and our writing, some examples would be the following:  I will write 1,000 words on my current work in progress by Friday. That goal meets all of the criteria of a SMART goal, being specific, being measurable, etc… A goal that wouldn’t be SMART would be something like this: I want to finish my manuscript.  Finish a draft? Finish it as in a polished, revised version? Finish it by when? Or something like, I want to be a better writer. Better how? It’s not very specific. How can we measure when that goal has been accomplished? When should it be accomplished by, etc..? That goal is too difficult to tell whether you have actually met it or not.

Using SMART goals to help you fill the page, and starting with attainable ones, can build confidence to help you fight any fears or intimidations you may feel. Once you attain one, find ways to reward yourself for doing so. Take yourself out to lunch or to a movie. Buy yourself a bouquet of flowers for your kitchen table. Treat yourself to that new blouse you’ve had your eye on. Then set another goal.

I’ve been known to write out my goals for the month on a chart with the corresponding rewards, so I know what I’m working towards. If I really want that blouse, I’ll be more motivated to try, that is, if my goals are attainable.  Setting a goal that is too difficult, can have the opposite effect on motivation, and set you back further. Make sure your goals are realistic and don’t expect too much. The page doesn’t have to be filled with Shakespearean quality writing on the first draft. Thinking as such is adjusting the attainability level too high. If your goal is to write 10,000 of the best words ever to grace a reader’s eyes, you will be adding pressure, more than likely failing to achieve the goal, and in effect sabotaging yourself, making it nigh impossible to sit down at the page the next time.

I can write hundreds of pages of emails to friends or of casual, stream of consciousness blog entries, but once I sit down to write MY BOOK, my creation, my baby, the fears come trickling in. Using SMART goals and rewarding myself when achieving them is my tiny scaffolding, my red cape, my tank of air. The goals and rewards are the tools we can use to make sure we show up at the page.

Sometimes showing up is half the battle.


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