By nature, I am a planner.
Not in my writing, as I've mentioned before, but in my life. I set goals, I work toward them, and I achieve them. I am someone who can "get things done."
But over the last few years, I have changed my perspective on goals. It started when I was in graduate school and realized that what I had been working for since the fifth grade (a PhD in literature)* was not going to make me happy. So I bailed on that and went to law school, because it seemed interesting and lawyers made a decent living.**
Still, I was a planner. Goals, work, achievement, lather, rinse, repeat. I thought that the law school thing was an anomaly, not an indictment of the method.
Then, about four years ago, my personal plan for myself was disrupted in such a fundamental way that there was no going back. Everything I saw for my future, everything I had planned...gone. Immediately and irrevocably.
At that point, I realized that long term goals don't work for me. Between the time that I set them and the time that they actually might happen, too much has changed. Too many things are different. Too many variables that have to be controlled cannot be controlled.
So I stopped.
Yep, that's right. I stopped having long term goals. When my boss asked me what I wanted to be doing in five years as part of my performance review, I said "I can't answer that question because I don't know." Will I still be at the same job? I don't know. Will I still like it? No idea. Will I be a rich and famous YA novelist? OF COURSE. er...I mean...I don't know.
The strange thing is, having made that decision, I am happier than I have ever been. Don't get me wrong--I don't just wake up in the morning and think "what does Jay want to do today?" I have responsibilities, and I have short term goals all over the place--weekly, monthly, even yearly--I'm not a nomad. Right now, for example, one of my goals is to finish the revision of The Book, and I've been working on that like a fiend. But the freedom that has resulted from NOT setting long term goals or having long term deadlines is liberating. It means that I can listen to myself more, that I can relax more, that I can be open to what emerges.***
And the funny thing is, once I started operating this way, I realized that this is how I write. I don't start with a detailed outline of everything that's going to happen, or knowing everything about my characters. Doing that has killed a couple of stories for me, in fact, because once I know everything that's going to happen, I lose interest. When I start a story (or even work on a revision), I have a general idea of what I want to happen and a basic understanding of the players and then I jump in and see what happens.
And I'm surprised that it took me so long to realize that what works for me in my creative life is what works for me in my "regular" life. I'm sure that's not true of everyone; some people might need long term goals to keep them focused, but lack of focus has never been my problem. And by not having goals, I've done more of what I want in a shorter amount of time than ever before. How awesome is that, seriously?
* Yes, I decided I wanted a PhD in English in the fifth grade. See what I mean by "planner"?
** I was right on both counts.
*** This post by Leo Baubata was what triggered me to write about this. He's more zen than I am--literally--but I think our basic ideas are the same.