In praise of tiny goals

I know many people who want to write books they haven’t completed—and I, alas, am one of them.

The standard advice for writing a book? Ray Bradbury, Stephen King or Donald Miller recommend 1000 words a day. If people did that, they’d publish 4-6 books in a year, Miller says.

More commonly, writing gurus recommend 500 words a day, which gives you 182,500 words a year—i.e. 2-3 books of average length. However, how many writers do you know who publish 2 to 3 books in a year?

500 words a day is more challenging than it seems, apparently.


* * *

But how about slice that finer? 250 words a day? Which makes for 91,000 words a year. One long book.

1000 words is too challenging for me. I have streaks of the perfectionist. I get distracted. I get tired. I have a life, a very full one. And I need to work on my health, which is partly built by exercise. And I want to make time for my spiritual life, my family life, my social life, my house and garden. A consistent 500 words every day I find challenging for the same reasons. If I do it consistently, other things slip.

But 250 words? 250 words. Beautiful. Piece of cake. Blink of an eyelash. Not quite, but I can often write it, and revise the previous day or two’s words in half an hour. Perhaps it’s psychological–1000 words or 500 seems like a lot; 250 words feels like nothing. If you’ve read this far, you’ve read 267 words.

But 250 words a day adds up to a long book a year.

And isn’t it better to have a low goal, and reach it than a lofty one which sneers at you when, more days than not, you fall short?

So last week, I wrote 250 words a day six days a week on my memoir, did not miss a single day, and took new ground every day. So easy, so joyous, and how quickly it gets done.

* * *

Mid-life is a time for radical changes. And change, revision of life, excites me. But what I am trying is what the Japanese call kaizen—making big changes in the smallest measurable increments, a technique used brilliantly to change the corporate culture and increase productivity in Japanese companies. I am making changes in the smallest possible increments—using a app, Runkeeper, that gives me feedback as I walk so that most days I increase my speed and distance by a few seconds a mile, and a tiny increment of a mile; slowly improving the efficiency of my housekeeping practices; slowly but radically changing my diet; and writing more by aiming at less.

Everest is climbed step by step, and slow progress means you are more likely to get there smiling.

“A small daily task, if it be really daily, will beat the labours of a spasmodic Hercules, ” Trollope wrote, who wrote daily and steadily for 35 years, producing 49 novels.

So off I go then to write 250 words.



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