Having these goals is crucial to measuring progress as you go and also having something to aim at to focus your energies so that you don’t fritter away the weeks on work email and TV murder mysteries (insert your own addictions here).
But as important as it is to plan for success, it’s also important to plan for failure. Part of being mindful about one’s writing or other creative practice means knowing both what doesn’t work in a generalized way—in my case, writing in the evening—as well as special circumstances that tend not to pan out.
Sometimes failure sneaks up on you. For example, I happened to have low-level anemia when I was pregnant. As it turns out, no iron, no energy. As a result, rather than making the progress on my book and blog that I had hoped for, I spent a lot of time on the couch binge watching The Killing and reading Karin Slaughter novels (I highly recommend Cop Town, by the way). For matters like personal or family illness, it’s hard to know how to plan ahead.
But sometimes, if you reflect on the rhythms of semesters past or the way infrequent but recurrent events have tended to go, you can plan for certain kinds of “failure.” To take this particular season of the academic calendar as an example, you might think about what kind of work you tend to accomplish when your department is hosting job candidates for campus visits. If you’re neither a super human nor a jerk who doesn’t contribute to the good of the department, chances are, you’re unlikely to make major progress on research or writing goals for this limited period. Ditto the weekend your parents come to visit. In the comments below, feel free to add other examples of events that are both disruptive and predictable.
Of course, I’m not suggesting that we write off whole semesters or let ourselves off the hook entirely. Rather, I think we’re more productive and have a better time with both our writing and these disruptive events when we mindfully plan for periods when work might unfold at a different pace or not at all. Perhaps for the week of campus visits, you might write in your agenda “enjoy meeting job candidates;” or perhaps you could set a modest and optional goal, “if I can rough draft X grant application, great.” This way, you’re not setting yourself up for a guilt trip over a task that you never should have assigned to yourself for this particular period in the first place.
The flipside of planning for failure is also reflecting on your process and calendar to see when and whether there are super-productive periods coming your way. For me, travel to and from conferences is often hyper-productive because there’s simply nothing better to do on an airplane or in an airport than work. So, while you may give yourself permission to fail at your regular writing practice for a few weeks of the semester, perhaps you’ll also identify certain periods as super work times.
The point in either case is to look ahead and do a little planning that reflects what you know to be true about the rhythms of your work and personal life. This doesn’t mean that you’re letting yourself off the hook or being lazy; instead, being realistic about both your creative work and the things that may disrupt it may just mean you get to enjoy both more.