31 Oct 2017
By Belle

Arbitrary goals aren't useful goals


This month I set a handful of goals for myself. One of them was to publish four blog posts. Between my personal blog, our Hello Code company blog, and the Exist and Larder blogs, there are plenty of opportunities for me to write and publish more. But it's not my favourite way to spend my time, so I tend to put it off.

For the past couple of months I've been setting myself this same goal: to publish four posts on any of the blogs mentioned above. I've already set the same goal for each month throughout the rest of this year, too.

I published a post on my personal blog about halfway through October. It seemed like a good start.

But as the month went on, I found myself avoiding writing, avoiding thinking about writing, and spending most of my time on programming. Both programming and writing—the two main parts of my job—are areas that expand exponentially. They're never finished. There's always more to do. And with programming, I'm always excited about my ever-growing to-do list. I'm excited about building new features or planning new projects. I'm even excited about refactoring (I really like it, for some reason). So writing continues to take a back seat.

Each time I noticed my list of goals in my to-do list for the month, I feel a little twinge of guilt about that "4 blog posts" goal. I knew I wasn't working towards hitting it. I knew it wasn't even a priority for me. It wasn't something I wanted to do, but something I felt I should do. And so I put it off.

For the past week, as we get close to the end of October, I took more notice of that goal, as I checked off some of the other goals I set for this month. I still wasn't getting any closer to reaching this goal, but each day I thought to myself, "Hmm... if I write one blog post per day for the next three days, I could reach that goal". Or, "If I write two blog posts today, I'm almost there". It seemed eminently doable. And yet, I put it off.

Yesterday was October 30. I decided to spend the afternoon writing. I opened up a couple of early drafts of blog posts I'd started and tried to move them forward. But mostly I just ended up wasting time or doing unrelated tasks. I was forcing myself to write content I didn't care about, and it wasn't working.

I had an interview ready to go up on the Larder blog. It needed some final edits and tweaks, but it didn't take long to get it published. Two down, two to go.

In the last hour of my workday yesterday, I finally thought of something I did want to write about. It was a personal blog post, which tend to be the easiest and fastest for me to write. I churned out a draft of 2,000 or 3,000 words and called it a day.

Today it's October 31st. I've spent a couple of hours this morning digging into old lists of blog post ideas, reading RSS feeds, searching anywhere I can think of for an idea of what to write. I've edited yesterday's personal blog post, but I'm still one post short of my goal. Today's my last chance to reach that magical number.

And yet, after a couple of hours of searching in vain for something I wanted to write about, I realised how pointless that is. Writing, at least for me, doesn't work this way. One of the most frustrating parts of my work as a content marketer for the past few years has been times when I'm not inspired at all, but have to create new content anyway. I often had to force myself to write about topics I wasn't interested in, or just wasn't in the mood for, because I had a schedule to meet.

Schedules are great for content marketing in my opinion. I highly recommend them. But I prefer writing when I'm feeling it. (I know lots of famous writers say that's not how writing works, and I get their point—but I'm not a full-time writer so I can do it how I want these days.)

My goal of four blog posts per month is completely arbitrary. It sounds like a good amount to me. Some months I write more post than four. Most months I write fewer than four. But there's no good reason to force myself to write four blog posts before the calendar month is over, except to meet some arbitrary goal I set for myself.

On October 1st 2017 I started working full-time on Hello Code. It took many years to get to that point. Part of the reward of reaching that milestone is to run a business the way I want to—the way we want to—rather than how someone else tells us to. And that means I don't have to work hard to reach arbitrary goals if they make me stressed, and make my work unenjoyable. The whole point of Hello Code is to provide us income in a way we're comfortable and happy with. That takes hard work, but we get to choose what hard work we're comfortable doing, and how and when we do it.

You've probably noticed by now that this post makes four for the month. I've written a whole post about not reaching that arbitrary goal in order to do so. But I think that just shows how complicated personal goals can be. While I can say honestly that I chose an arbitrary number of posts to write and I don't need to reach that goal, I still feel a desire to do so. I feel great that I can check that goal off for this month and call it a win.

Rather than dismissing arbitrary goals entirely, I think I've learned to reassess them. Finding a way to reach the goal that I'm comfortable with is a better option than forcing myself to do something I'm not happy about, just to tick off that goal. But if I hadn't found a way to write this post comfortably, I think the next best solution would have been to let go of that goal for this month instead.

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