New Year goals and the smartest numbers

I’m hoping now that the first week of the year is over, those “new year, new me” posts will die down. I understand that it’s valuable to share your intent to have a measure of accountability, but I get sad at all the goals stated and how many of them relate to numbers – lose x pounds in weight, run y miles by a certain date, read z number of books in a year. It seems to me that stark numbers can discourage people as often as motivate.

I understand this is partly the way my mind works – I’m not mathematically minded and I’m not at all competitive so numbers don’t help me. Also, it does depend on the goal. If your goal is to save money, for example, then numbers will help immensely and I recommend you take some time to build yourself a kick-ass spreadsheet to monitor and track your progress. Most new year goals, however, are about self-improvement and that’s harder to track in Excel.

I tried many different ways to get motivated to exercise and none of them really worked until I admitted to myself that although I understand that it’s important, I neither like nor really care that much about it. It simply doesn’t matter to me how far I can run or how many laps I can swim. I only got myself into a regular routine when I admitted that and incorporated things I do like into my schedule.

I watch TV while on the treadmill, and I don’t know how far I travel or how fast. I know that I can manage a speed walk through an episode of Daredevil or Preacher, but the variable episode lengths of shows like Stranger Things and Legion can still catch me out from time to time. I listen to podcasts when swimming – when I started, I’d swim for the duration of a short podcast – Radio 4’s Curious Cases of Rutherford and Fry had me fascinated, and I got hooked on serials such as Homecoming and Welcome to Nightvale. Now my stamina is better, I can swim for the duration of long form interviews on shows like Distraction Pieces or Nerdist. I learn a lot, and I don’t drive myself crazy counting laps so the whole experience is much more relaxing.

What has this got to do with writing? I think sometimes too much focus can be put on the numbers there, too. How many poems you write or publish, how many books you read or how often you write. All those numbers seem arbitrary to me. I do track my publications, mainly so I know what’s out with a magazine and what’s free to send, and the only number I track is the number of rejections. That’s not as demotivating as it sounds – I find it immensely satisfying when something that has been rejected, say, eight times, finally finds a home.

Sometimes when I’m swimming, I listen to recordings of myself reading drafts of poems. If you can get over the sound of your own voice, it’s really helpful. I listen to the same draft over and over while I’m swimming and in the process, grasp the rhythm, and the points where it falls off. Phrases that annoy me on a loop are edited out. I don’t leave the pool until I’ve found whatever it was that was bothering me about the draft; sometimes that takes 20 minutes and sometimes that takes an hour and a half. Because I dropped my focus on the number of laps I swim, I can focus on what I really care about, which is my writing.

If you’re setting writing goals, try to focus on generating your best writing, rather than the highest volume, and trust that publications will follow. It’s not a race, and there are no medals to be won. By all means set tangible goals, but remember they’re there just to help you achieve your true aim, they’re not the aim in itself. If tracking word counts or publications helps you write your best work then by all means, keep going but if you find such things daunting then let them go. Write your best work, be your best self and find your own way to keep going.