Writers in the Storm

A blog about writing

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January 21, 2022

Two A-ha Moments That Boosted My Writing Confidence

by Jenny Hansen

I started January with something a little different this year: a workshop about goals. I have a confession to make... I struggle to meet my own goals. Constantly.

Notice I said "my own goals." I am aces with outward-facing goals. Work projects, family projects, Writers In the Storm three days a week. I nail those suckers. But my own goals tend to fall far behind the rest of my life's commitments. Perhaps this happens to you too.

This month's goals class delved into two things that gave me "a-ha moments" of epic proportions.

Let me explain...

Two Phrases That Sparked Change

The class began with the instructor saying: "Joy. Progress. Power. Fulfillment. Learning. Impact. These are the important qualities about goals."

(And then he got to the parts I really needed to hear. The magic is in easy-to-find blue font below.)

"Your brain is meant to solve problems, not just store a bunch of to-do's. You can’t get clarity while you’re mired in a to-do list."

If you’re inside the jar, you can’t read the label.

And that was my first "a-ha moment."

I have grand lists that I misplace or get overwhelmed by. Those lists often feel like running through molasses. No joy, slow progress, no fulfillment.

I think this is the true reason so many writers (especially slightly ADD writers like me) get procrastination paralysis on their projects. It's those huge to-do lists with no action plan. There is a how to some of these to-do's, especially big to-do's, that must be respected.

Organizing is a project as well and it takes time. And sometimes it helps to decide in advance what "done" looks like so you don't get lost inside that jar.

Perhaps we cannot really manage time - perhaps we can only manage priorities.

Example #1:

Think about a website. Perhaps the name of the goal is "Finish Website." But the actual goal looks more like this:

Give the Goal a Realistic Deadline.

Brainstorm a list of steps (this lets your brain solve problems):

  • Make list of 6 Hex Colors
  • Find complementary graphics - at least two, must be landscape, min size: 1200x800
  • Build wireframe
  • Research plugins
  • Choose WordPress theme
  • Choose fonts

The list is much larger than this, but there's no need to bore you with it. Organize those steps into sequential tasks. Schedule some time on your calendar. Work on them several times a week.

Example #2:

Here's a goal we can ALL relate to: "Finish Book" (or even "Finish Chapter [fill in the blank]")

Y'all know that's a terrible goal, right? Not only does it fail the SMART goal test, it's the kind of goal that's sure to send any insecure writer screaming from the page. At the very least, there will be questions like: Where do I start? How will I know when it is done?

If you have any hope of finishing something as big as a book, your list of goals has to be broken down into much smaller steps that might look something more like this:

Chapter 1 To-Do's

If you're a plotter...

  • List out chapter goals
  • List out characters needed onscreen to accomplish these goals
  • List the problems that must be solved in this chapter
  • Divide all this into 3-4 scenes
  • Write them one at a time
  • Repeat over multiple chapters

If you're a pantser...

  • Schedule writing time
  • Set out kitchen timer
  • List at least two chapter goals
  • Start writing (Note: timed sprints often work best for pantsers)
  • Repeat over multiple writing sessions

Our friend Laura Drake is a pantser of the highest order, but she has an Excel spreadsheet of what happens in every chapter. She updates it as she goes along. She might not know everything about where she's going when she sits down to write, but she knows where she's been and it helps her move forward until she can fully see the story.

Plus, she knows the big secret of goal achievement: What gets scheduled gets done. If you set a habit of achievement in place, you will make progress on those goals.

Remember, when it comes to goals, PROGRESS = HAPPINESS.

Since achieving a goal or making progress releases dopamine in your brain, this one really is true. Setting yourself up for success is the best way to keep moving forward on your writing goals.

This LifeHack.org article , The Science of Setting Goals says it better than I do: "Among other things, dopamine acts as a motivator, creating a sensation of pleasure when the brain is stimulated by achievement. The attainment of the object of our desire releases dopamine into our brains, and we feel good."

When you set a goal and keep your word to yourself, your reward is a nice shot of dopamine. Woo!

And here was the second lightbulb moment for me:

Not breaking down my goals into manageable pieces hurts more than my work in progress.

When you don’t keep an agreement with yourself, it erodes your self-confidence and the ability to trust yourself and your own word.

In other words, it's highly expensive to your writing confidence to break your word to yourself. If you are scared or shamed about meeting your writing goals, you will get stuck. It's human nature. Plus, you don't get the lovely dopamine.

I had to take a break and a deep breath after the instructor dropped that bomb about keeping agreements with yourself. Because often, I just ...don't.

I'm so busy meeting the demands of others in my life that my dreams get shuffled to the back of the line. Instead of those dreams getting a luxury lakefront view, they're being relegated to the seat in the back next to the trash can for days or weeks at a time.

My dreams (and yours) deserve better treatment.

The Good News

If this breaking your word to yourself thing is a pattern, you can make the choice to put it behind you and move forward differently. The same as it does with our characters, a misbelief can create anxiety and procrastination. It can erode our confidence in ourselves.

When you keep your word to yourself, you are better able to keep it to others. In other words, prioritizing your goals helps the others in your life too.

Great mantras for all you Goal Chasers:

Where focus goes, energy flows.

What gets scheduled gets done.

FEAR = False evidence (that) appears real.

COURAGE = action in spite of fear.

It is not the stars that create light but rather light that creates the stars.

don Miguel Ruiz, The Four Agreements

Go forth and embrace your light, y'all. I believe that every one of you has the power to illuminate the world through your writing.

What "a-ha moments" have boosted your writing confidence? Do you break your word to yourself or do you keep it no matter what? Please share your story with us down in the comments!

* * * * * *

About Jenny

By day, Jenny Hansen provides corporate communications and LinkedIn advice for professional services firms. By night she writes humor, memoir, women’s fiction, and short stories. After 20 years as a corporate trainer, she’s delighted to sit down while she works.

When she’s not at her personal blog, More Cowbell, Jenny can be found on Facebook at JennyHansenAuthor or at Writers In The Storm.

48 comments on “Two A-ha Moments That Boosted My Writing Confidence”

  1. "If you're inside the jar, you can't read the label." Brilliant! I'm a pantser who wishes she had more of a plotster in her. Working on scheduling more of my pantser chapters. 🙂

    1. I edge that line between pantser and plotser, so I absolutely feel you here.

      I do have one advantage on this front - I am a scene writer, so I only ever focus on ONE scene. It's the quality that has made me more of a plotser. The hugeness of writing a whole book paralyzed me until I embraced my scene writer self. Now I make a list of scenes and pick one at a time to break down and write.

  2. Right now, I need to remember to focus on the NOW and not let what's coming up stall the writing. I'm starting a new book, so it's at that "why are the characters doing all this?" stage. It's so easy to say, "Well, my narrator will be sending me audio chapter soon, and once they come in, I have to focus on that." Or, "I'll be leaving on vacation (major trip) and I know I won't be writing there, so why start if it's all going to come to a halt anyway."

    1. It sounds like you have some major excitement coming up, Terry. That's wonderul!

      For me, when I have a lot of commitments and to-do items swirling at the same time, I tend to get lost inside the jar. Do you just keep a notebook or note-taking software at the ready, so you can grab the ideas when they wander by? That might be an option that eases your mind while you're getting ready for this vacation.

      1. Sticky notes and a foam core board, and a legal tablet at the ready. I also have a file called "Notes" for each book, but I don't seem to use that beyond the initial brainstorming session.

  3. I love the "where focus goes, energy flows." I'm really good at sitting down at the computer to write first thing every morning. I'm not so good at keeping my focus on my book. That mantra is going on a post-it and the bottom center of my computer screen.

    1. Sitting down to write is half the battle, Lynette. You're already way ahead of the people who are re-organizing their linen closets and procrasti-baking.

      Many times, I kinda have to seduce myself into the story with coffee and kitchen timers. That's when I sip the coffee and tell myself "I only have to write for 20 minutes. If I'm not feeling it, I'll stop and do something more productive."

      It works like a charm every time!

  4. This was a great post, Jenny! If I write down my intention I will exhaust myself to accomplish it. The key word there is "if." I have annual goals, which are written in a two-page spread in my journal. There are also monthly goals in the journal. Lastly, there are the small, daily goals on a whiteboard. Once a task reaches the monthly level my determination kicks in and I will do anything to accomplish the goal. Basically, it's "where focus goes, energy flows."

    Sound impressive? Maybe, but before that I'm excellent at avoidance when it comes to great unknowns, especially if they involve technology. Draft a book in a month? No problem. Revise? No problem. Update my computer? Panic. Literal panic. Publish? More panic. If I break the "panic" category items into as many small tasks as possible I can stretch the task out and write it down. At that point, it'll get done. Preparation and minor victories build my confidence, and that's huge.

    1. Stating the intention is so powerful, isn't it? I actually made a list of goals for the year and I rarely do that. I typically schedule out the work calendar and the family events and then shoehorn in the rest...which means it doesn't happen.

      Once I climbed out of the jar and really examined my focus, that was when it hit me that it WASN'T ME. I've been clearing the decks for my important goals this month - just escorting all the other less important stuff right out the door. It's pretty freeing.

  5. If I don't break my work into chunks I'm in a world of hurt. This goes for pretty much everything for me. When we move, I try to finish one room so I can go sit in it when I feel overwhelmed with the enormity of it all.

    When writing, like you, I write by scenes. If I try to do too much at once the lines blur.

    "If you’re inside the jar, you can’t read the label." Perfect statement.

    Great post, Jenny. Thanks!

    1. What a great way to get through a move! It also helps you pack better, so you know what goes into that one room. And high five to another scene writer!!! We are a small-but-mighty pack of scriveners. 🙂

  6. Oooh - that not keeping my word to myself really hit home. I'm great at keeping my word to other people, but my own goals often fall short. I excuse this as "being productive" - but if I see that as harming my writer's spirit, that makes it much more important to prioritize my own goals! Thanks for this, Jen!

    1. You are welcome! It hit home to me too, that I'm damaging my muse and creativity by putting everyone else first. Our writing spirits deserve better!!

  7. Loved this, Jenny! needed the breakdown list reminder. My dad taught me to do this as a kid and somehow I just got away from it. Thanks!

    1. I've gotten away from it too, and I sometimes feel like my to-do list wants to gulp me down like Jonah and the whale. Breaking things down into the smaller pieces takes time, but it makes the goal more manageable. See? I have to get back to it too!

    1. You are so very welcome, Andrea! It's lovely to see you here at WITS!! (And I write posts to give myself reminders and encouragement, so it's nice when it works for other people too. 🙂 )

  8. I like to think of myself as a plantser pantser. While I'm definitely a pantser, there are some things I have planned for tracking purposes. Somehow, I did it inherently, and it paid off on my first project and I just continued it as a process.


  9. I definitely feel that “keep promises with yourself.” I’ve always been a writer and a huge planner, but I’ve never been able to finish a book. Something clicked in the past two years that has made me more reliable to myself, and I’m now halfway done with what I hope will be my first completed book. It really goes to show, schedules and keeping promises to yourself are huge.

    1. Amorina, we read every comment that comes in! We love comments here at WITS - they're like our reward for managing the blog. 🙂

      p.s. Your name is gorgeous. I've never seen it before, but I adore that it means "the loved one."

  10. This hit me square in the writing plexus! I’m so this person, like you, who puts other things in front of my writing sometimes. Thanks for this article and the breakdown of goals. I’m tackling this ….tomorrow. ??

    1. Ha! I love "the writing plexus." And I think you should come back and let me know how the goal breakdown went. When I dug into it, it felt a little weird. Good, but weird.

  11. My boosts have come from outside. I'm a very solitary writer, though I have many online writer friends. On several occasions, someone has written something to me that blows my mind, goes far beyond kind, and stays with me. Orders of magnitude beyond necessary or nice, these are the times someone tells me they were moved by what I've written, that they get it.

    I store them all. I'm so slow the reactions aren't frequent, but I reread when I most need it.

  12. Nothing succeeds like success. Therefore I set smaller goals that work to a larger one. Succeeding on the small goals encourages me to tackle the next one. I know there is a very good chance that I will succeed again. What a snowball effect there is!

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