Goal-Setting and Planning for a Productive Summer: Or, How Atomic Habits Annihilated My Daily Routine
Earlier this summer, I made new goals for running and for writing. I got all amped up to run a fast marathon and 100k, and decided that I would become the next Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. I read books like Atomic Habits by James Clear and Do Hard Things by Steve Magness and I designed a daily habit around achieving these goals. I also got a fancy new daily planner to keep myself organized.
My new daily habit looked like this:
- · Get up at 6:15
- · Make coffee and work on my schedule for the day; reflect on yesterday.
- · Go for a run (1-2hrs) following the Daniels/Pfitzinger training plan
- · Eat breakfast
- · Write 1500 words of my novel
- · Eat lunch
- · Take a nap
- · Work on my classes for 2-3hrs
- · Do home maintenance for 1hr
- · Do anything else that I don’t want to do (e.g., schedule appointments, run errands)
- · Make dinner and hang out with Erica
- Go to bed by 8:30
During the 2.5 weeks I kept this up, I was a productivity animal. I’ve never been much of a morning person—preferring to sleep in until I feel ready to get up. Not anymore. I optimized those sunrise hours and felt like a badass while doing it. I’ve also typically had trouble doing those chores I don’t much care for. For the 2.5 weeks in question, these included inspecting the crawl space, installing a third light in the guest bathroom, fixing the wheelbarrow, researching
and repairing an electrical problem on the riding lawnmower, organizing my office. I also wrote around 10,000 words each week, and students didn’t have to wait more than ~16 hours to have an email returned. I ran 62 miles and 55 miles for consecutive weeks, which included a day off during week two (which is one of the hard things I don’t like doing). Oh, and I was averaging 40 minutes a day of phone use, which is much lower than usual.
Then I burned up.
It was a Wednesday, I think. That's when my planner entries stopped, anyhow. I had sat down to work on a chapter I was writing, but nothing came. I was evern writing a scene that I had been itching to write. I had lots of ideas, but there was no creative flow happening. It felt like I had a hangover or something. And all of the little jobs I had been eager to chew the ears off of Mike Tyson style suddenly became impossible. I checked my temperature: 97.7 degrees. That wasn't it.
I decided to turn my alarm off for the morning (so to speak. I actually didn't need an alarm after the third day). Maybe I needed extra sleep. I went to bed at 9:45pm, and woke up at 9am. I did nothing that day except for a short run. No chores. No writing. No errands. I went to bed at 10:30. No reading before bed, either. I was on Reddit and reading race reports from people who had finished ultramarathons. I woke up the next morning at 10am.
Over the next week, the amount of sleep I needed decreased to 9hrs, but the amount of stuff I did stayed the same. I haven’t looked at my novel in maybe five days. I did, however, help Erica install new flooring, trim, and toilet in our guest bathroom. I’ve also watched hours and hours of television.
My Analysis: I had Already Found My Optimal Way of Being
The assumption at the base of Atomic Habits (and its cognitive-behavioral foundation) is that my optimum potential is something that I must choose for myself. In other words, I cannot trust the potential that would unfold naturally. I must distrust myself.
For example, I chose to make a goal for myself of finishing my novel before the end of the month (which, coincidentally, is today). Note here that I imagined my future potential as being a person who completed their novel by a certain date. Atomic Habits (and behaviorism) provides a route of achieving this potential. And it works. All I have to do is follow my plan. If, instead, I ride by the seat of my pants—getting up when I want and writing if and when I want, then who knows what will happen? All I know is that I probably won’t end up writing the novel by the end of July.
At the 2.5 week point, which is when I burned up, I would have needed to double down. Trust the plan. I would have had to ignore everything in me that was screaming at me to rest. Ignore the desert of creativity in my head, and continue plugging away at my keyboard—get that word count up. Keep checking off items on my to-do list. In time, my body would adjust. I would actualize my potential (as chosen weeks earlier).
Even though I was getting my words on the page each day, I found that I didn’t enjoy it very much. I wasn’t giggling as I wrote anymore. The character interactions and dialogue felt stale. It felt prescriptive. “I can revise it later,” I said. I guess I could pencil in “creativity” on that later date.
I also felt pretty dead when Erica got home from work. No pride in what I’d accomplished that day. I just wanted to eat something and zone out. No conversation. No flirting or cuddling or “How was your day?” Hardly any TV. I was ready to crawl into bed by 8pm.
I don’t fault behaviorism or Atomic Habits for my failure. I know the methods would have worked had I stuck to my plan. The problem with my plan was that my goals began to lose their luster after about 14 days, after which point I didn’t much care for the plan anymore. That’s when I started to wonder if maybe I had chosen the wrong goals, and so on.
Which brings me back to a central principle of humanistic psychology: the best goals are the ones that manifest more or less spontaneously out of my person—out of my organism and personality as I exist moment to moment. I learned this in graduate school and, on my better days, I trusted it throughout my career. This means that I cannot predict if the novel will ever be finished or if I will ever run another marathon. All I can know is what I feel compelled to do today (which was to think about my values and to reflect on my weeks of productivity).
My New Goal: Goal-lessness
As an endurance runner, my time goals are driven by short-lived bursts of motivation and vision. They drive maybe 4-8 weeks of dedicated training, but there is no longevity there. In order to achieve running goals, the long-term approach is the only approach.
But I don’t think long-term goal setting is honest, at least not in my case. I know that I enjoy running. I know that I enjoy working hard maybe 1-2 times a week. I know that I like running around 50 miles each week, with most of those miles being relatively easy. What this means for marathon times and 100k times is impossible to predict. I don’t think imagining these figures will do me any good. They will serve as task master on days when I would rather not be training. They’re just something else to make me feel miserable or to distrust myself with.
So, too, with my writing. I know that a lot of my books got written by adhering to presumed values and following fixed goals, but not all of them were written that way. In my experience, I might go five months without writing a word, but then a dam inside me breaks and I go on a 2-3 month tear, writing an entire book without looking up. I can trust that that will happen again, if it needs to. Maybe it won’t.
So what does this say about my values? I guess it means that I value self-actualization more than doing hard things or optimizing what I imagine my potential to be. I value trust in myself. Trust in my process of being and becoming, however uncertain or unflattering as that seems. I can believe that what has worked in the past may not continue to work, but I can’t know for sure.
I have a desire to be disciplined, but maybe this doesn’t mean becoming a disciple of productivity, optimization, or self-abnegation. Perhaps my discipline is to ignore the allure of goal-formation, planning, and achievements. Perhaps my discipline is to trust myself—to accept what and who I am.
[Gee, would you look at that? I feel as if I’ve just sat down, and I feel a lightness/clarity about my life that I didn’t have an hour ago. And I’ve already written around 1300 words.]