The Importance of Setting Your Sights Low

On the Internet recently I have been reading a lot about how you need to work hard and set yourself lofty goals in order to make it as a writer. I have been bombarded by people telling me that you need to sweat blood and work all the hours God sends. If necessary you must neglect your family in your quest for writerly glory. After all, you’ve got to make sacrifices if you want to succeed and who doesn’t?

You need to constantly write and constantly promote. If you don’t, there are people who will and they will all do better than you, you loser! It’s a competitive business and you are either a winner or you are nowhere. If you take time out to see your loved ones, you are simply a wimp, wimp!

There are blogs citing the example of world class athletes and great business leaders and pointing to them as role models for success. There are blogs where writers hold themselves and their work ethic up in a similar manner. We need to emulate these people if we are to succeed. We need to strive hard and if we don’t at first achieve our goals, we need to pick ourselves up, dust ourselves down and try, try again. We need to set our sights high, and work, work, work.

I find this all very discouraging.

I am not a world class athlete and I have never wanted to be one (although I would quite like the money they earn). I don’t quite see how copying Steve Jobs is going to make me a better writer either.

I am a lazy man and the only thing I like to compete in is the occasional board game and PvP in Alterac Valley. And yet, somehow, I have managed to stumble through the writing of 20+ novels and on to several bestseller lists. I have even managed to earn a decent living for over a decade writing fiction without ever once thinking I should kill myself with overwork.

I did not do this by setting my sights high. I did it by setting my sights low and often missing. I do not doubt for a moment that you would be better off following my slothful example than that of a hard-working go-getter. I think it’s really, really important that you understand the importance of not trying too hard.

Let us take the setting of goals — we can all agree that these are important. We’ve got to know where we’re going in order to get there. We need to make commitments to getting things done in order to do them. But there’s a right way and a wrong way to go about this. You can set yourself a great target which you know will guarantee success if only you can achieve it in the long run. Alternatively, you can do it right and aim as low as possible.

To give a simple example, say I set my goal as writing 3000 words a day. I psych myself up with motivational mantras and I get ready to be a winner by writing those 3000 words. I’ve chosen a target that is very challenging but I can do it by giving it my best shot. After all, I’ve done it before on the best and most productive days of my life. I want to always be at my best. I want to be a winner. But things don’t always go according to plan, and, as they say, only the mediocre are always at their best. Let’s say I only manage 2500 words. I have failed. I am a loser. And I will feel that way permanently soon, if I keep doing this day in, day out. This is the danger in always aiming at the edge of what you are capable of.

On the other hand let us say that I set myself the goal of writing 1000 words a day. I sit down to write it and I manage it easily. Victory is mine. I feel cocky now. I write another 1000 words. Hey—that was pretty enjoyable. I push on and I write another 500 words. I have now exceeded my goal by 150%. What a hero I am!

As you can see, in one scenario, I am a loser. In the other I am a hero. I wrote exactly the same amount in both cases.

Psychologists have shown that we will do a lot more to avoid pain and negative feelings than we will to achieve pleasure and experience positive feelings. The effort ratio is about 4 to 1 I believe although there is every chance I am making that bit up and I am too lazy to go fact check. If you set yourself lofty goals and don’t meet them, all you are doing is rubbing your nose in failure.

In the long run, constant grinding failure is simply demotivating, as is comparing yourself to world champion athletes and enormously bestselling writers unless, of course, you happen to be one. If, day in, day out, you fail to achieve your lofty goals, you will eventually become so discouraged that you will give up or the struggle will become so painful that you will lose all pleasure in your work. Being a writer is all about the long run. It takes time to write books. It takes effort to finish them. If you want to keep being a writer, you need to keep writing. Making this painful is not an optimal strategy. Making it fun is.

Of course, there are some very real dangers to my approach. After you’ve enjoyed some success with it, you will be tempted to raise your sights. You will think I’ve beat my targets every day. Maybe I should reset them upwards. Resist! That way lies madness. You will eventually escalate to those challenging goals that you so badly need to avoid.

The key is to set achievable goals, easily achievable goals by preference, the easier the better, in fact. In this way you avoid pain and set yourself up for a stream of constant, small psychological rewards. You’ll be happy and, just like me, you will have all the benefits of making your family miserable by your presence instead of your absence. You owe it to yourself and your loved ones to be there for them and you can achieve this by the magic of setting your sights low.

Now excuse me I am off to write another 50 words.

12 Replies to “The Importance of Setting Your Sights Low”

  1. Yeah, that pretty much nails it. Of course, I am still saddled with guilt, y’know, but I think thats an upbringing thing. Being irrevocably trapped in the longhand-1st-draft method, getting those words down is literally a physically demanding process – damn, can almost feel every word as I hammer into the page, bwah hah hah!…then tippex it out. But o course, it all has then to be typed up, which can be a strain, but does give me carte blanche for revisions on the fly. Hey, whatever works works – except that I need to get a method that doesnt lead to pre-deadline panic…

  2. Ah! Who do you think you’re tricking? Yours is just a cunning tactic to make all other writers (and would-be writers, like myself) lazier and lazier, so you get a competitive advantage!!! 😉

  3. @Michael– what you need is my Lazy Bastard’s Guide to Meeting Deadlines, which will soon be available on these very pages.

    @Alessio — damn, you’ve seen right through my cunning plan. Oh well, back to the drawing board. My next post will be entitled How To Write A Novel With No Effort and No Typing. That should keep you all distracted for a few days while I stretch my inevitable lead by 100 more words.

  4. Good guide. While you get your head start going I will be scratching down todays 20 words…

    But seriously, all hail the King!

  5. Hello, I just want to say that this is great advice, I constantly suffer for not reaching my goals (as a writer and film writer), I’ll start again slow today and see how I go. I’m glad I found your page, I’m a big fan of your stories Mr. King.

    Greetings from Mexico.

  6. Damn you, King. I wrote something similar to this yesterday, but binned it as I didn’t think it was worthing posting. And now it’s not worth having another go…

  7. Hey Ian, great minds think alike! (Or is it fools seldom differ.)BTW I managed to mention Star Barbarians of the Galactic Cyberpatrol on my Facebook page yesterday. I may yet talk this story into being.

  8. Hi Bill,

    Oddly enough I was just telling an editor in a pub this week about your old theory that guilt was an important part of writing… I’m a big subscriber to the idea of making myself so guilty by doing just about anything but writing it fuels the eventual writing…

    1. Hey Alan,

      I know this method well. These days I also use boredom. Basically sit down at the computer and switch off the internet. Don’t allow yourself to do anything but stare at the screen. Sooner or later you will find your hands moving towards the keyboard. I will be covering all this in my upcoming post — The Lazy Bastard’s Guide to Meeting Deadlines. This started as a joke but I have had so many requests for it, I am going to have to write it…eventually.

Leave a Reply