Goals: Flash Fire vs Steady Flames

Goals: Flash Fire vs Steady Flames


Main Points
• Flash fire goals are big, inspirational, and likely unrealistic. They can help you get farther than you could by shooting for the stars and not the trees.
• Steady flame goals are small, systematized goals that require diligent effort instead of great bursts of energy.
• For me, steady flame goals have produced more work with better quality and better results.
• An example of steady flame goal is having SMART goal, tied with a system to get results.
• Check out 500-50-5 for an example of a steady flame goal.

I was talking to a friend the other day and she shared some of her personal writing goals with me. They were amazing, brilliant, and extraordinarily high. I remember setting similar goals earlier in my writing adventures, goals that motivated me, pushed me, and captivated my imagination. However, all too often, those goals would burn out as fast as they came in, as the day to day nitty-gritty of realizing them overwhelmed me like a tidal wave. I think that’s a reason why a lot of people get excited about things like NaNoWriMo. 50,000 words in a month a huge goal that inspires (like most New Year’s Resolutions) but like many flash fire goals, they burn out long before we’ve reached the end. In this blog post, I’d like to explore what I see as the difference between flash fire goals and steady flame goals.

Flash Fire Goals Burning bright, burning fast, burning out
An old adage goes, “It’s better to shoot for the stars and land in the trees, than shoot for the trees and land in the mud.” It’s about aiming high because even if you fail, you’ll still land higher than you would have had you set a lower goal. There’s merit to that thinking.

There’s some research that having stretch goals, things that aren’t easily attainable, can be beneficial. After all, stretch goals really are inspiring, light up our imagination, and can get us fired up to make it happen. The problem is burn out. I especially got this when trying to finish Nefarious. I made the huge goal to publish by the end of the year (this was years ago), but was soon bogged down in reality: first I had to finish the thing; then I found out it wasn’t perfect (it needed heavy revision); so I revised it; then I gave it to beta-readers; the beta-readers told me to revise it again, especially the romance parts; I had to learn how to write better romance; I started working with a story editor to help me; I signed up for more classes to make the revision process faster; then came all the querying and everything along with self-publishing. I didn’t even finish the book before the year was up, much less start revising it. It was demoralizing, not only because I didn’t succeed, but because I’d already made a few of these flash fire goals for this book. And that, I believe, is the problem with flash fire goals: when you fail too many of them, they demoralize you.

A second problem with my flash fire goal was my ignorant to how difficult it’d be to reach. I had no clue what a goal like “publish a good book” entailed. As I stated earlier, however, I soon out. Had I know, I could have set a much more realistic goal, something that could have stretched me, but also be attainable.

Even if the goal is something like, “write a million words in a year,” while that’s possible, it’s difficult. There’s about 365 days in a year, making that 1,000,000/365=2,740 words every day. Sound hard? Yes. Impossible? No. Will reality get in the way? Absolutely. Sicknesses, family emergencies, your own emergencies, vacations, getting lazy from time to time, it all happens. If you miss just 2 days from this plan, you’re already over 5,000 words behind. If you miss 10 days over a period of a few months, you’re already over 27,000 words behind. That’s extremely hard to come back from.

However, the old adage could still be true. If you’re shooting for a million words, you might not make it, but it might make it farther than you’ve ever gotten. Case in point, I had a huge NaNoWriMo goal last year: write 150,000 words. I worked hard on it, writing as much as I emotionally could (it gets tiring after a while). By the end, I had gotten 100,000 words. It wasn’t the full amount I wanted, but it was more than I would have written previously. It was exhilarating but it was also exhausting. After all, you can’t sprint a marathon and for many people, novel writing is more of a marathon than anything else.

Steady Flame Goals The slow but effective tortoise
The thing that really helped me finish my first novel was creating a system, something I could work with that I could do consistently that would lead to my desired results. I was tired of making really ambitious goals and failing at them. The flash fires spent me out and I was ready to try something new.

I ended up developing 500-50-5. The thing I liked about it, was it had built in procedures to deal with reality and my own shortcomings. I knew I’d have some days where I was lazy. I knew I’d have some days where I’d get sick or have to focus on other things. So I built those consideration into the system.

Writing 500 words every weekday was still a stretch, but it was attainable. It was something I could commit to and as long as I stayed generally committed (allowing for some reality to interrupt), I’d succeed.

And I did.

To this day, I still remember the elation I felt when I finished the novel, my first one that was full length. A peaceful happiness filled me with a quiet triumph. I, Daniel Honey, had finished writing a novel. I stared at the word, Fin, (which I now put at the end of every first draft) and basked in its glory.

Having a system like this is what I’m talking about with having a steady flame goal. It’s something you can do every day, something that might not fire up your soul but it won’t terrify you either and it won’t burn out of fuel on day three. Big goals are like jets of flame. They’re gorgeous, inspirational, reach to the sky but they can’t cook a meal. For that, you need a smaller but more consistent fire, one that stays around for a long time (i.e. lots of small diligent work). A small flame isn’t terribly moving but it definitely gets the job done. A flash fire would just turn a meal to carbon or ash, whereas the small flame is what makes it cooked.

For me, the steady flame goal is what finally got me what I wanted, after making dozens of flash fire goals. Your own experience might be different, but (and this is a huge but), if you find your flash fire goals haven’t gotten the results you want, try a steady flame goal. You might be surprised.

Making Great Goals Getting started
I may dive into what makes good goals, or systems-vs-goals later but for now here are some of the quicker elements I can think of for goal setting, drawing from various sources (including SMART goals, stretch goals, and systems):

Make it a SMART goal (variations on what each letter means abound)
Specific: What’s your end goal? Is it to write a novel?
Measurable: How will you measure success? By word count? By completion?
Action Oriented: What system will get you there? What steps will you need to take?
Realistic: Is the goal realistic (accounts for reality)? Equally important, does it make you stretch? What is realistic for you? (for this last question, make sure to analyze what you’ve already accomplished; maybe a million words in a year is realistic if you’re already in the habit of writing a lot)
Time-Bound: When is the due date? When do you want to see results?

As an example, my SMART goal for finishing Nefarious, was
Specific: I will finish the first draft of my book Nefarious and it will be a full-length novel (greater than 80,000 words).
Measurable: The story will be complete. There will be a resolution (no specific word count goal in mind–it’s done when it’s done but must be greater than 80,000 words).
Action Oriented: I will use the system of 500-50-5 to get there. I will commit to writing 500 words a day.
Realistic: Yes. I can commit to writing 500 words a day with 2 days off a week and 2 entire weeks off during the year. This was a stretch because I hadn’t ever finished a full-length novel
Time-Bound: I will finish by the end of the year (starting from when I commit to 500-50-5)

Even more importantly, what’s my goal for NaNoWriMo?
Specific: Take a large chunk out of my cat story sequel.
Measurable: 50,000 words.
Action Oriented: There are 30 days in November with 4 Sundays. I think I can manage to commit to writing 6 days a week, with one off in case of school or life. That’s 50,000/(30-4)=1,923. I’ll round up to 2,000 words a day. That’s a stretch for me given everything else I want to focus on. Other system tools I’ll use are my outline (already done and pretty in depth), and going to at least one NaNoWriMo thing per week. That should be enough.
Realistic: It’s very possible. It’s a stretch goal and not too flash-firey to burn me out on. If worse comes to worst, this kind of a goal will absolutely help me with my real goal of finishing the first draft by end of the year.
Time-Bound: Finish by end of day, November 30th.

Again, it’s important to note that something like this won’t help everyone. For some, flash fire goals are way more inspirational and they yield the best results. That’s great. I’m in no way trying to say that the steady fire approach is absolutely better for everyone. However, it’s absolutely been better for me.

The important thing is summed up in this one question:
Are you getting the results you want?

If not, regardless of which you’re using, I’d recommend trying something else.

But how about you, dear readers? What has worked best for you in your writing or other creative pursuits, flash fires or steady flame goals?

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