Planning to fail

I have an admission make. A few weeks ago I made a pledge to write 500 words a day on the new novel I’m writing. Since that day, I’ve kept that process for exactly zero days. I could make all sorts of excuses that relate to parenting (by the way, is being a husband “husbanding”?), work, Christmas shopping, running, and–of course–blogging. But I would be lying if I identified any of them as the cause.

So what has gone wrong? I have a simple answer: all talk, no process. I’ve written before about the importance of design, but of course that doesn’t mean I take my own advice. I came up with a plan to write every day (the 500-w0rd thing), but I’ve suffered from a common problem. My plan didn’t actually take into account the things that could go wrong, the obstacles–external and internal–that might prevent me from doing what I said I would. In short, I haven’t designed a process that anticipates failure.

Now, planning for failure might sound counter-intuitive, but nothing could be more logical. Humans constantly misread signals, make mistakes, get sidetracked, get tired, lose our focus, and just plain screw up. We know this about ourselves, but it’s so tempting to pretend that all I need is a goal and a simple plan and everything will go just fine. Quite the contrary: my odds of actually doing what I’ve planned improve if I take my failings into account.

My running schedule, for example, assumes that I’ll get up and go run first thing. I’ve learned that that’s the time I most often have available. But the plan also allows me the rest of the day to get in the run if for some reason I don’t get going at daybreak. I also have a schedule planned out for weeks and even months into the future. If I happen to miss a single day, instead of panicking or getting discouraged, I know that I can get back the next day; I feel confident that over the long term, a single day’s failure won’t harm my commitment.

I’ve come to realize that a good process has to anticipate the bad days as well the good, the unproductive as well the productive. As a writing teacher for more than 20 years, I’ve seen that students’ biggest problem is working with an unforgiving writing process. Drafting an essay a few hours before it’s due assumes that everything will go right: no fatigue from drinking the night before, no problems with the boyfriend or girlfriend, no confusion about the assignment, no computer breakdowns, no lack of inspiration–you get the idea. But in complex, creative work, it’s much more likely that at least something, and often several things, will go wrong.

And so it has gone for my novel project. So the new plan is to create a new plan. A plan that accepts failures so that I can make success more likely.

Do you ever plan for failure? And if so, how?

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