I’m a girl who loves a challenge. (Seriously, try telling me I can’t do something and see what happens.) That’s why, for the last few years when January 1 rolled around, I set reading challenge goals for myself. The first year, it was a fun little activity to expand my reading horizons.

2018 Reading Challenge 2.1But, each year the lists became increasingly more difficult as I competed with myself to read more and read differently. Last year I cobbled together a long list of things like “read the first book you see when you walk into a bookstore,” hoping to expose myself to new and different books, and also increase the difficulty level on myself.

In addition, because one challenge isn’t enough, I set my Goodreads 2018 Reading Challenge to 100 books.

What happened to these challenges?

They started to feel like a chore. For the first half of the year, I obsessively updated Goodreads every time I started and finished a book. By mid-year, I was well ahead of schedule. That should have made me feel good, right?

April reading challenge status

Every month, I referred back to my self-created Reading Challenge trying to retrofit books into categories just to cross something off the list or identify books to fit a concept rather than reading something because I wanted to read it.

By the end of the year, I read 108 books and crossed about half the challenge categories off my list. If I got creative with definitions, I could probably say it was more. But, honestly, I just stopped caring. By October, my obsessive updating turned into sporadic logging of books and I forgot about my challenge list completely.

These weren’t the only rules and challenges I set for myself in 2018. Additional writing self-imposed challenges included:

  1. Writing or editing every, single day for at least an hour
  2. Write a blog at least every three days
  3. Finish editing on Travelers II and get it to the publisher
  4. Enter all appropriate Twitter pitch contests
  5. Continue to edit two other completed books
  6. Start and finish a new novel

And, note, these are just reading and writing goals. Imagine what I do in the rest of my life…

How did I achieve any of these goals?

That brings me to January 1, 2019. For me, New Year’s is about reflection, not resolutions. Upon reflection of last year, I learned the obscure reading and writing rules I impose on myself add to my stress level rather than doing what they were meant to do – provide a respite. Writing and books have always been my escape. Now they feel more like an obligation.

lightbulbAnd worse, the time devoted to my self-imposed rules started to impact my creativity. That sounds like such an obnoxious “artsy” thing to say, but it really was true. I had no time to think or reflect.

Flickers of imagination and tiny explosions of ideas wandered in and out of my head. Instead of allowing myself time to indulge those thoughts, I hunkered down and stuck to my rules, pushing away what might have been something great because I had to stick with what I started, hoping the idea might return to me later (unlikely).

Having the fortitude to stick to a goal sounds like it should be a good characteristic. But, oftentimes, our best traits are also our worst. My focus and determination serve me well in life and at work, but not always when it comes to creativity. Yes, I was achieving my goals in one sense, but I was losing something else in the process, the happiness writing and reading bring to my life.

So what made me see I needed to change?

I took time off. Actual time off. One blissful vacation week in Singapore, in the middle of NANOWRIMO (yet another writing challenge I imposed on myself). Even though I wanted desperately to complete my NANOWRIMO novel, while simultaneously continuing work on every other project in my life, I didn’t. I didn’t win NANOWRIMO.

In Singapore, I wrote when I wanted and I read when I wanted and I let myself enjoy a place on the other side of the world from me without worrying about work or obligations. It might have been the first time in many, many years, perhaps even since I reached adulthood, that I just existed in a place and time without worrying about what came next.

I’m not sure why I chose that moment to let go. Perhaps it was that I spent the week with my calming best friend who always makes me feel like I’m good enough and I don’t have to be perfect. Perhaps it was that I knew to go to Singapore was a rare opportunity and if I didn’t fully embrace it I was a moron. Perhaps I finally realized I just needed a break.

Whatever it was. I stopped stressing about writing and life and just existed.

And here’s what I discovered, when I allowed myself time to think….

The level of guilt I feel when I don’t write a blog at least every three days or read at least two books a week isn’t healthy or normal. What I love about writing and reading is they spark the creative side of my brain and I need that just as much as I need the practical, action-oriented side. I must let it breathe.

Yes, it’s important to have goals. And when you’re a writer, it’s important to have good writing habits. If we only did it when we “felt like it” there might be no blogs or books at all in the world. But creativity also cannot be boxed into a rigid set of rules. Under those circumstances, it withers and dies.

I didn’t just need to change the way I approached reading and writing, I needed to change the way I approached my life, starting with saying no to self-imposed rules and challenges.

So this year, there will be no book challenges or writing resolutions. Instead of rules, I have a mantra.

  • Don’t feel guilty about not reading.
  • Don’t feel guilty about not writing.
  • Don’t feel guilty about not blogging.
  • Do the best you can.
  • Breathe, think and write.

This is a reminder to myself to let go of the crazy person inside me who feels like a failure if she isn’t perfect all the time. It sounds cliché, but life is a balance and I need to find mine. I haven’t yet. But I think this is a start.