Everyone sets goals, whether they realize it or not. But the truth is, most people who “set” goals are really only in the planning stages of ambition.
You might tell anyone who asks about your career goals that you want to write a book someday, for example. But that’s little more than a statement. A fact. There’s no inspiration there. There are only words. It’s just a wish, nothing more.
So how do you get from “I want to write a book someday” to “New York Times bestselling author” — from a fleeting wish to a surefire goal? Maybe that’s not your exact desired result, and that’s OK. But what matters most in the moment isn’t the goal itself, but how you approach conquering it.
I’ve been a writer long enough to have learned the difference between making a wish and establishing a goal. Writing goals in particular are about as challenging as writing itself because regardless of your desired endpoint, there are about a thousand tiny goals that stand between you and The Big One. Like, you can’t just decide to write a book one day and become a bestselling author the next. There’s a lot of in-between to work through.
Starting off on the right foot helps. To do that, you need to begin with a goal. Not a wish, not a “someday,” but a goal — a what, a when. A why, too, if you have one.
It’s not as tough as it might seem. The rules look a little something like this:
YOUR GOAL MUST BE AS DETAILED AS POSSIBLE. Some use the word “specific.” You don’t have to change your wish — “I want to write a book someday” is a fine thing to want. But “someday” implies you’ll get to it eventually, which definitely almost always means never. I always tell writers at all stages of their careers to set deadlines for themselves when formulating a goal. “I want to finish writing the first draft of a book by the end of 2020.” That’s better.
YOU SHOULD ALWAYS TRACK YOUR PROGRESS AS YOU GO. This requires breaking your big goal into smaller bite-size goals. Example: “I’m going to write 500 words a day in 2019.” Or, “I’m going to write a chapter a week.” That will eventually get you to your bigger goal because all books do end, and 500 words at a time fills that progress meter more than you think. Keep track of your progress in a notebook or spreadsheet, or whatever method is going to allow you to look back at what you’ve accomplished, especially on days you’re feeling discouraged or as though you’re not moving toward your finish line at all.
YOU NEED A GOOD PLAN, AND YOU NEED TO BE WILLING TO REVISE THAT PLAN. It’s not enough to decide you want to accomplish something. You need to have a plan in place for how you’re going to do that, because the part of a goal most people don’t pay attention to is whether or not they’re capable of doing it. Imagine if you tried to write a book in a week. That’s not an attainable goal. You’re already set yourself up to fail and you haven’t even started. My advice? Give yourself more time than you think you need. Set goals in multiple layers: an easy goal, a challenging but manageable goal, and a stretch goal. “Today I’m going to write 250 words. If I can do that, I might try for 500. If I do that, let’s shoot for a thousand.” You’ll easily breeze past your first goal, and probably won’t reach your third. But your second, which is the goal you had for yourself all along, is the one to reach for.
But don’t forget to figure out HOW you’re going to do that — the plan, remember? I haven’t watched Netflix for a month. I decided that was what I needed to set aside in order to meet my daily writing goals. It’s part of my plan. I will watch less Netflix and write more. It works. Most of the time.
And if I do want to watch something on Netflix … I need to do whatever it takes to get my writing done first. My backup plan. I don’t like it. But that’s why it’s called a backup.
YOUR GOAL NEEDS TO ALIGN WITH YOUR VISION, ALWAYS. I help writers put their ideas into words, or at least I try to. I wouldn’t be qualified to do that if I didn’t spend significant amounts of time developing and refining my own skills. Therefore, my writing goals hold major significance in my life. I’m not just writing a blog post or working on a book because it sounds cool. These are goals that fall upon the path leading to a bigger vision for my future career. Relevance in goal-setting is essential, because if you don’t care about it, you’re not going to put in the effort to make it happen. So don’t say you want to write a book unless you really, really want to do that. Always have a why. “This matters because ___.” “I want to do this because it will help me ___.”
YOU NEED A DEADLINE FOR EVERY TASK. I was supposed to write this weeks ago and guess what I didn’t do? Give myself a deadline. OOPS. So here we are — well, here I am, wondering why I didn’t follow my own gosh dang advice. I set small writing goals for myself daily. It’s not as overwhelming as it seems. Write a thousand words. Write a blog post. Write a short book review, all by 9 PM so I get adequate puppy snuggle time. These are still deadlines, even if they don’t sound as official as “finish writing a first draft of a book by the end of 2020.” Goals can be big, small, and somewhere in the middle, but they’re never going to transform into achievements if you don’t set deadlines to keep you motivated.
Everyone sets goals — or should I say, makes wishes. But you’re different. Now, you know how to not only set a goal, but how to take the steps required to move toward achieving that goal.
This is all from my experience, of course. I don’t know you, I don’t know what your struggles and roadblocks are. But I do know what’s gotten me pretty far on my writing journey, and I hope some of my suggestions offer positive, manageable solutions for you.
Meg is the creator of Novelty Revisions, dedicated to helping writers put their ideas into words. She is a staff writer with The Cheat Sheet, a freelance editor and writer, and a 10-time NaNoWriMo winner. Follow Meg on Twitter for tweets about writing, food and nerdy things.