At the beginning of 2019, I set a really big writing goal. I mean BIG.
And the strangest part about it is that the closer I get to reaching it — the closer the end of the year and my deadline draw near — the more I start to worry I won’t actually make it.
I’ve had a lot of bad writing days lately. It’s just how things are in my world right now. And there have been a few days just in the past week where I have seriously considered just giving up.
I’ve wondered to myself: Is this even still worth it? Is it worth the time? The energy? The stress? Should I stop? Would the world really end if I just quit?
But I haven’t quit yet. Little by little, I keep moving forward. I keep writing. I keep inching toward my writing goal, because the more I think about it, the more I realize I’m not ready to quit. Not yet.
Have a writing goal you’re trying to work toward, knowing you might not actually achieve it? Here’s how you can continue to write anyway, no matter how many doubts you might hold along the way.
Continue breaking your big goal into smaller and smaller pieces. When you’re running a race — a marathon, for example — every single mile is marked with a number (at least the ones I’ve participated in). It’s a little more work to mark out the course like this. There is usually signage required. And not everyone thinks these signs being posted the whole way through the course will help them at all. But they’re usually wrong.
As you’re running the race, you have your end goal in mind the whole time: 13.1 miles for a half marathon, let’s say. You know that after you’ve run one mile, you have 12.1 more miles to go. That number is in your head. You aren’t going to forget about it.
But as you’re running this race, you occasionally encounter moments where you start to think, “Huh. Oh, right. I’m running 13.1 miles. That’s a lot of miles. I’ve only made it five miles and I’ve done all this training but it’s … it’s kind of hard and I’m kind of tired and I have a long way to go. I hope I get there. I hope I make it to the end.”
And so you start paying more attention to your mile markers.
“If I can just make it to seven miles, I’ll be over halfway done and I can walk for a few minutes.”
So you keep pushing to seven miles — your new, temporary, much smaller goal — and it doesn’t seem so far away. You might even get to a point where you stop looking for the next marker and you just close your eyes and go.
And reaching seven miles feels AMAZING! YES! YOU DID IT!
You have six more to go. But now you’re feeling empowered and capable and look at you, you went and inspired yourself. And you can do it again. Shoot for nine next! You can do it!
Writing goals can work the exact same way. If you’re working toward something big — finishing a novel; writing a book proposal; submitting a collection of writing samples to an editor — after a while it can start to feel overwhelming, and you might start to wonder if reaching the figurative finish line is even possible.
Don’t worry about whether or not you make it to the end — at least, not right now. For now, set smaller goals and work toward them one by one. “Today I’m going to write 1,000 words. I’m going to add 2 more article links to my portfolio. I’m going to finish my list of editors to send my pitch to.”
This practice really doesn’t take that much more effort in the long-term. And it just might end up being the very thing that, at the very least, gets you even closer to reaching your much bigger goal.
I am now pursuing writing goals 25,000 words at a time. It’s a much more manageable and less overwhelming way to look at the bigger goal I have set before me. Would I still love to get to the end by my personal deadline? Of course I would. But I also know that I am never going to get there if I only let myself look at one big goal. I need to keep things small. I need those small achievements. Maybe you do, too.
Reward yourself for reaching every small milestone. What do I do if and when I hit that 25,000-word goal every week (or every 10 days, whatever it takes)? I let myself go to bed early. It may not seem like the most glamorous reward for hitting a milestone, but guess what? It works. I can’t wait to go to bed early on Sunday nights every week. It has become one of the highlights of my weekend. And no, I’m not nearly as old as this makes me sound.
A goal doesn’t work — regardless of size — if you don’t attach some kind of reward to it. Our brains learn the things in our lives that trigger feelings of pleasure as well as feelings of dread. It’s why we start regularly craving sugar when we are stressed and why we avoid making dentist appointments for as long as reasonably possible. Through experience and repetition, we learn. Sometimes this is a good thing. Sometimes it isn’t.
So you need to train your brain to understand that meeting a writing goal means you get something special. The level of excitement I feel when I hit that goal and am one step closer to a 10 PM pajama party is real and it’s sometimes the only thing that gets me through bad writing days.
Just make sure you are attaching rewards to your goals that will (1) actually motivate you to keep writing and (2) are good for you emotionally and physically. Going to bed early is a great reward because it’s something I enjoy and it doesn’t make me feel guilty later. If I were to promise myself a bowl of ice cream, however, sure — I’d enjoy it in the moment. But I’d probably feel bad about it later, and that would make the reward ineffective. It might even be enough to make it feel like a punishment.
Speaking of punishments: Do not — I repeat, DO NOT — punish yourself for not meeting your goals. Punishments create bad feelings, and the last thing you want is to start associating writing with any sort of negative emotions (more so than you might already).
If you don’t meet your goal — even your much smaller milestones along the way — don’t beat yourself up about it. Instead, focus on what might have happened that prevented you from hitting the milestone and create a plan to prevent that from happening again in the future. Then hit the reset button and try again tomorrow. Give yourself a reason to keep moving forward. Don’t give yourself an excuse to lie down and give up.
Keep your “why” in mind. Setting goals is an essential part of writing productivity. But you set a specific goal or set of goals for a reason — and that reason should be your “why” for continuing. Even when you aren’t sure you can hit all your milestones along the way.
Your reason for writing — your “why” — is bigger than your goal. It’s bigger than just finishing the race. It’s the whole reason you decided you wanted to tell stories in the first place. It’s the thing that gives you hope. The grand finish line that says, “If you make it here, you will have succeeded for real.”
Your “why” should be something that makes you seriously consider writing even on days you physically, mentally, or emotionally can’t. Your “why” is the big picture. “I want to help people accomplish X. I want to tell stories about Y. I want to use what I know/have experienced/have learned to write credibly about Z.”
Then, even on your worst days, you are much more likely to remember why you keep doing this even when you’re not necessarily at your best.
Because at the end of it all, having done your best is really the only accomplishment that matters.
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.