The Most Important Things I Learned About Setting Writing Goals in 2019

Setting and achieving goals is a lot more challenging than you might think.

At the beginning of 2019 — well, technically, just a short time before it began — I decided that I was going to do everything I possibly could to see if I could write 1 million words between January 1 and December 31.

As I am writing this, I am not quite to my goal yet — I am about to take a short writing break and am scheduling posts ahead so I can do that without feeling guilty. But I am close enough to the end at this point that I would be extremely surprised if I had not made it by the time this post goes live.

This was a big goal, and a goal I honestly was not sure I could actually achieve. But I decided to give it a go anyway … for many reasons, it turns out.

One of the most important drivers behind this challenge I created for myself was the opportunity it would present to share with all of you what I learned throughout the year. And in some form or another, I will put something formal together about these lessons, and the mistakes I made, and how it all has changed the way that I write.

For now, I am going to start with sharing some things I learned about setting writing goals. This is something I truly believe everyone SHOULD do but many people do not (for various reasons, many of them justified to a point).

Setting goals is hard. Sticking to them is harder. But it is not, by any means whatsoever, impossible.

Yes, there is such a thing as too many goals. I set 30 goals for myself last year. Granted, not all of them were related to writing and I did expect to have a fairly uneventful year in terms of added internal and external stressors. But even I knew that 30 goals would be too many goals. I COULDN’T HELP IT THOUGH. There was just so much that I wanted to do in 2019. There is still so much I want to do in 2020 and beyond.

But looking back at my 2019 goals, guess what? I didn’t even check off half of them. Yes, my goals were varied and by themselves none were technically out of reach. But all combined together, there was just no way I was going to be able to do it all. I set myself up for “failure” even before my year began. Which is why, instead of feeling sorry for myself for not doing everything I wanted to, I am using what I learned to change the way I am looking at goals overall in the coming year.

I have officially limited myself to only 10 “big goals” for 2020. These are goals that it will take most if not all of the year to complete, and are all extremely and almost equally important to me. Not all of them are related to writing. But that’s okay. This does not mean I can’t work toward smaller, more short-term goals here and there throughout the year. But I will always mainly focus on the Big 10.

You have limits. You are a human who will often want to do more — and more at one time — than you are currently capable of. So slow down. Say yes to less. Enjoy your creative expression a little more. You deserve that.

Whether or not you choose to talk publicly about your goals is completely up to you. But there is one thing you are absolutely NOT allowed to do — something we have all been guilty of at one point or another: You are not allowed to talk endlessly about your goal if you aren’t actually doing anything to achieve it.

People have strong opinions about social accountability and whether or not you share your goals with other people. Psychologically, telling someone about your goal really can trick your brain into thinking you have already done it or started doing it when you actually haven’t done anything yet. That’s a real phenomenon that many people need to be mindful of when sharing their ambitions.

But at the same time, many people — myself included — need some form of social accountability (people watching you and paying attention to what you are doing) in order to keep up their momentum. There is nothing wrong with that. If you need to constantly update your Twitter followers on your progress until you reach your finish line, as long as it’s not distracting you from your work or hurting anyone, go for it.

You just have to make sure that, regardless of whether or not you are making your goals known to the masses or even just to one person, you are actually logging out of Twitter and going back to your laptop and putting in the hours. The only prerequisite for having the right to call yourself a writer is the fact that you write. If all you are doing is talking about writing, but you aren’t actually doing any writing, then … well, what are you even doing?

Every writing goal should have just a few things in common. It should be specific enough that you can chip away at it a little bit every day. You should be able to measure your progress along the way, and you should already have (or plan to have) the resources necessary to complete the goal. Your goal, finally, should be realistic given the time and resources at your disposal, and you should have both a start date and a deadline in mind from the very beginning.

In summary, a writing goal should be:

  • Specific enough to work toward in parts
  • Measurable enough to track your progress
  • Achievable with the right time and tools
  • Realistic given the time and tools you have
  • Time-sensitive so you don’t keep putting it off for the rest of eternity.

When I set out to write 1 million words throughout 2019, I made sure that such a challenging goal was within my capabilities and that I had ways to hold myself accountable throughout the year.

Instead of just saying I wanted to write more in 2019, I chose a very specific number. And in choosing that number, I also did the math to figure out, on average, how many words I would have to write every day to reach my goal knowing there would be days I would write more as well as days I would write less. I also created a spreadsheet in which I entered every word total and set up formulas so it would calculate my percent completion for the month as well as for the entire year (I am sitting at 98.7% as I am writing this).

In setting this goal, I knew I had the tools I needed (mainly writing opportunities and a computer or laptop that worked well enough for writing) and I knew that if I stuck to my daily averages for the most part, I would be able to get to the end of the line. And speaking of the end: I gave myself a strict deadline. December 31 — also knowing that I was going to have to do a little work almost every day in order to get there. In a way, each month and day had its own much smaller deadlines that I needed to hit.

Even though this goal in particular was challenging, I deliberately chose something that wasn’t going to put too much pressure on me or stress me out to the point of burnout. It has been a very slow burn for the most part, but that was why I chose the goal I did. I didn’t reach so high that I set myself up to fail. I stretched myself just enough so that I was forced to learn and grow and try as hard as I could … also knowing that if I did fail, the whole world was not counting on me to emerge from that year victorious. My life wasn’t going to crumble if I didn’t meet the goal.

That being said … I also chose a goal that was shiny and interesting to the outside world. We all love a little social accountability, let’s be honest. I talked about this goal A LOT, especially on Twitter. I never ended up setting any kind of major reward for myself other than giving myself a brief writing break at the beginning of 2020 (I am on it right now as you are reading this) and being able to say I did something pretty cool.

But for me, that was enough. I did not want the world to see that I had “failed.” Knowing myself, I figured that would be all it took to get me to the finish line. And I was right. I’m not even ashamed of it. Now, I don’t want your praise though. I did this to inspire. If you want to congratulate, do so by going off and setting your own SMART writing goal and working your tail off to get it done in 2020.

Even if I don’t know you personally, I am rooting for you. Setting goals is scary and difficult. Actually following through on making them happen in the long term is even more terrifying and challenging.

But you can do it. We all can.

Me? I’m still going to write. I still have some goals in mind (as you saw early last week). But I am also going to take a step back and work on some other creative projects to challenge me in different ways. Setting goals is something I have found more value in over the past few years than I ever expected.

Even if you don’t think you are a goal oriented kind of person, I encourage you to give it a try. It takes some practice to figure out how to set “good” goals and how to consistently work toward achieving them. But anyone and everyone can set and meet a goal. You just have to know how to do it. And you have to WANT to do it.

If you want it intensely enough, you will find a way. And the hope, as always, is that along your journey you will learn and grow and come out of this experience better and brighter and wiser than you were before.

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.

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