It’s useful to create writing goals and perform regular reviews any time of year, but the transition from one year to the next is a natural time to think about what we’ve done in the past, how we feel about it, and what we want for the future. Understanding what has worked and not, paves the way for intentional decisions about how to spend our time, which is a good plan for getting what we want.
Setting Goals: Your roadmap to keep you on track
I don’t know any writers who have more time than they need to do all they hope to do. Our days are full, and distractions abound. It’s easy to let ourselves drift and react to what comes our way. Though we can’t control everything or even most things, we can take charge of how we think about our circumstances and what we choose to do.
Thinking about our circumstances in a beneficial way begins with a clear picture of what is. Unless we take stock periodically, we won’t have an accurate picture of how we spend our time, what we’re capable of, and how we can be and do better.
Performing a regular review and creating effective goals is a great way to stay on track. Because it’s not easy to stay focused on what’s most important, I need a roadmap that takes into account where I am right now and where I want to go.
I've done the process I outline below for more than ten years. I tweak the questions and prompts occasionally, but the main structure, which I’ve adapted from Your Best Year Yet by Jinny S. Ditzler, hasn’t changed. I’ve added elements from Pick Four by Seth Godin, and The Energy of Money by Maria Nemeth.
I use writing practice, as described by Natalie Goldberg in Writing Down the Bones, and record my answers with a fast writing pen and fresh notebook. I set a timer and write on each topic or question for at least ten minutes (if I’m on a roll when the timer goes off, I keep going).
If you feel resistance to this idea, I understand. I’m not a naturally organized person, and I grew up in a chaotic household. I tried this only because people I trusted suggested it, and I keep doing it because it works. The more I do it, the better my life becomes, and that includes writing, business, and my personal life.
Before we get started, let me be clear about one thing. I use the term goals, but this is not about comparing ourselves to other writers or striving for external definitions of success. It’s about figuring out what we want and how to move toward it.
Step One: Take stock. Make a list of all your writing accomplishments from the last year.
Before deciding how to spend our time in 2018, we need a clear picture of how we spent our time and what we accomplished in 2017. If you’re anything like me, you complete a task, cross it off your list, and move on to the next one. I don’t pause to acknowledge what I’ve accomplished.
My year-end review ensures that I make this list at least once a year. And here's why it’s important. If you don’t know what and how much you’ve done in the past, you don’t really know what you’re capable of doing in the future. If you’ve underestimated or overestimated, that’s useful information. I’m always surprised by how much I’ve done in a year, even though I spend plenty of time thinking that I haven’t done enough.
If you set a goal last year and fell short of the mark, you still have items to put here. How many words or pages did you write in pursuit of your goal? How many blog posts and social media posts? Not all writing projects are created equal, but writers tend to take care with their words. This all counts and should be recorded.
How many books did you read that have helped you as a writer? Everything we read can add to our knowledge of the craft, serve as a positive or cautionary example, and helps us become stronger writers.
Step Two: Find the Secret of your success. How did you get all this done?
The writing projects and other tasks we finished last year didn’t simply happen, even though it might feel that way. No matter how you feel about the writing you’ve accomplished, you made choices to get it done. How did you make that happen? Did you create a regular habit or set up your environment to avoid distractions? Did you prioritize writing by scheduling it, rather than leaving it to chance? Did you find an accountability partner? It’s okay if you don’t know for sure, or if you were winging it. You probably remember a few tactics that smoothed the way for your writing.
Step Three: Acknowledge your disappointments. List everything that didn’t work out as you hoped.
Chances are, some of what you hoped to accomplish last year didn’t happen. It’s likely that you wanted to work on more projects than you had time for. Even if we keep our tasks manageable, unexpected events arise that take time and attention away from writing. We have disappointments, and one way to move past them is to recognize them.
Make a list of everything that didn’t work out. Where did you fall short of expectations?
Step Four: Examine your disappointments and assess what didn’t work.
Staying curious about our disappointments gives us plenty of useful information. More often than not, we learn more from them than from what goes well.
After you’ve made your list in step three, ask yourself, “Why didn’t these things work out?” Did you set goals that were unrealistic given your commitments? Did you procrastinate? Did you struggle to set firm boundaries? Did you fail to make your writing goals a priority? What got in the way and prevented your success last year?
The intent is not to beat yourself up because that is not useful or helpful. You want clarity to course correct for the year ahead.
Step Five: Enter dreamtime. What do you want?
Make a list of all your big writing dreams. Assume that money, time, and your present skill level are irrelevant. If you want to quit your day job and write a mystery, put it down. If you want to work on the manuscript that’s been sitting in your draw for years, record that.
This process is designed to uncover the deep dreams you don't know you possess. Write down anything that comes up. One crazy idea might lead to another crazy idea until you discover the story you've always wanted to tell. You can dial it back later if need be. For now, the only limits are your heart’s desire and imagination.
Step Six: Weeding Out
Now it’s time to whittle that list down to a manageable size. Get rid of anything that is illegal, physically impossible, or was added because someone else thinks you should do it. But don’t cross off anything just because it’s improbable, difficult, or will require learning new skills.
For everything left, ask yourself “Why do I want this?” and “How would it feel if I achieved this?” Write the answer next to each entry that remains. If you can’t think of why you want something, or if achieving it wouldn’t feel very good, cross it off.
Step Seven: You must choose.
Once you have a clear list of goals you truly want to achieve, pick one to commit to this year. When I say commit, I mean you are willing to do what it takes to accomplish it. That means steady work toward the goal, whether you feel like it or not. It also means seeking the information and support you need if you get stuck.
You might be tempted to add three, five, or ten goals, but resist the urge. You’ll dilute your time and effort and make it harder. I used to recommend choosing two or three, and one of the top lessons for me last year was to focus on one big goal at a time. If you complete it before the end of the year, you can choose a new goal.
Once you’ve decided, craft a SMART goal statement to support your success.
- Specific: Be clear about what it is you want to accomplish.
- Measurable: How will you know you’ve achieved your goal?
- Attainable: Given your other commitments and what you have control over, is this goal attainable?
- Relevant: You’ll need motivation to keep you going on the days when you don’t feel like doing the work. Make sure your goals are aligned with what you value and that you understand why you want to achieve this.
- Timeframe: When do you plan to have this goal completed? Keep in mind that it doesn’t have to be this year, but you’ll want to work steadily on it.
Step Eight: Make a plan and create habits.
Goals are great to have, but they will go the way of most New Year’s resolutions unless you have a plan.
Make a list of everything you know you need to do to reach your goal. Keep a list of skills and resources to acquire, as well as research about the steps you’re not sure about. Break big tasks into smaller tasks until they feel manageable.
Look at your lessons learned, both positive and negative. What do you need to add to the plan to be successful?
Take your completion date from above and work backward setting interim deadlines for the tasks. You can adjust your plan as you learn more, but you can’t tweak a plan that doesn’t exist. Create a rough draft of what you will do and when you will do it.
Schedule these tasks rather than leaving them to chance. When you finish one task, make sure you know what your next step is.
Convert the tasks to regular habits that work for you. You might have a daily word or page count for drafting or revision, or it might be that you work for thirty minutes every morning upon waking. Different phases of the project might call for different habits. So again, adjust as necessary.
Step Nine: Set yourself up for success.
If the goal you’ve chosen is something you truly want, then do everything you can to make it happen. Make it easy to do your habits and make progress. Here are some suggestions to make the most of your efforts.
- Record your goal statement and keep it visible. Visual cues will not only remind you to do your habit, but also allow your subconscious to work on it at other times. Use images that remind you of your goal, display it prominently in multiple locations, and move them around so they don’t fade into the background.
- Stick with it. If you get distracted for a day or two, jump back in right away. Don’t let these missteps stack up. Keep working toward the goal unless you find that you really don’t want it (in which case, reassess and figure out what you do want).
- To say yes to your goal and be successful, you have to say no to other activities. Be realistic about your time because you can’t do it all. Because sacrifice is part of the territory, make sure your goal is something you want to accomplish more than anything else in the realm of possibility this year.
- Get an accountability partner or group. These are people you can share your progress with, who will ask you about how things are going, and who will remind you of why you are doing it. Choose wisely. Not everyone will encourage you to pursue your goal.
- For help with habits, check out Gretchen Rubin’s Better Than Before.
- When you choose to go after something you want, resistance won’t be far behind. Know this is coming, so you won’t be blindsided. Doing your habits without fail is the best antidote for resistance. If you need a kick in the pants, read The War of Art, Do the Work, or Turning Pro by Steven Pressfield.
What’s your writing goal for 2018? What do you need to do to make it happen? What is one small step you can take right away? Leave a comment below, and then go do it now.
If your goal is to become a better writer, one of the best ways to do that is to master writing scenes. Our 7-Day Scene Intensive next month is specifically designed to help you do just that. If you're interested, in hearing more about this, let us know here.
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