If you spend time in online writer forums you hear writers talk about their goals. They also talk about all the reasons they didn’t achieve them. And they will tell you what their new goal is and how it’s better. Other writers do what we do; we offer up lots of ‘good luck’ and ‘you go girl’ responses.
Why do we set goals anyway? Every year people set New Year’s resolutions, often with the full knowledge that the goal will never be achieved and often jokes about this fact are told while proclaiming the goal. Why? Clearly, one function of goal setting is to make us feel good – make us feel like we’re making plans, moving forward and trying to accomplish something.
Feeling good is… well… good, but I don’t think this is the best use of goal-setting. A better reason to set goals is to actually motivate us and cause us to achieve something. To do that a true goal must meet four criteria. It must:
1) Be something you can control.
Setting a goal to sell 30 books a month is not a goal. It may be a dream if you’re only selling 10/mo, but it’s not a goal that you can control. Yes, you may be able to improve your marketing and thus sales but you need goals like “Do three guest blogs this month,” something over which you do have some control.
2) Be quantifiable.
To say, I’m going to improve my use of dialog sounds admirable but it will not lead anywhere without an additional clause that starts with “by….” Add “by reading Chiarella’s Writing Dialogue and doing all of the exercises,” you produce a goal such that your action or inaction can be measured.
3) Be short-term enough to be actionable
Some say “goals must have time elements” and while I don’t disagree, I think this aspect of goal-setting needs more precision than “set a deadline.” Here’s why. To often I see people making goals like “I want to finish my book by the end of the year.” That’s a fine goal if it’s said over Christmas dinner. It’s a lousy goal if it’s spring.
The difference is that humans procrastinate, and/or set other, more short-term goals ahead of any long-term goals. Thus, if you say “I want to finish my book by the end of the year” at the spring picnic, it’s likely that you’ll be saying “I’m so far behind on my book that I’ll never get it done by the end of the year” when Christmas dinner rolls around. Short-term deadlines motivate; long-term deadlines do not.
4) Be attainable without super-powers.
This, by far, is the biggest problem I see with most goals that writers set for themselves. The most common is “I’m going to write 1000 words a day, every day.” If you have lots of free time this may well be a reasonable goal but there’s a real Catch-22 here. If you have lots of free time for your writing you’re probably no more likely to set this sort of goal for yourself than a skinny person is to say “I’m going to eat 500 fewer calories every day.”
Instead, writers with full-time jobs, 2 kids and a husband they have to baby-sit set an unreasonable word count goal for themselves and then beat themselves up for not being up to the challenge. “Stephen King writes 1500 words per day, why can’t I?” It’s because Stephen King has all day to do it, that’s why.
In the end, goals are not only valuable motivation tools, they are probably necessary for those of us doing things without someone looking over our shoulders. But just as they can motivate, poorly chosen or defined goals can sabotage your writing, even to the point of convincing you that you’re unworthy of the label “writer.” Chose your goals wisely. Make them work for you, not against you.