I had the weirdest dream the other night. To understand the dream, you have to know that I’ve studied martial arts very seriously for coming up on 40 years. In that dream I bumped into my most influential sensei, who has been dead since 2014, at the airport. We had coffee and he asked me what I was up to. I told him I was a professional writer, and that I owed my success to the discipline I had learned training with him.
And that was true. Without the discipline to set and attain goals, even and especially over the long haul with no supervision, it’s not impossible to succeed as a writer. But it is very hard.
As the new year begins, I wanted to write a bit about what neuroscience, productivity experts, and my old sensei have to say about making that happen.
What Is a Goal?
It’s tempting to say that a goal is something you want. While that’s probably true from the point of view of Mr. Mirriam and Mr. Webster, that definition fails to capture the most important aspect of a goal.
A goal is something you want, for which you have a defined plan to achieve.
I will say that again because it’s important. A goal isn’t just something you want. It’s something you want, for which you have a defined plan to achieve.
Without that plan, what some people call a goal is really just a wish or dream. It's the planning and structure that makes it a goal. If you don’t read or remember any other part of this post, internalize that and make it part of how you approach your writing.
Now, let’s talk about that defined plan. There are myriad ways to structure and approach that plan, but my favorite is SMART goals, an acronym first put forward in 1981 by the team of Miller, Doran and Cunningham. SMART in this context stands for Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, and Time-Bound.
Here is what they meant by that.
- Specific goals are clearly and exactly defined. You don’t “want to be a successful author”, you “want to make a full-time living by self-publishing”, “get published in major national magazines”, or “book a big four traditional publishing contract”.
- Measurable means you can attach metrics to the goal. Taking the idea of making a full-time living by self-publishing. Your goal needs measurables like monthly sales, number of titles, number of reviews, and pages you write per month.
- Achievable goals are those which are reasonable for you to attain given the resources you have, or can develop within your timeline. If you set the goal of making $10 Million a month off Amazon publishing, you will fail in that goal. Set goals that are aggressive, but realistic.
- Relevant means the goal must actually help achieve your strategic aims. If you want to be a successful author, losing 15 pounds will help your health but has little to do with your writing goals. Less obviously, if you want to make money as a self-published author, then chasing a literary agent is not relevant.
- Time-Bound is a goal-reaching superpower, and missing from many otherwise good plans. With our self-publishing example, you don’t stop at “I want to earn $10,000 a month from self-published book sales”. You extend that to “I want to earn an average of $10,000 a month from self-published book sales by January, two years from now.” You can also break that down, setting goals of $2,000 by next quarter, $5,000 by this coming January, and $15,000 by the following summer.
SMART goals are a simple enough way to help you structure your goals towards success as you define it…and well-structured goals are more likely to get met.
I Before E
Since that 1981 article, a number of productivity and self-help people have made their own changes to the system. For example, various iterations have traded in one or more of the words above with Strategic, Motivating, Agreed-upon, Achievable, Ambitious, Resources, Results-based, Trackable, Timely, and/or Testable.
As you set your goals, it’s perfectly fine to mix and match if one of these fits your style and needs better than the original. That said, I like the original because it’s worked for me over the past quarter-century.
Two other variations do warrant special attention: SMARTIE goals and SMARTER goals. As you’ve probably guessed, each adds a couple of extra words/concepts/requirements to the program.
SMARTER goals adds an E and and R (though the E isn’t the same as the one for SMARTIE):
- Evaluated, meaning you look at the goals and your progress from time to time to see if they’re working out. You might look at your goal of earning $10,000 a month via self-publishing after six months. Although you had made some progress, you also noted that your initial sales are also generating invitations for public speaking gigs, and that the advertising to generate $3,000 in sales seems to cost more than double to generate twice the number of books sold.
- Revised, meaning you change your goals according to what you learn from evaluation. With the example above, you might keep the $10,000 per month goal, but split it between book sales and public speaking. SMARTER goals make your progress a living, breathing, changing thing. As long as you don’t let it become an excuse to abandon SMART goals, it greatly improves the whole program.
SMARTIE goals adds an I and an E. Both are more intended for organizational level goal-setting, but with some tweaking you can incorporate them into some writing programs.
- Inclusive, meaning the goals should include all stakeholders and also invite people from populations that might be reticent to participate. That’s not very relevant to a writer working at home…unless you consider how you might involve your family members to support you and provide resources you would otherwise lack. See also using participation in your writing goals as a way to spend quality time, and teach children important work skills and life lessons.
- Equitable, meaning the goal directly addresses systemic injustices in society and the workplace. Again, unless you’re writing in some very specific niches this isn’t very useful…unless you use it to prioritize the ethical and personal values you espouse. How can you make your views and moral compass a part of your work, and incorporate them into your goals?
No writer I’ve ever worked with has just one goal at any given time. For example, my slate of goals for the coming year includes books finished, articles pitched, articles sold, and a variety of income and audience metrics.
This reality begs the question: do you juggle projects, or work on everything at once?
The temptation is to juggle, and some juggling is unavoidable, but a passel of neuroscience and productivity research says we should avoid that as much as possible. Multitasking wastes time during transitions, time you could have spent attaining your goals.
Worse than that, juggling tends to hurt morale. If you have four goals, each requiring 100 hours of work, and you juggle evenly between them during 8-hour writing days…you will finish all four more or less at the same time, over two months after you started (assuming five-day work weeks). That’s a lot of work and waiting before you get to check any boxes on your to-do list.
If you instead do the projects one at a time, you’ll finish the first one (and reap its benefits) in just two and a half weeks, and the next in just over a month. That momentum keeps your spirits high and your nose to the grindstone in ways that delayed gratification does not.
On the other hand, sometimes you have to work on multiple things at once. Other times, you’re just a natural multitasker and the idea of doing just one thing for an extended period doesn’t work with how your brain operates. In that case, I recommend two things.
First, juggle in blocks. With the 8-hour writing day I mentioned above, spend two solid hours each on all four goals every day. That gives you uninterrupted, focused work on each goal to minimize transitions and to help you access the high-productivity flow state that only comes if you put in the consecutive time.
Second, subdivide your goals. Take that 100-hour goal and identify benchmarks at the 25, 20, or even 10-hour points. By doing this, you get to check that box on the to-do list earlier even though you’re still juggling tasks. It’s not quite as good as completing the goal altogether, but still gives you the dopamine hit and the accompanying morale improvement.
Side Note: The Pomodoro Method
Another approach to feeling like you have to juggle is to build the habit of concentration. Modern life has gotten humans worldwide out of the habit of long-term focus, instead training us to approach all things in bite-sized chunks.
The Pomodoro method helps to counteract this. You can look up detailed analysis and tools easily online, but here’s the basics.
- Step One: You set a timer, starting at ten minutes
- Step Two: You start working, focusing just on a task until the timer sounds
- Step Three: You take a short break from the task
- Step Four: You repeat Steps One through Three for up to two hours
As time passes, you increase the amount of time on the timer. The Pomodoro method trains you to focus for longer periods, the same way pushups train you to be able to do more pushups in a set. If focusing on just one thing for two hours at a time just feels impossible or uncomfortable for you, this can be a solution.
Long Term and Short Term Goals
Here are the two most common mistakes people I coach make about their goals. They set their short-term goals too high, and their long-term goals too low.
Because we tend to set goals while we’re excited, we often go big with those initial goals. We say we’ll do way too much, way too quickly…and for the first few weeks we’re on top of it. Things go great and we feel excited and proud of what we’ve managed.
Then we get sick, or tired, or encumbered by other demands in our busy adult lives. We miss a couple of benchmarks. We get frustrated. Two months in, we’re so far off track we give up.
And because that is the most common experience many people have with their goals, this leads to a lack of belief in our ability to do anything long-term. If we couldn’t make it more than two months when excited, how could a longer time frame ever work?
Instead, resist that excited temptation to go big early on. Instead, set timelines that just require a small to moderate effort each day. Remember: a page a day is a 300-page book at the end of the year, with two months left over.
Motivation vs. Discipline
Setting goals is all well and good, but there’s an important step between the most clearly-defined, on-point, SMARTIE goals and accomplishing all you set out to do. Consider the following sequence, which every writer I know goes through from time to time:
- You set a SMARTIE goal to write a certain number of words by a specific date
- You work out the math and realize you need to write for an hour a day to make it happen
- You schedule tomorrow’s hour for just after lunch
- You have a really hard morning
- Instead of writing for your hour, you go for a walk and talk to a friend on the phone
Resisting temptations, keeping the promises you make to yourself, and remaining resilient in the face of hardship come from two sources: motivation and discipline.
Motivation is when you do the thing even when it’s hard, because you’re either excited about the thing itself or you’re excited about where it will get you. When you can visualize your book in print and/or actively enjoy the act of writing, motivation can get you through the difficult and slogging days as you progress toward your goal.
Discipline is when you decide to keep promises you make to yourself because you made a promise. You dig into your internal grit and do the task, even when it’s hard, and frustrating, or you’re not feeling it. Discipline is less fun than motivation, but has one advantage:
Discipline is there even when motivation isn’t.
No matter how excited you are, there will be days when you’re not feeling it at all. On those days, your discipline will be what carries you. You can find hundreds of ways to build up discipline, and I really recommend all aspiring authors find one that works for them. It often makes the difference between attained goals and lost dreams.
One Last Little Story
One of the most influential lessons in my life came from my sensei when I took my very first test for belt rank. I made a small mistake with a specialized kind of kick. Like many people who make mistakes, I began to explain how and why I made the mistake. My sensei said:
Did I ask why you made that mistake? All I care about is what you’ll do to not make it in the future.
This changed my life, and it can change yours. When you fall down with your goals (and you will), don’t spend time beating yourself up, making excuses, or tailspinning. Just focus on how you won’t mess up next time. Make the plan, gather the resources, and get back on track.
It’s the only way to make sure.
Photo by Lukas