I spent much of this year doing the memoir of a billionaire-with-a-b. I’m under a strict NDA about who it is, but I can tell you something that won’t come as much of a surprise.
The client was legitimately self-made. Grew up working-class, and had a good idea at the right time which changed the course of his life. He had lots of help along the way, but was honestly responsible for much of his own success…
…and (here’s the part that’s not surprising) he’s really big on goals.
The project got me thinking a lot about goals, too. This start-of-the-year article is the result of some of that thinking, aimed away from big business and toward the kind of micropreneur every successful author has to be — and which every aspiring professional author needs to become.
So let’s talk about goals, in the context of New Year’s resolutions. A lot of us make them. Some of us keep them. Most of us should do things that make them work better.
We’ll define them, discuss a framework for setting yours for the coming year, and end with some top tips for making them as successful as possible in the coming twelve months.
What Goals Are and Aren’t
I’m going to be a little harsh here, but a lot of people use the word “goal” incorrectly. Here is a list of goals that are not, in fact, goals:
- “I want to be a published author”
- “I want to grow my fan newsletter”
- “I want to make money from my writing”
These are good things to want, but they’re just hopes and dreams. A goal is a hope or dream that you define clearly. Here’s those same statements, this time written as goals:
- “I want at least one of my books to be picked up by a publisher (Big Five or independent) by this time, two years from now.”
- “I want my fan newsletter to grow by 1,200 subscribers this year, without reducing its open percentage statistics.”
- “I want my writing efforts to earn $12,000 in the coming year, divided evenly between online blog and article freelancing, my self-published books, and my traditionally published titles.”
See the difference? One is a nebulous idea that doesn’t provide much in the way of a forward path. The other sets specific, measurable criteria you can use to plan your efforts — and to help you know when you’re done!
One popular system for setting goals is called SMART, which stands for Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant, and Time-Specific. In this context:
- Specific means that it clearly defines the goal in concrete terms
- Measurable means the goal is attached to some kind of metric you can use to gauge success and progress
- Attainable means it’s possible for you to accomplish with the resources you have, in the time you have given yourself
- Relevant means it actually impacts the vision you have for your life and your work
- Time-Specific means you give it a deadline
These factors can make goals very powerful. Let’s look at two examples and see if they’re smart goals.
“I want to grow my fan newsletter”
- It’s specific-ish. There’s something you want to impact, and the way you want to impact it.
- It’s not measurable, There are no metrics attached to the goal.
- It’s attainable. “Grow” could mean adding just one fan.
- It’s relevant, since fan newsletters help grow an author’s career.
- It’s not time-specific at all.
Two failures. Two successes. Half a point for being specific-ish. That’s 50 percent SMART, which gets an F on any grading scale.
“I want my fan newsletter to grow by 1,200 subscribers in the coming year, without reducing its open percentage statistics”
- It’s specific, defining exactly how the newsletter will grow and providing guidelines for good growth vs bad.
- It’s measurable, with two metrics: one for quality and one for quantity.
- It’s probably attainable, depending on the current subscriber base and the writer’s marketing chops.
- It’s clearly relevant to the author’s writing career.
- It’s time-specific, setting a deadline of the end of the year
Five successes (or four and a half if we ding the “probably” attainable part). That’s either 90 or 100 percent SMART, which is an A in most schools.
You get the idea.
Resolutions vs. Goals
The goals above are good for describing what you want to accomplish, but fall a little short when it comes to how you’ll accomplish them. For that, we’ll use our resolutions.
Borrowing from fitness, if your goal is “Lose 24 pounds this year”, you might set a resolution about how many times you’ll go to the gym.
You could also call these smaller goals. Some folks call them benchmarks. Since it’s the holiday season, we’re calling them resolutions here — but it’s the same concept.
Setting Resolutions From the End to the Beginning
There’s a solid process for setting resolutions based on long-term goals that help you accomplish the things you want to accomplish. It’s simple — though I don’t promise acting on it will always be easy.
It starts with your long-term outcome. Some people set those for five to ten years in the future, but for our purposes we’ll go for one year. Set that outcome in a way that engages your emotions:
- “I will finish the first draft of my manuscript”
- “I will earn enough from my writing to pay for a nice vacation”
- “I will get my newsletter to 1,000 subscribers”
You get the idea. Make it something you know how to do, that’s possible for you to accomplish, and that matters to you in a vivid way. For purposes of this example, we’ll use the first one: I will finish the first draft of my manuscript.
The next step is to turn that into a SMART goal, as described above. I will finish the first draft of my manuscript by December 31 of the coming year.
That’s your goal. Divide it by 50 to come up with a weekly benchmark. If you figure your first draft will be 50,000 words long, then your resolution is I will write 1,000 words on my manuscript’s first draft each week in the coming year.
And that’s your resolution: 1,000 words a week, rain or shine. Or you could divide by 12 and call it 4,200 words per month. You get the idea.
What Goals Should I Set?
If this is your first go-round with intentional goal setting, aim for just one. Choose the thing that would make the biggest difference in your writing career, and go for it.
If you’re more experienced, consider chasing two or three — or choosing one each for your writing, your health, and your family.
You can also consider setting a three- or five-year long-term plan, and making the first year’s step the goal for your resolution.
Stand on the Ground or Shoot for the Moon?
There is some debate in the goal-setting community about how aggressive we should make our goals. One camp says we should make them aggressive but manageable, so we believe in them enough to do the work to make them come true.
The other camp says we should set, as the man says, “big, hairy, audacious goals”. The theory is that if you set a wildly impossible goal, the strides you make toward it — even though you’ll fail — will take you a long way.
I don’t think there’s a right or wrong answer in general, but I’m certain there’s a right or wrong answer for each of us. If you’re new to setting goals, I’d recommend aiming for aggressive but manageable goals. Until you’ve attained some difficult goals, it can be hard to believe they’re possible to achieve.
Top Ten Resolution-Setting Tips
1. Set Short-Term Goals Low
One problem with resolutions is we set them when we’re excited, which means we set them too high and ultimately fail.
Think back to the example I gave of writing 1,000 words a week. For many writers, that’s a trivial accomplishment — just 200 words each weekday. You might be tempted to double, or triple that. But here’s the thing.
Life gets in the way. You’ll get sick. Or your job will need extra effort for a while. Your car will break down. You’ll get a cool opportunity you need to chase. And you’ll run out of enthusiasm long before you finish your goal. Set a short-term resolution low enough to accomplish it even during difficult times and runs of bad luck.
2. Set Long-Term Goals High
By contrast, so many of us have experienced the problem with overly aggressive short-term goals that we’ve never experienced the power of small but consistent work. That tiny 1,000 words a week still adds up to 50,000 words in a year — even taking two weeks off!
Believe in the power of long term, incremental accomplishment. Set an audacious goal for the year, built from building blocks that seem almost lazy.
3. Subdivide by Months or Weeks
Don’t phrase your resolution by days or years. Phrase it by weeks or months.
If you phrase it by days, there’s no room for trouble. “I will write every day” fails the first time you’re sick, or the day blows up. If you phrase it by the year, there’s too much room for procrastination. You’ll end up in trouble by September.
If you say I’ll write 1,000 words a week, you can skip Monday for work and run the kids around on Thursday, and still have five days to get those words written — and even if you have to do it all in one day, that’s not impossible. If you say 4,200 words a month, the same applies. It’s a little harder to make up if you skip three weeks, but it’s doable.
4. Measure and Recalibrate
We already established why a SMART goal is measurable. Build that measurement into your weekly resolutions to keep yourself on track for long-term success. But that’s only the first half.
The second half is to assess your results. If, after six weeks, you find you’ve only gotten 500 words a week written, it’s time to consider what changes you need. That might be changes to other commitments, to your environment, or even to the goal.
There’s nothing wrong with shifting your target if you realize you’re not going to hit what you first aimed at.
5. Make and Check Your Map
In this case, your “map” is the steps and actions you need to get from where you are, to where you want to be. In the simplest cases (like writing 50,000 words in a year), it’s simply a numbers game. For other things, you might have different steps for each quarter of the year.
Build your map, and check to make sure it leads where you want to go, before you set your actual resolutions.
6. Ignore the Past…Mostly
By this I mean, set your goals without regard for where you are and what you have accomplished already. Your past performance does not constrain your future potential. Set goals towards where you want to be, not based on just where you’ve gotten so far.
Do pay attention to your major stumbling blocks. The biggest things that have held you back in the past will still be there in the coming year. Have a plan for dealing with them, starting with the goal you set and continuing through methods for overcoming those specific obstacles.
7. Build in Celebrations
At least once a month, reward yourself for keeping your resolution. Tie it to some small, inexpensive (in money and time) way you like to treat yourself. Psychologists aren’t certain why, but it feels disproportionately good to have those moments more than once a year.
8. Tell Only One Person
Here’s a weird thing about setting goals. Your brain releases the same emotional chemicals for telling people you’ve set a goal that it does when you actually accomplish the goal. That’s why broadcasting your goal (for example on social media) is counterproductive.
That said, do share your resolution with one (okay, maybe as many as two or three) accountability partners who can help keep you motivated and on track when your motivation flags. For best results, your partner should also be working on a challenging resolution so you can help each other grow as a team.
9. Only Look at Your Own Numbers
This one is simple to understand, but sometimes hard to practice. Only compare your progress to your goal, never to the progress others are making on similar paths.
Comparing yourself to others never helps in other situations. It won’t help here. Only compare yourself to who you were and where you were yesterday.
10. Don’t Mistake Motion for Progress
This is what the R in SMART goals refers to, but it’s so important that it deserves its own entry. When you set your resolution, make sure that it serves the most important aspects about growing your career as a writer.
Likewise, when you sit down to make progress on your resolution, spend that time working directly on your resolution. If you’ve said you’ll write 1,000 words a week, cleaning your desk, checking your social media, re-reading last week’s entry, and checking your newsletter stats, then you are not working on your resolution. Stay on task and stay on target.
One Last Little Thought
When I coach authors and business owners, sometimes they push back about formally setting goals. (Okay, it’s mostly the authors). They do it for various reasons — the most common being “something something it smothers my creativity” or “some eloquent way of saying they’re afraid they’ll fail to meet the goals”.
For the first, if you truly believe that there’s not much more to do. Go your own way and I sincerely wish you the best of luck with it. If you’re on the fence, I can tell you from experience that setting goals actually frees my creative juices and helps them flow, not the opposite.
If you’re afraid to set a goal because you might fail to reach it, I have this to respectfully submit. The results for setting a goal and failing are identical to the results of not setting a goal. Only through setting the goal, and the plan to reach it, then giving it real effort, can you make the kind of changes that will get you from where you are to where you want to be.