Eye on the Prize

It’s nearly that time of year, when even if you don’t make the dreaded New Year’s resolutions you’ll probably be thinking about what you’ve achieved in 2012 and what you want to achieve in 2013.

Goals. I’m talking about goals.


Goals are good! Goals help you get what you want. Setting goals, writing them down makes you much more likely to achieve them. But you need to tier them. Many people starting out as writers have the goal of “get published.” and as an over-arching life ambition that’s good. But there are a few problems with it if it’s the only goal you actually set and write down.

1) It’s too big. It’s like trying to eat a blimp. You look at it every day and know that even if you’re doing something towards it today it’s only a tiny part, and then that feels like nothing at all.

2) It’s too distant. How does “Get Published” help you decided what to sit down and do today? It’s a long way from first picking up a pen to getting published and you need better directions than a big sign that says “Publication – 5 Years. Possible delays ahead.” In fact it’s so far distant it can make two things happen. You can give up in despair when it still seems so far out of reach even after you’ve been working for ages. Or it can make you so impatient you make bad choices when you try to find a shortcut.

3) It’s not in your control. “Write a novel” is in your control. So is “Edit and submit my novel.” What happens then is beyond your control. All you can do is make the best submission you can and see what happens. (Repeat as many times as needed.)

So “Get Published” works better as a life ambition than a specific goal. To actually get there you need to build in a tier of smaller goals. This is how I do it.

I set an overall goal for the year – for example “submit two books.” I may already have projects I’m working on, or have planned that will be part of achieving that. Maybe I have a draft already written, so can set a year goal to edit and submit Story 1. Another story I might have plans for, but not drafted yet, so I set a year goal for that to draft, edit, and submit Story 2.

These goals are good, they are SMART (Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic, Time bound) but they are still quite big. Drafting, editing, even putting together a submission takes time. I can’t put them on my To Do list for a day and have them ticked off by lunchtime.

So they have to be broken down some more. This is where my monthly goals come in. At the end of each month I review my progress on the year’s goals and make plans for how to continue progressing them. For example, if I want to get started on Story 2, I might set the goal to get 30,000 words of the draft done in the coming month. That’s a SMART goal. And while it doesn’t fully complete the year’s goal for Story 2, it moves me closer to that, by a specific, measurable amount. At the end of the month, I know if I got those 30k words or not, and I make my next set of monthly goals accordingly.

Reviewing is key to making your goals happen. If you don’t keep checking your progress on a goal, it starts to drift; you get distracted by other things. A review brings your focus back and makes you ask, “what have I done to achieve this and what will I do going forward?”

Planning too. A goal without a plan is just a wish, so figure out how you are going to get there. Never be too rigid though. I never try to plan the whole year ahead except in a very pencilled in kind of way, because life intervenes and messes up all plans. I set goals for the month and make a rough plan for the month ahead, but do a quick review each Friday to review monthly goals progress and firm up plans for the week ahead. It’s actually quite similar to the way I write a novel. I have an outline, but keep it flexible. It’s easily changed and only really firms up when I get closer to those parts actually happening.

On that score, don’t be afraid to adjust yearly and monthly goals – especially if you change them to increase your chances of achieving the big, overarching ambition to get published that you’re working towards. At the start of the year it’s very easy to either be over-ambitious or give yourself too many goals, or overly cautious and give yourself too few. This is especially the case if you’re new to writing and/or this type of goal setting and haven’t quite figured out what it’s realistic for you to expect to achieve.

Life is unpredictable. It’s fine to postpone a goal to the next year if circumstances change. If you accept that writing is indeed a long game you won’t fall into the trap of trying to do everything NOW and will learn to pace yourself. It’s also okay to add a couple of goals and projects to the yearly goals list that are only “do if everything else if done and there’s still time left.”

So keep your eye on the prize, but also know where you’re putting your feet.

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