Challenge yourself (but not too much)

rocket to the moon

There’s nothing like a moonshot to test your creativity. Writers of all stripes love big, bold challenges and research shows there’s significant benefits from stretching yourself. But how ambitious should you be when setting goals?

Going big and bold (and occasionally hairy)

A big hairy audacious goal excites entrepreneurs, management consultants and creatives alike. Whether it’s an Uber for airplanes or a Pulitzer you’re dreaming of there’s something uniquely stimulating about challenging yourself to achieve more than you thought possible.

Writers love taking on big, bold challenges. Each November NaNoWriMo motivates hundreds of thousands to aim for 50,000 words in 30 days for National Novel Writing Month. It has spawned challenges for writers of all types, with a poem a day in April for NaPoWriMo, and a daily play in February.

We recently challenged our writing community to achieve their goals in a tight time frame. We designed a 5-day writing challenge to push writers while offering support with tried and tested techniques. The results have been fascinating and gave us the opportunity to explore how writers test themselves and what type of goals they can achieve.

The benefits of challenging yourself

After suffering debilitating concussion that left her suicidal and bed-ridden, games-designer Jane McGonigal researched the effect of challenges to aid recovery from post-traumatic stress disorder. It led her to design a game called Super Better and share her research in a book of the same name.

Taking a gameful approach to challenges can lead to significant growth and recovery. But you don’t have to suffer an extreme trauma to benefit. She explains:

“If you are not facing an extremely stressful challenge at the moment, but you still want to become stronger, happier, braver, and more resilient, just pick a meaningful and challenging goal for yourself.”

“just pick a meaningful and challenging goal for yourself.”

Examples of this could be running a marathon, starting a business or writing a book. Perhaps those November novelists aren’t so crazy after all and the pay off outweighs the pain.

Is it really worth it?

Unfortunately, success is not guaranteed. Though NaNoWriMo inspires many writers only a fraction completes the challenge. This isn’t just the case for writers, only 8% of New Year’s resolutions succeed.

People who set ambitious targets without support can get easily disheartened and fail to hit their goal. This shouldn’t put you off trying.

“People who set goals are more likely to achieve them than people who don’t.”

People who set goals are more likely to achieve them than people who don’t. There is even hope in the annual disappointment of failed resolutions. Research shows that people who explicitly make resolutions are 10 times more likely to attain their goals than people who don’t make resolutions.

The key is to set achievable goals. So how can we make sure our challenges pass the Goldilocks test and are just right for us?

Taking the smart route

In order to create a productive and effective workplace business managers have for many years used SMART criteria for goal setting, namely:

  • Specific – the goal must be clear and with no ambiguity about what you want to achieve.
  • Measurable – it should be quantified so you can tell if it’s been accomplished.
  • Achievable – it has to be realistic and attainable with your skills and available resources; you can stretch yourself but not too much.
  • Relevant – it must make sense in the wider context of what you are trying to achieve and be aligned with your purpose and values.
  • Time bound – this can take two forms, either giving yourself a target deadline date to complete or specifying a time when you should perform the task each day.

SMART beats BHAG (our previously encountered big hairy audacious goal) and not only because it’s a better acronym. Back to games designer Jane McGonigal:

“There is a place for wild dreams and big ambitions in a gameful life … But going for an epic win, or a truly heroic goal, without a steady stream of smart quests to get you there is a fool’s errand. Smart goals, or quests, ensure that every day you’re making a better life for yourself, right now, in the present moment. An epic win is in the future; a quest, or smart goal, is what you do today.”

“going for an epic win, or a truly heroic goal, without a steady stream of smart quests to get you there is a fool’s errand.”

It seems that setting a small but smart goal is the way to go and can help contribute to those big dreams.

You shouldn’t make vague goals about ‘wanting to write more’; instead you need to define how much you want to write. By making it measurable you know exactly whether it has been achieved, or not. If it’s too easy to write, say 200 words a day, you can stretch the goal until it becomes a challenge by reducing the time you have to write or increasing the number of words.

So what did writers do with our 5-day challenge?

One writer’s impossible is another’s achievable

We were all set: the challenge was designed, lots of brave writers had signed up, and we were eager to see what goals would be set – and which would be most successful.

On the first day the goals started to come in. No two goals were the same, everyone worked out a personal target. There were some vague goals like ‘giving more time to my writing’ but the vast majority passed the SMART test of being specific, measurable, relevant and time-bound. Examples ranged from writing for 20 minutes to 90 minutes each day; writing 250 words to 3,500 words, and included all aspects of planning, writing and editing.

There was no way of predicting which goal was most likely to be achieved. Only the individual writer can know what’s achievable is for them.

It seems that the A in SMART is the main variable for writers to work out. For some achievable meant something small and manageable whereas others needed something more ambitious to stretch them. What’s achievable for one writer is impossible for another – and vice versa!

Achieve your goal and meet the challenge

All the writers had personal goals to achieve but they also wanted to achieve the challenge. And it worked a treat with over 60% of writers achieving their goals within five days.

Over the next few weeks we’ll be developing the challenge further and rolling it out to more writers. In the meantime, you can learn from our experience in applying these tips.

Six ways to stretch smart

  1. Name your dream – this is the direction you are heading towards not the goal you are measuring.
  2. Make it SMART – specific, measurable, achievable, relevant and time-bound.
  3. Make it personal – only you know what’s possible for you to achieve.
  4. Stretch yourself – it’s meant to be a challenge, but not so much it becomes unattainable, if it’s too ambitious…
  5. Edit your goal – this isn’t cheating; it’s being realistic.
  6. Have fun – turn those chores into games and enjoy the challenge ahead!

Bec Evans About the author: Co-creator of Prolifiko, Bec has spent a lifetime reading, writing and working with writers. From her first job in a bookshop, to a career in publishing, and several years managing a writers’ centre, she’s obsessed with working out what helps writers write.