Writing goals are important because they give you something to aim for. They give you the structure, direction and clarity you need to keep moving forwards with your project. However, the wrong goal can become a millstone that demotivates and leads to delay, and make writing feel overwhelming. Find out how to set the best goal for your writing.
A dream is not a goal
The first step towards setting a writing goal is to make sure that it is actually a goal rather than something else. Some writers say they have a goal when actually it’s more of a wish or a vague hope.
Having a dream to write sounds aspirational but in reality, it can be demoralising and demotivating if it remains a dream long term. But turning your woolly wish into something more concrete is simple. Take some wishes that writers sometimes have:
- I wish I could write a book
- I wish I could finish my projects rather than quit
- I wish I could develop a more regular writing practice
- I wish I could find more time to write
Now, replace ‘I wish I could’ with ‘I’d like to…’
Doesn’t this already feel more positive? Something to work with. Now you know you’d like do something, the next question is: how are you going to do it? And that’s where you need to think about writing goals.
How to set a writing goal: getting personal
When it comes to goal setting, writers often get stuck in the weeds. Sometimes they feel overwhelmed by their goal whilst other times they worry that they’re not being ambitious enough. They compare their approach to others or to how they might have achieved a writing project in the past.
But goal setting – like all aspects of the writing process – is deeply personal. What’s achievable for one person might not be for another. What worked for you at one point in your life, might not work now – and vice versa.
The most important thing is to find a goal and an approach that works for you right now and not remain wedded to an approach that you’ve told yourself – or someone else has told you – that you should take.
“Having a dream to write sounds aspirational but in reality, it can be demoralising and demotivating if it remains a dream long term.”
Saying that, a good writing goal does have certain characteristics so when you’re setting one, try to follow some general principles. Psychologists call these optimum motivational goals – not too difficult, not too easy, just right. Goals that spur you on, but don’t overwhelm you and in general, they have four key components:
The 4 essential ingredients of a good goal
1. Specific: Vague goals lead to vague outcomes. Getting specific about your goal helps you to focus and define what you’ll do. ‘I’ll try to spend a bit of time on my writing this week’ is not a goal. ‘I’ll write three chapters by next Thursday’ is.
2. Measurable: You can’t manage what you can’t measure. If your goal is ‘I’ll write more over the next few weeks’ it’s impossible to know if you’ve ever achieved it. If your goal is ‘I’ll write 500 words more tomorrow’, you can.
3. Timed: Without a timeframe you’ll have no urgency to act. Deadlines aren’t always pleasant, but they give you something to commit to and work towards. But remember to give yourself the right amount of time and be…
4. Realistic: Over ambitious goals can lead to overwhelm and panic. Under-ambitious goals can lead to boredom, procrastination and delay. Find a balance that works for you.
How to know if you’ve set a good goal – or not
Once you’ve set a writing goal now ask yourself how you feel about it. Here’s three options.
Does it feel:
a. Overwhelming and daunting?
b. Like it will be a walk in the park?
c. Exciting, challenging but also achievable?
If you chose a. it’s likely that you’ll never start because over-ambitious goals can lead to procrastination – try to make your goal smaller. It’s great to be ambitious but little point if it results in inaction.
If you chose b. it’s likely you’ll switch off before you’ve finished – push yourself a little more.
If you chose c. that’s about right. You’ve found what we call the tingle factor: a goal that’s a little bit challenging, but not so much that it feels daunting.
Prefer to watch us live? We’ve summed up our best tips on goal setting on our YouTube channel:
How to execute your goal
Once you’ve set a writing goal, you won’t get you very far if you don’t execute it right. Your overall writing goal will comprise of different elements. You’ll have the thing you want to achieve long term like, write a book. But you’ll approach this goal by ticking off a series of smaller steps.
>> Read more: How small steps lead to great progress
As you progress towards your goal make sure each step feels manageable. Sometimes when you think of the large project you have to write it can feel overwhelming – and that results in procrastination. We often recommend that writers take a small steps approach where you progress in increments, only focused on the next small action you need to take, not the large scary project you have to achieve.
Also, as you move towards your goal, be open to how you’ll reach it. Don’t aim for perfection. Your goal is a target to aim for – like the final destination of a journey – but how you get there can change. Some writers never start because in their minds, the route to their goal isn’t 100% perfect. But this is just another form of procrastination. Don’t use goal setting as an excuse for never starting
There are a number of different methods you can use to structure your approach to achieving each step. Understanding the types of goals you can set is helpful so you can choose a method that works for you.
In one way or another, project goals are set around milestones. Your goal might be to write chapter three, plan or draft a character outline. Project goals can also be include time spent on research.
> Pros: Project goals can be super-motivating because ticking off milestones makes you feel like you’re making progress with your writing. Also, project goals give you focus as you’re always thinking about the next stage in the writing process.
> Cons: Writing can be a moveable feast so sometimes it’s difficult to know when you’ve achieved your project goal. What does ‘completed’ mean? If you choose this type of goal always try to be as specific as you can be. Also, some writers feel project goals feel like a tick box exercise which makes the writing process lack spontaneity and creativity.
As the name makes clear, target goals focus around hitting specific targets within each session. Targets are typically focused around reaching a specific word-count in a session or writing for a specific amount or time.
> Pros: Target goals are very clear and give you something to aim for. Also, writers sometimes give themselves small goals (say, write for 30 minutes) knowing they’ll probably exceed the goal and write for an hour. This is great for building motivation.
> Cons: If used exclusively, target goals can make the writing process seem a little monotonous and dry – they can suck the creativity and fun out of writing. If you use target goals you’ll also need to have a clear plan so you know where you are in the writing process.
“The most important thing is to find a goal and an approach that works for you right now and not remain wedded to an approach that you’ve told yourself – or someone else has told you – that you should take.”
Frequency goals are all about helping you to develop a routine. For example, write every day, write for two hours every Saturday and Sunday. When you use frequency goals you build up streaks which can motivate you to keep going.
> Pros: As with target goals, frequency goals are clear, specific and unambiguous. It’s easy to tell whether you’ve reached the goal (or not) and adjust accordingly. Plus, these goals are great at helping you get into the habit of writing – they have certain rhythm to them that helps you develop a routine.
Cons: Frequency goals can lead to project drift if you’re not careful. If you are using this method, make sure you know where you are in the writing process. Have regular check ins to make sure you’re progressing in the right direction. Try to combine frequency goals with project goals so you know where you are in your project.
Practice goals are all about getting you into the swing of writing – rather than being focused on the writing itself. They’re particularly helpful when you’re starting out or if you feel blocked. They’re all about easing you in to the writing process and creating a pattern of persistence that builds your confidence. Examples are:
- Show up at your desk once a day at a set time and even if you don’t do any writing – reserve that time solely for writing and nothing else.
- Write for 10-15 minutes each day and slowly increase the time the over the course of two weeks.
- Produce a piece of freewriting every day (an unblocking technique where you splurge your thoughts without judging or editing).
- Write in a journal every morning or evening.
- Use the Pomodoro Technique. Get yourself a timer find somewhere you can’t be interrupted, set it for 25 minutes. Write. Then, take a five-minute break. Set the timer for another 25 minutes.
Remember to make a brief note to reflect on how each session went and be careful not to get hooked on practice goals – they can be addictive!
Bonus: Make your goals bright
Goals often work best when they’re based around simple, transparent rules. For example, if your goal is to write on a Monday and Thursday after work or that you’ll always write on Saturday morning for two hours, it becomes very clear to you when you’ve missed that goal.
Psychologists have dubbed these ‘bright line’ goals and they work because they’re unambiguous. You know instantly when you’ve stepped over a bright line which reduces the amount of mental effort required to put the rule into practice.
If your goal changes every week or is too convoluted and complicated, this will cause your brain stress – something your brain wants to protect you from and so, reacts badly to. Having bright lines doesn’t mean that you can’t miss a session – your life will get in the way – they’re more about giving you mental clarity and building a routine.
“As you move towards your goal, be open to how you’ll reach it. Don’t aim for perfection. Your goal is a target to aim for – like the final destination of a journey – but how you get there can change.”
Very often, writers have multiple goals or tasks and this can mean that they find it hard to prioritise between different ones – where do I start? This can lead to procrastination and delay. A good way to prioritise is to rank or score your goals.
Every time you prioritise something you have to de-prioritise something else – that’s why prioritisation is hard. But ask yourself, if you could only choose one task to work on or one goal to focus on, which would it be?
Which one is so important to move your writing forwards that you’d have to do it first?
You can also give your goals a rating in terms of how difficult or easy they are. When you’re starting off it might be a good idea to ease yourself into the writing process by choosing an easier goal to tackle. But be cautious of putting off goals that are difficult – if you do this you’re letting procrastination to take hold.
Going forward, building momentum
Some goals will work for you and others won’t. Remember that productivity is personal. How you write will change over time depending on the other things going on in your life.
The key is to notice what types of goals work for you in what kinds of situations. After every writing session take a few brief minutes to note down what went well for you, what didn’t go so well and what you’d change for next time.
When you adapt and calibrate your approach as you progress – and never hold on to any goal-setting technique that doesn’t work – you’ll start to see patterns emerge, and when that happens, you’re on the way to designing a productivity system that works for you.