How To Set (Truly) Effective Writing Goals
Sitting down to write isn’t always easy.
When creative work proves difficult, many writers turn to goal-setting to motivate themselves to action, only to experience shame and frustration as they fail to fulfill their goals. Sound familiar? You aren’t alone.
Goal-setting often proves an ineffective productivity hack for one simple reason: a goal is an aim; not an action plan.
In Atomic Habits, author James Clear poses an interesting question: “If you completely ignored your goals and focused only on your system, would you still succeed?”
Clear defines a system as a plan for achieving consistent progress. In other words, a habit. If you ignored your goal to finish your first draft and instead made a habit out of writing, would you still finish your draft? If you stopped dwelling on your goal to sell 5,000 copies and instead made a habit out of marketing your work, would you still improve your sales?
A goal may show you where you want to be in your writing life, but it can’t help you get there. Not on its own. But when you pair a writing goal with an established writing habit, you empower yourself to make the progress you seek. To learn how to build a personal and sustainable writing practice, click here.
What do effective writing goals look like?
The purpose of a goal is to provide focus in your practice. On a macro-scale, a goal is the outcome you wish will result from the habit you’ve created. The first step in setting an effective goal is therefore to understand what you want from your writing life.
When you can answer this question with honesty and clarity, it’s time to determine the first significant milestone in your path to success. Do you need to finish your first draft? Get your latest revision to your editor? Finally set up your author website?
Whatever the case, your big-picture goal should drive your writing sessions.
Avoid the temptation to add a deadline to this goal. Though a deadline may inspire a short-term spike in productivity, it also introduces an unhealthy pressure to succeed. This pressure frequently pushes writers to work beyond their limits, leading to creative burnout and broken writing practices. Such long-term creative turbulence simply isn’t worth the short-term gain.
Speaking of the short-term, many writers fail to achieve their everyday writing goals as surely as the significant milestones in their journeys. Why? Because they’re focused on productivity over progress.
An effective everyday writing goal is one you can easily achieve, especially one that honors input over output. If you're putting in focused time and effort, the volume of work you produce shouldn't matter. You're making progress, and effective goals value long-term progress over short-term productivity.
Setting flexible goals to avoid writing burnout….
Big-picture goals can help you find focus in your writing practice, while an achievable everyday goal is the foundation on which your practice will thrive. But hitting your goals with consistency isn’t always possible. Life is messy, and your creative energies ebb and flow over time. If you’re too rigid in your goals and expectations, your writing practice may not survive the turbulence.
Having tiered writing goals in place helps me remain flexible in my practice and avoid the burnout that can so easily smash a writing habit to smithereens. What do these tiered goals look like?
1) a Maintenance Goal
This goal is the foundation of your writing habit, and achieving it helps you maintain the practice you’ve established. A good maintenance goal is one you can easily achieve on an average day, when you’re feeling neither drained nor overly inspired.
Every writer’s maintenance goal will be unique based on their personal writing practice, and it can change over time. My current maintenance goal is 30 minutes of revision as I work on the fourth draft of my debut fantasy novel, Lady Legacy.
2) a Stretch Goal
Some days, you’ll find that your creative well runneth over and you create in a flurry of inspiration. But when you’re high on creative energy, it’s easy to push too far, running straight into writing burnout.
Because of this, I like to set a specific stretch goal rather than writing until I run out of steam. When I reach my stretch goal, I take a moment to evaluate my creative energy levels. If I feel I’m pushing myself too hard, I call my session complete. But if I’m doing fine, I write until I reach my stretch goal a second time. I then evaluate my creative energy levels once again.
This mindful approach helps me maximize my creative energy while avoiding writing burnout. My current stretch goal is an extra 15 minutes of revision. When drafting, it’s an additional 250 words.
3) a Recovery Goal
Just because your writing practice is sustainable doesn’t mean you won’t experience a low creative energy level from time to time. When you do, it’s helpful to have a recovery goal in place. Rebuilding a broken writing habit is far more difficult than asking a bit less of your practice on any given day.
By necessity, a recovery goal should be less demanding than your maintenance goal. My own is currently 15 minutes of revision rather than my typical 30.
Every day, when I sit down to write, I take a moment to consider where my creative energy level stands. I don’t want to run into writing burnout, true enough. But having tiered writing goals in place also helps me avoid the shame and frustration that can come with failing to flawlessly execute my writing practice every single day.
As you set out to build the writing life you long to lead, don’t hinge your hopes and dreams on goal-setting. Instead, use writing goals as a tool to focus your creative efforts. By harnessing goals as part of a larger system, you can’t fail to make meaningful progress toward your personal definition of writing success — and I can’t wait to celebrate with you in all that you achieve.