According toPsychology Today, setting achievable goals is a sure path to higher achievement. Every writer longs to be more productive and achieve more, so is something as simple as setting achievable writing goals really the answer?
Well, goal setting is part of the answer. The other part of it, of course, depends on the amount of effort that you put in. Setting a goal in itself isn’t going to make you more productive. You have to be consistent. You have to set aside time to write if you want to achieve your goals - and you have to keep doing it.
One of the main reasons some writers don’t set goals is because at some time they have fallen into that familiar black hole that many writers know, where if you fail to meet your goal one day, you lose your motivation, your confidence, and you give up on your writing goals. It’s easier to not set goals because then you’re not going to fail and you’re not going to sink into that funk where you just see yourself as a failure.
If you can relate to this scenario (and even if you can’t), then this article is for you. I’m going to be taking you on a whistle-stop tour through the psychology of writing goals (or goals in general), the benefits of goal setting, and taking a look at intensive goals (like Nanowrimo). Ready? Let’s jump in!
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Goal setting doesn’t just apply to writers, of course, but the psychology behind goal setting certainly does shed some light on why writers who set achievable goals tend to be more productive andsuccessful.
There’s been a lot of research into the links between goals and success (see, for example, Kleingeld et al, 2011 and Locke & Latham, 2006). People who set goals are more self-confident, have higher levels of motivation, and are more independent. It’s not just about setting goals, either. In 2015, psychologist Gail Matthews revealed that writing down your goals makes you 33% more successful in achieving them compared to people who simply set a goal in their heads.
Psychologists also suggest that it’s not just writing down your goals that affect the likelihood of you achieving them, either. The type of goal that you set yourself also makes a big difference. 92% of people struggle to stick to the goals they’ve set - and often that’s because the goals aren’t clear or specific enough.
For example, if, in January, you set yourself a goal to finish your novel by the end of June, you’re less likely to succeed than if you set yourself smaller, more focused goals, such as writing 5,000 words per week, or 1,000 words per day, or even just to set yourself a goal of writing for an hour every day. These kinds of goals are both more achievable and more measurable.
Writing goals are what psychologists class as performance goals (the other main goal type is learning goals). Performance goals mean that you’re focused on the end result - but you need to be cautious not to get too fixated on this end result. Becoming fixated on the results of your writing goals can be counterproductive in that you can become anxious about your successes (or failures).
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If you set a goal that you can’t realistically achieve, you’re going to feel frustrated and demoralized. Goal setting should keep you motivated, not make you feel like a failure. So how do you set writing goals that actually work? I’m going to share with you some 3 top tips for effective goal setting that bestselling authors use for their own writing goals.
When you set realistic goals, you’re setting yourself up for success, not failure. Your writing goals have to be achievable - and in order to set realistic writing goals you need to be honest with yourself about what you can do. For example, if you know that, on average, you can write 500 words in an hour, and you usually have around two hours a day that you can devote to writing, it wouldn’t be realistic to set yourself a goal of 2,000 words per day. It’s not achievable, and you’re going to become frustrated with yourself.
Asking yourself these questions can help you to set realistic writing goals:
When you are able to measure your progress, you become more motivated, so setting a series of smaller goals that work towards a larger goal is the most effective way to work with writing goals. This way, you can measure your progress in small steps rather than slogging towards a bigger goal.
For example, if you want to write a novel, the overall goal will be to complete the 80,000-word manuscript. However, working towards that huge goal can seem like looking up a huge mountain. Instead, you can break your larger goal down into smaller stages, such as:
Because these goals are smaller, you have that sense of achievement each time you accomplish one, in addition to knowing that each goal you achieve is taking you one step closer to your ultimate goal.
You can set all the goals in the world, but if you don’t ensure that they’re a priority for you, then you’re never going to achieve them. When you’re setting your goals, therefore, you need to ensure that they are important to you - and that you’re aware of things that you might put ahead of your goals.
To set effective goals, then, you should start out by recognizing the pressures and responsibilities that you have in your life that may interfere with your ability to achieve your goals (i.e. things that you will prioritize instead of your goals). Understanding these things can help you to be more realistic when setting your goals, too.
Consider these kinds of questions:
Even if you have a lot of things to juggle or balance in your life, it’s still possible to make writing a priority. For example, you can start blocking off time in your diary or planner, just as you would if you had a meeting or event that you had to attend. Treat this time reserved for writing in the same way that you would a work commitment - barring an emergency, that time is solely for writing.
Friends and family may still put pressure on you, and you may still struggle with procrastination, but if you see your writing time as a commitment you can’t break, you stand a better chance of achieving your writing goals.
There are a number of key benefits of goal setting, and although many of these are generic (they apply to all kinds of goals, not just writing ones), I’m highlighting the top three benefits that apply to you as a writer.
When I first started out as a writer, I didn’t set goals. I would simply write when I could, and I didn’t really know how long I wanted my first novel to be. This was back in the dark ages before computers, so all my writing was done by hand anyway, so I didn’t really relish the idea of counting how many words I’d written each time, anyway!
The problem with writing without a goal is that it’s a bit aimless. Sure, you know you want to write a book, but without targets to meet, you end up writing without any real sense of accomplishment (until the first draft is finished, at least).
When you set yourself smaller writing goals, you know what you have to do, and you can celebrate each time that you smash your goal. It’s more focused, and it improves your self-confidence, too.
Having a goal to meet helps you to prioritize your writing. When you set goals, you’re saying to yourself that this is important and that you want to achieve your daily (or weekly) writing goals. It’s surprising the difference that it can make when you start setting writing goals. I went from seeing my writing as a hobby to realizing just how important it actually was to me.
The people around you will also be able to tell the difference, and their attitude towards the time you spend writing may change once they realize that writing is your dream and you’re determined to dedicate time to it.
Setting goals is like making a plan for the future and stops you from having a more aimless existence. This focus on what really matters to you means that you have a better perspective and can also help you with time management skills. Writing down your goals is a psychological trick that forces you to see writing as a task that shouldn’t be put off until later - it’s a bit like highlighting a passage of text in that you’re recognizing that this is different to the myriad other things you could spend your time doing.
Keeping motivated is one of the biggest things that I struggled with as a new writer. I didn’t have goals, and my first novel only slowly took shape, so there were weeks when I was so discouraged that I didn’t write at all. It’s no surprise, then, that setting small and achievable writing goals has a huge impact on your motivation.
Each time you achieve a writing goal, you get that instant sense of achievement that does wonders for your motivation levels. That distant goal of completing your novel is suddenly much more achievable and you have the motivation to keep on smashing those writing goals. This consistent sense of motivation can dramatically increase your productivity levels.
When I first started setting myself writing goals, I was able to write about 500-750 words in an hour, so I set a goal of 1,000 words for a two-hour session. After several months of smashing through those targets on a regular basis, I was able to increase my goal to 2,000 words per two-hour session. My productivity rate literally doubled - and now I’m able to write at a rate of up to 1,500 words an hour (depending on what I’m writing, of course).
Setting writing goals really does make a difference!
Most writers will have come across Nanowrimo (or National Novel Writing Month). If you’re not familiar with it, you can find more information on the Nanowrimo website. Every November 1, writers around the world start the mammoth task of writing 50,000 words by 11:59 PM on November 30.
Nanowrimo has become a huge event that is probably the biggest example of intensive goal setting for writers. The algorithm used by Nanowrimo suggests that you need to write 1,667 words per day in order to meet the 50,000-word goal - but that doesn’t allow you for any days off. If you want to incorporate a few rest days (I’d suggest at least 4), then you need to aim for closer to 2,000 words (1,923 to be exact).
The great thing about Nanowrimo is that it’s an event that brings the writing community together in solidarity. There are often writing events held during the month, where Nanowrimo participants can gather together to socialize and write. I’ve successfully completed Nanowrimo eight times in the last ten years - only ill health prevented me from participating in the other years. In fact, one of my published novels was partially completed during Nanowrimo.
For some people, Nanowrimo is simply too intense and can lead to frustration and despair if you don’t meet your targets. For others, it’s a brilliant motivation and productivity booster that serves as a reminder of just what you can achieve if you work hard at it. Think about it - while 50,000 words isn’t really the length of a full novel, it’s only 20,000-30,000 words short of a complete manuscript. For me, realizing that I could write 75% of a full novel in 30 days was a huge boost to my confidence.
Should you participate in Nanowrimo? When my clients and students ask me this question, I always caution them to consider what commitments they have to juggle. If it’s simply not possible to churn out 2,000 words a day during November, then it’s not a good idea to participate in Nanowrimo. Failing to meet the targets can be demoralizing and have a negative impact on your motivation levels.
If, however, you’re able to juggle regular commitments, or even use some vacation time, then Nanowrimo is a brilliant way of demonstrating to yourself what you’re able to achieve - as well as participating in a community event that draws writers together and helps you to forge new friendships with fellow writers.
If you’ve been writing without setting goals for yourself, then today is the day when your approach to writing changes! The same applies if you’ve been setting long-term goals instead of smaller, more achievable goals. It’s really easy to start setting goals - you can write them down on paper, type them into your computer - or even download an app for your smartphone or tablet that helps you to keep track of your goals.
Start setting your realistic, achievable and measurable goals today and see for yourself how your productivity increases!
Kleingeld, A., van Mierlo, H., & Arends, L. (2011). The effect of goal setting on group performance: A meta-analysis. Journal of Applied Psychology, 96(6), 1289-1304.
Locke, E. A., & Latham, G. P. (2006). New Directions in Goal-Setting Theory. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 15(5), 265-268.
Matthews, G. (2015). Goal Research Summary. Paper presented at the 9th Annual International Conference of the Psychology Research Unit of Athens Institute for Education and Research (ATINER), Athens, Greece.
About the author:
Ariella is an experienced copywriter, editor, and digital marketing consultant. Driven by a passion for writing and content creation she takes pride in producing articles that deliver the latest information in an engaging manner and marketing campaigns that deliver exceptional results. Ariella has a BA (Hons) in English Language and Creative Writing (First), an MA in Theology and Ministry, and is a published author of three novels and a bestselling non-fiction book. A creative at heart, Ariella has 14 years’ industry experience and always aims to keep abreast of current trends and developments. She lives in the UK with her three beagles Zeke, Hope, and Sandy, who always make life interesting.