Time to discuss something of interest to everyone, writer or not: the art and science of goal setting. I hinted at this in a previous article and it seems important enough to expound in greater detail. The purpose of goal setting is not to create so lofty a spire as to never reach its summit but rather to set a point of reference, a guidepost that you can use to tell where you are, where you want to be, and determine how you’re going to get there.
Let’s first discuss what makes for bad and good goals.
A bad goal is one that is either to simple and easily obtained or one that is so difficult that you might never achieve it. We’ll talk a little about the second part of that later, but first let’s consider setting a goal too low. If the objective isn’t challenging enough, then several things will happen. It’s true that you WILL be able to reach said goal, but at what cost? One of the primary reasons for setting goals is to push yourself a little harder than you would normal do without it. Through that experience, you learn: what you can do, what you can’t do, and what you might be able to do with a little more effort. If the target is too small, easy, or simply accomplished than are you going to learn anything from the experience? Probably! You’ll learn that setting sub-standard measurements of achievement can be accomplished with minimal effort. You’ll be proud; after all, you DID accomplish your objective, right? But, you’ll learn something else too: that you can get by doing less than your very best. Is that what you want to train yourself to do? Settle for less?
This brings us to setting goals too high. Not surprisingly, many people SAY they want to accomplish more than they KNOW they can. When this happens, it’s easy to understand why people become discouraged. Our objective here, though, is to help you realize that your lofty goal is not as bad as it might first seem. The issue is a matter of semantics. Saying that this great endeavor is a “goal” is dangerous, however if you take that same accomplishment and make it a “dream” then things start to fall into place. As an example, I have dreams. My dreams are to finish the draft of my first novel, finish my degree, move to a mansion in the country, and own the latest and greatest home computer systems known to mankind. Are these achievable? Certainly! Can they be done quickly? Not a chance. That’s one of the defining differences between a goal and a dream: time. If the goal could be achieved but will take over a month to achieve it, then consider t a dream instead and something to strive for in the long-term.
So if you can’t set them too low and they can’t be long, drawn-out dreams how do you know if you’re setting your goals within acceptable limits? This is easier than it may first look. In fact, I’d go so far as to call it common sense that each of us has. The trouble, often times, is that goals seem smaller than we’d like to make them and bigger than we can complete in a reasonable amount of time. Believe it or not, that’s exactly where you want to be!
Let’s take writing a novel, since this blog is about fiction writing, but the principal applies to nearly any dream, big or small. The average fantasy novel runs between 90,000 and 110,000 words. Let’s use 100,000 as an easy-math average. The first thing to do is set the dream: “I will write my novel in 12 months time.” Please notice that my statement doesn’t say “WANT to write my novel” but rather “WILL write my novel.” This is a positive affirmation, not a guess or hope. Dreams are not hopes—they are achievable and don’t let anyone tell you differently. So if writing a 100,000 word novel in 12 months is the dream, what are the goals? I’m hoping this seems obvious. The goal is to write 100,000 words / 12 months = 8,333 words/month. Weekly, that’s 1,923 words. Assuming you take at least 2 days per week away from writing and only work on the novel 5 days a week, that’s 385 words/day (or around one page double spaced). WOW, only one page a day and I can write my entire novel within a year?!? That’s maybe an hour a day? Maybe more, maybe less—depends on how fast I write. Some days will be good and others I’ll have to skip and make up somewhere along the line. When you take the time to break down writing, or any goal for that matter, into smaller units, it not only looks simpler, it really is!
As for pushing a little harder than what seems achievable, consider adding perhaps 10% more effort. If you’re writing an hour a day, then +10% means writing 66 minutes instead of 60. Does that 6 minutes make a big difference? Let’s see: if I can write 385 words/hour (using the number from before), then writing 66 minutes means a new 424 words/day (a difference of about 40 additional words). That means a 100,000 word novel could be written in 236 days, and adding in 2 days per week of rest comes to 47 weeks... 5 weeks ahead of schedule. And that was only pushing an additional 6 minutes per day. What would an extra ½ hour do?
Push yourself to set and achieve goals. Set them to reasonable, if challenging levels. Don’t let anyone steal your dreams. And keep writing!
Q4U: What strategy do you use to set goals?