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How to set writing goals (and actually achieve them)

As a professional writer + marketing strategist, my world is basically a constant spin cycle of word wrangling. Once one piece of writing goes away, another jumps pops up to take its place. I may trade sales pages for screenplays, strategy for story outlining, and so on…

But no matter what: I’m writing. 

And the reason I’m writing?

It’s one of the most powerful marketing tools you can use that costs next to nothing.

Writing is also good for your health and well-being. It’s my favorite tool for self-expression and organizing your thoughts. Yes, I’ll admit it: I love journaling and have piles of full journals since childhood to prove it!

The fact is whether you’re writing for marketing purposes or personal self-expression or creativity, it can be hard to find the time and actually complete a project. Hey, you’re a busy human with a full life: incredible friends, a challenging career or business, maybe a life partner, maybe kids… It’s safe to say you’ve got a lot on your plate.

So finding the time to set writing goals and actually get them done can feel… like… a LOT.

And then when you can carve out time, there isn’t much wiggle room for dilly-dallying, procrastinating, or letting “resistance” get the best of you. 

I know this struggle intimately. Over my years of profesh writing, I’ve collected tons of tools that have truly helped me tackle writing like a BOSS.

This week, I wanted to give you some of my favorite tried and true methods for setting writing goals and actually achieving them — from what I do to make writing FUN, to how I get the work done when I’m feeling “stuck” or unsure of what to write.

So, without further ado, let’s dig in!

1. SET AN APPROPRIATE GOAL

The first order of business is to set an “appropriate” goal for your writing. It’s really easy to have insane optimism when you’re setting out to tackle writing, as it can be one of the most challenging tasks to time-manage. Some days you’ll find you write 1000 words in 20 minutes. Other days you’ll take all day to squeeze out a good 1000 words. And revising and polishing can also be a relatively “amorphous” task too.

Writing can be hard to define in terms of time blocking it on your calendar.

What I typically recommend with writing goals is starting with the BIG vision. What do you want to write and why do you want to write it? Get really honest here. Maybe you want to help someone by sharing a service or a story. Maybe you want to become a bestseller. Well, while no outcomes are guaranteed, what I CAN tell you is that no one becomes a bestselling author by NOT writing.

Remembering the WHY on days when it feels hard, or like everything else is “more important” or feels more pressing will keep you focused, motivated, and moving forward. I recommend writing this “why” down somewhere near your computer so you can review it daily and remember what you’re writing towards.

Next, you want to decide what the GOAL really is.

I’m a big big fan of the SMART method for setting goals. (This also works for goal-setting in stories, btw #funfact).

SMART stands for Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, and Timely.

Here is a great example of a SMART goal:

“I plan to write a 30,000 word book in 30 days by writing 1,000 words per day.”

Now, you get to decide what fits for you. It might just be a daily writing goal. Some people love to set goals by time (i.e. writing for an hour every day), and while I think that’s a great way to become a stronger writer, it’s not measurable in terms of the goal — unless the only goal is to write for a certain number of hours overall.

In order to make your goal measurable, you must decide what metrics you are using to judge your progress. Word count, page count, etc.

And remember to be realistic about what you can actually get done with the time, space, and energy you have at your disposal too. The “A” stands for achievable, so if you’re not setting yourself up from the get-go with an achievable goal, you’re setting yourself up to fail.

Once you have your SMART goal and can declare it in a statement (like above), write that statement down and then sign it like a contract with yourself. I’m all about making those big commitments with yourself, for yourself.

2. OVERCOME THE NEGATIVE SELF-TALK

Once you start writing, you’ve got a whole different challenge to face: the challenge of listening to your mind fight with you on your decision to write. Yup, this is just what happens. And rest assured, it happens to everyone. Every mind has a nasty, mean, negative voice inside of it. Some call this voice the “inner critic,” some call it the ‘saboteur,’ and some just call it their inner jerkface. 🙂

A long time ago, I worked with the incredible Andrea Owen who had me do a really interesting exercise. She asked me to materialize my inner critic; asking questions like: what does it look like? Is it male or female? How does it sound? From there, I was to come up with some kind of visual or drawing to externalize that negative voice.

I discovered that my inner critic was like a very grumpy baby, so I found pictures of grumpy babies and printed them out to keep on hand. Seeing that voice as a character instead of a TRUTH helped me to manage the negative self-talk or inside freak-outs whenever they arose.

Some days I think everything I’m writing is total crap. Then, two days later, I’ll read it and think “damn, I’m good.” You are never in a position to judge your own writing while you are writing. Let me repeat: You are never in a position to judge your own writing while you are writing. Your only job is to write, not to judge. You can’t do both at once because they require different parts of your brain. (You can judge later when you start the editing process. ;))

Another exercise I recommend is connecting with your “higher self,” — this is a big reason why I recommend getting clear on the WHY beforehand. It’s also why I include a meditation in my course Copy That to help writers connect with the part of themselves that is endlessly wise, loving, and compassionate. Being gentle with yourself makes the entire writing process easier.

But here’s the thing: BAD THOUGHTS SHOW UP ANYWAY.

You will feel guilty, you will come up with a lot of reasons to do other things that are more “safe” or comfortable, and you will often bring that grumpy baby (or whatever the “IC” is for you) to your writing sessions. I’ve found that you must expect all of that and decide to write anyway.

3. SPRINT YOUR WAY THROUGH IT

Okay, so this method isn’t for everyone. But it’s a FAVORITE for me. Maybe you’ve used a sprinting tactic for your HIIT exercise routine but not quite yet for your writing. Well, writing is a lot like exercising — you can get a lot of fast, efficient benefits by incorporating sprinting and going HAM for a shorter period of time.

Here are 5 reasons I love sprinting as a writing (and productivity) technique:

  1. It helps you see that “I’m too busy” isn’t the real reason you’re not writing (usually it’s fear of failure and discomfort with the lack of control). You can get a LOT done in a short 20-minute sprint session.
  1. It lights a fire under your arse and makes magic happen. It’s easy to stare at a blank page until you bleed without putting anything on paper. But when that clock starts ticking down and you know you only have a limited amount of time to hit your goal? You will see words spill out onto paper.
  1. You can use music to make it even easier to focus for a short period of time. I personally use this app called Focus At Will and loooove it. You can set a timer in the app itself to set your own writing sprint! (confession: I’m using it right now as I’m writing this.)
  1. You’ll be encouraged to write more regularly because it’s not super time consuming. Doing something every day, even for a short amount of time, will make you the best you can be! It’s like going to the gym. A little exercise every day goes a long way.
  1. Something magical happens when you put your 100% focus and attention into one thing. The “muse” meets you there. Most of us are so busy and consumed with 1001 things vying for our attention and constantly demanding something of us that we can’t focus, like, ever. Blocking off 20 to 25 minutes to just focus on writing means that writing will be better than it would have been if you tried to multi-task by scrolling social media or checking your email in between sentences. When you sprint, you get to give yourself those dopamine hits of Facebook or your inbox — just only every 20-25 minutes. #rules

4. GOING SLOW IS BETTER THAN NOT GOING

All things considered, it’s important to remember that chipping away at a goal is better than not moving towards the goal at all. Again, there will be days when you wish a piece of writing poured out of you in an effortless way and just came out perfect. There will be days when your expectations are out of alignment with your SMART goals. There will be days when you miss that 1 day out of 30 and try to write 2,000 words on the next day (or 6,000 if you missed most of a week).

Life isn’t perfect and even the best laid plans often don’t go according to plan. This is just part of being human. We are constantly faced with an ever-changing world and circumstances beyond our control. So naturally, this will show up around your writing goals too. There will be setbacks and unexpected distractions and resistance and reasons to not meet your goals. But what we can control is showing up consistently for our goals.

When things feel chaotic or like I’m not moving “fast enough,” I like to remember that age-old corny saying: “Rome wasn’t built in a day.” Whatever you’re working on, and whatever your ‘WHY’ is, it’s important to remember that it takes time. Every “overnight success” was built on years of unseen work, struggles, and persistence.

Don’t quit. It’s better to get there slowly than not get there at all.

5. GIVE YOURSELF A DEADLINE

Deadlines are MAGIC. I was never more convinced of this than when I worked on a major network television show as a writer’s assistant. Every week it would seem like unfinished scripts magically completed and corrected themselves, just in time for the production department to start prepping to shoot. There was a schedule. Episodes NEEDED to get created, so, no matter what – they happened on time.

Without hard deadlines, projects tend to float around in space and never really get done.

Don’t cheat yourself out of the “T” in SMART goals. Make it “timely” by giving yourself a deadline and declare that deadline to the world.

6. GET ACCOUNTABLE

While we’re on the subject of declaring your deadline to the world, let’s talk about accountability. Because a deadline without accountability is more like a hope. “I hope to finish by “x” date.” is very different than “I have a plan and a way of staying accountable to finishing by “x” date.”

So, how will you stay accountable and make sure you execute those writing goals?

My favorite way is to involve other people.

This is a huge reason why I created my writing mastermind The Storyteller’s Circle with built-in co-writing dates. We’re halfway through the program, and no one has missed more than ONE co-writing date, and they ALWAYS get at least 1,000 if not 2,000 or 3,000 words down during those calls. THIS IS MAGIC.

When you have another person to show up for, like a personal trainer or a gym buddy, it means you’re 99% more likely to actually show up and do the work.

That’s why it’s often necessary to hire a writing coach, enlist the help of a writing buddy, or enroll in a class, retreat or workshop to make sure you show up and DO the work.

This is a huge reason why I created my virtual retreat “Write On” — to help more writers get their writing done in a fun, supportive, and productive environment where the accountability is built right in.

If you’re finding yourself dilly-dallying on a project and want to commit to some serious execution, you can find out more details about the Write On retreat right here.

p.s. With enough interest, I might start offering these day-long writing retreats on a monthly basis. 🙂

But either way, remember to set those goals, declare them, overcome that negative self talk, and enlist some support to keep you accountable. I’ll be over here cheering you on along the way!