When you should reduce your writing goals

reduce your writing goals
Credit: SAMUEL CLARA

Reading time: Less than 3 minutes

This may sound crazy but if you want to reach your goals you may have to reduce them. Here are the benefits of beginning to reduce your writing goals…

If you speak the ‘language’ of goals, you’ll understand there are all sorts of rules to follow. SMART goals are especially big. S stands for specific, M for measurable, A for achievable, R for realistic and T for timely. Nail down these five variables, so the theory goes, and you’re far more likely to have something to show for your efforts.

Other experts will tell you that the single most important part of making a goal is to write it down. The act of putting our commitment on paper apparently cements it in our brains and makes it far more likely that we’ll actually achieve it. Still others, including Warren Buffett, counsel that the most important step is to have very few goals — no more than three! — and focus inexorably on them.

I’m not going to argue against any of this advice. It’s all helpful. But I fear it’s also completely  inadequate.

I say this because I’ve worked with dozens of writers who have been unable to achieve their goals despite being SMART about them, despite writing them down, and despite focusing on no more than three.

Here is the difference with writing: it is a creative act. Creativity doesn’t bend easily to specifics. It can be measured, of course, but it doesn’t like it very much. And our deeply creative brains have plenty of wrenches they can throw in the works when they feel they’re being micromanaged.

For example, we might tell ourselves we intend to write 500 words a day, just like Hemingway did. What’s the problem with that? Five hundred words is not a lot — it’s the length of a long email — and if we’re organized and specific about that desire, why can’t we do it in a single day?

Every person’s reasons for being unable to achieve this goal will be individual and unique, of course. And in many ways, it doesn’t matter what these reasons are. What matters is that our brains object to our logically outlined goals. Some people call these objections “writer’s resistance” while others describe them as “writer’s block.” The name really doesn’t matter. The important question is how to fix the problem.

I recently struggled with resistance myself. I had finished the third edit of my next book, and realized I needed to write one more chapter. It’s been more than six months since I did any writing for this book and I found myself — a professional writer who has not struggled with resistance for many years — suddenly at sea. I couldn’t manage my former daily word count, a modest 500 words in 30 minutes. Instead of writing, I found myself habitually procrastinating, putting off and delaying.

What was going on, I asked myself? Then, I decided to try a technique I’ve recommended to many of my clients. I radically reduced my own expectations. Instead of expecting myself to write 500 words a day, I gave myself the goal of 250.

This change was like magic. I wrote quickly, easily and with enthusiasm — enthusiasm I hadn’t felt in many months. All from giving myself permission to do less.

One other point: I didn’t beat myself up or chastise myself for making this change. Instead, I just celebrated that I suddenly enjoyed writing again. It feels remarkable.

If you’re declaring writing goals and failing to achieve them, the single problem might be that those goals are too big. So, cut them in half and try again the next day. And if that still doesn’t work cut them in half again.

If I hadn’t been able to write 250 words, I would have reduced my total to 125. And if I couldn’t have done that, I would have gone down to 62. And if I couldn’t have done that, I would have reduced to 31. Without blaming myself.

I think just about anyone can write 31 words. But if you can’t, start with 15. There is no shame attached. Do what works for you.

The bottom line? Make your goal so infinitesimally small that there is no chance you won’t be able to achieve it. From that point, gradually work yourself up to larger goals but make these adjustments slowly and surely so that you barely notice them.

Your goal? To achieve your goals. Don’t make the job harder than you need to. In fact, make it ridiculously easy.

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My video podcast last week gave advice on how to get back to writing after a holiday. Or, see the transcript, and consider subscribing to my YouTube channel. If you have a question about writing you’d like me to address, be sure to send it to me by email, Twitter or Skype and I’ll try to answer it in the podcast.

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How do you go about achieving your writing goals? We can all learn from each other so, please, share your thoughts with my readers and me in the “comments” section, below. And congratulations to Fred Estes, the winner of this month’s book prize, The Golden Spruce by John Vaillant for a July 10/18 comment on my blog. Anyone who comments on today’s post (or any others) by Aug. 31/18 will be put in a draw for a copy of Selling to Big Companies, by Jill Konrath. To leave your own comment, please, scroll down to the section, directly underneath the “related posts” links, below. Note that you don’t have to join the commenting software to post. See here to learn how to post as a guest.

Posted August 7th, 2018 in Power Writing

  • Kat Leffler

    Thanks Daphne!
    I’ve been working on re-setting my goals after a tumble ‘off the wagon’ and I agree with you here. One of the things I had to do was to scale down from multiple directions: number of items, size of item, time requirements for item.
    I can keep the BHGs (Big Hairy Goals), but they go on the long-term list. My immediate list is more manageable: went from 2K to 500 words of completed copy/day, scaled the $ per month/year target to one that will keep the lights on but not intimidate, upped my number of working hours/week, added more follow-up for referrals & recommendations, etc.
    All these small changes are working. I’m finding myself getting more items done and coming back the next day revved up to tackle it without the dread.

    • Congratulations on identifying some smaller goals that would allow you to keep moving forward. Keeping dread from the door is really important!

  • Michael

    Hi Daphne, your timing is uncanny!

    I loved the early paragraph “Here is the difference with writing””—that’s just how my brain reacts to my plans.

    What I started pondering this AM was whether to parse the paper I’m working on into a smaller paper focusing on just one of my key ideas. Maybe I’m bundling too many ideas together?

    You’ve given me a nudge towards what may be a more achievable goal. I felt a bit lighter after reading your post.

    Thanks

    • Glad to help you feel lighter, Michael! It’s quite interesting how we often tie ourselves in knots by taking on too much. If we can make sure our goals are ACHIEVABLE, we are more likely to see positive results.

  • Emily Agnew

    Thank you Daphne! That is amazing what a difference just decreasing your daily word count made. I wonder…there is a meta-level attitude you adopted that, it seems to me, made all the difference: as you commented, you stepped out of the mode of criticizing or shaming yourself, and simply started trying things and observing. If I’m REALLY stuck, then I make the observing process itself my goal: I might say, “My plan is to write “X” words per day this week…and my firm goal is to observe what actually happens then tweak accordingly.”
    I also often need to go in and be with something in me that is not wanting to write (or whatever the task is)…often it has its good reasons, which I can then address:)

    • Interesting observations, Emily! I think in my case, the issue wasn’t shame or self-criticism. It was just that I’d previously had a goal that had worked for me and I was slow to figure out why it wasn’t working any longer. I suspect that I was simply out of shape because, apart from my blog, I haven’t written so much lately. The truly astonishing thing to me was how much FUN writing became once I scaled back my goal.

  • Angélica Hernández

    Hi Daphne! I read your posts from Rio de Janeiro.
    Thank you so much for this column, I am trying to write my thesis but I get shock when I have to start because my expectations are huge, actually, I am going to reduce them.

    Thanks

    • Glad to hear it Angelica. This advice is particularly important for students who usually have unreasonably high expectations of themselves. Don’t try to change the world with your thesis! (There will be plenty of time for that, later, when you have your degree.) Instead, just try to pass!

  • Thank you. I needed this!

  • Charles Broming

    Try this: consider each attempt to produce a document a success. If your goal is to write a 5,000-word essay and you write 200 words, today, consider your result as 4% success (versus 96% failure). Tomorrow, build on that success.

    This attitude is useful for any endeavor: study, research, gardening, fundraising, vote-getting… as long as you learn from your intermediate successes, you will progress.

    • This is a positive approach, Charles, but I also think there is benefit in making goals more achievable before you try them. I know that writing those 250 words per day made me positively giddy with excitement after having spent more than a week feeling negative and discouraged with my writing.

      • Charles Broming

        I agree. Your use of, “but” suggests that I didn’t. Btw, I chose percentages to include any goal, whether it’s 25, 250, or 25,000 words. Of course, I could practice more of what I preach.