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How to Set Super Effective Goals (With a Little Help From Psychology)

Time to set some goals! Some long-held, ambitious, grand goals you’ve always dreamed of achieving. Great strategy, right? Wrong. Here’s why that kind of goal-setting could be setting you up for failure—and how to smash your targets this year.

Happy New Year, storycrafters! And with it being a shiny new year, what better time to put a psychological magnifying glass over why so few people—only 8% of Americans—achieve their New Year’s resolutions, ask what causes so many to fail, and figure out how to avoid those pitfalls and set some super effective writing goals for yourself?

I have my psychological magnifying glass in hand. Let’s do some investigating!

What is it about New Year’s resolutions—or, to be honest, goals you set yourself at any time of year—that makes them so incredibly difficult to achieve? Why do so many people abandon their efforts after a few weeks and what do the people who do succeed do differently?

According to Psychology Today, the problem lies in the type of goals we’re setting ourselves. We set targets to initiate change and change means breaking old habits—but those old habits die hard, right? Replacing those habits with new ones involves “rewiring” your neural pathways, but the typical kind of goal is too ambitious, too unrealistic in timescale, or too focused on the wrong thing to allow that to happen.

That begs the question: what kind of goal helps you form new habits and smash your targets? Before we delve into what psychological research suggests is the most effective approach to setting goals, let’s take a quick look at the actions that could sabotage your efforts before you even start.


What NOT to Do When Setting Goals

It can be tempting to make your goals the things you want to achieve. On the surface, it makes sense. You want to write a book this year? You set that as your goal. You want to edit your manuscript for beta readers? You set that as your goal. You want to find an agent and get published? You set that as your goal.

They’re pretty lofty aims, right? I mean, where do you even get started? Particularly if you’re right at the beginning of the process, with nothing written, nothing edited, nothing researched or prepared, that distant dream can seem even further off. And because it seems so huge, so distant and intimidating, you don’t know where to start—so you don’t start at all. Oops.

We don’t want that, so let’s set you up for success. How? By setting some S.M.A.R.T. goals.


Why It’s Smart to have S.M.A.R.T. Goals

S.M.A.R.T., as you’ve probably gathered, is an acronym designed to help you set goals that are super effective and super achievable. There are a lot of different interpretations of what S.M.A.R.T. stands for, but I’m going to cover the most common and researched one here.

What are S.M.A.R.T. goals? They are Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant and Time-Based.

Before you start sculpting a powerful, effective goal though, you need one thing. Clarity. You need a clear idea of what you want to achieve so that you can then transform that into a S.M.A.R.T. goal.

So here’s your first task! Save a copy of the Set and Smash Some Epic Writing Goals document and break down what you want to achieve into the five ‘W’s: what, why, who, when, where.

This part of the workbook will help you explore what you want to achieve and flesh out your motivations, timescales and tools integral to reaching your target.

Got that section filled out? Brilliant. Then let’s dive in to what our S.M.A.R.T. terms mean!

Specific

I’m sure you’ve heard this one before. Good goals are ones that are specific, goals that focus on the ‘how’ and/or identify precise figures or steps. Otherwise, how do you know where to start? How can you judge the progress you’re making? How can you tell when you’ve achieved your goal?

Take a look at what you wrote for the first question in the downloadable resource. What do you want to achieve? If your response was a general aim like ‘I want to write more’ or ‘I want to improve my editing skills’, it’s time to get specific. These goals are admirable, but way too broad to be effective. Instead of ‘I want to write more’, how much more? How often? Instead of ‘I want to improve my editing skills’, how will you do that? How will you know when you’ve reached your target? Get specific, whether that’s aiming to write a certain amount every week, learning to do one round of developmental edits on your manuscript, or something else completely!

YOUR TURN: Now use the questions under Section 2: Specific to refine your goal. Think about what you specifically want to achieve and how you’ll go about it, then write your new goal proudly under question 3.
Measurable

Let’s say the specific target you’ve just set yourself is your end goal, the eventual result you want to achieve, whether that’s finishing a book, practising new editing techniques, or something as small as writing 100 words a day.

That overarching end goal could be quite intimidating on its own. Where do you even begin? How can you tell if you’re close to achieving it? And that’s where measurable subgoals come in.

How can you break your end goal down into small, bite-sized steps? Separate out the processes involved and then break those processes down into measurable amounts. For example, finding a literary agent could be broken down into the processes of researching potential agents, writing a synopsis and query letter, and sending out those query letters. Those processes could be further broken down into researching X number of potential agents/writing X number of words for your synopsis or query/sending out X number of query letters a week.

These small subgoals are easily measured—you can clearly tell whether you’ve reached your target or not if it’s a quantifiable amount—and have the added bonus of giving you quick, frequent wins, fantastic for keeping you motivated and working towards your end goal.

Having a measurable goal is one thing, but going a step further than that and actively tracking your progress towards your subgoals and overarching goal can give you an incredible motivation boost, let you identify trends in your progress and work out what you need to do to reach your deadlines too. How can you track your progress? I’m a massive spreadsheet nerd, which is why I’ve put together some progress tracker sheets for you. Enjoy!

YOUR TURN: Now use the questions under Section 2: Measurable to create your subgoals. Remember to separate your end goal out into the logical processes or steps involved and give yourself a measurable amount to aim for with each subgoal.
Attainable

Attainability is all about realistic goal-setting. An attainable goal is one that you can actually reach, not one you’d just like to reach, and that’s an important distinction.

One of the major reasons people fail at their New Year’s resolutions is because they have unrealistic expectations. Sometimes these expectations are in the guise of “ambitious goals”, goals that aim to push you but actually have the opposite effect. Sometimes these expectations are the result of a mismatch between what you think you’re capable of and what you actually are. That’s why having a good understanding of what you can do on an average writing day is a powerful measuring tool.

Want to set yourself a realistic and achievable target? Aim for something you can reach through your average (or slightly above average) level of output. Want to set yourself an ambitious target? Aim for something a bit more than the average. Not too high—don’t cross the line from ambitious into unreasonable—but something that pushes you to do more than you’re doing at the moment.

YOUR TURN: Now use the questions under Section 2: Attainable to figure out what goals are realistically achievable for you. Remember: if you aim for something you want but aren’t capable of reaching, you’ve set yourself up for failure, so think long and hard about what you can do and use that as a reference point when setting your goals.

Want to make this your best writing year yet? Learn how to set and smash some powerful goals with @Writerology.

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Relevant

A relevant goal is a goal that has meaning in your life, and it’s something I think is largely undervalued when goal-setting. Why set personal targets? Because you want to improve, to grow and become better in some way, and the really powerful targets are ones that align with what we’re trying to accomplish in life.

What’s your ultimate objective, the end result you want to achieve? Now ask yourself whether the specific, measurable, attainable goals you’ve come up with so far are the best ways to reach that end. Do they fit in with your values, support your other goals, feel worthwhile to you? If not, you may want to reconsider the means to your end.

For example, your overall aim might be to develop a daily writing practice. You’ve specified that you’re going to write X number of words on X project every day, a target that’s easily measurable and realistically achievable for you. But… you’re someone who loves the freedom of writing and doesn’t want it to feel like a chore, a task you must complete exactly or you fail.

As it is, your goal doesn’t sound relevant to you; it’s not the best way to go about developing a daily writing practice. Instead, you might decide that giving yourself dedicated writing time every day is better than aiming for an arbitrary number of words. You might decide to journal or freewrite instead. You might give yourself the freedom to choose what project and goal to aim for on a day-to-day basis, as long as you do something writing-related every day. Whatever you settle on, it’s something that complements your values, your lifestyle, your priorities, and it’s something that has meaning in your life.

YOUR TURN: Now use the questions under Section 2: Relevant to explore what goals can help you realise your ultimate objective. Think about the other aspirations you have, what you want from life, and how the goals you’re setting today can support those and complement who you are as a person.
Time-Based

Finally, we have time-based goals. Pretty obvious what that’s about, right? Deadlines! But the ‘time-based’ part applies to more than just your end goal—there’s all your subgoals too. Having deadlines for when you want to reach your subgoals keeps you focused on those small steps and helps you battle that ever-present temptation to procrastinate.

What if you’re not sure what deadlines are realistic for you? Think about your end goal. If you have a timescale already in mind or have been given a deadline (e.g., submitting your manuscript for a competition or releasing your book), then plot out your subgoals on a timeline leading up to that date. When do you need to have a first draft done by if you want to submit in four months’ time? From there, you can break down your deadlines further into daily, weekly or monthly targets to keep you on track.

If you have more freedom with your end goal deadline, you could shift your focus to your subgoal deadlines instead (which fits nicely if you chose to emphasise realistic, maintainable goals over ones that push you in the ‘attainable’ section). Think of what you can achieve on your average writing day. Working at that pace, how long would it take you to reach your first subgoal, and the one after that, and the one after that? With your average output as a guide, you can work out your deadlines for your subgoals, and from there work out the deadline for your end objective, perfect if you’re not certain what overall deadline to set yourself.

YOUR TURN: Now use the questions under Section 2: Time-Based to work out the best deadlines for your goals. Don’t forget to take your answers from Section 2: Attainable into consideration when figuring out your timescales, as deadlines will affect how realistically achievable your goals are.

So that’s S.M.A.R.T. goals for you! I’ve added a third section to the downloadable for finalising your overall goal, subgoals and deadlines. But before you dig into that, one last thing...


Something You May Not Have Considered

Here’s something you may not have thought about when goal-setting before: are you in control of achieving your target?

The best kind of goal is one that you can achieve, not one that hinges on others. For example, say your goal is to find a literary agent this year. Whether or not you reach that target relies on another person—in this case, the agent—and so the power to attain your goal is no longer 100% yours.

Now imagine that your goal is to query X number of agents. You can break that down into subgoals to make it even more measurable, like research X number of agents, write a synopsis, write a query letter, send out X number of query letters, etc., and add in deadlines to keep your goal time-based, but make sure you keep the focus of your overall goal on something that you (and only you) are in control of.


Do your writing goals rely too heavily on others? That could be setting you up for failure. Here’s how to fix it.

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Having said that… involving other people in your efforts to reach your goal can be incredibly empowering. Don’t rely on others to reach your target, but use their support to help you get there! The participants in the Write Chain Challenge are fantastic examples of this.

And that brings us to the end of today’s post! Remember, my friend: you CAN do this. Smart planning just makes it easier.

All the very best of luck.