Setting goals for the New Year isn’t as popular as it used to be.
A decade ago, if you looked for information on goal-setting, you’d find all sorts of advice on “how” to set the right kind of goals—those that were more likely to bring you success.
Today, if you look up goal-setting, you’re just as likely to find information on why you shouldn’t set goals as to why you should.
There are a variety of reasons why. The most common is that traditional goal-setting doesn’t work for most people. They get to March, April, or May and find that things aren’t going as planned, so they grow discouraged and give up.
It’s also easy to set goals that simply don’t do what they must do to keep you focused. Common mistakes include setting goals that:
- are outside of your control
- lack the urgency needed to encourage immediate action
- fail to inspire you or motivate you
- aren’t aligned to your vision or purpose
Unfortunately, after so many years of failing to reach their goals, many writers give up on the idea entirely, and that’s a bad idea. Here’s why, and how you can think differently about setting goals that will encourage your success in the New Year.
Why Goal-Setting is Still Important for Writers and Other Creatives
If you think setting goals isn’t necessary, I invite you to think about what you do every day. Go through a normal day in your memory, and then compare it to your other normal days.
Sometimes emergencies come up you have to attend to, but most of the time, you tend to do the same things over and over again, right? You get up about the same time, go through the same morning routine, go about your work the same way, eat about the same times, perform similar leisure time activities, and go to bed around the same time.
Indeed, according to studies, a huge chunk of your day is ruled by habit—nearly 50 percent of it repeated over and over again without much thought.
Other studies show that up to 90 percent of the time, we humans are simply reacting to the environment around us. “It’s difficult for people to accept,” says psychologist John Bargh of Yale University, “but most of a person’s everyday life is determined not by their conscious intentions and deliberate choices, but by mental processes put into motion by the environment.”
Our minds are perhaps more like machines than we’d like to believe. We’re basically on autopilot, following the same patterns of behavior day in and day out, which means that nothing will change until we consciously force it to.
If you avoid setting goals, in other words, and simply continue your writing life the same way you did last year, it’s unlikely you will realize your vision of where you want to be.
5 Steps to Thinking Differently About Setting Goals
The New Year offers us a blank slate. It’s the perfect time to think about how we’d like to change our writing lives for the better, and then to set goals that will help us create those changes.
This year, forget about traditional goals and try the following steps instead.
1. Ask Yourself, “What Do I Want to Change?”
It’s near impossible to set a workable goal until you know what you want, but that’s not always easy to identify. So try thinking about what you’d like to change, instead.
What was your writing life like last year? What didn’t you like about it? Brainstorm about that for a few minutes and come up with at least five answers. For example:
- I didn’t like feeling like I couldn’t write as much as I wanted to.
- I didn’t like the fact that my books didn’t sell as many copies as I hoped.
- I didn’t like feeling constantly overwhelmed.
- I didn’t like the fact that I didn’t increase my email list.
- I didn’t like that marketing still felt like drudgery.
Once you have your five things down, you can simply turn them around into a list of things you want to change. For example:
- I want to finish two new books.
- I want to sell more copies of my books.
- I want to feel more calm and centered.
- I want to grow my email list.
- I want to find ways to market that I enjoy.
2. Think About Changing Habits
As noted above, habit rules much of our lives, so if we want to change our lives, we must change our habits. Similarly, if you want to reach your goals for this year, the first place to start is your daily habits.
Another way to think about this is to set “process-oriented” rather than “results-oriented” goals. You focus on the processes you need to implement in your life to achieve the goals you’re going for.
Let’s take example #1 from above. You want to finish two new books this year. With the old way of setting goals, you might have written this down: “I will write two new books this year.” But that sort of goal would be likely to fail.
Instead, think about the process or the habits you need to develop to achieve those results. When you do that, your goal becomes something like this:
“I will spend at least 7 hours per week on writing only.”
This focuses on the process or habit of writing, and if you stick with this process, you will be more likely to write those two books than if you focus on the more intimidating goal of writing two books.
You can make this goal even more encouraging by sitting down with your schedule and determining exactly when you will fit in those 7 hours. It can be anywhere in your schedule, but penciling it in a calendar will make it much more likely that you will follow through.
It takes only a couple weeks of actually writing during your designated times to form a habit. Once you have that habit in place, it will be harder to go against that routine than to simply flow with it. At that point, you will have harnessed the brain’s affinity for habits and put it to work in your favor.
3. Shorten Your Year
One of the other problems with traditional goal setting is that it takes far too long to see results. Ask anyone to wait a year for those results and you’re likely to lose their attention before that year is up. There’s far too much time for procrastination to set in, say nothing of simple loss of interest.
This is especially true in our world today when everything is moving faster than it ever has before. We are all used to fast food, overnight shipping, and immediate downloads. Who can wait for a full 365 days for something?
Most of us can’t, so if you want your goal-setting to work well for you, shorten your year. In other words, shorten the time you give yourself to accomplish your goals.
How much should you shorten it? That’s up to you. Depending on your ability to put off gratification (or not), you should plan accordingly. Many people find that a quarterly schedule works well. Give yourself until April 1st to reach that first goal line, then re-evaluate from there.
This helps for two reasons:
- The “finish” line is closer, so your motivation is likely to be higher.
- The shorter timeframe allows you to get a fresh start each quarter, taking into account any changes that may have taken place.
You can even divide your goals up into 12 increments if you like, and check in every month. This creates a much more active approach that will help keep you motivated as you go.
So taking the #4 example above—growing your email list—you may set a traditional goal of obtaining 50 new subscribers each month. Then set a related habit or process-driven goal of producing and advertising a new freebie for your subscribers every month.
At the end of each month you can evaluate how you did, then make changes to your freebie or to other parts of your approach to see if you can improve the outcome. This sort of monthly approach also gives you a chance to experiment more with a variety of ways to reach your goal.
4. Use Checklists
The brain loves to see that it’s making progress. Think about how it feels when you cross an item off your to-do list. You get a hit of satisfaction, right? That’s not your imagination.
The brain releases dopamine—the neurotransmitter connected to reward—when we experience even small levels of success. And dopamine is very motivating. Once you experience it, you want more of it, so you’ll do more of what it takes to feel it.
You can use this bit of physiological truth to help you reach your goals. Create a checklist of small tasks you need to complete to reach your ultimate goal, then check off each small task that you complete as you go.
This works best if you make your checklist visible—hang it on your refrigerator, for example—rather than keep it hidden away in a folder on your computer. There are also several apps out there that can make checklists fun, including:
5. Make It Easier
One of the main reasons we fail to stick with our goals is that life gets in the way, and we lose our momentum. This is where “making it easier” can help.
Anytime you find yourself losing ground where your habits or processes are concerned, make it easier. Cut it back. Instead of writing for an hour, write for 30 minutes, or even 15. Instead of shooting for 50 new subscribers shoot for 25, or even 10.
Some improvement is better than none at all, and if you make it easier for a time, you’ll probably be able to increase your efforts again down the road. The important thing is to keep moving forward, even in small steps. Bit by bit, you’ll get where you want to go.
How do you approach goal-setting to increase your odds of success?
Buchanan, M. (2007, July 4). Why we are all creatures of habit. Retrieved from https://www.newscientist.com/article/mg19526111-700-why-we-are-all-creatures-of-habit/
Neal, D. T., Wood, W., & Quinn, J. M. (2006). Habits—A Repeat Performance. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 15(4), 198-202. doi:10.1111/j.1467-8721.2006.00435.x