Monday, August 13, 2007

Goals, and how to achieve them

Maven Erica Ridley

This week's Mavenland theme is GOALS. (Er, you have some, right?)

Goals can be either short-term or long-term. IMHO, it's extremely important to have both varieties.

Here's why goals are good:

* Goals give you something concrete to work toward
* Goals give you something concrete to measure progress against
* Goals give you a sense of accomplishment once you've reached them

Take for example that guy we all know who lives in his parent's basement (far past the age when such things are typical), either has no girlfriend or has a slacker/sleazy girlfriend, and who can't keep a "real" job for any length of time.

Why does he still live with mommy and daddy? Because they wash his socks and supply him with free groceries? Yeah, maybe. But more than that, because he has no clear goal to do otherwise.

It's not that it's his lifelong dream to move his girlfriend into his parents' basement and mooch off of them for eternity. It's that he doesn't really know what he wants, and so he does nothing.

Don't be that guy in the basement.

His short term goal might be beer and a cigarette. Good for him. But he needs a long-term goal. Something to work towards.

Go to college. Apply for jobs. (Where college=practicing your craft and job applications=query letters.)

In order to get somewhere meaningful, it's best to know where you're going. And a great starting off point is to select good goals.

How do you pick the goals you set? IMHO:

* Goals should be specific
* Goals should be quantifiable
* Goals should be realistic
* Goals should be attainable
* You should be accountable

Let's take these one by one. This is a workblog, so I want to see your answers in the comments!


"I want to be rich" is not specific. "I want to make a six figure annual salary (plus benefits) as a Chicago personal injury lawyer" is specific. We're defining what "rich" means, and in what manner we mean it.

Set specific goals.

What do you want? What end goal do you specifically, objectively desire? Get out a piece of paper and make a list. At a bare minimum, jot down a dozen goals, whether short term and/or long term.


How will you know when you reach your goal? By setting quantifiable parameters.

"I want to be successful" is not quantifiable. "I want to be a New York Times bestselling inspirational romance author" is quantifiable. Either you are a NYT bestseller or you're not. It's inarguable.

Set quantifiable goals.

Think back to your specific goals you brainstormed above. How will you know when you reach them? What will be that yard stick of success?


At the most basic level, realistic=possible. Stephanie Plum's goal of wanting to be an intergalactic princess, while entertaining, is hardly realistic. There's no point in setting a goal that literally cannot happen.

"I want to be more famous than God" is not a realistic goal. "I want to be the next J.K. Rowling" is also not a realistic goal. Only J.K. Rowling can be J.K. Rowling. "I want to be the top selling author of SciFi westerns" is closer. It's specific, and quantifiable. (Er, if you could get reliable publishing house sales data for all authors in your genre, that is. Which you can't. But that's another topic.) And it's possible--somebody is the top selling SciFi western author.

Set realistic goals.

Take another look at your specific, quantifiable goals. Cross off anything that isn't realistically possible. Don't set yourself up for disappointment!


As obvious as this category seems, you wouldn't believe the number of goals people have that simply are not within their power to bring about! If a goal is not attainable based wholly on your skills, talent, ability and willpower, then it must be stricken from the goal list and moved to the wish list.

I'd like to win the lottery. Who wouldn't? I can't win if I don't enter, but even if I spend 100% of my disposable income on lottery tickets from now until the day that I die, there's no guarantee I'll ever hit that magic number. Therefore, even if "Win the 25 million dollar Florida lottery jackpot" is specific (FL Lottery), quantifiable (either they send me a $25M check or they don't), and realistic (somebody wins that crap), it's not an attainable goal in the sense of "if I try hard enough, it's possible for me to achieve".

Being a consistent NYT bestselling author? Totally not within your control. SO many factors come into play for something like that. Advertising, publisher support, initial store purchases, sales at certain locations within a specific time frame, etc, etc, etc. There are plenty of great books that never make a list and there are plenty of mediocre books that do, much like there are plenty of great movies that don't even make it into the majority of public theaters and there are plenty of filmatic train wrecks that break box office records for opening weekend crowds.

Set attainable goals.

Look at your list. Is everything on there truly attainable with elbow grease and perseverance? If not, strike it off. Do not give yourself impossible tasks. That's hugely counter-productive.


Now that you have a list of specific, quantifiable, realistic, attainable goals ("I will send out 10 queries per month", not "I will get an agent by Christmas") think about what a realistic time frame is to achieve them, and stick to it.

"I will final in a writing contest" is not a good goal. Neither is "I will enter every writing contest known to man until I final" or "I will enter a writing contest I don't really have time to prepare for because I will make time by imbibing mass quantities of chocolate and caffeine, and discontinue sleeping or interacting with my family".

"I will enter my WIP into one reputable writing contest judged by targeted agents or editors every three months" is a specific, quantifiable, realistic, attainable goal. (Whether contests are right for you or not is a different thing--see Diana's recent post and Anne-Marie's recent post for more on that.)

In order to achieve a goal, you must work toward it! Goals do not achieve themselves.

Obvious, right? But then why do so many people put "Lose 20 pounds" on their list of New Year's resolutions, and then wonder why they stay pleasantly plump even though they're not dieting or exercising or otherwise working to attain that goal?

The same is true for writing.

Let's say your goal is "Finish WIP". Well, what does that mean? Maybe it means "Write 100,000 first draft words for current paranormal robot project." Or maybe it means "Do a complete rewrite of the 90k Victorian mystery moldering under the bed." And so on. Specific, quantifiable, realistic, attainable.

And in order to be accountable, it must happen within some period of time. Otherwise, you may spend the next decade finishing your WIP!

The danger, of course, is to set an unrealistic--although theoretically possible--time frame.

"I will write 100k words in three months" is of course possible, but is it plausible for you?

"I will send off my requested full/partial within three weeks" may be possible, but is it plausible--or even advisable--for you?

"I will query five agents per week" is certainly possible, but if there aren't (52x5=) 260 strong, reputable agents that match your personality and your project, then isn't it a ridiculous goal for you?

If you're curious about my goals, how they've changed over time, and how they stack up to these criteria, you might be interested in today's Goal post (ha! goal post!) over on my blog where I give myself a reality check, hold myself accountable to my writerly New Year's resolutions, and publicly announce my updated goals.

So. Hopefully at this point you're looking at a much altered, scribbled and caroted list that now contains specific, quantifiable, realistic, attainable goals for which you've given yourself an ideal-world deadline but also a reasonable, cushioned time frame within which to achieve them.

YOUR TURN: I'd love your thoughts on goal setting, and whether you agree/disagree with the position I put forth here. Do you have any additional tips to share? If you feel comfortable doing so, please share at least one of your specific, quantifiable, realistic, attainable goals, and the reasonable time frame you've decided on to hold yourself accountable.


B.E. Sanderson said...

I agree. Having goals is probably the best way for most people to get what they want out of life and writing. Unfortunately, it hasn't really worked for me in my life. I have a tendency to torpedo myself when I set goals, and I get much more accomplished when I don't state what I'm trying to achieve. Consider it doing an end-around on my subconscious.

Maybe I'm getting better though. The whole 100 words for 100 days thing was working for me, and I was getting a lot accomplished. Until life intruded. I really need to get back to work.

Good post, Erica. I'd certainly recommend setting goals to anyone who isn't me. (Sorry if that sounds hypocritical, but I just recognize how my brain works. *shrug*)

Jackie Barbosa said...

Because I'm actually working this morning (gasp!), the first thing I thought when I read this post is that your rules for goal-setting sound exactly like an instructional designer's rules for setting training objectives: realistic, measurable, attainable. So, for example, "Understand the nature of the universe" is not a good training objective for a physics class because, even if it were ACHIEVABLE, how would you MEASURE it :)? How do you measure understanding?

I try to set myself good goals, but like B.E., I have to watch them or they come back and bite me in the butt. But that's tomorrow's post :)!

Crabby McSlacker said...

Great post!

One thing I'd add, though it's a dangerous one, is to be Flexible. Not that I'm advocating resetting the goalposts constantly, but more like periodically evaluating whether your stated goals are your "true" goals anymore. Sometimes life shifts our priorities bit by bit when we're not even looking, yet we still mindlessly march towards the same milestones we've set out for ourselves without questioning whether they still make sense. (Or at least I do sometimes.)

Lots of great advice here, thanks!

Erica Ridley said...

B.E.: It is so true that with anything, you always have to do what's right for you! If you work better without clearly defined goals, then it's great you know this about yourself so you can plan (or unplan? *g) accordingly. I have learned that for me, it's good to set goals, but that I tend to overgoal (yep, new word--you heard it here first!) and that I have to remind myself to keep my goals realistic and attainable. Tricky! =)

Jacq: Whaaahhh? You're actually working??? *runs off to check for cracks in the earth* (kidding! *g)

Crabby McSlacker: So true. Flexibility is extremely important. I just revisited my New Years goals over on my blog. I achieved some, deleted some, and tweaked others. You're absolutely right about life shifting our priorities!

Jody W. and Meankitty said...

It's so hard to set goals in our industry because you can't even guarantee you'll get PUBLISHED (by a reputable publisher). No matter how long and hard you work, you CANNOT guarantee it. So I think attainability is key, as is finding a way to stay sane :).

Jody W.

Bill Clark said...

All this talk about goals is wearing me out!

*Bill takes another swig of his beer and watches from the sidelines, wondering if his mom has finished his laundry and is making his favorite meatloaf for dinner*


M. C. Pearson said...

Great post...I'll have to think about my goals and post them too.

Love the J.K. Rowling part. LOL.

feywriter said...

Great post. I completely agree with all of your points. One quote I love: Albert Ellis (famous psychologist), when asked "What constitutes a meaningful, happy existence?", replied "Having goals but not rigidly following them."

My major goal currently is finishing the first draft (90,000 words) of my fantasy novel by my birthday (Nov 25) this year. I weekly re-evaluate to see if I'm still on track to realistically complete it. So far, so good!

I'm having a much harder time coming up with a (much needed) measurable goal for exercise. Don't need to lose weight, so can't count pounds. Just need to be healthier and have more energy.

lacey kaye said...

Mary, if you're not looking to lose weight, then count whether or not you went out and exercised (?). I get a sticker for every time I go do (whatever). I'm proud of my stickers! Feeling better is a bonus.

Erica Ridley said...

Jody: An excellent point! This is one industry where you can do everything right, and still not necessarily succeed to the desired level. All we can do is keep trying!

Bill: Bad, boy in the basement! Bad!

M.C.: Yay, definitely post them! (So far, commenters have been slacking on that part of the workblog... grrr *g)

Mary: What a great quote! So glad you're right on track with your WIP. And if you find the trick to keeping up with exercise, let me know... I'm a notorious slacker when it comes to actually putting on my roller blades and leaving the house. =)

Lace: Oooh, stickers! I'm a scrapbooker, so that's certainly one of my many addictions... *g

Isabel said...

Fantabulous post, Erica! And right on the spot, too.

LOL, Bill!

My major goal currently is finishing the first draft (90,000 words) of my fantasy novel by my birthday (Nov 25) this year. I weekly re-evaluate to see if I'm still on track to realistically complete it. So far, so good!

Mary, I wish you the best in accomplishing your goal. This will be quite a bday present for you!

Mary Witzl said...

I liked this post because my goals might seem rather paltry to others (mainly those who have not been trying to get published), but seem realistic and worthy to me. They are specific, quantifiable, realistic and -- I fervently hope! -- attainable.

They are:
1) to write every day, no matter what, no matter how much. Obviously I aim for quality and quantity, but if I cannot churn out a good amount of high-quality prose, then I do what I can and try again the next day.

2) to find an agent to represent me. I'm not blanket-querying every live body out there, but I have worked hard on a good query letter (far more work than the book itself) and I'm trying to target people who sound as though they might be interested in what I have written.

3) to keep myself from getting too discouraged.

That last one isn't always possible, but I do try...

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