Why do most writing goals flop like Halloween pumpkins in December? Because we’re horribly, terribly, debilitatingly afraid. The non-writing writer is afraid to be imperfect. She’s afraid to fail. She’s afraid to be laughed at. She’s terrified to succeed.
How do I know this? Because these are my biggest fears. If I entertain them, I stop writing, stop dreaming, and slip softly into zombie life.
There’s a deeper discussion on these fears in the first article of this series. If you missed it, get it here 👉 Why Most Writing Goals Flop.
If fear is clogging up the street to our wildest writing dreams, how do we move through it?
First, we tap into our creative writing skills. Make the general 👉specific. We do that through two types of goals that work in synchronicity: SMART and Stretch Goals.
We’ll start with Stretch Goals. This will make you uncomfortable. Good. Let’s go!
Stretch Goals & Visualization
You’ve probably heard the self-helpers tell you:
“Create a dream board!” or “Keep a manifestation journal!”
When I heard this advice years ago, I rolled my eyes. Mantras, visualization, dream boards? That woo-woo nonsense is grade-A Wisconsin cheese. 🧀
But I was at a major low in my writing practice and life. I remember lying on my IKEA bed, the cheapest bedspread from Walmart beneath me. My room was completely bare except for the bed and a thrift-store dresser. It was all I could afford to furnish my room. I cried at the bareness of it all. The lack of abundance and joy. I was eating junk every day, not working out, and too depressed to write anything. This was not what I wanted for my life.
I began researching happiness and habits. I wanted to know how happy and successful people did it. Guess what? Every single success story contained an element of wild visualization.
The most decorated Olympian of all time, Michael Phelps, uses visualization to prep for races. He plays a movie in his head over and over to anticipate every possible scenario, good or bad. When it’s go time, he’s swum the race hundreds of times in his mind.
His coach Bob Bowman explains, “Sometimes it’s like you’re sitting in the stands watching yourself swim. […] The key to visualization is it has to be very vivid, it has to be rehearsed many many times. The reason it works is because the brain cannot distinguish between something that’s really vividly visualized and something that’s real.”
Psychologists call this priming.
Priming is used to train an array of high-stakes professionals like surgeons, fire fighters, police, soldiers, and pilots. Priming trains for precision performance and minimizes mistakes to almost zero. For me, I’m much more comfortable knowing my pilot has visualized every outcome hundreds of times before take off.
Once I saw the real-world results of priming, I was less put-off by dream boards, manifestation journals, and visualization.
What dreams do you have that are so big, you’re afraid to put them into words?
Maybe you’ve dreamed of…
Winning a Guggenheim? The Pulitzer?
A by-line in The Paris Review?
A book on the NYT Bestseller list?
Writing a hit Netflix series?
I can guess what you’re thinking. Nope, that’s not me. I need to aim smaller. Those are totally ridiculous goals.
In one sense, you’re right. They’re unachievable SMART goals (more on this a bit later). They are, however, totally achievable stretch goals.
Why? Because others have done it. If they can, why not you? I urge you to adopt the mantra of the indomitable Mindy Kaling: “Why not me?”
(Check out Mindy’s incredible commencement speech at Dartmouth, and then click on back.)
Stretch goals are less specific, longer-term, and far grander than SMART goals. A good stretch goal is your North Star.
How to Set a Stretch Goal
(PS – There’s a worksheet that goes with these action steps so you can write achievable writing goals. Get it here 👇)
1. Get very clear on your big WHY.
It’s great if you’ve always dreamed of a Pulitzer. But why? What would that prize mean to you? What would it prove to yourself? Would your life improve? I imagine the worst thing we can do in life is strive for a stretch goal, reach it, hold it in our hands, and realize it’s not at all what we want.
So you need to know your why. Why do you write? What does it mean to live a meaningful life? I’ve taken the last year to ruminate on these questions. For me, it comes down to connection. In this life, I want to connect deeply to the world––to people, plants, animals, and the earth. This underpins why I write. It is the fulcrum on which I move through life.
Once you’ve uncovered your big WHY––and it may take a while––then you can set soul-aligned stretch goals.
2. Write down a “mega-mountain-dream-big-or-bust-WOW” goal.
Get crazy. Like, off the rails crazy. Stop telling yourself, “The best things only happen to other people” and start saying, “Why not me?”
Choose one wild and crazy writing goal that’s aligned with your why. If your why is to Connect deeply with readers through story, your goal could be, Write a novel that sells 5 million copies and has a devoted fanbase.
If your why is to soothe the suffering of others, your goal could be, Fundamentally change how the world approaches children’s literacy. Or, Make a substantial impact on the global water crisis.
Brainstorm a bunch of these mega-mountain-dream-big-or-bust-WOW goals. Go nuts! Aim for 20.
Did you do it? Do it! I don’t care how ridiculous they sound. Write 20! When you feel the urge to balk, just keep writing. If it helps, yell WHY NOT ME?! every time you think, “This dream is too big for me,” and keep writing.
By the time you have 20 mega-WOW dreams (you feel more confident, don’t you?), choose one. One that sings. The one that if you reached, it would be the culmination of a life lived in alignment with your big why. This can take some time, so chew on it for a bit.
3. Write the story.
Now it’s out there. You’ve written your mega-WOW dream into the universe. You’re probably still thinking, “This won’t happen to me. This happens to other people.” That’s normal. It will take time for your subconscious mind to believe your dream.
To flip the script from “This happens to other people” to “This happens to me,” keep your mega-WOW dream front of mind, and like Bob Bowman says, repeat it over and over. Here are suggestions:
Write it on a piece of paper. Repeat it five-times daily, ideally in the morning.
Speak it over and over on a daily walk.
Create a dream board. Yup, I said it. Yup, the cheese works.
Journal about it every day.
Write it on your mirror.
Resist the urge to roll your eyes. Remember, this is how world-class Olympians, surgeons, and change-makers get to where they are. Repeat: “Why not me?”
Follow your big why and your mega-WOW dream like guiding stars. But don’t be afraid to be flexible. This is the long game, and if your why and mega-WOW changes, that’s okay. They probably will. The more you repeat the dream, the more you’ll get clear on if it’s the right one for you.
Set Smaller Stretch Goals
Now you have a North Star: your mega-WOW dream. How the heck are you gonna get there? Smaller stretch goals.
To do this, follow the same framework as above, but set smaller stretch goals. For example, if my mega-WOW is to Write a novel I’m proud of that sells 10 million copies and has a devoted fan base, a smaller stretch goal could be: Finish a first draft by June 2021.
This is still a wild and hefty goal, but it’s a shorter time-frame, lower stakes, and achievable. To create smaller stretch goals, imagine what it would take to reach your mega-WOW dream. Break that down into smaller time frames.
Once you’re at the quarterly and weekly level, use SMART goals as your stepping stones.
A note of intentional caution…
All this brain plotting doesn’t mean your mega-WOW moment will look exactly like you picture it today or even this year. The magic of mega-WOW is that it aligns with your why and reminds you to live a meaningful life.
Don’t let your mega-WOW dream pull you out of the present moment. That’s a recipe for a deep pit of emptiness––even when we reach our biggest goals. THIS is your moment. Right now. The steps and actions and words you write right now are the fruit of life. Dream big, but savor the present moment.
Most likely, your life will look pretty different from what you imagine. And that’s okay. But chances are, if you follow your big why and mega-WOW, there will be a few crucial moments in your life you’ll be able to say, “I dreamed this into existence.”
You may already be familiar with the concept of SMART goals. If not, here’s a quick refresher.
SMART is an acronym for setting an achievable goal. It’s a framework to take your wishy-washy goals from blah to bold.
A “smart” goal is…
Specific: There’s a reason specific comes first. Remember, we’re moving through fear. We don’t want to write wishy-washy goals that never materialize. Don’t set a goal to “someday apply to a writing contest.” Choose a specific writing contest with a deadline.
Measurable: Can you measure it? For our contest example, we’re submitting one story to one contest, so it’s measurable. We can get more granular by setting a word count goal. “My short story will be 2000 words.”
Achievable: Am I set up to achieve this goal? Will other priorities get in the way? Am I expecting too much of myself to hit this target? Example: The deadline for the Van Dyke Prize is February 18. It’s not achievable to set this goal on February 10 if I haven’t started the story yet. It’s achievable to set this goal on January 3.
Realistic: This emphasizes the importance of preparedness in goal-setting. Don’t set yourself up to fail. We’ve all tried to white-knuckle our way to a goal and wound up burning out in the end. Take a deep breath and get clear about whether or not you have the mental muscle to hit your goal in the allotted time. If not, aim smaller.
Remember, it’s okay to take baby steps––like BABY MOUSE steps––with SMART goals. These goals are NOT mega-WOW dreams, they’re stepping stones.
Time-based: This one’s self-explanatory: set time frames. The contest deadline is February 10 [time frame 1], and I want to submit a story of 2000 words. How many words do I need to write per day to hit this goal? I also want to block out time for research, revision, and peer feedback. Here’s a realistic and time-based schedule:
January 2: Pre-Writing and Research – 1 hour per day at 7 a.m., M-F
January 14: First Draft – 1 hour per day at 7 a.m., 500 words per day, M-F
January 21: Second Draft – 1 hour per day at 7 a.m., M-F
January 28: Send to a writing partner for feedback
February 4: Third Draft – 1 hour per day at 7 a.m., M-F
February 11: Fourth Draft & Final Proof – 1 hour per day at 7 a.m. M-F
February 18: 🎉🎉🎉SUBMIT TO CONTEST 🎉🎉🎉
Of course, that’s ONE schedule out of a thousand possible schedules. Make a plan that is realistic and achievable for you.
This is what the final SMART goal would look like:
I will submit a short story of 2000 words to Ruminate Magazine’s William Van Dyke Short Story Prize – $1500 by February 18th. I will achieve this goal by starting on January 3 and following my timely writing schedule.
You can get more specific by addressing how to deal with distractions, procrastination, and writer’s block. Example:
I will set my phone to “Do Not Disturb” and put it in my dresser drawer from 7-8 a.m., M-F. When I feel the urge to procrastinate, I will do a guided breath meditation for 5 minutes, and then get back to writing.
SMART goals are super effective for hitting milestones. A SMART goal is how I’m able to publish one article per week for LitHabits since June 2018.
Remember, your SMART goals feed into your larger stretch goals. Both goals should be front of mind every time you sit down to work. This keeps you aligned with your big WHY and fuels a meaningful and creative life.
Goal Lighting Worksheet
Feeling pumped? Overwhelmed? Excited? Not sure where to start? Good.
I made a worksheet for you that I’ve used myself to finish writing projects and achieve milestones on my path toward my mega-WOW dream.
Once a quarter, I write out my mega-WOW dream at the top of a blank sheet of paper. Below that, I write two quarterly stretch goals that are reasonable steps on my path to mega-WOW. It doesn’t matter if the path is fuzzy. That’s what the SMART goals are for. This paper stays static for the whole quarter.
Once a week, on a new piece of paper, I write three SMART goals that are small steps to the larger quarterly stretch goals. Each SMART goal has three small tasks to complete that week.
I tape this paper to my stretch goals sheet so it’s all visible. I keep this in plain sight on my desk at all times.
At the end of the week, I check off the tasks I’ve completed. Most of the time, I haven’t hit everything. That’s okay. I’ve still taken small actions that are aligned with the writing life I want to live.
Try it yourself! Get the Goal Lighting Worksheet here. 👇
Be Gentle & Kind with Yourself
A common trap with goal setting is self-abuse. You’re not always going to hit your weekly or quarterly goals. That’s okay! At the end of the week, it’s easy to get frustrated and give up on dreaming big all together. “I didn’t hit my goal. I suck. I can’t even get the smaller things done!” Result: You give power to your fear, go back to a by-the-seat-of-your-pants life, and mega-WOW never materializes.
Be gentle and let go of perfection. Get comfortable with failing. When you miss a weekly goal––or all of them, as I do sometimes––notice the negative self-talk. Put a mental finger on it. Then say, “It’s okay. I’ll adjust and try again.”
After reading hundreds of pages on how experts succeed, I’ve learned that a good life goes like this:
Fail. 👉 Course correct. 👉 Try again. 👉 Fail. 👉 Correct. 👉 Try again. 👉 Fail better. 👉 Correct. 👉 Try again. 👉 Succeed! 👉 Fail. 👉 Repeat.
Every time you miss a goal, tweak it and try again. The path to your mega-WOW life is not smooth. If you want to live a writing life with meaning, get crazy and get specific.
Ask yourself: Why not me?
What are your stretch goals for Q1 2019? Shout ‘em out in the comments. I’d love to encourage you.
FYI – I’m leading a workshop for writers who want to develop a consistent writing schedule unique to their life. Want in? Shoot me an email or sign up here👇
Sources & Resources
Brach, Tara. (2007). “Tara Brach: Sacred Pause Guided Meditation.” https://youtu.be/w-yF9EMkE88
Duhigg, Charles. (2017). Smarter Faster Better: The Secrets of Being Productive in Life and Business. https://charlesduhigg.com/books/smarter-faster-better/
“Michael Phelps - The Journey - Ep 5 - Visualization.” (2018). https://youtu.be/p-mZhvxeK_k
Peters, Eric. (2017). “Charles Duhigg on the Power of Setting Smart Goals [Master Class Recap].” HubSpot. https://blog.hubspot.com/marketing/charles-duhigg-on-the-power-of-setting-smart-goals
Ruminate Magazine, $1500 William Van Dyke Short Story Prize. https://www.ruminatemagazine.com/pages/short-story-prize