Word Count

Writers Talk About Writing

When You Should Reduce Your 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 five! — and focus inexorably on them.

I'm not going to quibble with 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 five.

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 have struggled with resistance myself. When I finished the third edit of my last book — Your Happy First Draft — I realized I needed to write one more chapter. At that point, it had been more than six months since I'd done any writing for the 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 felt 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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A former daily newspaper editor, Daphne Gray-Grant is a writing and editing coach and the author of Your Happy First Draft. She offers a free weekly newsletter on her website Publication Coach. Click here to read more articles by Daphne Gray-Grant.