It takes intense focus to achieve professional goals—especially in the realm of writing.
Here are 13 ways you can make your own writing goals more effective:
1. Write your goals on paper. You may have heard the apocryphal tale of a Harvard Business School study in which only 3% of the graduating class had written specific goals for their future. As the story went, 20 years later this 3% was earning 10 times the amount of the group with no goals. Just one problem: the study never happened. Now, however, researcher Gail Matthews from Dominican University in Illinois and Steven Kraus from Harvard have conducted such a study. They’ve determined that writing down one’s goals makes a positive difference. (People who also have an accountability mechanism, as in tip No. 12, below, do even better.)
2. Eliminate any goals that aren’t your top priority. Take the advice of businessman and investor Warren Buffett, who is known not just for the abundance of money he makes, but also for his ability to focus relentlessly on what’s important. His favorite strategy? He tells people to list their top 25 goals and then circle the five are the most important to them. He says, “Everything you [don’t] circle just [becomes] your ‘avoid at all cost list.’ No matter what, these things get no attention from you until you’ve succeeded with your top five.” If writing doesn’t make it to your top-five list, that’s OK. Always focus your time on what’s most important to you.
3. Make sure your goals are modest enough. If you haven’t written regularly before, don’t set a goal of writing an hour a day. That’s way too ambitious. Instead, approach the goal more gradually. Start with five or 10 minutes a day, and manage that for a month before you venture into more ambitious territory.
4. Plan how you’re going to eat your elephant. Many goals are so big that they might choke us. (They’re the proverbial elephants.) An idea without a plan is not a goal; it’s simply a hope. Instead of hoping, plan the daily actions you’re going to take to get the results you want. This plan should identify the small, non-intimidating steps you must take every day to achieve the big goal you have in mind.
5. Give yourself deadlines. If you don’t know when you must achieve a specific action, how will you know when you’ve succeeded? Giving yourself small daily deadlines will push you to achieve longer-term goals. Just make sure the deadlines are reasonable. Also consider the merits of reverse-engineering your deadlines.
6. Achieve at least some of your goals early in the day. Even if you’re a night owl rather than a morning lark, it’s almost always easier to start writing early in the day. That doesn’t require rising earlier than usual, but rather doing a small amount of writing soon after waking up. Many people dread writing, so if you can accomplish your most dreaded task first thing, you’ll feel great and you won’t wear yourself out with dithering: Should I write now or later? If you’re a true night owl, you’re welcome to add another chunk of writing later in the evening. Just do some first thing in the morning.
7. Turn your goals into habits. Aristotle said: “We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence is not an act, but a habit.” The key to achieving your goals is showing consistency. Did you know that if you write 300 words a day—the length of an email—five days a week, you will have 78,000 words by the end of a year? That’s the length of a book.
8. Develop a tracking system. Have you ever kept a writing tracking record? It will reduce your stress, improve your motivation, alert you to problems ahead of time, and help keep you focused.
9. Use visual clues to keep your goals visible. An electronic planner works well, but you can also use other systems. For example, you might want a large wall calendar on which you put an X through days where you’ve achieved your goals. You might also use the paperclip method, where you place a stack of paperclips on one side of your desk and then move them to the other when you’ve achieved your goal.
10. Anticipate trouble. We don’t always travel from A to B in a straight line. Be mentally prepared for obstacles. If you’re easily distracted, figure out a time and a place to write that minimizes distractions. (If email is the problem, turn it off or go write in a coffee shop.) If you feel blocked, do a mindmap or start your writing with Write or Die. If you’re constantly lured by the unholy trinity of Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, try a program like Self-Control (Mac) or Freedom (PC) that will block you from these apps.
11. Analyze your successes and problems. It’s not enough to state your goals and develop a plan for achieving them. You also must continually evaluate whether what you’re doing is working. Analyzing what went right and what went wrong after you’ve finished your day will give you perspective to make helpful tweaks.
12. Have an accountability system or partner. If you set goals and don’t share them with anyone, it’s no big deal if you fail to achieve them. That’s why so many athletes have coaches or training partners. Writing is no different. You can set up your own personal accountability system with a friend.
13. Reward yourself. Some writers I know pay themselves $2/day for writing. This is kind of an in-joke—the money isn’t serious, but the exchange is. It says that they value what they’re doing and intend to be paid something for it. Alternatively, you could buy yourself a latte or an iTunes song. Something small but concrete is an excellent payment for working toward any goal.
Achieving goals isn’t as hard as you might think, but it does require thought and planning. It’s like going on holiday. Most people don’t end up in Paris by accident; getting there takes serious organizing. Similarly, you won’t achieve your writing goals unless you plan to achieve them.
This post first appeared on the The Publication Coach blog.