Cheers to a new year and another chance for us to get it right.
As the year ends you can’t escape the notion of a new start and the pressure to commit to resolutions. Maybe you don’t call them resolutions and prefer to talk about setting goals. Or perhaps your new year is marked by assertions like I will lose weight or I will write more.
There’s a gap between here, where you are and there, where you want to be. But the size of the gap is terrifying and the amount of work needed to bridge it is too much to think about.
Unfortunately we have a strong tendency to go into denial when faced with unpalatable facts. You don’t want to know exactly how bad it is, whether that’s your weight or your productivity. That knowledge alone might stop you in your tracks.
You just hope it can be better. So you make vague, non-specific statements of intent. You’ll break them anyway, like 99% of people do.
But do you want to be just like everyone else? If you want to be in the 1% who come out ahead, don’t set your goals yet.
The Truth Hurts
What gets measured, gets managed.
You can tell yourself you’re too creative, too right-brained, bad at math, afraid of spreadsheets, or whatever. You still need to track numbers, and the most important is the number you begin at.
Losing weight is a very different prospect when you’re 100% over your ideal weight rather than 15%. The target and methods might be similar, but the application and trajectory must vary to be sure of success.
If you already write 1000 words every day, you need a different plan than if you’re struggling to write consistently at all. I will write more in the coming year is a single goal, but everyone will take their own path to it.
Before you can start to consider where you are going, you must know where you stand. How else can you map out a route?
Do The Math
I have been struck again and again by how important measurement is to improving the human condition.
I resolved to start writing regularly a few years ago. My challenges included work that was physically and emotionally draining, family issues, bereavement, raising teenagers, and more. Starting from ground zero made the initial goal simple; I will write a daily journal. No other numbers or targets.
I’m still writing the journal, although not daily. Other targets have replaced it. I went from starting a blog, to posting there occasionally, then weekly. At the end of each year I look back at what I did, and that process is much easier when I have a record.
What works for me may not work for you. I am no bullet journal person and I dislike spreadsheets. But I accept the need for data before making decisions. I want to know how far I travelled, what worked and where I fell short.
To do that I need various types of information, captured in a way that’s simple and easy to understand. In 2017 I used parallel paper and digital records whereas 2018 was paper only.
My 2019 experiment is a structured year planner plus a monthly summary in a spreadsheet. I have bigger goals which demand more detail, so I’ll get over my spreadsheet aversion and do what’s needed.
Get the right information and open your eyes to the truth of your current position before you figure out how to improve.
Choose Your Track
Items you can track include
- Words written – day/week/month
- Writing sessions done
- Chapters/blog posts completed
- Followers/ subscribers
- Submissions made
- And more, such as views, read ratios, books you read…
Decide what is most important to you. As your writing career matures, you’ll know which metrics are worth following. If you’re new to tracking, stick to one or two numbers until you’re confident, rather than overwhelming yourself and then giving up.
Although many people swear by daily word count, a weekly or monthly target gives more flexibility. I prefer to count finished works, whether that’s a blog post or a short story. My daily writing habit is already in place and underpins my ability to finish the work.
The simplest way to record a tracked item is a note on the diary page. The easiest way to see it is to add a colour coded spot. Now you can flick through the pages and see where you missed or where you hit a streak.
Hitting a streak has power – think of the satisfaction of knowing you’ve written fifty days in a row, or posted to your blog thirty-two weeks in a row. The longer your streak, the more motivated you are to continue it.
Stay In Your Lane
The best tracking system is the one you’ll actually use. It’s exciting to buy a fancy planner with coloured pens and stickers, but if you won’t use them they’re useless. Plus you feel like a failure when you see them lying neglected on a shelf.
If you’re comfortable with spreadsheets, they can be organised to give detailed information in as many areas as you want. Many paid and free versions are available such as Excel and Google Docs. A free download for writers is offered by Alan Petersen and he also has a video showing how to use it.
Know yourself and plan around your strengths. If your system doesn’t suit, try another. If your system works keep using it, no matter how low tech it might seem to your accountant spouse or super organised friend.
Keep it really simple, and keep going.
The End Of The Road Is The Beginning
Before setting your writing goals for the new year, look back at last year’s numbers. If you didn’t track your progress, don’t worry. Go back and record what you did each month, whether that’s words written or posts published or something else. Get a feel for which numbers are meaningful to you.
Now, armed with some numbers, think about what you want to achieve this year.
To write 80K words by December 31st, you need to average 220 words per day or 1538 words per week. How does that compare to 2018? If you’re already exceeding this number, great. You have space for more projects, all other things being equal.
If you only managed 1000 words per month, you’ll need to plan how to fill the gap, or modify your target.
If you know you’ll be moving house, having a baby, or changing jobs, then your targets must reflect that. Life may throw these at you – and more – unexpectedly. Your writing doesn’t have to be derailed by these challenges if you have a method to take stock and adjust your trajectory.
Writing goals should be SMART but also flexible, because life happens. Events can alter the definition of achievable or realistic, so don’t be afraid to revisit your goals as time passes, not just at the end of the year.
Doing What Counts
Not everything that can be counted counts.
Not everything that counts can be counted.
William Bruce Cameron
Especially if you love data and numbers, it’s easy to be sucked into analysis and forget that you have to do a thing before you can count it. Counting is not working.
The spreadsheet or planner won’t tell you whether you felt inspired or miserable. It can’t tell you that your words resonated with someone. It certainly can’t say whether the 100K words you wrote last year mean more than the 20K you wrote the year before.
These questions are important. They speak to a sense of achievement that isn’t quantifiable, yet determines whether you feel satisfied with your work.
Your journal is the soft counterpart to hard numbers. It’s the place where you can explore the uncounted but vital feelings that drive your life and work, and get to know yourself a little better.
Track your progress and your goals but keep it in proportion.
Remember numbers are visible and concrete, but not the whole story. Like an iceberg, the greater part of writing lies unseen below the surface, beyond the reach of spreadsheets.