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One Thing You Must Do Before Setting 2019 Writing Goals

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Photo by Bich Tran on Pexels.com 

Cheers to a new year and another chance for us to get it right.
Oprah Winfrey

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.
Peter Drucker

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.
Bill Gates

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
    • Earnings
    • 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.

Jakob Owens on Unsplash

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.

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Footprints in the snow

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As each year draws to a close, we naturally think about taking stock. What did we do, what did we get, what are we still hoping for, good or bad. It’s been a hell of a year, on many levels. Sometimes the big picture is overwhelming, and we can only make sense of small things. Like tracking our own progress, footprints in the snow.

I recently read a Medium post by Dajana Bergmark, called Blueprint for a productive 2017 . I liked a lot in the post, especially the brain dump and the idea of prioritising your effort, because effort and time are finite resources. I never have enough, and I’m sure you’re the same. But the further I read, the less attractive it became, for me. I’m not good with organisers and ticking boxes, and forcing myself results only in abandoning the whole idea. I don’t want to throw the baby out with the bathwater.

Any system has to be customised to suit you. Take what you can use and leave the rest.

I’m a whole picture person who baulks at prescribed step-by-step plans in minute detail. Details matter, but at different levels for everyone. So, I look for a broad brush solution I can live with, then drill down only as far as I will actually implement. I wrote recently about making progress with writing, and seeing that at the level of a whole piece.  This is about a closer look at how things are moving forward.

I mentioned before that I took up watercolour painting as a complete beginner. I devised a simple list which allowed me to track progress without it being a chore.

Attend a beginners’ class (weekly for 10 weeks)
Complete at least one painting every week – from the class or a book
Date each painting and write 2-3 comments about technique on the back
File paintings consecutively in a portfolio

Just dating each painting proved to be an incredibly powerful tool. It allowed me to see my progress over time, which was very motivating. Committing to one painting a week, thinking about the techniques and writing a comment helped me move fast, even when the classes were over.

I was able to join an improvers’ class after a few months. Granted, many of the artists there were much more experienced, but that also spurred me to learn more and raise my game. But without my portfolio behind me, I would never have had the courage to consider that class.

But what if I don’t want to paint/write, or don’t know what to paint/write?

Painter’s block, creative block, writer’s block all yield to action. What works for me is to step away from the emotion, and simply get to work. That might mean opening a random page in a magazine and painting whatever is there. It might mean going to a writing prompt website, picking one, and writing. It might mean creating something else; a poem, a meal, a garden, an ordered and tidy room.

If I want to improve, that means practising my art, just as an athlete practises before the big game or competition. I can’t afford to do only what I want, especially when time is precious.

The water does not flow until the faucet is turned on.
Louis L’Amour

In other words, inspiration comes after initiation. Get warmed up, then get going.

Tracking my journey as a writer

This is very important, yet it must be simple. For writing, my 2016 list looked like this:

Attend a writing group regularly and produce work for it
Submit to at least 10 competitions
Revise my novel to make it ready for submission
Read 2-3 craft books
Write a weekly blog post
NaNoWriMo

Using a standard calendar that comes with Excel, I have noted what I wrote and when. For my blog, WordPress has analytics built-in. It is surprising how motivating it is to see a run of completed boxes. I guess the whole idea of star charts is not just for kids after all. I can see which months were better for writing than others. And I can course correct when necessary, which is why NaNo dropped off the list.

Yes, I achieved those goals. Feels good, too!

Each written piece is tagged and dated, and sometime soon I will compare the first and last, the group pieces with my other work, and so on. Now it’s time to think about next year’s goals, building on this year’s successes and challenges. I might build another layer of detail into my tracking, or commit to a number of words per week. I already know that writing every day is impossible with my current commitments, (because I tried it, and failed) so a weekly target is more realistic.

That which is measured, improves. That which is measured and reported, improves exponentially.
Pearson’s law

As long as we don’t spend all our time reporting instead of producing work, this could be useful. Making a beautiful map is not a substitute for making the journey.

My Very Easy Tracking Plan™ boils down to this:

Find a system that you can commit to over a long period.
Track your work, no matter how simply.
Finish your stuff.
Enjoy your achievements.*

In the end, it is producing the work and growing as a creative that matters. Not blog views, competition wins, external validation of some sort. That may come, and of course we hope it will. But the work comes first. Always.

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*We all deserve a gold star. Congratulations on doing the thing, whatever that was.