Monday, March 24, 2014

Why I've Decided to Stop Setting Writing Goals

by Stephanie Morrill

Stephanie writes young adult contemporary novels and is the creator of GoTeenWriters.com. Her novels include The Reinvention of Skylar Hoyt series (Revell) and the Ellie Sweet books (Playlist). You can connect with her on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, and check out samples of her work on her author website including the free novella, Throwing Stones.

For years now, I've had a love/hate relationship with goals.

When I was able to write full-time (before I had kids or a house, and when my husband worked forty hours a week plus was getting his masters degree) I loved goals. Because rare was the day that I couldn't meet them. Even with taking an afternoon nap, my days were predictable and I had control over my time.

That's not the case anymore.



I no longer live in a takes-one-hour-to-clean apartment, and the rhythms of my day are built around school drop-off/pick-up, naps, and my husband's work schedule. Connor keeps us on our toes with his epilepsy, and McKenna is at the age where she has her own activities plus friends who stop by to ask if she can play.

While you may not have kids, many of you are in similar situations. School might dominate your time. There's play practice and band and sports. Homework. Youth group. Your siblings and their activities. Other people need to use the family computer or you share a room or both.

I don't know about you, but I've grown weary of time management articles that assume I am the reason that I struggle to get things done. That if I watched a little less TV, spent a little less time on Facebook, prioritized a bit better, I could be living a well-organized, satisfying life. Because the truth is, I feel like I do the best I can with managing my time. Sure, I may occasionally wind up on Pinterest for fifteen minutes when I meant to only be there for five, but by and large I do a good job. And my life is still chaotic and messy.

I realized several years ago that I had grown to hate writing goals. I wasn't even making them anymore because all they did was give me one more way to fail. And who needs that?

Then this winter, in the midst of all the hospital stays, when I was a knot of worry over my son, over how little of me McKenna was getting, and how much I missed the routine of writing, my husband sent me an article. And when I read Forget Setting Goals. Focus on This Instead by James Clear, it felt like what I had been searching for ever since McKenna was born.

If you've struggled with goals (or even if you haven't) I encourage you to read it because makes a very convincing argument for why we shouldn't get hung up on goals. Instead, he suggests, we should focus our attention on building good systems (processes that help us make progress). There's nothing wrong, for example, with saying "My goal is to write a book this year," but my focus should be on the system for getting it done.

One example from his life that he talked about really struck me. He talked about a time when he was working out and felt a twinge in his leg. Not an injury, just fatigue at the end of a hard workout. He says:
For a minute or two, I thought about doing my final set. Then, I reminded myself that I plan to do this for the rest of my life and decided to call it a day.
In a situation like the one above, a goal-based mentality will tell you to finish the workout and reach your goal. After all, if you set a goal and you don't reach it, then you feel like a failure.
But with a systems-based mentality, I had no trouble moving on. Systems-based thinking is never about hitting a particular number, it's about sticking to the process and not missing workouts.
Of course, I know that if I never miss a workout, then I will lift bigger weights in the long-run. And that's why systems are more valuable than goals. Goals are about the short-term result. Systems are about the long-term process. In the end, process always wins.
How many times, I thought when I read that, have I spent a day angry with myself because I worked for an hour but didn't get 1,000 words written? Days that I hit a block around 700 or that I was distracted by a personal issue and just couldn't make the storyworld magic happen?

I plan to write for the rest of my life. And if I do the best I can to write for an hour everyday, that'll add up. Some days it might be just 300 words, and another day 1,300. But if I trust my process and plug away daily, I too will (metaphorically) "lift bigger weights in the long-run."

But what is a good writing process? How do you know if yours will yield results? I'll be covering that in my next few posts.

Do goals work for you? Why or why not? Do you have an idea of what your process is or no? (There are no wrong answers here! It's just a discussion.)



52 comments:

  1. THANK YOU SO MUCH FOR THIS POST, STEPHANIE!
    After I finished the 100/4/100, I just felt like I couldn't get anything done anymore. I couldn't reach any goal i made for myself. Any. Goal.
    So I've begun to give up goals and just make process. THIS HELPS SO MUCH!
    I'll read the post you linked to tomorrow! =) Can't wait! =D

    TW Wright
    ravensandwriting.blogspot.com

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    1. Glad it was helpful, TW! Some seasons of life are just like that...

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  2. That is such a great article and perspective Stephanie, thank you for bringing it out here. I have never been very keen on my writing goals, simply because I am running with so many deadlines and "goals" for college already. I simply forget about the goal and get crinchy afterwards when I have realised I did not make it.

    I do now and then like the goals, for lets say Camp NaNo. A commitment of a month, and that feels great when that works out and I actually made it. I further like to focus on the processes, while I never realised I did I think until I read this...Whenever I push out a lot of words on a day or come up with that one single clue for my story that had been missing, it makes me feel great. When it does not quite work out that way? I remind myself that I at least made progress of some sort and move on, there is a next day after all!

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    1. I think some short term challenges (like NaNo or the 100 for 100 challenge) where you push yourself hard for a limited period of time can work really well. Not only do they spur momentum, but they also can be great times of encouragement since you're working alongside other writers who are pushing themselves. Sounds like you have great perspective!

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  3. No matter how hard I try I just can't meet goals. It's a physical impossibility for me. I'm a terrible procrastinator, and I always feel like my writing stinks when I go at super-sonic speed to meet a goal. I'm trying to just go at my own pace, but at this rate I'm not gonna get my book done in like a year. But that's okay. I've stuck with it for a year already, I can do it for one more. :)

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    1. Every writer works at a different pace. I'm glad to hear you've accepted yours, Hannah!

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  4. What an incredibly excellent post!! I'm with you (shocker, I know). There are certain times when I set daily goals--like when I'm under deadline or have a day dedicated to writing. But overall, my life isn't just writing, so those goals just don't work. They don't take into account edits and other edits and designs and homeschool and science club and ballet and the cold that hits the family and...yep. This is a much healthier way of looking at it when you can't treat writing as a 9-5 job!

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    1. Yes, there are definitely times where I set a daily goal because I know I have the time and that I need to use it well. Like on a day when the kids are at school, I'll organize my time to try and hit 2k on those days. Or when we have our retreats, of course. But those are special times that I've carved out of my "real life" for writing.

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  5. So the whole time I was reading this, I kept thinking "But I like my goals! They help keep my on track!" and then I realized why.
    My goals aren't "This is what I want to do and I MUST do it or all hell will come crashing down." They're more "This is what I want to do; here's a list so I remember."
    I don't pressure myself too much, and I make possible goals. For example, instead of trying to write 1000 words or so a day(which would be incredibly difficult if not impossible with my schedule), I try to write at least one sentence a day. Sounds kinda lame, I know. But if I write one sentence, chances are I will write more. And if it's the end of the day and I haven't written, I write one sentence and go to bed feeling good about myself.
    So that's my take on goals.

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    1. I really like that take Krissy :) Seems like a great way to encourage yourself!

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    2. Maybe I should also write one sentence a day... I haven't been getting much writing done at all in like a couple of months. Thanks Krissy for the idea! =)

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    3. Love that idea! :D There are days that I'm just too busy to write more than a sentence. :)

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    4. Great insight, Krissy. I think there's a difference between setting goals that foster growth (like writing a sentence each day, where you're training yourself to write regularly) versus goals that are all about accomplishment.

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    5. *gasp* Stephanie Morrill replied to my comment?!?! *happy squeal!*
      Ok. I'm good. I haven't been on this blog for long if you couldn't tell.
      I actually have a question for you, Mrs. Morrill. (Stephanie? Mrs. Stephanie? Oh, I dunno.)
      Sarah Faulkner on Inklined told me about the Go Teen Writers FB page, so i looked it up and sent an acceptance(is that the right word?) request; I was wondering, how long it would take until I can join? Because I really need a support/critique/motivation group. I'm reeaaally new to the blogosphere side of writing, so I know nothing about anything. If I'm confusing, don't mind me. My brain is rather hyper today.

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    6. Stephanie is absolutely fine :) I'm glad you brought that up, because sometimes it's tough when I don't recognize names well enough to know who should be let in and who shouldn't. I'm pretty sure I just approved you.If not, apply again and I'll hop on it.

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    7. Yeah, that was me. I go by Krissy Blake on blogs and stuff; kinda a pen name thing. Thanks!

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    8. Go Teen Writers has a critique group?!?!?!

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    9. Alea Harper - Well, there's the Facebook page, and if you ask nicely on there you could probably find someone to critique your story. :)

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  6. I set goals, because if I don't then I never get anything done. But most of my goals are short term. Like when I sit down for a half hour I'm going to write for so long, or so many words. It works well for my schedule which doesn't let me write for extended periods of time and then I have huge chunks to write followed by another period of no time.

    And epilepsy is no fun, as well as being a time consumer in the beginning. I have a brother with epilepsy and cerebral palsy and his seizures were always scary. Thankfully his meds keep it under control now, but in the beginning... Are the meds working? I'll be praying they do.

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    1. Sounds like you've found something that works great for you!

      I'm so sorry to hear about your brother. I'm glad you guys have found medicine that works. It makes a huge difference. Connor had seizures for a couple months before we found a combination of drugs that kept them under control. But then those meds only worked for a month before he started having breakthroughs again. He's been seizure free for the last five days with the adjustments the neurologist made, so hopefully we're getting close to figuring this thing out. Thanks for praying :)

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  7. I just sit down and write as much as I can every day. I don't really set goals. :)

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    1. Glad you've found something that works!

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    2. When I did NaNoWriMo, I set a goal for like 830 words a day. I got uninterested and stuck after only a week or a week and a half. I think that the Go Teen Writers book has fixed that though! I am pretty sure that it is the BEST writing book out there!!! Thank you SO much Mrs. Morrill and Mrs. Williamson!

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  8. Wow. I SO needed this! Thank you for sharing your own experience & the fantastic article, too, Stephanie!

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  9. Cat Clarke has a lot of interesting stuff to say over on the FAQ on her website. She's one of the writers I admire the most and she says she doesn't even write on a normal day! I guess some writers can get a lot done during a creative rush, and so don't need to set regular writing time... wish I was like that LOL. I know I don't write regularly, but I find that when I let the story hibernate a bit, it grows, as though my subconscious mind just keeps adding to it while I'm away from it. I'm able to do much more with the story and take it much further this way. Whereas if I try to write everyday I just end up trying to rev up the word count, it's unsatisfying and also not as productive in terms of the quality of the writing.

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    1. Yes, we're all very different and it's important to find out what works best for each of us! I get super cranky if I go more than a few days without writing :)

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  10. This is so great, Stephanie! I find myself constantly frustrated because I set another goal that I simply wasn't able to meet with everything else I have going on. Goals are great for establishing the discipline necessary to fulfill them, but when discipline isn't the issue, they can become a deadweight around your neck. :)

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    1. I couldn't have said it better, Gillian!

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  11. Once I'm in a competition like CampNaNo or 100/4/100, it feels great to have a need to write every day, but at the end, it felt like a 'yeah, and I needed to write as well', which isn't probably the best motivation. So goals mostly do work for me, but it feels way better when I write without having set goals. I've no idea what my process is, actually. Right now, I'm editing a story and it's not that I do much every day or every week, but once I'm doing it, it feels like I've find something I LOVE. And I'm sure that, when I would have set goals which I had to follow, that feeling will decrease or be removed completely.

    arendedewit.blogspot.com

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    1. Arende, often when I've pushed myself hard for a period of time, my mind needs a week or so off from producing words. Like I need time to fill back up or something :)

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  12. Aw, Stephanie. This was fabulous. I am so glad to know I am not the only one who struggles with the concept of my LIFE being the reason I sometimes can't meet all my goals. And I love the work-out analogy. My mom taught us that dieting and NEVER eating ANY dessert wouldn't last long...but if we were to change our lifestyle so that 80% of the time we were eating clean and getting exercise, those lax times wouldn't be harmful. Thanks for sharing this and I'll be praying for you and Connor and your whole family. :)

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    1. Thanks for the prayers, Rachel :) Your mama sounds wise. Yes, it's about building a lifestyle through progressively healthier/better choices. We have to allow ourselves time to train.

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  13. Amen! I'm a mother of 4 kids plus I work part-time plus I'm a pastor's wife...well, you get it. I used to feel so guilty about how many words I wrote a day. They seemed insignificant compared to what all my writer friends could do. But I realized I am Morgan, with a different life than others, and I don't want to miss out on my kids growing up. So for the last couple years I have had a system where I wrote 500 words or wrote for one hour each day (which ever worked best that day). Sometimes I write more because I'm on a roll or because I have more time. But I always get that hour/words in every day (I do take weekends off). After a year of doing that, I finish a novel. It's not fast or glorious, but it gets the job done :)

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    1. That's an awesome system, Morgan! It's so easy to compare yourself and what you produce to what other writers churn out. (Or what they're selling versus you, or they're voice versus yours, or, or, or...) I regularly have to do just what you said - remind myself that I'm Stephanie and that what I've been asked to do is different than what they've been asked to do.

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  14. I'm definitely a goal-setter. If I didn't set a goal for myself, I would never get anything done. I try to write daily and having a daily word count goal keeps me at the computer and writing instead of off being distracted by the internet or something else. However, if something comes up or I'm stuck on where to go next, I let my word count go and realize that my goal isn't the end-all.

    ~ Kayla

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    1. Sounds like you have great perspective, Kayla. And I too have had times in life where making goals kept me in line with how I used my time.

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  15. I definitely do not like goals. They stress me out and I can't get any work done on my novel or anything else. I just need to sit down, write for a while until something else calls my attention, and then call it good. I'm actually glad to hear that goals aren't a necessity for writing. I was under the misconception that to write well, I HAD to have goals and manage my time on FB, Pinterest, Email, Blogs, etc. And I'm a busy person! So yay! :D Thank you! :)

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    1. I think discipline is essential to being a writer, but if goals only stress you out, than that's certainly not the way to discipline yourself!

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    2. Oh yes, I totally agree with you. I do discipline myself (if that post above made it sound like I don't) but just the thought of goals and everything.. it just doesn't work with my personality as a writer. :)

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  16. I am really bad when it comes to goals because I will not allow myself to fail. It doesn't matter what it costs me.

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  17. I like to set goals that are semi hard to reach because they help me go and keep going, but allow myself to not stress if something comes up. I was doing 100 for 100 when I sprained my ankle and that really messed the time I had for writing. I also have several writing projects and tons of time. I set a goal of 40,000 words in a month and ended up with +80,000 words in that time. I got grounded, but I'm still on that spur months afterward and I've almost done 600 pages in less than three months. I like to test myself a bit to sample a goal before I start out. I am homeschooled so I have a ton of time. I love this website and it's the best thing I've had since I started writing. Thank you the post I think it will come in handy in the future.

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  18. I don't work well under pressure, but I have done NaNo and I want to do Camp Nano. I kind of have a goal on 5,000-ish words a week, but it doesn't always work with my schedule. Thanks for the post!

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  19. Goals should work for you - not stress you. They can be as simple as I am going to work on managing my time better. They need to be motivational - not used to create unrealistic time pressure. Just like when you learn to walk, one little baby step at a time, goals can help motivate you to begin taking those baby steps forward.

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  20. Good post! In my opinion, it just depends on the person. For example, I am a very goal-oriented person, but my sister is not. I prefer structure and if I don't have a written goal, it normally doesn't get done. For example, I found this article surfing Pinterest, and I as I am typing this I now remember I have an essay to finish. Anyways, thanks :)

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  21. Very timely post for me! I've had some difficulty reaching my writing goals lately, whether I wrote for the right amount of time and didn't get everything done, or I couldn't get the amount of time that I wanted.
    At the same time, I do like goals, and if I don't have them, then my project probably won't get done. I think what I'll have to learn is more about not letting my goals stress me out, but to just do my best and if I feel that twinge in my leg at the end of the workout, so to speak, just to let it go and come back the next day.


    Alexa Skrywer
    alexaskrywer.blogspot.com

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  22. Eep, I love this post so much. :) I like goals, but I don't like goals set in stone. They always make me flustered. I work so much better when I'm relaxed about how long I need to take, and also if I just work consistently. But I hate it how people automatically assume that if "you don't have enough time to write, stop being on facebook/pinterest/whatnot". I would actually like time for them too. -_- Life gets so hectic and busy. Awesome post, Stephanie!

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  23. Goals are great, but it's also great to be flexible. I love that quote, "I reminded myself that I plan to do this for the rest of my life and decided to call it a day." That is so me. Seriously, sometimes I don't get even 500 words written in an hour, it's more 200. But it's 200 words closer to finishing the story and they are beautiful to me. And there is always tomorrow. Always.
    Thank you very muchly for this post.

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  24. I have too hectic of a life for too many goals, but I do write on story a month for Ravelry.com

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  25. I haven't been able to keep goals for a long while.

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  26. I don't set any goals then without goals I feel so free to work on what I feel like, let my heart guide me.

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