During my conversation with Grace Yukich that I posted a few weeks ago, we discussed the different type of goals she sets for her writing, and how those goals might vary based on the other commitments she is juggling. Our conversation resonated with me, because I know from my work with clients – and my own time on the tenure track – that there is no single method of goal-setting that will work for everyone. I think that the best way to maintain your writing productivity is to create discrete, measurable, and actionable goals, but that doesn’t mean the same thing for everybody. That’s why it’s important to think about what’s important to you and what type of motivation you respond to. Are you the type of person who likes big wins? Or is “slow and steady wins the race” more of your style? In my work with clients, I find that there are three factors that influence how people decide to establish goals; personality, schedule, and priorities. These three reasons often inform one another but can sometimes (unfortunately) be at odds with one another.
For this post, I’ll focus on two different types of goals: immediate goals (goals that are short-term and short lived) and cumulative goals (goals that come from many instances of work). To make those goals more concrete, I’ll describe them as daily goals and weekly goals.
Daily Goals are good if one of your priorities is establishing habits, and you have the type of personality that responds well to having a routine. It also works well if you have time in your schedule to develop a daily writing practice, because daily goals require you to set aside a block of time each and every day. For instance, during my three years on the tenure track, I wrote every morning from 6:30-7:00am (in addition to longer writing sessions that were scheduled less frequently).This was before I had to get ready for work, and before I would begin to be interrupted by emails, meetings, etc. I did this writing at my dining room table, away from the distractions of my office or a coffeeshop. For me, it was important to get this done first thing in the morning. That way, even if the rest of my day fell apart, I knew I had completed at least one goal that was important to me.
It also works well if consistent, small victories help you to maintain your momentum. I find that clients with large chunks of unstructured time respond well to daily goals, because it enables them to stay on track. If you’re on a sabbatical, post-doc, or break from teaching, you want to be sure you can maintain momentum over a long period of time. If you don’t, you’ll quickly find yourself procrastinating, as you rationalize that because you have free time “tomorrow,” you can get the writing done then.
This risk of setting small goals is that unless you clearly state to yourself how these daily goals help you to reach greater goals, you may just be creating busy work for yourself. So be sure your goal has an outcome beyond “write for 30 minutes each day.” Be clear about what you intend to accomplish in those 30 minutes, and plan in advance. Sitting down to write with no clear intention does not result in a positive, productive writing experience.
Weekly Goals provide more flexibility, and you can keep your eye on a larger prize.
Perhaps your mornings are already spoken for. You might go for a morning run, have a child who wakes up early, or any other morning responsibility that keeps you from writing. Perhaps you just really value your sleep! Or, everyday might look different for you, making it difficult to schedule writing for the same time every day. For whatever reason, you don’t find it realistic to set aside a block of time every day. You also just may not like routine. You might feel stifled by a writing schedule that is so regimented.
You are goal-oriented, and you know that if you have a goal you will achieve it. If that sounds like you, a weekly goal may work for you. That goal can be something like, “have 5 pages completed by Friday” or “incorporate this set of articles into the literature review.” Once you know that’s your goal, you can create opportunities to work on it. This provides some wiggle room and flexibility. If you plan to write for an hour Monday afternoon but an unexpected meeting gets in your way, you can rearrange something on your schedule later in the week to make sure you stay on track. In this regard, some writers find goals like this to be more realistic.
This may not work for you if you are a procrastinator, unless you like staying up really late to finish up your work. It will work for you if you are a deadline driven writer. I don’t advocate structuring your writing time according to external deadlines, because that generally creates panic. Structuring it according to deadlines you set for yourself that are attached to rewards or sanctions works for some. An example would be sending work to an accountability partner every Friday, or rewarding yourself for meeting a self-imposed deadline.
These two strategies for setting goals are not necessarily at odds with one another. Instead, you can look at your daily goals as bringing you closer to a bigger, long-term goal. If you’re not sure which type of goal setting will work for you, think back to your last big accomplishment. How did you achieve it? Did you complete is hastily, or did you spend a lot of time working on it? How did you feel? Satisfied? Stressed? Exhausted? Looking at your past process and results can give you excellent data that will help you decide which goals will work best for you in the future.