Making Smart Goals

If you've spent any time in the corporate world, you've probably heard about SMART goals. I hate corporate buzzwords as much as the next guy, but seriously making smart goals is hugely important for writers (and, really, anyone who ever wants to achieve anything). It's an acronym: good goals are Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant, Timely.

You can't meet vague goals. "I want to be a writer" is not a good goal. How do you know when you've done it? Even "I want to write a novel" is kind of vague (how do you know when it's finished?). Good goals are clear and unambiguous.

This goes along with being specific. If you can't measure success, how do you know you've achieved it? How many words/pages are you going to write? How many drafts? What IS a draft (the first draft is obvious, but does running a spell and grammar check count as one revision)?

Making attainable goals is a matter of practice. A good goal is realistic, but it also stretches you. If a goal is too hard, you'll give up and throw your goals away. If it's too easy, the goal becomes meaningless.

A good practice is to start small. See what you're capable of. When you can hit small goals consistently, increase them.

This should really go without saying, but you'd be surprised. If my dream is to get published by a big publisher, I have to look at each goal and decide if it contributes towards that dream.

Selling short stories to professional markets? Relevant.
Publishing stories for free in a local newsletter? Aside from the writing experience, probably not relevant.
Publishing with a small press? Yeah, probably.
Self publishing? Probably not.

Tobias Buckell counted his number of rejections as a goal. On the surface, this would seem irrelevant -- you're not making progress if you're getting rejected, right? But to him, getting rejections meant he was producing and getting his work out there. Because "making a sale" was not in his control, he chose something that was, and it worked.

The most important way to make a goal measurable is to put a time limit on it. Without a time limit, there's no urgency. That goal could be taped to your computer monitor forever and ever, neither failing or succeeding.

The thing is, you can gain just as much from failure as from success. Maybe your time limit is too tight, or maybe you just have too many blogs to read or Facebook games to keep up with and you need to cut something (irrelevant) out. Whatever it is, if your goal has no deadline, you'll never evaluate and you'll never know.

So what are my goals, you ask? I'm still working on the larger goals (specifically the deadlines), which is a lot of the reason behind this post. But I keep daily goals with the idea that any kind of steady progress is progress. I try to do 500-800 words a day depending on how much planning/revising I have to do (I still have to figure out how to make a measurable goal out of "planning"). And I usually pick three or four things from my real life todo list to finish in a day. (That's about the best I can do, since most of my job is parenting. And if I've learned anything about parenting, it's that you can't plan it.)

So how about you? What are your goals, daily or long term? Do they fit the SMART criteria?


fairyhedgehog said...

I cringe when I see this, which is probably one reason why I don't achieve more than I do!

Ricardo Bare said...

Now I remember why his name sounded familiar to me! I've read his article on rejection before. It's a cool writeup.

Joshua McCune said...

Wow, if rejection's a measure of production, I'm quite productive ;)

L. T. Host said...

I am not SMART. :( Boo.

Ah well.

Interesting post!

Susan Kaye Quinn said...

Hey, thanks for the linkage! :)

Hi, my name is Sue, and I'm a planner.

I'm always making plans and I reach many of my goals (certainly not all), but rarely in the timeline I originally planned. This is where I learn to be gentle with myself for not meeting all the goals, and understanding that I generally am overly optimistic in what can be accomplished in a given time period.

All that being said, I hew pretty close to the SMART approach. It's very engineering-ish. :)

I think it's very important to know WHY you have a particular goal. Sometimes we say "I want to become an engineer," when what we really mean is "I want to use my talents to solve problems that have meaning." Knowing the true underlying desire helps to make sure that all your SMART planning will land you in a place where you feel the accomplishment as profound and real.

Along those lines, here's an amazing video that's worth the 10 min to watch. (I'll probably blog about it soon) It talks about how people are motivated by having autonomy in their lives, mastery over their work, and knowing their purpose. It sang true for my with my writing. :)

Good luck your goal planning!

Lyla said...

I like the counting rejections thing. That sounds like a good place for me to start, since I'm one of those people who weighs the odds and gives up before even starting. Great post!

Adam Heine said...

Susan, no problem. And I've seen that video! It's pretty spot-on, if somewhat difficult to put into practice.

Lyla (and others): I totally do that too. The thing that keeps me from making goals (esp. long term deadlines) is because I don't want to fail. I (you, we) need to get over this if I'm going to get anywhere!

A.L. Sonnichsen said...

Hey Adam,
I just found your blog through your comment on Bookends. I was intrigued by the fact that you live in Thailand and foster children. We just moved back from China a year ago where we spent 8 years fostering our oldest daughter until we were old enough to adopt her. I've vacationed in Thailand many times over the years I lived in Asia. Love it. Anyway, I'm looking forward to reading more from you.

Take care,

Adam Heine said...

Thanks, Amy! And thank you for stopping by. It's always good to connect with other fostering/adopting parents. The kids need us, aye?

Where in China were you living?

Tahlia said...

That was a heartening post Adam, it looks like my goals are smart. At least they're clear.

Step one was to write the YA fantasy novel that was bursting into my mind. Once that was done the goal was to get an agent. Now that's done, the goal is to get published. I'm writing a few short stories on the way but haven't had any published yet. (I almost won a competition though.)

Once I'm published the goal will be to sell enough books to prove to my husband that the time I spent on it was worthwhile. Mmm, we'll see.

If you're interested, you can take a look at ch1 at

Adam Heine said...

Congrats on the agent, Tahlia! Good luck with the next step :-)