How I set realistic writing goals

By Liz, so happy to welcome spring!

I’m one of those writers who has to continually psych myself out to get work done.

It’s not that I don’t love writing—like, the actual act of writing. I do. I’ve always loved it. When I’m not doing it I have withdrawal. Hence the whole pursuing the writing career thing.

But when I feel like the stakes are higher, it’s harder to get the work done. Even when I love what I’m writing.

I’m still not sure about the psychology behind this affliction. Believe me, I’ve wasted many an hour trying to figure it out (hours I probably should have been writing). It could be fear of finishing a project and people hating it. Or fear of finishing a book and never selling it, or never getting another contract. Or, or, or. So many possibilities and in the end it doesn’t really matter, does it? I’ve just gotta get the work done.

I’ve tried many habits over the years—a daily word count, bullying myself into writing during every spare moment I have, waking up super early to get writing time in, reporting on my progress to other writers. I’ve bought multiple planners and used mind maps. I’ve tried to assign myself specific scenes to write in a day.

The daily word count actually works best for me—until I either get super stuck in the mucky middle, or until I bypass my word count one day and do double the words, then beat myself up every other day for not doing MORE than my word count. Or until I get busy that day and I have no clue what I’m actually writing about next…you get the idea. Same with assigning myself specific scenes per day. The accountability works until someone gets busy and it fades away.

It can feel like a great big vortex of frustration, right?

Usually when I’ve tried one of these things (or all of them at once) and still find myself coming up short, I’m really hard on myself. Which is a huge problem for me in general, but I think it’s true for a lot of creatives. We feel pressure—mostly from ourselves, dare I say—to be producing more, creating more, DOING more.

But when is enough simply enough? When do you say, hey, Liz, good job today? Let’s go eat ice cream and watch some trash TV?

Here’s what’s been working for me, in three easy steps:

  1. Realizing that “productivity” is not the goal. Productivity, I’ve found, is an elusive concept. For one person, it could mean writing three books a year. For another, it could mean one blog post per week. Producing an excellent piece of writing (book, blog, whatever) IS the goal. Trust that the projects you’re meant to work on, you’ll work on.
  2. Setting aside specific hours for writing. Whether your time is 6 a.m. to 8 a.m., 10-10:30 p.m., or anything in between, that’s your time. If you complete it, YOU’VE COMPLETED YOUR GOAL. There’s none of the, “Well, I could’ve done more” BS allowed.
  3. Being kind to myself. I’ve started congratulating myself for showing up for my time block. You can treat yourself to a snack afterwards, or a show, or whatever floats your boat. It works way better than the flogging.

These little tweaks to approaching my day have helped me feel happier, more productive and less stressed about getting more and more things done.

Readers, have you made adjustments to something in your work or life that’s helped you? Tell me in the comments below.

21 Thoughts

  1. Specific hours works well for me. I’m writing by seven every morning and spend about four hours on it. If it’s a first draft, I also need to hit 1500 words per day. But that’s just me!

  2. I used to be another one who if i didn’t write in a day, I’d beat myself up. But it didn’t help. And too much is going on in my life and day job to do that.

    So now my “bonus” writing time is early Saturday morning before anyone else is really stirring. Turns out I’m getting a lot done in that time.

  3. Retirement was a big adjustment in our lives. I learned that it was better to pace myself. That things didn’t NEED to be done in short order. I make lists – doing what needs to be done first. The rest can happen when there’s time. Learning to enjoy the moment was a big adjustment and job because we did have the time. I can change household things that I don’t do every day for a rainy day when we can’t get outside. On sunshine days, the household chores can wait so we get do gardening or just sit on the porch and enjoy our daily critter visitors. Now it’s just a matter of pacing ourselves according to ability and desire where before it was purely because it had to be done in a short amount of time. In case you’re wondering, retirement is AWESOME! 🙂
    2clowns at arkansas dot net

  4. Having had a big birthday this year has been very focusing. I am practicing radical self-acceptance, or the Popeye Principle, “I yam what I yam.” One thing that won’t change after all these decades: I live my life like a college sophomore. I need the pressure of “the last minute” to get things done. The only difference is that as an adult, I know when the last minute actually is.

  5. Great advice, Liz! I love Barbara’s analogy! That’s kind of me too. We are too hard on ourselves. I think because there’s always *something* we could be working on! I think I have to accept that I’m not going to be an Edith Maxwell, even though I strive for her level of productivity.

  6. I write for fun to help lessen stress & my writing goals are to write 1 book a year & if I get more great. Now so far in 2023 I have written 2 complete books and halfway through a 3rd book which is good for me.
    If I write any it is usually in the Evening and later at night but only for a few hours.
    Now a tip that works for is, I gather ideas all day then in the Evening to late at night around 9 PM Eastern Time I start to write and keep gathering ideas.

  7. Were we perhaps separated at birth? I have been using The Full Focus planner lately. Not perfect, but I am getting a lot more done.

  8. Sounds like some healthy habits. I certainly recognized myself is some of what you were describing at the beginning of the post in so much of my life.

  9. I think we’ve all been there. When I’m in avoidance mode, I tend to clean. If my house is sparkling clean, it shows I’m not writing. But I don’t think this is a helpful method to start writing again.

  10. I’ve been setting weekly goals – which allows me to have high and low days. And sometimes, a low word count week. I won’t tell you what I goal but it seems to work for me. And weirdly, I got high words on a travel week (when I expected a lower count) and lower words on the week after travel. (Cate – I’ll ‘see’ you on the Hunterdon Library event on Thursday!)

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