My drug of choice is writing––writing, art, reading, inspiration, books, creativity, process, craft, blogging, grammar, linguistics, and did I mention writing?

Monday, March 25, 2013

Using S.M.A.R.T.(S.) Goals In Writing

Unless you live in a cave, (and not one of those tricked out caves with easy access to the outside world, but a cave out of of a Dungeons and Dragons game where it's so deep and dark that there are whole civilizations of bipedal albino geckos) somewhere along the line you've probably run into the idea, or at least heard, of S.M.A.R.T. goals.  "SMART" is a mnemonic acronym that's been around since the early eighties designed to help people remember what makes for a good goal.

Obviously SMART goals have their place.  You don't set out SMART goals when you're hungry, you just go look in the fridge for something to eat. When you are not even quite sure exactly what you want, it's very hard to set SMART goals, and much more important to get a sense of your true desires. But when you have a clear idea of what you want, and it's not something as easy as making a sandwich, goal setting will help get you there much faster.

Most people suck spectacularly at making goals. They may not know how to get what they want, but the real problem is that they don't even know what it is they do want.

You've probably heard someone in your life talk about doing something at some point in a way that it's almost completely unclear what they would be doing or when.  ("I really need to learn Spanish one of these days."  "I should get healthier."  "I should go back to school eventually."  "I want to be a writer some day."  "I should get back into the habit of jogging."  "At some point, I'm going to start a business.")

These "goals" aren't even really goals.  They are more appropriately characterized as dreams or whimsical fantasies.  They're goals in the same way Madonna is an actress--they sort of fill the spot where the real thing should go, but they're not fooling anyone. Unsurprisingly almost no one ever gets around to doing the things they want to do in such a chimerical way.  At least not before setting some real goals first.

SMART criteria help turn daydreaming into actual goals.

Timely (or time-based)
And to this I am adding a second S.  (Which I will explain below.)
S elf-contained

But what does that crap actually mean?

SpecificThe more ambiguous your goal is, the less likely you are to achieve it.  A goal to "go back to school" is very vague, and more likely to be a platitude than anything.  A goal to get a degree in linguistics by taking two night classes a semester is much more specific, and thus more likely to be realized.   "Getting healthy" is meaningless.  Quitting smoking, dropping 30 points of cholesterol, and improving blood pressure by ten points is an actual goal.  (Just don't check on your progress when you're being chased by zombies.)

You can't hit a target that you can't see.

MeasurableThis is a little redundant with specific, but I don't think SART goals or MART goals would quite have the same ring to it.  A goals measurability means that there is an actual bellwether or yardstick for success.  "I should lose some weight," is a meaningless goal that is technically achieved by voiding one's bladder or possibly not feeling like enough even after dropping 50 pounds.  "I will lose two inches from my waist," on the other hand provides a way to measure success.  "I want to do better in school," is meaningless, but "I want a 3.5 GPA gives one a beacon to pursue and a tangible point at which to say "I have achieved this goal."  (Endless goals are frustrating, and nothing succeeds like success.)

Attainable- Goals have to be realistic.  I could set all the specific and measurable goals I want to jump ten feet straight up into the air while shooting fire out of my mouth, but I will never hit them.  You're not going to lose thirty pounds in a month (not without reenacting 127 Hours....a couple of times.  You're not going to run a marathon next week if you're pushing fifty, completely sedentary, and a hundred pounds overweight.  You have to come up with goals that you can actually achieve or you set yourself up for failure very early on.  Learning to play Chopin's Piano Concerto #2 in one year is specific and measurable but if you're just starting piano lessons today, it's not very attainable.  Of course any goal could be too easy, but a goal that's too hard leads to frustration and dejection, and succeeding leads to improved confidence and self-esteem.

Relevant- A goal has to be good.  It has to be useful.  If you want to start a business a goal to lose ten pounds might be specific, measurable, and attainable, but it has nothing to do with what you want to do. .  And while that is an extreme example, a lot of people end up spending a lot of time doing things that are more subtly tangental to what they really want to be doing.  If you want to run a marathon doing a hundred push-ups a day might not be completely counter-productive, but it's probably not the best use of your time.  If you want to start a business making video games, you want to get good at making games, find an audience, create very very easy support systems so you can get paid.  Getting an MBA, or a CS degree, or going to graphics art school, or climbing the corporate ladder at a big game studio are all goals--and mind you, they aren't completely useless--but they are perhaps not the most direct route to your business making video games.  Losing 10 pounds is specific and measurable, but it isn't always the appropriate goal for someone who is building muscle.  "Staying healthy" is a good goal, but a better goal would be "Escape Zombies.  Then check blood pressure."

I just don't get it.  I keep giving myself infinite time to finish this project,
and it keeps not getting done.  I'm not sure what's going on.
Timely (time based)A goal is just a dream with a deadline.  Even the most specific, measurable, attainable and relevant goal is useless without If you have forever to do something, chances are it will actually be a low priority in your life.  You have to set time-based goals or you will simply never get around to them.  Or possibly only when all other things are taken care of and your life is an idyllic unstressed sea of free time.  I think I had a moment like that back in the late nineties.  Losing five pounds eventually is a goal you will never really take seriously or take real steps to achieve.  Losing five pounds in two months places a sense of urgency on the goal that leads to actual action.

But just so we're clear, even if you have a goal to take your blood pressure every day, it's okay to skip it if you're being chased by zombies.

Self-Contained- To this list I add "self-contained," and here's why: a lot of people set goals that they can't actually control.  (And I don't just mean that in a "we can't control the weather" or "we can't control the economy" or "we we can't control whether or not we get taken over by parasitical worms from the first season of Star Trek TNG!" kind of way.)  For example, if your goal is to get a promotion at work, you really can't control that.  You can affect it, but not determine it with your own choices.  Factors like how much your boss likes you, the performance of your competition, and your company's budget would all be a factor in such a goal that you have no way to influence.  Better goals are goals over which you have direct control.  In our example, better goal at work would be to arrive early every day, never check Facebook, ask someone once a day if there's anything you can do to help them, and to learn one aspect of the job each week that you didn't know before.  Those are things you can actually control.  I have about forty different goals related to threesomes I want to have.  They are very specific, and measurable.  And timely because I want them later on tonight.  But...I can't control who gives enthusiastic consent.

Self-contained becomes particularly important for writers, as I'll get into.

How to apply this totally awesome shiz to writing.

One of the biggest problems would-be writers have translating their dreams and desires into tangible results is that the process of writing is almost completely self-motivated, and, like most people, they don't know how to actually set good goals.  No one has a personal ass kicker telling them what to do. (And in fact, getting such a thing is the most oft-cited reason for writers getting MFAs.) Most writers have a sort of vague sense of wanting to be successful as a writer, but they don't have a good sense of how to get there, or really even what that means.

One of the reasons NaNoWriMo is so seductive to so many young and new writers is that it is a pre-packaged SMART goal. You have to write 50,000 words in 30 days.  This is actually  Specific, Measurable, Timely, Self-Contained.  And while I would argue that at 1776 words a day, it's a little too ambitious to be Attainable to most, it is technically not so unrealistic as to be outside the bounds of plausibility.  The only real question is if it's relevant. Are writers really doing themselves any favors by powering out high quantity, low quality as fast as they can once a year?  Obviously not if their efforts stop there.

NaNo is compelling because it has most of the elements of a good goal.  But if a writer learns how to set their own S.M.A.R.T.S. goals, they don't need to be beholden to anyone else's.

Specific- "I want to be a writer."  "I want to make money writing."  "I want to be successful."  These goals don't actually mean anything.  They are fantasies wrapped in language--nothing more. You're a writer if you write. You could make between five and ten cents a day (like me) and be making money, and success is whatever you define it to be. Even a goal like "get published" is a little nebulous as technically that could be achieved through self-publication of a single blog article (which is likely to have more readers than most anyone's first time print publication) or in a local paper.  But that's likely not to satisfy most people who dream of doing Ricky Lake and Ellen. You should really focus in on what your goals are for writing in the most crystalized way you can. "I want to write a 4 pages a day," is a much better goal. "I want to publish my novel with a big six" (Although technically that fails the S.M.A.R.T.S. goal for not being Self Contained.) These are specific goals.

Measurable- Do you know what the most common thing I hear from other writers is. THE most common thing?  It's the sentiment that they should be writing more.  The problem is that "more" isn't measurable.  A vague sense that one should be writing more often can be assuaged by spending one Saturday afternoon writing. "More" isn't measurable. 5 pages a day is measurable. 20,000 words in a month is measurable.  An hour a day and ten on weekends is measurable. Finishing a story in three weeks is measurable. Drafting a novel in four months is measurable. Set goals you can measure.

Attainable- Writers have a bad, bad habit of overcommitting. They are constantly starting new regimens and failing them (often spectacularly).  "I'm going to start writing five pages a day!" they say.  Shortly after day three they can't handle having no free time and quit altogether.  The 80+% of people who don't finish NaNoWriMo are evidence of how people set goals that aren't actually realistic.  You can't write forty hours a week (or really even twenty) if you have a day job and a family.  You're not going to write a publishable book in a couple months.  And most people can't do any more than 2500 words a day in a sustained way.  Set modest goals and adjust them upward if you need to.  Failure begets frustration and dejection--which is probably my primary reason for warning newer writers off of NaNoWriMo--and too many writers throw in the towel on writing completely because they simply expected too much of themselves.  On the other hand, hitting an easy goal is a good feeling, and you can always adjust the difficulty upward later.

Relevant- One of the biggest pitfalls writers fall into is not setting relevant goals.  They forget that they have a finite amount of time and to consider their talent build.  They get involved in writing projects for money just because it's PAID WRITING and forget that it's not the kind of writing they really want to be doing.  It's just such a thrill to be writing for a paycheck.  Or they do writing challenges (like NaNo) even when it's antithetical to the type of writing they usually or makes them put down a project they're in the middle of.  Or they become an editor because it's something in the writing world even though it isn't actually writing.  Or they attend a crazy amount of literary events and readings and end up being social more than actually writing.  Or they spend more time doing online social media self-promotion than actual writing (which is a problem this writer and other bloggers have to keep a close eye on).  Or they keep going back to school for another degree instead of just writing.   There are lots of pitfalls that are technically "not useless" but also not really the kind of writing that most people want to be doing.  You don't need to have absurdly extreme examples like "eat two hundred eggs" to have an irrelevant goal.

Timely- If you ever stepped into a machine hooked up to angel food cake that showed you the number of would-be-writers who are going to publish a novel "someday," your face would melt off Raiders of the Lost Arc style.

There are so, so, so many.  And many of them are probably even pretty good writers.  At one point in my twenties it was actually a rarer thing for me to know someone who didn't have a book cooking in their brain or a chapter or two written with a clandestine plan to get to the rest eventually.   Of course then they all started having kids and getting serious promotions.

A goal without a deadline is just a dream.

This should be a no-brainer, but it isn't.   People continue to operate as if they will be just as productive when they have infinite time to procrastinate as they will under deadline.  Goals like "in a week" or "each day" or "by the end of this month" are good goals.  "I will write 5 pages a day."  "I will finish this short story by Tuesday."  "I will have a rough draft of this novel done in four months."

I think it is perhaps the most common mistake that separates working writers from "pre-success" writers is that the later waits for inspiration to affect them before they write, and the former roll up their sleeves and work with the trust that the inspiration will come. The merits of writing under deadline are well documented in everything from freshmen who get their paper idea at 10pm the night before it's due to journalists to novelists.  But it's almost like those other writers just don't want it to become work.

Self-Contained- A lot of writers have publication goals.  A short story every month.  Something in one of the big literary reviews by next year  A novel by thirty.  A career in ten years.  I've heard all of these as actual goals of actual writers.  (Sadly, in no case that I know personally were these goals achieved even when they managed to finish the writing.)  The problem with these goals is that the writer may have absolutely no control over them.  A story or novel gets rejected for a hundred reasons that have nothing to do with the writer.  Personal taste of the E.I.C., length, a theme of the particular issue, the aesthetic of the magazine, or even budgets may all have more to do with a rejection than anything the writer can control.  Focusing on self-contained goals can keep a writer from buying a high powered rifle and climbing up a bell tower. "Getting a short story published each month" is something they cannot control.  "Submitting 20 times a month," or "get to a final draft and submit my novel by thirty" are much more self-contained.  The writer who focuses on the efforts instead of the success can't be frustrated by a gatekeeper.  And the writer who doesn't give up on self-contained goals will probably eventually succeed in the other stuff.

So remember to run your goals through the S.M.A.R.T. S. filter to see if they're good goals and tweak them if you need to.  Otherwise you end up chewing away your finite number of breaths thinking "I'd like to be successful...someday."

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