Set smaller goals to build 3 strong writing habits

Set smaller goals to build 3 strong writing habits (text over image of stone staircase leading up to sunny sky)
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As writers, we focus on the Big Picture a lot. Much of the writing advice out there is all about reaching those huge goals—finally writing that memoir, finishing that novel, learning how to read and write poetry, and so on.

It’s good to have goals, but let’s face it: sometimes the Big Picture can feel too big to achieve. We can get up every morning with a clear idea of what we want to write, but that doesn’t necessarily mean we have a well-conceived plan for getting there.

So what if we made smaller goals—not giving up on the bigger ones, but breaking them down into more manageable steps? Smaller goals can actually lead to major milestones because setting them helps you build three sustainable good habits that will support your writing practice:

Grow your word count…

…by shrinking the daily word count goal. Stay with me. If you wake up and say, “Today I will write 2,000 words,” maybe you will and maybe you won’t. But if you wake up and say, “Today I will write 200 words,” I bet you will—and then some. The goal is clearly more manageable, especially if you plan to repeat it daily. Two hundred words isn’t much at all; it’s about half a page. But maybe you’ll be more thoughtful about your 200 words than you would be about your 2,000 words. Maybe you’ll write past 200 and hit 2,000 without even trying. Or maybe you’ll write 200 words and just feel good about reaching that goal. Grow your word count fast by definitely writing 200 words every day instead of maybe writing 2,000 words only once in a while.

Evaluate in-progress works.

If your goal every day is to Write That Book Already, then you’re focused on the end game instead of the process. But setting micro goals for the book’s development keeps you immersed in the story as it’s unfolding. That fixed attention is much more likely to yield important insights about your narrative, including problems and your own emotions about the project. What if this memoir is actually a book of standalone essays, which you realize while working on your micro goal of writing a good transition between one supposed “chapter” and the next? Feeling frustrated by your novel’s ending? Maybe you need to change something in the middle to set your character(s) on a different path. Micro goals can help you reevaluate, rather than stubbornly adhere to, your priorities for a given writing project—and regular self-evaluation and self-editing are excellent habits to develop in your practice.

Build confidence and motivation.

If you’re consistently achieving and surpassing your goals, you’re going to feel more confident as a writer. It won’t matter that the goals are small if you’re reaching them one after another. Finding time to sit down and write isn’t going to feel like a difficult challenge, but an exciting one. You’ll spend more time feeling productive than you do stuck. You’ll be more likely to return to your writing practice because you’ll feel like you’re making gains (and you will be!). And what happens when you do something on a regular basis? It becomes a habit.

Generate more new content, evaluate existing content, and be a more confident and motivated writer—those are three strong habits you will be cultivating in your writing life just by breaking your Big Picture goals into bite-sized ones. If you can make yourself sit down to write for even five minutes a day (but often end up writing for 20, 30, 45 minutes instead), and you feel good about it, you’re going to stick with it. Micro goals help you make a habit out of writing, instead of writing feeling like an impossible task when you were nagging yourself everyday to finish that novel. Focus on that novel chapter title, instead. Focus on fixing that one ill-fitting paragraph, that one bit of dialogue that just doesn’t track with your character’s personality. And just like that, you’re writing on a regular basis and probably thinking more deeply about what you’re creating.

An exercise

Find a story, essay, or poem you wrote recently, one that excites you but doesn’t feel finished yet. Make a list of the piece’s “issues” in shorthand, like “more sensory details” or “strengthen dialogue” or even “rewrite restaurant scene.” Each of these entries can be a micro goal, a day’s worth of work on that piece. Or, you could see if you can break down those goals into even smaller ones, and perhaps tackle two of them per writing session. “Rewrite restaurant scene” could become “focus on food details” plus “create more internal dialogue for main character.” How micro can you go? And does this exercise help you more clearly see the steps necessary to completing your story?

Have you or will you practice setting micro goals to establish and maintain a regular writing practice? Share with us in the comments!

Related reading: Reframing the “no time to write” problem

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