By Chris Mandeville
This time of year, regardless of our religious beliefs and holiday traditions, most of us spend a few moments looking back at the past year and taking stock of where we are in our lives/careers/relationships. Many of us also give some thought to what we want to accomplish in the coming year, perhaps even making a New Year’s resolution or setting some long-term goals.
One of the best tools I’ve found for goal-setting is a system called “S.M.A.R.T Goals” that’s been around since the early 1980’s. It was originally designed for corporate/business use, but has been adopted and adapted by all walks of life, including by us creative-types. Why? Because it’s a darn good—as well as easy—way to make sense of what we want to achieve, couch it in language that’s clear and direct, and frame it in a plan that’s realistically achievable. It steers us away from vague, dreamy goals like “To be a world-famous author,” and steers us toward more well-defined goals that are within our power to accomplish, such as “To write an 85,000 word science fiction novel.”
Let’s look at how this nifty system works.
The acronym S.M.A.R.T. has been defined in a variety of similar ways; the one I like to use is:
S – Specific (clear, unambiguous, well-defined)
M – Measurable (an objective way to gauge progress and success)
A – Attainable (Is completion theoretically possible?)
R – Realistic (Is completion possible given your personal real-world parameters?)
T – Time-bound (includes a completion date)
I’ll illustrate using my previous goal example:
“Write an 85,000 word science fiction novel.”
This goal seems pretty clear and well-defined, so I feel confident calling it specific.
The “85,000 word” part makes it measurable.
Lots of people have written 85,000-word science fiction novels, so it’s definitely theoretically possible, i.e. attainable.
Is it realistic given my personal parameters? That’s not immediately clear, so let’s set that aside for a moment and come back to it.
It is time-bound? No, it’s not. I didn’t specify if I wanted to write this novel in a month, a year, or a decade. So let’s revise the goal to specify a completion date:
“Write an 85,000 word science fiction novel by January 1, 2017.”
This version of my goal is S, M, A and T, but is still missing R – Realistic. How do we know if this is a realistic goal for me personally? This is where the figuring and planning come in, as well as a little math (yikes).
I have to ask myself:
How fast can I write?
How many words do I write per hour on average?
How much time do I have available for writing?
Let’s start with time. I’ve taken a good look at my calendar, and—really trying to be realistic—I figure I can commit to one hour of writing each day. I’m available to start on February 1, 2016. Since 2016 is a leap year, it has 366 days. If I subtract the 31 days of January, that leaves 335 days to complete my goal. That’s 335 hours to write 85,000 words. If I divide 85,000 words by 335 hours, that means I must write 254 words per hour once per day, every day from February 1 through December 31. Is this realistic?
Well, sometimes I can write 1000 words in an hour. But other times I can only manage ten. Will that average out to 254 words per hour over the course of a year? Maybe… maybe not. It’s hard to say. And to commit to writing for one hour each and every day for the next eleven months—is that doable? What about my birthday and holidays? What happens if I get the flu? What if I get stuck on the story, or—heaven forbid—get writer’s block??? And am I really going to write for an hour each day during the two-week vacation I have planned?
There’s so much to consider! Am I being overly optimistic? Or am I not being ambitious enough? I don’t know. Ultimately there are too many variables and unknowns to say whether or not my goal is realistic. So how do I set a realistic goal without knowing for certain how many hours I’ll have available?
My answer is to come at the problem from a different angle: word count per week rather than per hour.
I start by figuring out how many weeks I have available for writing between now and January 1, 2017. If I had the full year, that would be 52 weeks. But we’ve already established that I’m not starting this project until February 1, so I subtract the four weeks of January, which leaves 48 weeks. Since I’m being realistic, I’ll subtract two weeks for holidays and two weeks for vacation. That leaves me with 44 writing-weeks.
To write 85,000 words in 44 weeks, I must average 1932 words per week.
To do this calculation for your own project, take the total number of words and divide it by the number of writing-weeks.
WORD COUNT ÷ TOTAL WEEKS = WORDS PER WEEK
Now, since I like round numbers—and since I want to stack the odds of achieving my goal in my favor—I’m going to round this number up to 2000 words per week.
2000 words per week. Hmmm. Is that doable?
For me personally, most days I can make the time to write 500 words. If I do this four out of five weekdays, I’ll meet my goal: 500 x 4 = 2000 words. If I don’t make my weekly word count by Friday, I have the weekend to catch up. The weeks I do meet my quota, I have the weekend free. Or I can write anyway and “bank” those hours for a future week when I don’t meet my goal.
I recommend setting aside “emergency back-up time” each week to ensure you have enough time available to achieve the word count you need.
After thinking it through and coming up with a weekly plan, I believe that my goal of writing 85,000 words by January 1, 2017 is realistic. I have my “R” – my goal is S.M.A.R.T.
To further increase my odds of success, I’ll take a few minutes at the end of each week to arrange my schedule for the coming week and block out writing time.
Using the S.M.A.R.T. system has made what might have been an amorphous New Year’s resolution into a specific goal with a plan for achieving it. Now that I feel like I can actually accomplish writing a new book by the end of the year, I’m anxious to get started! I’m going to get out my calendar right now and start scheduling my way to goal success.
How about you? Do you have a writing goal for 2016? If so, I hope you’ll be S.M.A.R.T. about it!
Happy New Year!
Chris Mandeville writes science fiction and fantasy, as well as nonfiction for writers. Her books include Seeds: a post-apocalyptic adventure and 52 Ways to Get Unstuck: Exercises to Break Through Writer’s Block. You can find more information on her website.