Setting Writing Goals — Making Room for the Good Stuff
Almost as soon as I resolved to write professionally, I realized that I should start setting goals for my writing and tracking my production and progress.
My need to track my goals and production was not born of self-improvement 101. Instead, this drive to organize my time grew from some minor terrors that had made themselves visitors in my heart, unannounced and certainly unwelcome. Do I have too many projects on my plate? Can I master enough basic skills quickly enough to start making a living? Am I crazy for even trying, or should I just take out some house hunters and scare up an escrow or go back to writing software for someone?
More than anything else, I was afraid that if I didn’t make explicit room for the fiction work, I would tend to ignore it in favor of work that wasn’t so emotionally loaded with uncertainty and risk. So if you need a reason to set goals and track your progress, feel free to steal my reason. Goal setting and progress tracking are a boring, self-imposed task that you do to make room for the good stuff in your writing (whatever “the good stuff” means to you).
For those of you who might also want to steal my process as well as my motivation, here’s how I did it.
How I Got Started Tracking My Goals
Sunday at Borders I sat down and started writing all my current projects in my journal. For each project, I tried to estimate how much time each one would take. There are several blogs I’m working on, for example, and each of these needed so many posts at so many hours each. Since I’m trying to improve my blog writing while I’m trying to understand the time_ _I spend, and since I have a goal of writing longer posts, I gave myself two hours per blog post. (I know I often bang out shorter works in a half hour, but again, the goal is to go long). Knowing how many posts I want to publish for each blog monthly or weekly, I was able to come up with hours per week per blog.
At the same time, I’m running another business, so I entered the number of (non-writing) hours I need to devote to that. There’s some overlap here in my case, because I also blog for my business.
In addition to my current blogging efforts and business, I also wrote down two types of writing that I’m working on writing and selling: short fiction and Private Label Rights articles (including blogging subscription) work. I allocated ten hours per week for each of those categories.
So when I was done my list of hours and projects looked something like this, with real blog names in place of “blog 1”, etc.
07 hours blog 1
05 hours blog 2
02 hours blog 3
10 hours fiction work
10 hours PLR work
05 hours existing business
06 hours blog 4
45 hours total per week
To me, it’s very important to understand that every time you list your goals, you’re working on an experiment for your life that should be short term. Fans of David Allen’s Getting Things Done will recall that one of the most important disciplines he recommends is the weekly review, where you fine tune your list of projects and next actions. I believe a week is an excellent unit of planning, and my goal eventually is to add another ten hour block to the week such as “magazine writing”. It can either replace one of the ten hour blocks that’s there now if an activity doesn’t pan out either emotionally or financially, or I may decide that four blogs is about two or three blogs too many.
Whether forty-five hours is a realistic work week is another open issue. Sure, it’s less than the fifty I had thought would be my maximum, but in practice even forty-five may be overly aggressive. Let’s face it, the first and most destructive thing that happens to any beautiful written schedule is real life. Sure enough, almost to prove the point, the first thing that happened to me on Monday morning with the beautiful schedule I created on Sunday was an email with a potential for about three days worth of paid interruption.
That’s fine. Next week I will experiment with my life again.
Tracking My Production and Progress
When Monday rolled around, I shifted the focus from planning the week to tracking a few core details I wanted to track for each of the projects listed above. I quickly tried out a couple of a task-timer style programs downloaded from the Internet. I’m using AllNetic’s Working Time Tracker for now. If it doesn’t work out, I’ll resort to writing down start times and stop times on a pad, since often the simplest solution is best. (The goal is to start working, not to spend the day fiddling with software).
One other “tracking tool” that I put together in a few seconds was a brain dead simple Excel Spread sheet with the following column headers:
Article / Post / Story / Task
The first column is meant to record whatever title I worked on, or it can be a task, in which case it’s just a note reminding me of what I was doing. The second column is the project or blog (from the list above). Date is of course the date the work was done, and time spent is simply the elapsed time for that task that day. Next come the number of words written. Finally, quality is simply a subjective letter grade for the story or work.
Keep It Simple
Whatever system you set up and use, make sure it’s simple and easy to use. It can be as easy as a diary. Getting organized is not an end in itself, and it should never be so complex that it detracts from the good stuff. The goal of setting goals is to distract from the good stuff, but to give it the time it needs to flower and grow.