At the start of this new year, like at the start of every other new year, I came across dozens of articles about the importance of setting achievable goals, challenging myself to do new things and fixing measurable standards and working towards them.
But what happens when you mess up the goals from last year? Whereís the real advice about missed deadlines and lost goals that all but kill the inspiration to come up with new ones? I didnít achieve three out of the ten goals I had set for myself last year, even though I was obsessive-compulsive about looking at them each day and measuring my performance regularly. Iím tempted to say that life got in the way or blame the shift in priorities that happened mid-year. But these are things that can and will happen each year. Instead of putting your life on hold the year when the strains and stresses get too much, plan your goals accordingly right at the beginning.
If you didnít meet some of your goals last year, here are some questions that you need to answer honestly, so that you do this time around.
Are you actively pursuing your targets?
It doesnít work just to look at your goals each morning and then do nothing about them. Sure, thatís a good start and it means youíre conscious of where you are in your career, but if you want to move further, you need to create an action plan. Instead of just making yearly goals, make monthly, weekly, even daily ones and then try and meet them.
Also important is to work towards what you want to achieve step by step. One of my goals last year was to get published in Readerís Digest. Guess how many query letters I sent them?
Youíre laughing, arenít you? Iím cringing. Thatís because I know that two queries just doesnít hack it if youíre targeting such a high-level publication. Two queries wasnít even enough to get into my local newspaper; howís it going to land me a national assignment? If I had been serious about getting into RD, I would have read every issue, sent a query each month and built a personal relationship with the editor. Yet, I did none of those things. Not surprisingly, my goal remained unfinished at the end of the year.
Are you being honest with yourself?
In my first year of freelancing, I earned over a 100 published credits. Thatís because my aim was to reach this number, without caring about the money that came in. That meant that I wrote for low-paying publications, publications that paid in kind instead of cash, and on topics that I had absolutely no interest in. The next year, I shifted my focus to cracking the nationals and making a decent income from my work. But hereís where I went wrong: I assumed that since I had already proven that I could write a 100 articles in a year, Iíd be able to do a repeat performance. But national magazines require much more research, very specialized queries, and a great deal of more effort per article. So while my goals of getting into national magazines and increasing my income were met, my goal of getting another 100 credits wasnít.
Are the goals really yours?
I think almost all of us get sucked into aping the tactics of someone we admire at one point or the other. The thought process then works something like this: If she could write two childrenís books, pen twenty greeting cards, author three non-fiction titles and syndicate a humor column in her third year of freelancing, why canít I? Never mind that Iím not really that into childrenís writing and I havenít said anything remotely funny since I was 10.
Iím ashamed to admit that Iíve been guilty of doing the above. Itís easy to look at goals of other writers and think, ďSheís got so many goals for the year and Iíve got only five. Let me increase mine, too.Ē But ďsheĒ doesnít have your life, and you donít have hers. So set goals that are appropriate for your career and your ambitions, not hers.
Whatís your life like?
If youíre a new mom, donít expect to be able to work 80-hour weeks like you did before you gave birth. If you have a full-time job, donít try to take on same-day deadline assignments. You need to set goals that are suitable to your life, your speed and your talent, no matter what anyone else may do or say.
Itís also important to incorporate life changes into your goal-setting. I lost two grandparents this year, which not only forced me to take a physical vacation from work, but an emotional one as well. I needed to give myself time to heal in order to get back to work refreshed and with new vigor. If youíre going through stressful times, donít expect yourself to be as productive as say, when youíre having a great year. Cut down on your goal list a little and be easy on yourself. Making yourself work too hard when youíre not physically or emotionally ready to, will not help you meet your goals; instead itíll detract you from them.
Are you confusing your long-term and short-term goals?
Writing a novel is my long-term goal. A ďsomeday.Ē But Iím not there yet. And I know Iím not going to be able to work on my dream novel this year, next year or maybe even the one after that. If I do, Iíll be taking time away from the non-fiction work that pays the bills and for the next couple of years, I canít afford to do that. Putting ďwrite a novelĒ on my list of goals for the year isnít going to make me feel too good about myself, especially as this goal gets carried forward year after year. Instead, Iím putting it on my ďto do before Iím 30Ē list. That way, itís not too near, and itís not so far away that it becomes a distant dream instead of reality.
Once Iíve cracked a good number of national magazines, finished and published a couple of non-fiction books and can afford to take time away from non-fiction, I can consider taking a risk with fiction.
Are you keeping track?
The biggest problem I face right now is keeping track of where all the time went. While to an outsider it may seem like Iím working almost all the time, the truth is, I waste a lot of time on e-mail, reading newsletters, networking with fellow writers and well, checking e-mail.
To counter this problem, I started keeping a daily journal to keep track of where my writing time was really going. My productivityís almost doubled since I started doing this. Keeping an hour-to-hour or even a daily tab of what Iíd achieved for that day kept me accountable and ready to tackle the next important task on my list, rather than checking e-mail one more time. And if an entry for a particular day reads, ďRevised article for Wedding Dresses, conducted research on a new idea,Ē Iíd immediately know that I needed to increase my productivity, and by how much. Sure, checking e-mail is work too, but itís not bringing in any money. So I make it secondary work and answer incoming mails only once a day, unless they need urgent attention.
Are your priorities straight?
Which brings me to my next point. Set your priorities right and work top to bottom. A technique that works for many people is to make a daily list of things that need to be done. Then, in the order of priority, tackle them one by one, striking them off the list. At the end of the day, even if you have some work unattended to, it can easily be transferred to the next dayís list, since itíll be at the lowest priority.
Do you have a fixed schedule?
I still struggle with this one, but each time Iím able to set a schedule for myself, I find that Iím happier, more energetic and much more productive. Getting up at six in the morning one day, not sleeping for another two days and then getting a whole lot of slumber on and off for the next three days eats into your energy and taxes your brain much more than it should. It also becomes a cause for unnecessary delays and interruptions. Instead of surrendering to your muse whenever it shows up, program your body to work for a fixed time each day. Your brain will automatically recognize that as time to work and get on the job. Make your routine consistent. When our body gets used to doing something at a particular time, weíre able to do with ease. So if youíve decided to write five pages each morning before the kids get up, make sure to do it.
Answer these questions honestly and get to work on these techniques. Youíll find all your goals ticked off your list by the end of this year.