My writing of this piece is the perfect example of what happens when you don’t set goals: You turn in a project weeks past the deadline and risk burning a bridge. Eek. It doesn’t feel good. It’s sort of like a rumbling stomachache that has you embarrassed and wanting to hide under the covers, calling for Mom to make it better.
Is it harsh to say Mom isn’t available, and it’s all up to you now, kid? Maybe it’s tough love, but I think it may, in fact, simply be the rule of adulthood: It’s up to you.
Or, let’s change that so you can say it with me for mass effect:
It’s up to me.
Did you say it aloud, like a goober? I did. It’s a message I’ve needed to let myself hear for months: As a creative writer, I’ve been doing loads more writing for others than my own work, and it’s had me procrastinating deadlines and potentially harming business relationships. So I’ve hunkered down, gotten serious with myself and had some big wins because of it.
Here are the eight lessons I’ve learned for goal setting:
1. You have to be motivated by your goal, or you won’t work toward it.
The most common desire I hear is the wish to leave average employment for a life of travel and creativity. It’s possible – I did it! – yet you have to motivate yourself enough to embrace the challenges: How will you afford health insurance? Do you have a home office space? Can you find alternate revenue streams to manage your mortgage? Is your partner/family/pet on board for this life change?
If you find yourself complaining about the trials of attaining your goal, throw in the towel now. You don’t want it enough. When you really, truly desire something – be it improved health, more time spent outside, a new job, a life partner, a child, to travel abroad each year – the goal is motivation enough.
2. What exactly do you want as the end result, and how do you hope to feel?
Your end goal should be precisely what you want, not what you don’t want. It’s the difference between saying “I want to be healthy” and “I want to lose 10 pounds.” The first is a positive goal, while the second is a negative retrospect of self. It has an expiration date on it, since you’re defining a specific outcome rather than a lifestyle change.
Add in an adverb to make the end result more appealing and caring: “I want to be joyfully healthy” or “I choose to lovingly spend two hours a week reading fiction.” Yum.
3. Tell someone.
The New Year’s Day gym devotees who sustain their exercise practice for longer than a week know the secret: tell someone else what your goal is. This declaration holds you accountable, since your pal will likely check in on your progress.
And I suggest the old-school out-loud confession, too, not a text or a tweet; saying it out load makes a world of difference. Your goal is real, out there, echoing. When I started introducing myself at parties as “a writer, but I also work at an email marketing company” instead of “an email marketer, and I also do some writing,” there were fireworks. I felt emboldened, and my intention to leave corporate life for freelance writing felt attainable. I was a writer, am one, and declaring it to strangers and friends made me own my plan.
4. Work with yourself, not against yourself.
Want to save money on organic produce, but your backyard garden looks like a graveyard for unloved plants? Listen, you plain dislike gardening, friend, and that’s OK. If you don’t enjoy the process, then you sure as heck aren’t going to reach your goal.
Have you looked at all other possibilities for reaching your goal, like frequenting the farmer’s market or going halfsies with a friend on a CSA share? Reaching your goal doesn’t always mean you’re doing the labor; what’s the route that works for you?
5. Don’t beat yourself up over setbacks.
There will be setbacks. You’ll gain weight. You’ll argue with the person whose friendship you’re trying to mend. You’ll owe more money than you thought on your credit card bill.
A bit of bad will happen, or it will feel like it all comes crashing down, but it isn’t the end; it never is. Your goal continues as long as you keep moving toward it. It’s like a jungle gym: You don’t climb straight to the top but rather take some strategic sidesteps and maneuver obstacles on your ascent.
6. Break it down into minute steps.
Think you’re going to decide you want to be a professional photographer, throw together an online portfolio and then wait for the clients to come a-knocking? That’s cute. It doesn’t work like that. Take it step by step: Decide your focus, talk with others in your field, review your competitors’ websites, figure out what services you’ll offer, price those services, create social media accounts …
There’s never not something to do on your way to meeting your goal, and each of those steps can be broken down further still. I find I stay motivated with tiny bites: Maybe Monday’s step is to make a list of three photographers whose work you admire, and you email them questions about running a business. People love to talk about themselves, and you’ll find more people than not are willing to share their story.
7. Be consistent.
Once you gain momentum with those small steps, stabilize them; don’t skip a day. If you’re determined to maintain a weekly gym practice, then always go Monday, Wednesday and Friday. Tired one Wednesday morning? Nope, don’t opt out.
8. Celebrate the small wins.
You’re going hard and kicking booty. The friends you shared your goal with are cheering you on, and you feel energized by how close your goal is. Celebrate those small wins along the way: Had three square meals of healthy food? Dance around the room to your favorite song. Met with your financial planner about leaving your job? Kick back with a book about entrepreneurialism. Scheduled an appointment with a wardrobe consultant after you dropped 15 pounds? Take a load of ill-fitting clothes to Goodwill.
These are some of the lessons that worked for me in attaining my goal of writing and editing full time. What are your lessons? I’d love to hear in the comments below or on Twitter.
Author bio: Katie Lewis is a writer and editor based in Nashville. Her work has appeared in The Tennessean, BookPage, Tennessee Register, Regime Magazine, and other publications, as well as on the side of a Nashville transit bus. Learn more on her website or follow her on Twitter for thoughts about writing, reading, and cheese.