Resolutions Don’t Work

How to Set Goals and Follow Through

I know a lot of people who set New Year’s resolutions.
You might have set some yourself just a few short weeks ago.

Everyone wants to lose weight and get in shape. They want to improve their financial situation or tackle a neglected project. Or, like many of us here, they want to finally write that novel. The start of a new year seems like the perfect time to create a new you.

Unfortunately, it has been proven time and again that this kind of pie-in-the-sky goal-setting really doesn’t work. The main reason is that typical resolutions really aren’t goals. They’re merely wishes on steroids.

Wishing, no matter how fervently, never got anyone their pony.

What works better is setting goals, but only if you do it in the right way.

What is a goal?

According to, a goal is the result or achievement toward which effort is directed. In other words, it’s the result you want to spend your energy to get. That sounds a lot like a resolution. However, and this is where goals are very different from resolutions, real goals are more than just wishes drawn on future events. They’re structured in such a way that you know exactly how to reach them, you can track your progress, and you can make course corrections if things aren’t working out.

SMART goals

SMART goals have been promoted by all kinds of people from business gurus to life coaches to teachers to psychologists and other therapists. Why? Because they create a structure that helps to identify whether a goal is more like an ungrounded wish, or whether it’s a structured process that will actually help you get the results you want.

  • Specific—Rather than being vague and undefined, goals should be unambiguous and precise. Vague: I want to be a writer. Less Vague: I want to be a novelist. Specific: I want to write a novel.
  • Measurable—There should be a clear metric for determining when the goal has been met. For instance, I want to write an 80,000-word novel, or I want to write a 300-page novel.
  • Attainable—You should always aim for things that are actually in your power to accomplish. You can’t count on writing a prize-winning novel or selling 1000 copies in your first month. You can’t control the judges or the buyers; but you can write a novel that satisfies your own sense of story.
  • Relevant—Your goals should be grounded in who you are and who you want to become. If your greatest dream is to be a novelist, don’t spend 6 hours a day practicing your tap dancing. If you want to write science fiction, don’t spend your time on romance or vice versa.
  • Time-based—If you’re going to achieve your goals, they need to have (realistic) deadlines. Just remember, sometimes your deadlines will have to shift, especially before you are sure of what you’re capable of.

I’ll make one caveat about SMART goals: SMART is an acronym to help remember the structure of a well-formed goal. There are other ways of creating well-formed goals, so do what works for you. If having this much structure seems like too much, make a different kind of goal and track whichever metrics seem relevant to you. Just keep in mind that to get new results, to achieve goals that have eluded you in the past, you may need to try something you’ve never done before.

In other words, if you always do what you’ve always done, you’ll always get what you always got.

Focus on behaviors, not results

Whether you use SMART goals or not, consider building habits rather than aiming at destinations.

For my purposes, to get my personal pony, I’ve found that what works is not putting my hope into an end result, but putting my effort into an ongoing behavior. That doesn’t mean I don’t create that end goal. I need to know what the end goal is to know what my behavior needs to be to get there. But the thing that I measure, the thing that helps me reach my attainable goal, is the small daily step rather than the final product.

As the joke goes, How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time!

Discover what your one bite is. If you know you want to write that 80,000-word novel, and you know that you can only reliably write 1000 words per day, then setting a deadline shorter than 80 days, or even 100, might be a recipe for failure. You’re better off giving yourself extra padding in case unexpected complications arise, than you are giving yourself a goal that you know will be a huge stretch, even under the best of circumstances. It’s always more gratifying to finish sooner and/or stronger than you expected than it is to fall behind. Fall behind too far, and you are giving yourself an excuse to quit.

And if you don’t know what kind of word count you can reliably hit, make your goal something you know you can reach. Write for 20 minutes every day. Build the muscles that will build the habit, and the 80,000-word book will get written, one 20-minute session at a time. You’ll learn your own writing style and pace as you practice. Add more complex goals later on when you know you can meet them.

Know who you are

I know, you thought you already knew what your goals were. You want to write a book (or some other lofty, laudable achievement). But actually choosing your destination isn’t really the first step to focus on. It’s better to first really know who you want to be. Don’t look at what you’ll finish three months or a year from now. Look at what you want your legacy to be.

OK, this is a little cheesy, but speculate about what you would want people to say at your funeral. What kind of lifetime achievement award would you want to receive?

If you answer that you want to be known as a writer—that it’s your true lifetime goal—then your next step is to create a daily goal which will feed that dream. The reality is, people don’t write books. People write words and sentences and paragraphs that eventually make up stories or books. So if you want to be known for having written books, you need to build the habit of writing. When you know your lifetime goal, you will know what your daily life should look like.

Completing stories, books, and collections are merely stepping stones along the way.

Break your goals into doable steps

When you do have short- or long-term goals you want to reach, break those goals into achievable steps. Ideally, make each step achievable in a single sitting. Because daily goals are the ones we have the most control over, whenever possible reduce all your goals to a daily or smaller timeline. If you don’t already have a strong track record of achieving your goals and hitting your deadlines, remember to limit the outcomes you’re aiming for (I want to publish an 80,000-word book in 3 months) and instead focus on process (I want to write for an hour every morning before I go to work).

It’s better to create an ongoing history of small successes than it is to add to a list of failures. As I said earlier, focus on behaviors, not on results. You don’t always have control over your circumstances, the reactions that other people have, or whether or not something you do creates the result you were hoping for. What you do have control over is your own commitment, your ongoing behavior, and the kind of attitude you’re going to bring to the table.

Track your progress

I won’t spend a lot of time on this piece, but I do think it’s an important step. If you aren’t tracking the small steps of your progress, you might wake up one day and discover that you’ve blown your deadline. You won’t know if you’re on target until it’s too late.

If you have broken your goal into smaller, reproducible steps, you’re much more likely to notice if you get off track. Then, you can make course corrections before it becomes a huge, looming project.

Some of the most common ways of tracking ongoing progress are:

  • Use a Journal or planner—This is what I’ve been doing. I mark my daily word count on the calendar in my planner, along with a few notes about what I was working on. It’s simple, and creates a record that’s easy to look over at a glance. It also has the added benefit of being someplace you can indicate other obligations, so you may be able to anticipate disruptions to your schedule and plan around them before they derail your progress. Another fun benefit is that you can literally give yourself a gold star for meeting your daily progress goals.
  • Spreadsheets—I know a number of writers who use a spreadsheet. It’s a similar process to using a planner, with the added benefit that it will automatically total your daily, weekly, monthly, or project-based word counts. Because things are stored digitally, you can potentially save to a cloud service such as Google Apps or Dropbox and then access your tracking form from anywhere. Pretty nifty. But I recommend against sticking a gold star on your computer monitor.
  • Accountability—This isn’t exactly tracking, but it works well alongside tracking to keep you on target. If someone else knows you’re working towards a goal and checks in on you periodically, you’re more likely to keep hitting your targets if for no other reason than you don’t want to admit that you blew it off. You might have a friend or family member who can support you like this, but a writing group is probably a better bet. Writers understand. I love the virtual community of Holly’s writing forums, and there are plenty of members keeping each other accountable on a daily basis here.

Review and update your goals

Finally, watch your goals and be willing to admit if they aren’t going to work. Sometimes we commit to something, and then circumstances change. If something isn’t working, give yourself permission to change your goals!

So, you had an unexpected job change? You got married? You had a baby? School commitments got out of hand? No problem! Changing your goals isn’t a sign of failure. It’s a sign of wisdom. It’s only a failure if you don’t make adjustments or you decide to quit. As long as you’re making progress, you get to count it as a win!

Good luck with your plans, and keep reaching for your goals! I hope you catch your star, win your pony, and achieve everything you set out to do.

[Editor’s note: You may find variations of the defining SMART goal words if you
do more research on the topic. In my opinion, however, this article utilizes
the best word choices I’ve come across anywhere, particularly for the “T.”]

Tell A Writer

Elizabeth McCleary writes fantasy, sci-fi, and all manner of speculative fiction. She looks for the magical in the mundane, the light in the darkness, and the transcendent in the ordinary. A Californian at heart, she reluctantly resides in North Texas with her husband and a neurotic dog. Visit her website