31 days: Writing Goals, how to achieve them & what if you don’t

This series of articles running through January will explore ways of keeping our head above water in physical, mental, emotional and creative areas. There will be creative challenges, competitions and giveaways. For the full background see here.

To receive all the 31 posts, sign up for email notification on the sidebar. On twitter it’s at @31HAW or @alisonwells. Hashtag  #31haw and #headabovewater.

Aims and intentions – direction but not dictatorship.

There are many blogposts across the internet about setting goals this January but the emphasis I want to put on this post is yes, on achieving goals but not beating yourself up in the process! Speaking from experience I know how we can scupper ourselves by getting frantic, confused and guilty so this is what I’ve done that helps me.

1: Write a desire manifesto
Write what you want to do/achieve most of all. Under that write your lesser aims. You will know what’s most important to you and what you need to put ahead of everything else.

2: Be optimistic

There is tremendous energy in intention itself. I talk about intention in this post and how Orna Ross says that aims are not about ‘should’ but come from a more positive position. So set out what you would love to achieve in the coming months. We want to give ourselves parameters within which we can organise our life, we’re not talking sticks and sadness. We want to get away from a vague sense of dissatisfaction and see what kinds of activities and achievements will give us energy and makes us happier. At this stage jot down your wildest dreams.

3: Be realistic and specific

We’ve all heard about making aims SMART, specific, measurable, achieveable, realistic and timebound. Again, we need to set the parameters. It would be marvellous if we could write 3 novels in a month but it probably won’t happen. Subject your wildest dreams and aims to a reality test. Could you finish your novel draft by next month? Do you hope to start your next project by March. Do you need to fit in smaller projects along the way? Can you assign specific time slots to these?

Note: This is not set in stone! Your projects will take longer or less time than you think, family issues will occur. You DO NOT NEED TO FEEL YOU HAVE FAILED OR SHOULD BE GUILTY. So what if you’re 20 years too late to be considered for the 30 under 30 prize, is that really what you wanted anyway? And what would you be happy with instead?

4: Keep a ‘to do’ journal and track progress and achievement (this is magic!)

Get an A4 book into which you write your monthly, weekly and daily aims. Each day or week tick off what you’ve done (a big enthusiastic tick). If something is left undone add it in to the following week. Periodically (monthly, quarterly) write a list of achievements such as submissions made or pieces accepted, words written, ideas gathered. (There’s more on this below!)

What I find so good about this practice is that it gets everything out of my head, my to do list is not circulating in my mind and causing anxiety, I can clearly see what I want to do, what I have done and what I need to do to finish what I set out to do.

3: Regig your schedule regularly.

Based on the information you discover see where you need to add effort, prioritize or take away goals altogether. Again this is a rational and clever thing to do. There is no shame in not achieving everything. (Even superheroes have to send their costumes to the dry cleaners every so often!)

4: Set both tiny goals and marvellous ones

If you set tiny goals you can build on them. If you aim to write 500 words a day you will energise yourself by your success rather than disheartening yourself by your aim to do 2000. The energy of your achievement and it’s confidence will make it more likely that you can achieve 2000 words. Didn’t you know you had wings and could fly?

But equally big goals like the 50,000 word writing challenge Nanowrimo can work. If you see yourself by steady progression scaling the heights of such a challenge (through effort and camaraderie) you will forever know what you are capable of and that is a certainty that cannot be taken away from you.

5: Write an achievement manifesto

When I arrive at the pages where I write my quarterly summary of successes I am always surprised. It’s so easy to forget what you have achieved, even if it’s something quite significant. We often have a tendency to underplay success and focus on what we haven’t done yet. So writing down what we have achieved from solving family squabbles to winning the local poetry competition to writing your first flash fiction to winning the Booker prize is very important. We can take some time to see how these achievements reflect what we set out to do or whether some of the things we did took us in new directions that turned out to be rather wonderful. You can even go a bit crazy and write compliments to yourself on this page. I’ll be talking about Cognitive Behavioural Therapy techniques to help stop negative thoughts more fully in a future post and the positive feedback we can give ourselves in this achievement manifesto is an important part of that. This is our feelgood CV, imagine listing your achievements for a job, you can make yourself sound very impressive!

And what if you don’t succeed?

Psychology and Weiner’s attribution theory tells us that we attribute our own success to our efforts and other people’s success to luck. Failure works round the other way. I’m not so sure that those of us who feel responsible for everything, don’t attribute our success to chance and our failure to ourselves. There are those of us who set such high standards that we are bound to fail.

In the modern day though we have this impression that everyone can succeed if they just try. There is truth to the idea that if we start off more optimistic we’ll be more alert to opportunities and we’ll try things, whether it’s enter competitions or self-publish, become entrepreneurs or apply for a job that’s a little too far out of our reach (or is it?) It’s also true however that even if we’ve written a brilliant book for example or have been writing solidly for 20 years, there is a chance we’ll be unlucky and just won’t make it or perhaps we’re not as good as we hoped.


If we are not getting where we want to we might need to get some constructive criticism. We might have to decide whether the love of writing is enough beyond financial success. We might take joy from other aspects of our lives that can make a rich cloth in its entirety. We can hope for posthumous fame. We need to figure out what aspects of life make it just good enough, what small pleasures add up into a satisfying whole. There has to be balance between making our goals and dreams strong enough and big enough to make us work hard & commit to our own success and also realising that to make one ambition the be all and end all is to set ourselves up for misery.


We need to become good not beating ourselves up about not meeting targets. We need to be clever and reassess, not take it as failure.

What do you think, is there a way to maintain our optimism and intention while not beating ourselves up for the things we don’t manage to do?

6 thoughts on “31 days: Writing Goals, how to achieve them & what if you don’t

  1. My mother’s mantra – or rather one of her mantras as she had several – was ‘put it down to experience’. As a youngster I would beat myself up figuratively over what I perceived as ‘failure’ and imperfection. Thankfully, I learned quickly that what you did get wrong, as long as nobody was injured, maimed or killed, you could chalk up to experience and try again, all the wiser for it.
    This is how I passed my driving test on the seventh time. I learned from the experience of the previous six. It was an expensive learning curve and a little frustrating one, but I got there eventually.
    I set myself goals with my writing, how many words I want to do by the end of a week, or in a day, and inevitably I rarely make it. However, I accept that no one has been maimed, hurt, killed in the process (although this may not be true in a fictional sense as I write crime) and we try again the following day.
    In a word, perspective.

  2. alisonwells

    Hi Annie, that’s a great perspective to take and we need those mantras, great if they are drummed in from early on and something if we are parents we need to think about. I know if I get into a panic, the kids pick up on it and act accordingly. If we act calm and unruffled that’s a long way towards feeling that way. You mantra is a straightforward shortcut way to reminding ourselves not to worry.

  3. I nodded by head all the way through this.

    The last few years have changed my mind on many things. I lived so many years doing what I “should” and now work to get out of that mindset. I used to think goal setting, other than in the general “someday I want to do this” or “someday I’ll be able to afford that” was a waste of time and writing them out was just a straight-jacket. But, my way wasn’t working. I was tired of never getting ahead and bored with everything.

    Once I thought about what I really wanted, my big, outrageous goal (which I’m still a little superstitious about, so I’m not going to name it now) – that set a fire in me to get moving. I wrote down the steps to get there, and they seem doable. I wake up interested in “doing.” Somedays, though, yes, I need a kick to get moving, but lists and being accountable to others, help keep the forward motion going. Though I used to make fun of the idea, I’ve learned that the goal isn’t everything. How you get there is just as important.

    I’ve learned to be kind to myself. The world throws enough garbage without me adding my potential best ally to the mix.

    I look forward to the rest of this series!

    1. alisonwells

      Hello, and thank you for this excellent comment. Great to hear you have an outrageous goal and also that you wake up interested in doing. I’ve definitely found that reporting back to others even if it’s an informal group can be very helpful. Being kind to yourself is the key, we know all these things but sometimes forget. Hope you’ll enjoy the further posts.

  4. Pingback: #ROW80 Sunday check-in and a round-up of posts to inspire a year of writing | Denise D. Young

  5. I am type of person that does well with long term and short term goals. For some reason I never write them down, they are always in my head. I like the idea of the “quarterly summary of successes” as it gives a visual of what you really have done and time to reflect. Great post! It outlines realistic ways to achieve your goals.

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