Try ‘Happy Goal Setting’ and I Promise You Will Smile (at Least a Little Bit)
I am a perfectionist writer. I set out each monthly, weekly and daily writing goal in advance. But I’ve found that most of the time I’m not keeping to these goals. My immaculate lists remain untouched — until they haunt me in the middle of the night.
Then I realised: I have been doing goal setting all wrong. Every time I diligently sat down to plan my writing, the tasks spilled onto the page unfiltered. I listed things I wanted to do, blended them with stuff others wanted me to do, sprinkled in even more tasks that sounded necessary — blurring it all together to feel I’m a very busy and important person. My lists, as you can imagine, were long. Very, very long.
I got so caught up in the daily grind that I completely forgot to pause — and wonder why am I doing all these tasks? What are they leading me towards? And, why am I dreading my goal setting day as much as doing all these tasks?
Then I discovered the power of happy goal setting.
How does happy goal setting work?
Here are three inspirational thinkers who all — without explicitly saying it — point to the happy goal setting technique which you can apply in your writing.
Simon Sinek explains that without asking “why?” first, you won’t be able to filter out the right goals for you. Ask yourself: What’s your purpose? What’s your call? Why do you get out of bed in the morning? He recommends to write your big picture goal in the middle of a circle — only then think about the next steps. That’s how you trigger inspiration.
Arlan Hamilton, a successful venture capitalist and author, recommends that your start write your own headline before doing anything else. What would be exciting to read about yourself in two or five or ten years? What do you want to accomplish? This will help you to create tasks that are achievable and clearly defined. “I’m not claiming that simply writing down a goal will automatically bring it to fruition,” she writes in her new book It’s About Damn Time, “But it does keep you pretty damn focused and motivated to achieve it.”
Bec Evans, a writer and inspirational speaker, recommends to find that big problem that matters most to you, then go about solving. Which problem gives you an itch you want to scratch? In her book How to Have a Happy Hustle, she explains, that you need to pick the goal that “you feel most strongly about.” In fact, you might even get a bit excited.
What’s the underlying approach behind these tips? You allow yourself to inspire your (future) self. You give meaning to your daily writing tasks. You might even enjoy not only setting these goals but also working your way through them, page by page. This is why I call this ‘happy goal setting’. And that’s what ultimately makes you stick with your to-do list and become a more productive writer.
Here are my top tips to use happy goal setting to plan your monthly writing.
Tip 1: Use writing prompts that make you smile
When you sit down to plan your month ahead, start with the big picture. No detailed lists of tasks are allowed until you have thought about that first step.
Give yourself three minutes to visualise and write down your big dream, with pen and paper. It might be a book, an article, or finally joining a creative writing retreat. Writers like to work with prompts, so if you don’t know how to start, try these:
My real purpose is to … (Simon Sinek’s ‘why’)
News: X has achieved … (Arlan Hamilton’s headline)
I feel most strongly about … (Bec Evan’s big problem)
Dreaming big during these three minutes can take away all the noise. Allowing yourself to envision a future headline about yourself instantly makes you happy, even if just for a second. You might feel a bit silly (I do!) — or excited and optimistic.
I recently tried this method in a goal-setting workshop for academic writers. When I asked the participants to write their own ‘dream’ headline, they were almost shocked. It is not common among researchers to allow yourself those three minutes of breathing space. Journal articles need to be written, book manuscripts finished. But as soon as the participants started writing down their big dream, I could see the frowns disappearing from their foreheads. Smiles hushed over their faces. One of them almost giggled and thanked me “for making me do this”.
The nice side effect: Suddenly, the unimportant tasks in your head will fade away. Now you’re in the right mindset for setting weekly writing milestones and daily tasks that get you closer to your big goal.
Tip 2: Look at the big goal often (keep smiling)
Stick the big picture paragraph above your desk. Every time you look at it, you’ll trigger that happy feeling you had when you wrote it. You’ll remember there’s meaning behind all the nitty-gritty work.
For example, when you break down your goals into weekly milestones, each of them separately might appear boring. Proofreading, researching a scene, checking some facts. But all of them together take you closer to your dream. You don’t have to climb the mountain within a month, just work your way a little bit closer every week. Whenever you lose motivation or start procrastinating, look at that piece of paper above your desk.
Tip 3: Don’t ignore the ‘ghastly goals’
You probably have many goals in your head. Not all of them belong to your big dream. Your boss might ask you to submit a report. Your kids’ school asks for a meeting. Your partner’s birthday is coming up and you have no gift. Some of these tasks cannot be ignored because, you know, reality. So don’t ignore them.
Instead, keep a separate list for these tasks, with specific deadlines, and designate time slots during the week where your job is to suck it up and get them out of the way. You might give them a name, like “my tiresome tasks” or “ghastly goals”. This may take a few hours, or a day, or a month. These goals don’t have to make you happy. But what might cheer you up is knowing that you are actively removing these obstacles to your big dream. In the meantime, keep looking at the big picture above your desk. It’s there, and it won’t go away.
Tip 4: Rewrite your big goal often
The hardest thing is to keep doing the happy goal-setting method on a regular basis.
It is easy to let it slip and jump straight to writing down very, very long to-do lists, blending what makes you happy with what doesn’t. We tend to think that the ‘why’ is implicit. Why would we be doing all these tasks if it weren’t for a bigger purpose? Do we really need to rewrite our big picture statement?
Yes! You’re a writer — do the big picture writing. Make an appointment with yourself at the start of each month (put this in your calendar), and allow yourself those three minutes of happy goal setting, starting with the big picture. You might change your dream once in a while. Or you might write out the same future headline with new enthusiasm.
If you can, find a buddy or a virtual writing group and set your goals together regularly — it’s fun!
Tip 5: Share your big dream
This is hard. I’m going to tell you to share your big dream with at least one other person. Your dream has made you smile. It will make them smile, too.
So, to set a good example, I’ll end this article with my own happy writing goal, which I jotted down recently. I’m a bit shy to share it, but here it is:
Nicole achieves publishing a book about joyful academic writing within two years. Newspapers will run headlines in the UK, U.S. and in Germany about “The academic who burned out and now inspires millions!” It’s about damn time Nicole gains a stable income from a book that she has actually enjoyed writing. Now she spends most of her time in the writers’ communities she has built, and she’s much nicer to her kids and partner, too.
Did that make you smile? At least a tiny bit? Then set a timer of three minutes, and… go!