Monday 11 January 2021

The subtle art of goal setting - Kelly McCaughrain

Made some New Year’s resolutions? Failed already?

I love New Years Resolutions. I make loads, knowing I won’t keep them, just for the fun of making them. It’s like getting to reinvent yourself without the hassle of having to actually be that person.

But last year I had a bit of a revelation because I actually did NaNoWriMo (or a mini version of it) and it went well and was fun and now I’m a reformed character determined to honour NaNo in my heart and try to keep it all the year. 


It helped to have an almost completely empty diary for November and that’ll probably never happen again, but still. I’ve decided to embrace my love of planning.

To that end, I read some articles about setting goals. You can find them all here, but I’ve summarised the points I found interesting and helpful in case you’re reading this in between keeping your own jogging/writing/sourdough-baking resolutions.


Make monthly goals. This seems much more manageable than a resolution for a whole year. And if you totally fail your January goal, you get to set a new one for February instead of writing off a whole year on January 13th.

Make a plan every night for the next day. I find this really helpful. I keep a notebook on my desk and at the end of the day I make a note of what I did that day and what I plan to do tomorrow. It completely eradicates the nervous dread I feel about coming to my desk. And it doesn’t have to be complicated, it can just be ‘write the scene where…’ or ‘make some notes about X’s character’. And you don’t even have to stick to it, if you change your mind that’s fine, it’s just to get you to the desk without panicking. And it’s great to be able to look back and see how much work you’ve done this year. I think we worry that we’re not working hard enough because (much like positive vs negative feedback) we don’t notice the hours we put in as much as the hours we take off.

Keep a note of your progress and reward yourself for it. This is as much about noticing you’ve achieved something as it is about motivation.

Analyse your own goals the way you would your character’s. Is what you think you want what you really want? Is it what you need? Are you lying to yourself in some way? If this was a novel, how would this goal turn out? Are you at the end of the story where you’ve achieved wisdom and know what’s important in life? Or are you still at the beginning? (you can go mad with this. Who’s your antagonist? Your mentor/guardian character? Love interest? What’s going to happen at the midpoint!!!)

Devotion works better than discipline. Goals should be things you actually want to do, not things you think you should do. I know this is obvious but it actually came as a revelation to me. How much easier would it be to keep a goal you actually want to do! If you’re failing in your goal, maybe it’s not because you’re a weak and terrible human being, maybe it’s just because you’re not that interested in it and might be happier doing something else.

You can include goals related to other things in life. Apparently there are other things in life. E.g. fitness and hobbies and Netflix. I have millions of hobbies but it’s never occurred to me to set goals for them. Possibly because of the point above about goals being things you think you should do rather than things you want to do. If I was setting goals for my hobbies I’d be acing this resolution schizz all over the place!

Your goal can be to quit something. Like trying to achieve a goal that makes you miserable.

Don’t give yourself time to procrastinate. As Leonard Bernstein said, “To achieve great things, two things are needed: a plan, and not quite enough time.” It’s probably better to aim for 3 things and fail by only achieving 2, than only aim for 1 and succeed. You just have to adjust your mental attitude to failing.

Decide on consequences if you fail. And make them worse than doing the work. The writer of this one suggested writing a cheque to a politician you hate which your mate will mail if you fail your goal. That may be a little too scary for me, but you see my point. You’d work really hard on that goal.

Tiny goals and small steps are still good because they encourage good habits. It’s better in the long run to become a person who’s in the habit of writing for an hour every day, than one who wrecks herself getting through NaNo once a year and has to take December off.

Your goal can be to nurture a habit rather than produce something in particular.

Have a ‘bad day’ goal. This is something you can achieve even on bad days. E.g. 30mins of revision or getting through some admin or making notes on one scene or something. Something small that you can still do when you’re having a crap day, so you still feel like you’re working and on track. Accept that there will be days like that and plan for them as you would for the good days.

Have a long term goal but don’t set a deadline for it, just use your short term, monthly/weekly deadlines to work up to it in bite-sized chunks and don’t think beyond this month’s deadline.

Think about what success means to you (as opposed to Amazon/your publisher/your mother/your bestselling best friend).


So Happy 2021 everyone. So far it looks strikingly similar to 2020, but if we can’t improve the year we can at least improve ourselves! Happy planning!


Kelly McCaughrain is the author of the Children's Books Ireland Book of the Year,

Flying Tips for Flightless Birds

She is the Children's Writing Fellow for Northern Ireland #CWFNI

She also blogs at The Blank Page



Lynne Benton said...

Great post, Kelly - especially the bit about aiming for three goals and reaching two of them being better than only aiming for one and achieving it (though sometimes it's all I can do to achieve even that one!) I'm a great list-maker, particularly lists of "Jobs for today/this month" (2 separate lists, obviously!) and I just LOVE crossing them off when I've done them. However, I would definitely jib at writing a cheque to a politician I didn't like, knowing someone would post it if I didn't reach my goal - that's just going too far!

Kelly McCaughrain said...

Thanks Lynne! I know, can you imagine them sending the cheque! Too scary. I'd have to have all kinds of 'If I'm hit by a bus and can't work...' type clauses in there.

dihofneyr said...

A brilliant post in dark days with January and February stretching out and not a pencil mark in the diary... not even a trip to the V&A to look forward to. So much here to think about. Like you I keep a notebook with lists/goals of things to do. Mine are random not just to do with writing and when I flick back, I'm amazed at the range of things on these lists. Who is this mad woman who flicks from Italian lessons to notes about soundtracks of hyena's calling? Writers can never be bored can they? But they are a bit scatty. So goals are good. Some great advice in your blog. Thank you!

Kelly McCaughrain said...

Thanks Dihohneyr! I have too many notebooks too. I'd love to keep separate things in separate notebooks but that's a resolution that's never going to happen, they all end up all mixed together.

Susan Price said...

Great post -- but if my partner posted a cheque to Johnson because I'd missed a goal, even if I'd told him to, I would just have to shoot my partner. Sorry and all that, but would have to. No jury of my peers would convict me.

Kelly McCaughrain said...

It would certainly be understandable Susan. :D

Juliet Clare Bell said...

I like the idea of having a bad day goal, too. I'm going to add that in to what I'm doing I think! Thanks x