Success doesn’t happen by accident. You can spin your wheels on many book-related activities, but how do you know you’re making progress? What constitutes success in your writing career?

If you’re going to make progress in your writing career, you need to set SMART goals.

What is a SMART Goal?

Before we define it, let’s look at a great illustration from Lewis Carroll’s classic tale, Through the Looking Glass.

Alice was stuck in a building because she was either too big or too small to get out. When she escaped, she ended up destroying the building, and everyone wanted her dead. In her flight, she met the Cheshire Cat and asked what to do.

“Would you tell me, please, which way I ought to go from here?”

“That depends a good deal on where you want to get to,” said the Cat.

“I don’t much care where—” said Alice.

“Then it doesn’t matter which way you go,” said the Cat.

“—so long as I get somewhere,” Alice added as an explanation.

“Oh, you’re sure to do that,” said the Cat, “if you only walk long enough.”

~ Lewis Carroll’s classic children’s tale, Alice in Wonderland

The message has often been paraphrased, “If you don’t know where you’re going, any road will get you there.”

Many authors find themselves in Alice’s shoes. They want to go somewhere, but they don’t know where they want to go.

One of the first steps you must take is to figure out where you want to go and define it clearly.

SMART goals are a common business tool that can work for authors.

SMART is an acronym:

  • Specific
  • Measurable
  • Ambitious
  • Realistic
  • Time-based

When all those elements are included in your stated goal, you’ll have a clearly defined destination, and you’ll know where you’re headed. A SMART goal is a good goal.

Specific

Sometimes authors say, “I want my website to encourage people who are suffering from loss.” That’s an admirable goal, but if it’s not specific, how will you know if you’ve accomplished it?

An unspecific goal is like a carrot on a stick hanging in front of a donkey. But since humans are smarter than donkeys, we realize when our efforts aren’t moving us closer. We either give up or burn out.

A specific goal helps you stay motivated when the going gets tough. In the beginning, it’s easy and awesome. But down the road, storms and obstacles abound. A good goal keeps you motivated.

A better goal might be worded, “I want to receive five emails from grieving widows telling me how the website encouraged them.”

When you’re very specific, you’ll know exactly when you’ve achieved your goal, and you can celebrate that milestone. You need to know your champagne-popping moment.

Measurable

Measurement allows you you keep score and track your activity. You’ll be able to tell if you’re falling behind or getting ahead. It’s useful for determining what’s working and what’s not. If you try something and it doesn’t bring you closer to your goal, you can try something else.

Examples of Measurable Goals

I want 100 unique visitors to my website by December. 

Google Analytics tracks those metrics and measures for you. You can check your stats and see if you’re getting closer to your goal.

I want $12,000 in book sales in the next calendar year.

If you’re halfway through the year and you’ve sold $7,000 in books, you know you’re $1000 ahead of your goal. Making your goal measurable helps you keep score and move toward achieving your goal.

Ambitious

Authors must learn to manage the tension between being ambitious and realistic. To make your goals ambitious, you need to know your current status. If you’re currently gaining 50 new subscribers every month, then a goal to gain 50 next month isn’t ambitious. You get that for free if you simply keep up.

Some gurus will say you need Big Hairy Audacious Goals. But that can be overwhelming if it’s too audacious. It may, however, depend on your personality. If Big Hairy Audacious Goals motivate you, go for it. But if it makes you feel like you want to give up, scale back.

The best goal is the one that’s just out of reach. You’ll have to work hard to get there, but it won’t break you in the process.

Make your goals ambitious, not impossible. If you want to be on the New York Times in the next three weeks, that’s audacious, but it’s not likely. It’s not realistic.

Realistic

You need to know your capacity. Count on the fact that things are going to go awry. Someone gets sick. The car breaks down. A tree randomly falls through your house. A family member gets married.

Progress gets interrupted.

You don’t know what unexpected things will happen, but you can be certain something unexpected will happen.

When you plan your travel schedule, you probably try to have some margin built into your travel time. If you’re headed to a concert an hour away, you’ll leave early to allow for traffic or detours because you don’t want to be late for the concert. If you typically leave at the last possible minute, you’re probably consistently late.

Part of realistic goal-setting is to build a buffer into your schedule.

If you want to blog every week, set your goal at 50 times per year. Give yourself a couple of weeks off. If you’ve already taken two weeks off by April, you know you’ll have to double down for the rest of the year.

Goals are set in concrete, but plans are set in sand. If the bridge is closed on the way to the concert, you’ll have to take a different route. You’ll still get to the concert, but not on the first path you took.

When you’re writing a new book, determine the number of words you need to crank out in a day. But when an emergency takes you away from your writing, you readjust your plan. The 1,000 daily words you didn’t write must be divided over the next two days and added to your daily goal of 1,000 words. The goal stays the same, but the route changes.

Time-Based

An oft-quoted cliché says a goal without a deadline is just a dream. You must put a date on your goal.

Dates and deadlines are a great motivator for authors working on marketing because the most important thing about marketing is starting now. Authors without deadlines tend to put off publishing their website while they wait for it to be perfect. Three months go by, and they don’t have a live website because they’re still tweaking. But now they’re three months behind.

You’ll constantly be iterating and making your website better, so go ahead a publish it.

The smallest of actions is better than the grandest of intentions. We intend to do the website or write the article, but we don’t do it without a deadline.

Two Kinds of Goals

Outcome goals tell you when you’ve reached the champagne-popping moment is, but they don’t necessarily help you get there.

If your goal is to lose 5 pounds, you may be failing to reach that goal without knowing why. A good process goal says, “I want to work out twice a week.” You’ve changed your goal from something that isn’t in your control to something that is within your control.

With a process goal attached to an outcome goal, you can see if your processes are providing the outcomes you want.

In business school, they say, “Your business is perfectly designed to give you the outcome you’re getting right now.” If you don’t like what’s happening, change the process.

Outcome Goals Benefits

  • Provide clear direction
  • Set a clear celebration date
  • Provide motivation

But you’re not usually in control of outcomes. Lack of control can be debilitating for authors. You don’t want to feel like a pawn of fate. That’s why we set process goals to support the outcomes.

Process Goal Benefits

  • Provide full control
  • Invigorate and empower you
  • Help you measure what’s working

I recommend you have two or three outcome goals and then create process goals to help you get there.

Example 1

Outcome Goal: I want to be published by January 15.

Process Goal: Write 1,500 words every weekday this month and next.

Example 2

Outcome Goal: 500 more subscribers by May

Process goals: 

  • Post two new blog posts each week.
  • Promote new blog posts on social media.
  • Write one guest post each month.

You can control whether you write two blog posts, even if it means you have to wake up early. A little bit of planning goes a long way even for seat-of-the-pantsers.

If you control the process, you can influence the outcome. So whether you’re setting outcome or process goals, make them Specific, Measurable, Ambitious, Realistic, and Time-Based. SMART goals will allow you to determine where you’re headed and when you arrive.

And when you get there, be sure to pop the champagne.

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