Tormented by Toothless Writing Goals? Try These Tools

Competitie voetbalwedstrijd /  League soccer match

Whether you’re ready to renounce slackerdom, or simply hope to increase your writing production, you’re probably contemplating what you want to get out of 2013. With this post, I hope to set you up for success.

Begin with a step recommended by psychologists, coaches, and efficiency experts. Draft goals with teeth by using the SMART format.

Though you’ll see variation in what each letter stands for, here’s the gist:

  • Specific: You’ve crafted external goals for protagonists and antagonists, so you understand the power of specificity. Our characters don’t merely wish to become healthy –not  if you want immersive, compelling fiction, anyway. They want to run the next Boston Marathon in under two hours, thereby winning a bet so they can cash in their winnings and save the family farm. Aim for comparable specificity in your goals.
  • Measurable: To know if you’re making progress towards your goal, look for embedded and trackable numbers. Word counts are a good example. But what if you’re doing a task that cannot be easily quantified, such as plotting or editing? Or what if your brain shuts down when given a concrete goal? Quantify your time. For example, you might decide to spend 1 hour per day, Internet blocker on, giving your full attention to the task at hand. (I like StayFocusd — a Chrome extension and free.) Alternatively, quantify your day’s effort on a sliding scale out of 10.
  • Actionable: Can you take concrete, discrete, and visible steps to make your goal come true? Does its completion depend only upon you? If not, reframe or adjust.
  • Realistic: The best goals invite a sense of excitement rather than complacency. When you think of your goal, don’t end up looking like Eugene Levy in this SCTV parody of a Perry Como performance. On the other hand, don’t make your goal so gargantuan you won’t wish to begin.
  • Time-bound: Give yourself a ticking clock, a deadline. You can set daily, weekly, monthly goals, and build in purposeful days of rest.

Examples of SMART writing goals:

  • I will complete the first draft of this novel by Mar. 17, 2013 by writing 3000 words per week.
  • I will edit 3 pages of this manuscript daily until complete, which should take place on Feb. 2, 2013.
  • For the next three months, I will free-write for 15 minutes daily, with the exception of Sundays. During that time I will use the Internet blocker and put in an effort at a 7 out of 10.

The mere crafting of SMART goals is seldom sufficient.

Most of us begin the new year with good intentions, but we’re vulnerable to stumbles and detours, particularly if we lack external accountability from agents and editors. We develop sieve-brain and conveniently “forget” our daytimers and spreadsheets. Eventually we stop tracking our progress.

The good news is that it’s never been easier to increase external commitment, whether to oneself or others.

From the Friendly to the Hardcore, Options to Increase Accountability:  

1. Writing communities and forums:

On the pro side, these are often free or inexpensive places to gain encouragement. They provide a big variety of writing experience and wisdom.

On the con side, they:

  • Provide a big variety of writing experience and wisdom.
  • If you are a nurturer, or prone to procrastinate via helping others, in a large group, it’s easy to invest more time on another’s career than building your own.
  • Their size and loosey-goosey nature mean it’s easy to disappear without consequences.

2. Critique groups:

In order to qualify as a member, some critique groups establish minimal standards of words crafted and feedback provided. Does yours? If not, if it’s free-form, it might suffer from the same drawbacks as the option above.

3. Accountability Partner:

A single person with whom you’ll share your goals and track your progress on a predetermined frequency. (Often done weekly, monthly, and yearly. Some supplement with daily, rapid check-ins.)

4. Mastermind Group:

Typically a group of 5 – 8 people who meet weekly for one hour. (In person or online via Skype, Google+, etc.) In a given session, they focus their efforts on one pre-appointed individual who recaps their goals, progress, and obtains advice and feedback where required. If time permits, other members check in briefly.

Whether you go with an accountability partner or a Mastermind group, you’ll want people who are:

  • Reliable, and expect the same level of commitment from you.
  • Kind but exacting.
  • Oriented to problem-solving rather than blame-assignment.
  • Share or exceed your level of expertise.
  • Devoted to keeping the group’s orientation on progress, not therapy.

5. Personal writing coach:

There are teachers and published writers who call themselves writing coaches. Some freelance editors provide deadlines and one-on-one coaching. Since this is potentially expensive, and an area ripe for scam artists and the unqualified, be diligent if you go this route. Do background checks and get referrals.


I’ve been using Habitforge for a few weeks now and am surprised by how much I enjoy it. It’s cloud-based. The website asks you to name a habit you want to establish, the reasons you want to accomplish it (both positive and negative), and it sends you daily email reminders.

You can decide if you want to set a 21-day goal — the estimated time it takes to establish a new habit — or a repetitive, long-term one. You can tweak individual goals to be private or public. There’s also a community grouped around common goals.

If you’d like to try HabitForge for free, go through THIS LINK . (You’re allowed one habit indefinitely on the ad-supported version.) At some point, if you decide to upgrade to a year’s membership with support for unlimited, ad-free habits, Writer Unboxed has been able to get you a discount by becoming an affiliate.

Use the coupon code “Writer Unboxed” at checkout and receive 25% off their $10 annual fee.

Want to connect on Habitforge after? I haven’t cleared this with the Mod Squad, but I bet they’d let us share usernames on WU’s Facebook page.


Hoo boy. This site is fascinating, and the most hardcore I’ve found, probably because it’s been established by Yale economists and legal types. To participate, you:

  • Write up a commitment contract, which includes not only the goal but the stakes if you fail or forfeit. The consequences range from loss of pride (you’ve kept it private), loss of reputation (you’ve gone public), or a credit card deduction (up to $10,000 per goal.)
  • Decide who will arbitrate your level of success (you or another individual.)
  • Decide whether forfeited money goes to a specific individual, a charity, or an anti-charity. (If you’ve committed cash, only a note from a physician will get you off the hook.)
  • Succeed in your goal, and it won’t cost you a dime.

Why haven’t I gone this route when I know it would be a powerful tool?

Frankly, at first the requirement for some deep thinking. Faced with that kind of skin in the game, I had to retool my goals along more realistic lines. Ultimately, though, I’m not crazy about the site’s privacy policy given how much information it requires.

However, it’s a highly educational place. Nothing would prohibit an individual from recreating the model elsewhere. Do check it out, if only to learn.

When you establish goals, do you use the SMART format? What’s the best way you’ve found to hold your feet to the fire?


About Jan O'Hara

Jan O'Hara left her writing dreams behind for years to practice family medicine, but has found her way back to the world of fiction. Currently the voice of the Unpublished Writer here at Writer Unboxed, she hopes one day soon to become unqualified for the position.


  1. says

    In my professional career I am a big fan of the SMART system for achieving goals and it has carried over to my writing life. Fuzzy goals produce fuzzy results. Your post highlights the need to not only set concrete goals, but enlist the help of others to create accountability. Thanks for another ‘smart’ post.
    CG Blake´s last blog post ..Got Writer’s Block? Take the Creative Pause

  2. says

    I have absolutely LOVED participating in NaNoWriMo in the past two years, but when the crazy rush ends I have my husband and my writing group to keep me accountable.
    Just yesterday my husband asked, “So when is your second draft going to be done?” He is truly the best!
    Laura Lee´s last blog post ..A Coventry Carol for Connecticut

  3. says

    Here I sit during my writing time on the Internet reading this blog and avoiding any attempt at making a break through on my next story and plot. Hmm. Maybe I need to get SMART. Maybe I also need to cruise over to the Chrome site and check out StayFocused. Thanks for what apparently is a most pertinent and timely post for me.

  4. says

    Jan, re: Habitforge, we can set up a doc for sharing user names, just like we do each year for NaNo. Folks seem to like the additional check-in with their WU tribe-mates.

    I’m undergoing one of my toughest goal transitions, and it gets more difficult each time I do it–from writing back to carpentry/remodeling. One the plus side, it’s very measurable, and seeing results is validating. On the down side, this body ain’t getting any younger. I have to work ‘smart’ to avoid overdoing it.

    I really shouldn’t be reading blogs at the start of my work day, either. Another tough habit to break, especially when I enjoy the author so much.
    Vaughn Roycroft´s last blog post ..Sailing Through a Critique–Redirect to Christi Craig’s Writing Under Pressure

    • says

      Glad if you found it helpful, Jacko. I always have to know “why” myself, or I don’t learn.

      Measuring doesn’t mean we’ll act, but it sure makes it more likely. They’ve done studies of people that lost significant amounts of weight and kept it off for 3 years or more. A common trait was that they performed a daily weigh-in and were able, therefor, to catch lapses while they were easily managed.
      Jan O’Hara´s last blog post ..Think Your Partner Doesn’t Support Your Writing? Look Again

  5. says

    Great tips here, Jan; I LOVE the SMART method as you’ve outlined it. I don’t know that I like the sound of, though, as it seems to be punishment based. Not my ideal conditions.

    • says

      It’s a bit more complicated than that, Therese. When you think of it, many commitments we make are incentivized by both carrots and sticks. Me writing this post for instance. I had the intrinsic rewards of learning, writing, polishing–all pleasurable. I’ve received the extrinsic rewards of spreading ideas about health and presumably some measure of attention for my work. But you can bet I was also motivated by the desire to not let you down and suffer a loss of reputation by posting a low quality post.

      If you set the contract up correctly at StickK, you could make it so that failure wasn’t an option. So that you only receive the carrots. eg. Some previous smokers will forfeit $10,000 if they relapse and smoke even one cigarette. Obviously they need to be able to forfeit the money without catastrophe, but know that it will hurt sufficiently to be a deterrent. There are plenty of carrots going on behind the scene, but they aren’t made explicit to the contract. (Health, self-regard, money.)

      If nothing else, it’s a useful screening mechanism for commitment level and a means of gaining self-knowledge. For example, if I’m not willing to forfeit $10 a week when I fail a very modest, self-determined weight-loss goal, am I that determined to make changes? If I’m not, then either I make peace with my body as it is, or get clearer on what would tip me into change. Either way, I’m less likely to exist in a fantasyland that I’ll effect a change tomorrow and it will all fall into place.
      Jan O’Hara´s last blog post ..Think Your Partner Doesn’t Support Your Writing? Look Again

      • says

        Thanks for the additional info, Jan. I do appreciate knowing about the site itself. My comment was based purely on personal preferences. I’ve been caught in “do this or repercussions will fall on your head” scenarios before, and know I don’t thrive in those. Chocolate on the end of a stick works much better for this writer.

  6. says

    Great post Jan, thank you!

    SMART works splendid with writing goals. I’m familiar with it (and other similar project management techniques and strategies) from work, and I applied them in writing as well. Suffice to say I wouldn’t have gotten very far without them.
    Vero´s last blog post ..Top 5 Things I Want To Do With My Fiction

  7. says

    Thought provoking post. I really like the SMART concept…feels intuitively workable and therefore eminently useful! Might even try it !! :0
    Edith´s last blog post ..I won!

  8. says

    I’m writing to say a big THANK YOU! I just discovered this article via Karen Woodward’s blog and have bookmarked Habit Forge and installed StayFocusd. I’ve had a kitchen timer on my desk for the last month to time my internet procrastination sessions! Amazing how powerful a set of earphones can be in tuning out that alarm!

    Best wishes

  9. says

    Holy cow, I love your thinking on this! I’m dying to get your thoughts on my own now. We think we’ve nailed the problem you cite with StickK — that it requires deep thinking about what’s realistic before you can even start. Beeminder is like a data-oriented version of StickK where you start by just graphing your progress. You then commit by changing the steepness of your “yellow brick road” — you have to keep all your datapoints on that road or you pay up.

    I’m also very interested to hear about your concern’s with StickK’s privacy policy and if you feel like Beeminder fares any better.

    Thanks again!
    Danny of Beeminder