Go large or go small – research-backed ways to smash your writing goals

Bec Evans

Some writers love a big hairy audacious goal and they don’t come bigger than National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo). With a target of 50,000 words in 30 days, its daily word count goal of 1,667 splits the novel writing community. Whether you’re smashing your daily limit, tending your wounds after crashing out in the first few days, or avoiding it completely, Bec Evans offers some tried and tested tips for writing productivity.  

Super motivating big goals

NaNoWriMo ticks all the boxes for SMART goal setting – it’s specific, measurable, achievable, relevant and time-bound – and takes a big push to complete. Like the best goals it’s just at the limits of what’s possible and that motivates people to take on the challenge. Around 20% of writers ‘win’ which is pretty amazing. While we admire their achievement, it can be tough for those who ‘failed’. 

It is a cliché to say that failure is another word for learning, but it’s true. Not reaching a goal gives you the opportunity to reflect, learn and do better in the future. If you don’t win at NaNoWriMo, take time to review how it went, acknowledge what you have achieved, and celebrate that progress. Writing 1,667 words even for a few days takes your project forward in leaps and bounds and teaches you a lot about how you write.  

Start with small steps

While having a big goal is inspiring, the sure-fire way to keep going is to start small. It is particularly helpful if you feel blocked or wounded after failing to meet a big goal. This is neuroscience 101, not freaking out your amygdala, the primitive flight or fright part of your brain, which is designed to protect you from scary challenges like writing a novel. 

Set a small step, something so tiny you can’t not do it. For example, promise to write for just five minutes a day. Make a commitment and stick to it. You can embed the habit by rewarding yourself when you do it, and soon you’ll be typing towards your celebratory biscuit treat.  

Level up

Next, you need to increase the time you write, but in small increments to not freak out your amygdala. For the first week, you might write for five minutes, then in the second increase the time perhaps adding another couple of minute each day.  

Don’t feel guilty about only writing a little – the focus here is on building a routine. Give whatever you can and avoid the negative spiral of guilt and inaction that can overwhelm your when you feel you’re not doing enough. Just do a little more each day, enjoy building a habit and celebrate your increasing sessions.  

Find your personal routine

If you feel you don’t have time to write, you’re not alone. Many writers struggle to find time in their over-busy lives. After many years working and researching writing productivity, I’ve found there are four general patterns for writing routines. Figuring out which one suits you best can make a difference to not only how much progress you make but how feel about it.  

1.    Daily doers– research shows this is the most productive and satisfying way to make progress, but it’s also near impossible for anyone with a job or a family. Having a daily habit helps keep up momentum, pick up where you left off, and get the words on the page. 

2.    Schedulers– can’t write daily? Try scheduling. Look at the next couple of weeks and find time in your calendar to write, while acknowledging there are times when writing is impossible. It might involve juggling some tasks, but find a few slots and book a writing appointment – treat it like you would a visit to the doctor or dentist, it’s a serious commitment to be honoured. 

3.    Spontaneous writers– if you’ve got small children to amuse, a nagging boss, or a schedule booked from dawn till dusk, then spontaneity is your friend. Grab any opportunity to write and be ready with your notepad, laptop or phone. Researchers studying academic writers have called this ‘toggling’ writing for brief sessions of less than 15 minutes. 

4.    Bingers– while researchers found last-minute, panic-induced, binge writing to be unproductive, with the least number of words and the highest levels of depression, you can turn a binge into bliss by scheduling it. If you can’t write for weeks at a time, book yourself a retreat or sabbatical. It doesn’t need to cost anything, find a childminder, write at the library or your next-door neighbour’s kitchen table. The point of the binge is having a long uninterrupted writing session and not about locating the perfect garret to hide in.  

Track when and how often you write, see if there is a pattern, or experiment with different ones. Remember your writing rhythm will change for different types of writing and over the course of a project, many people binge write a first draft, then schedule the editing.  

Productivity is personal

There are many ways to write a book and we can learn a lot from how other writers do it –hold them as inspiration, not a gold standard. There is no one-size fits all life hack, so give up the belief of rising at 5am to write with a quill will help you finish.  

Stop comparing yourself and start noticing what works for you – do you write better in the mornings or the evenings; at home, work or in a café; for how long; in silence or with noise? Experiment with when, where, how often and for how long you write. You’ll find your perfect routine. And perhaps you’ll write a motivational blog post for other writers to feel bad about!

Bec Evans is co-founder of Prolifiko, a digital productivity coach for writers - ‘FitBit for writing’. It uses persuasive technology to help people achieve their writing goals - whatever their writing project.