If you’re like me, you’ve written a few New Year’s resolutions that you just keep transferring from one year’s list to the next. And who hasn’t written the “lose 10 pounds, write a best-selling novel, eat more vegetables” New Year’s resolution list at least once?
The goals look great on paper in that new year, clean slate sort of way. But several months into the new year, you might find that forgotten list of lofty resolutions stuck in a book you were reading three months ago. And the list will be an uncomfortable reminder of the fact that you’ve only lost 2 pounds, written five pages of that novel, and simply upped your intake of french fries. (Hey, they’re a vegetable, right?)
Based on my experience with failed and successful resolutions from years past, here are a few pointers on how to make your freelance resolutions stick.
- Do a commitment check. Are you writing down the same resolutions or goals year after year? After so many times, you really have to ask yourself: How badly do I want this? Maybe you want to have accomplished the goal, but maybe you just don’t want to do all the work in between. That’s okay, but just be honest with yourself. Sure, you’d love to see your name at the top of a BusinessWeek article, but maybe you just don’t feel like writing the 20 queries and follow-up e-mails it’ll take to land you that assignment. That’s okay! But if you want the credits behind your name, get ready to roll up your sleeves, find a shovel, and start digging. Because here’s the cold, hard truth about dreams: you can’t achieve them by wishing hard, writing well-crafted resolutions, and holding onto good intentions. You have to do the work. And sometimes the work is long, hard, messy, tedious, frustrating, and plain old just not fun.
- Break it down. Two years ago, if I would have written down: “Walk a half marathon by August” on my New Year’s resolutions list, it never ever would have happened. But my walking partner and I broke the goal down into day-sized pieces. We started out walking two miles a day, then upped it to five miles a day, and then finally to 10 by the time August rolled around. So if you want to write that novel by the end of 2009, break the goal down into daily objectives. For example, if you write only three pages a day, you’ll have 90 pages at the end of 30 days. And at that rate, you could easily have a first draft of a 270-page novel written in three months. By focusing on the smaller daily goals, you make the bigger dream more achievable because you’re actually laying the groundwork for getting the work done. The practice of daily goal-setting puts action behind the words on your New Year’s resolution list—and that’s the way to turn your dreams into reality. Be sure to set milestone goals too. Map out where you want to be at the end of each quarter, or at the end of every three months (e.g. write first draft of 270-page novel by end of March, early April; complete first revision by end of June).
- Cultivate good habits. It takes about three or four weeks to make a habit stick. So once you’ve broken your goals down into day-sized chunks, create a routine for yourself. If writing a novel is on your list of goals for this year, write those three pages at the same time every day. If you want to break into new markets, send out two LOIs or queries to a new-to-you publication or client every day. The key is to develop the habit of self-discipline behind every goal on your New Year’s resolution list. Several years back when I was very out of shape and a few pounds heavier than I am now, I made a deal with myself: I only had to stay at the gym for 10 minutes. In reality, I can only remember a couple times when I packed my gym bag, drove across town, changed into my workout clothes, and then walked out the door after only 10 minutes on the treadmill. But the idea was to get myself in the habit of showing up every day. Once I established the habit of showing up, the rest followed. So with any of your freelance goals, develop the habit of showing up first. I can almost guarantee that the rest will follow.
- Plan ahead for low-motivation blues. There will be days when you wake up all motivated and ready to tackle your daily goals, and then several hours later—for some inexplicable reason—you’ll feel like throwing your hands up in the air and chucking the goal, the novel, the article, or whatever you’re trying to accomplish. I call these the “F*&k-Its.” You have to decide how you’re going to handle these moments ahead of time. Because no matter how much you think you want to achieve that dream of yours right now, I guarantee that there will come a time when that shiny new goal of yours becomes a pain in the you-know-what. And you’ll feel like you just can’t stand another minute of what you’re having to endure in order to turn your dream into reality. For example, if you have the goal of writing a novel and one week into it, you start thinking: “No one’s going to want to read this anyway. Why am I wasting my time? Why even bother?” Then you have to pull out that strategy that you’ve mapped out ahead of time. In this particular case, you might decide to write as fast as you can for 15 minutes and then stop for the night. Or you might decide to jump to another part of the novel and write that part instead. The key is to maintain the forward motion toward your goal, no matter how imperfect that forward motion is, and no matter how much your internal chatterbox tries to steer you off course. Learn how to override that negative self-talk by experimenting with different strategies and ideas. In short: Think less, do more.
- Keep it simple. Beware of overly long, complicated New Year’s resolutions lists. Have you ever had someone hand you a to-do list that’s two or three pages long? How does it make you feel? If you’re like most people, the long list will probably make you feel tired before you even start. So don’t do this to yourself! After asking yourself some questions and taking time to think about what really matters most to you, identify your top three to five goals and stick with those. And while you’re at it, make sure the goals you write are simple and straightforward. You don’t want to give yourself any more excuses to scrap your goals and resolutions several months down the road when your motivation is at a low ebb. And look at it this way: You can always add goals to your list later if you run out of things to do before the year is over (not likely).
- Find a mentor or buddy. If I didn’t have a walking partner do you think I’d be bolting out of bed every morning at 7 a.m. in the middle of winter to go walking? Heck no! But I have a walking partner, and I know that she will be waiting at the start of the trail at a certain time every morning. Knowing that she’s going to be there waiting makes me accountable. So I have to get up. I have no choice. I highly recommend this strategy for reaching your freelance goals too. You want to write more queries this year? Find a query-writing partner and give each other a new challenge each week. Or join a query-writing challenge. You want to write a book? Pair up with someone who has already written one or who is in the process of writing one too. Set mini goals for each other every day or week. It may sound hokey, but it really does work.
- Know when you’re done. Most of us writers, editors, and freelancers have a perfectionist streak. So it’s a good idea to decide ahead of time how you’re going to determine whether you’ve successfully met your goal. In many cases, this will be straightforward. In others, not so much. How are you going to know, for example, when a query you’ve written is “good enough?” How are you going to know when the first draft of that novel is really “done”? Give some thought to this ahead of time. Otherwise, you might just find yourself running in place.
Did I leave anything off the list? Drop me a line and tell me about it!
Photo credit: Paul Worthington (Flickr)