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What can hundreds of thousands of aspiring novelists teach you about goal setting? Every November, a bunch of crazy people set out to write 50,000 words in a month. About 40,000 of them will make it.

The contest is known as NaNoWriMo, short for National Novel Writing Month. The challenge amounts to 1,667 words a day, or about six or seven pages.

In 2015, there were 351,489 participants and 40,423 winners (or 12%). Here are the 2016 stats. Despite the name, the contest is international, but IntNoWriMo doesn’t sound as good.

Why should you care? Well, if you’re a writer, I imagine your attention is rapt. But if you’re not, hang in there with me. My lessons learned have a lot to do with goal achievement which should be of interest to you.

In 2016, my first year trying, I “won” the contest, completing 50,000 words (actually 60,141 words, but who’s counting?) in the thirty days of November. Here are ten things I learned in the process:

1. It was hard

I won’t go into too much on the writing process here (I’ll do that in another post). But let’s just say, this is absolutely a stretch goal.

In goal-setting speak it’s almost a Big, Hairy, Audacious Goal (sorry, that’s a rather ripe mental image, isn’t it?). The acronym is BHAG (also kind of ick).

The concept of BHAG was developed by Collins and Porras in their book, Built to Last: Successful Habits of Visionary Companies. Collins said that the purpose was “to create BHAGs so clear, compelling, and imaginative that they fuel progress.”

I say that winning NaNoWriMo is almost a BHAG, because, as originally envisioned, BHAGs are huge goals that might take five years to achieve. I did have a BHAG: to ultimately become a published novelist. That over-arching goal kept me motivated to accomplish the smaller goal of successfully completing NaNo.

Specifically, my long-term focus helped beat back the self-doubt that came with the task. It didn’t matter to me that my current effort might not be publishable. I knew that, if nothing else, I would at least be developing my writing skills and getting closer to achieving my ultimate goal.

A monthly goal doesn’t qualify for what Collins and Porras term “big.” But I still like the imagery, so let’s borrow the term anyway. Maybe we’ll call it a SHAG: a smaller, hairy, audacious goal.

The beauty of SHAGs is that, because they are a little scary, they capture your attention. They don’t seem entirely accomplishable.  And if you do accomplish them you get an undeniable sense of satisfaction because you are sure that you achieved something significant.

2. It is doable

I know this because I did it. I also took solace knowing that 12% of participants last year did it. That’s a super low success rate, but that just suggests that the goal is a SHAG, but not completely out of reach.

One thing that helped a lot with this contest is that other people were doing it too. Over 300,000 of them. My region within the contest had a graph that tracked the statistics for local writers. Seventy-five people participated on this (and incidentally about 50% of those people won).

Some of these people are just overachievers: a couple of people wrote 50,000 words in a handful of days and logged something like 250,000 words in the month.

I’m not a hater, but some days I found that depressing.

Mostly, though, I just saw their dazzling accomplishment as a sign that the goal could be conquered. It was even more gratifying to see the people that were proceeding at a more human pace whittling their way toward victory.

3. It wasn’t easy to apply to something else

When November was over I had a kind of hangover. Then after about a week, I thought, hey, I should focus on developing some other daily habit for the next 30 days.

I chose to focus on developing my coaching practice. Specifically, I wanted to spend four hours a day creating my new practice, including tasks such as getting myself set up on the social media outlets, continuing my education on coaching and setting up payment systems, etc. I was already dedicating considerable time to this effort, I just wanted to be sure that a good share of the day was going to this priority.

Though four hours is a large chunk of time, I thought it would be pretty easy to accomplish. It wasn’t. Every single day other priorities managed to wrangle their way in there and I had trouble dedicating the full four hours. This lead me to reflect upon what had worked well during NaNoWriMo. I realized…

4) 7 Things Made Me Successful:

1) Having a very tangible output goal: This was one of the biggest contrasts between NaNoWriMo and my December Coaching month. I mean, first, there’s the name. NaNoWriMo is just awkwardly cool. Plus, it says right in the name what the goal is. My December Coaching month, on the other hand, had no name, no panache.

For NaNo I had a tangible goal: writing 50,000 words in one month. That amounted to 1,667 words a day, but to ensure that I would “win” I set a personal goal to write 2,000 words a day (which I achieved).

Every day I knew how I was doing. Every hour of the day I had the sense of whether I was on track. There was something more compelling about having an output goal (2,000 words a day) versus an effort goal (four hours a day).

2) Having a laser focus: I made winning NaNoWriMo my absolute priority for the month. It came in front of everything. I usually started writing first thing in the morning, even though I’m normally a night person and I usually do my best work at night.

Though I’d often met my goal earlier in the day, I still worked at night. And when I worked after midnight, I was just getting ahead on the next day’s word count.

3) Having a Smaller, Hairy, Audacious Goal: I mentioned the concept of SHAG above. Writing 50,000 words in one month certainly qualifies. Also, there’s something very definitive about being able to say that I won and having that win certified by some external agency.

That’s one of the key things I did wrong in December. I had no SHAG. I probably would have done better to outline a couple of tangible things I could see at the end of the month. A kick-ass website with x features, x number of completed blog posts, etc. It would have been more satisfying and easier to carve out the time (whether it took me four hours or two or six—during NaNo I didn’t track my time, I just showed up and did the work).

4) Knowing What I Would Write Each Day: Before NaNo started, I spent a lot of time on pre-writing. Mostly this consisted of sketching out the plot, developing the characters, and conducting background research.

I developed a plot that initially had about sixty scenes defined. That was crucial to being able to just plow through the writing almost every day. I did have to stop twice to rethink the outline and define more scenes.

Having a clear concept of what I would be doing each day was a critical part of my success. If I didn’t have that clarity, then investing a day in finding the clarity was worth the time.

5) Having a Support Network: One of the cool things about NaNo is that it engenders a support network.

When I would tell family and friends that I was doing the contest it was a pretty easy concept for them to wrap their heads around: writing a novel in a month. They could easily ask about my progress and celebrate my successes with me.

The NaNoWriMo website provides a sense of community and the local region provides discussion and in-person gatherings. Which leads me to the next point…

6) Having compatriots: I found it much easier to stay on track when I could see my progress against 75 other local writers. As I mentioned, the board leaders clocked over 200,000 words. That was inspiring, maybe, but not particularly motivating.

I liked watching the people that seemed to be at a similar pace to me. I would set myself personal goals: I’m going to pass IcicleFerret or NewMexicoKid. Or, dang, MaryFrances just logged 1,000 words and sailed past me!

I’m sure that the informal competition was a big reason that I hit my overall goal and that I met my daily goals nearly every day.

7) Worrying about Quantity not Quality: This final learning might not be transferable… I’m not sure…

Before the contest started I sucked in the advice from the veterans. One point that stuck was to focus on quantity not quality. It’s popular wisdom when it comes to the first draft of a novel.

The object with the first draft is just to get it down. Much of the art of writing emerges in the subsequent drafts. That first draft is like a bombastic outline.

It’s a vital part of the writing process: you must have a draft written out in order to revise it. But the point is that you add the quality later. Since there will be a revising process, you can forsake quality in that first draft and ratchet up the quantity.

Maybe I’m pushing the analogy, but in goal setting terms, be clear about deliverables from both a quantity and quality perspective.

Obviously, where higher quality is desired you’ll need to dial down the quantity. For example, on the second draft (once structure, continuity, and other over-arching issues are addressed), the pace for revisions might be 500 to 1,000 words a day.

Final Thoughts

I’m psyched that I participated in the contest. I now have a completed first draft of a novel to show for it (while I did log 60K words in November, I didn’t finish the novel until December 8th. It weighed in at 72,258 words).

Additionally, I learned a lot about goal setting, motivation, and productivity in the process.

Writing today’s post has inspired me to rejigger how I’m approaching my December Coaching month. I’m going to focus on output, setting daily, weekly, and monthly goals for the things that I want to deliver. I’ll let you know how that goes.

Your turn: what approach to goal setting do you use? What has been most effective? Try to incorporate one of the tips from today’s post and let me know how it goes in the comments.

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