How to Achieve Your Writing Goals in 2021 (Even If January Was a Bust)
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It’s been almost a month since the start of 2020.
Some writers are on track to achieve their self-publishing goals, while others are already struggling.
How are you doing so far, this year? Are you following through with your New Year’s resolutions?
If not, then there is still plenty of time to turn this year around and write great books in 2021.
The trick, I feel, is to rethink how most people set goals to start each year. They resolve to “write more,” without a concrete plan for how they’ll do it. And what usually happens is by the middle of January they’ve already abandoned this resolution because they didn’t know how to handle all the obstacles.
My suggestion is to create a quantifiable goal for 2021—one you can achieved by setting realistic goals—and then work your way backwards through a series of specific milestones. (You can start by creating an implementation intention for your writing goals.)
In this post, I will show you how to do this. Specifically, I will detail a nine-step action plan you can use to get the most from this year.
Note: Some of this advice can be found in my co-authored book with Hal Elrod, The Miracle Morning for Writers, which is available on Amazon. Or you can also check out our post on the SAVERS method used in the Miracle Morning.
Let’s get to it.
What You Will Learn
- Step #1: DetermineYour Daily Output
- Step #2: Work Your Way Backwards
- Step #3. Schedule Each Book Project
- Step #4: Use Milestones for Each Book
- Step #5: Build the 30-Minute Self-Education Habit
- Step #6: Use Time Blocking to Consistently Write
- Step #7: Track Your Daily Writing
- Step #8: Eliminate Distractions and Interruptions
- Step #9: Stick with Your Writing
Step #1: DetermineYour Daily Output
The first step of the process is also the hardest. Here, you need to figure out about how many words you can write per day. Be honest with yourself. This isn’t how many words you wish you can produce, but how many you actually did in the previous year.
Think back to your production in 2019. If you averaged 500 words, then that’s the baseline that you should use.
Now, don’t worry if it’s a small word count. Even a few hundred words per day is still a decent amount. After all, 500 words a day is 15,000 words in one month. That’s enough for a short nonfiction book. Or, if you’re a novelist, you can complete a 60,000-word book in four months. Or you could write 182,500 words in one year, which is enough for three short novels.
Now, these are the results from just 500 words a day. Once you get into a rhythm, it’s not hard to consistently write 1,000, 2,000 or even 5,000 words daily. There are thousands of writers, right now, who do this every day—while working full-time jobs. Once you’ve confidently built the writing habit, you’ll discover plenty of opportunities to do a little more writing every day.
Step #2: Work Your Way Backwards
If you want 2021- to be your best writing year, then you need to set realistic writing goals that match your daily output. It’s not enough to hit an average word count—you need to work this output into a production schedule and make a plan for the books you’ll publish in 2021.
This means answering a few basic questions:
- How much time can I dedicate to writing every day?
- How many words can I produce each session?
- How long does it take to complete the second and third drafts?
- What is the average length of my books?
- How much “lead time” do I need to give my team for post-production tasks?
Your answers will determine the number of books that can be produced in a year. I urge you to respond as honestly as possible because this will help you come up with a realistic book publishing goal for 2021.
When I went through this exercise at the start of 2019, I set a goal to write and launch six habit-related books.
Here’s the math behind my answer to this question:
- I average 2 hours of writing per day during the workweek and 30 minutes per day on the weekends and holidays, with the occasional day off. This averages out to an hour and a half of writing per day.
- Each writing session is an average of 1,500 words.
- It takes me just as long to complete the second draft of each book, with an extra week for the third draft and final polish.
- Each book ranges from 25,000 to 35,000 words, with an average of 30,000 words.
- I need at least three weeks for post-production (i.e., editing, formatting, and cover design) and to market the book.
With my back-of-the-napkin math, I determined that it takes me an average of 40 days to write each book, with three weeks to produce and market it. While some of these projects will overlap (i.e., a book will be in post-production while I’m busy writing the next one), I also like to add a few “buffer weeks” to plan for unexpected challenges. So overall, I set a schedule to publish a book every two months, or six books in a year.
Now, this is my math. You, on the other hand, will have a different goal after going through this exercise. The key here is to be honest with yourself about your productivity and then use this math to set a realistic publishing goal for 2021.
The number you choose is inconsequential. It could be 12 books, 6 books, or even 1 title. What’s important is to set a goal that’s doable with the amount of time that you can dedicate to writing.
Step #3. Schedule Each Book Project
Once you have a rough plan for 2021, schedule a tentative launch date for each book, and then put these dates into a calendar that you look at daily.
So, if your 2020 goal is to publish 12 books, then you should prepare to start, complete, and fully launch a book every month. On the other hand, if you have a moderate goal of three books, then you could schedule a book launch at the end of April, August, and December. The point here is to put your book launches on a calendar so you can map out the individual milestones, which we’ll cover in the next step.
As mentioned before, my goal is to publish six books in 2021. Here’s how this looks on my calendar:
- Novice to Expert (launched on the second week of January)
- Habit Stacking 2nd Edition (launching in late February)
- Mindfulness book with my co-author Barrie Davenport (launching in early April)
- Procrastination book (launching in May)
- Book #5: TBA (launching in July)
- Book #6: TBA (launching in October)
Okay, one thing you might have noticed is these dates aren’t every two months. This is intentional, because I like to relax during the summer and spend time with family. I also like to add buffer weeks, which we’ll talk about in step #9.
Again, the important thing to remember is to set dates that match your schedule and level of productivity.
Step #4: Use Milestones for Each Book
“Eat the elephant one bite at a time.”
We’ve all heard this expression before, but I think it’s especially true when it comes to writing a book.
If want to publish a specific number of books in 2021, then prepare yourself to write daily, and chip away at small milestones along the way. My recommendation is to chunk down each book project into a series of mini-goals that you use to guide your progress.
Once again, get out your calendar and add the following milestones to it:
- Complete book research
- Map out outline
- Write first draft
- Polish second draft
- Finish third draft
- Complete final draft after getting the book back from an editor
Now, these are just a few recommended milestones. I actually schedule and plan out 40+ steps in my publishing process, which you can see here.
The lesson here is to never leave anything to chance. By mapping out each phase of the book publishing process and then putting them into your calendar, you can track your daily actions and avoid the lack of direction that plagues many writers.
Step #5: Build the 30-Minute Self-Education Habit
Stephen King said it best: “If you don't have time to read, you don't have the time (or the tools) to write. Simple as that.”
Of course, we’re all starved for time, so I understand why you might not have hours to kick back with a great book. That said, since reading has a positive impact on your writing, I urge you to set aside at least 30 minutes a day for reading and other self-educational activities.
Here are a few ideas to get you started:
- Read books about writing. The market is full of actionable guides that help you improve your grammar, map out stories, come up writing prompts, and learn how to structure a story.
- Read books about entrepreneurialism, personal development, building businesses, and successful people. Not only are these inspiring, but they can also teach you how to transform your writing into a full-time income.
- Spend five minutes each day reading something outside of your personal interests. If you’re a staunch Republican, then go to a pro-Democrat website and read an article—with an open mind. This will help you look at the world through a different lens.
- Read books in your genre to get an idea of how other authors tell a story and use characters to engage the plotline, and what tropes are commonly used.
- Read books outside of your genre. Perhaps you can take an idea that worked in one genre and use it somewhere else. For example, there are many who say House of Cards is like a modern-day version of Game of Thrones.
- Challenge yourself to read all of the top 100 classic books by the time you die.
Furthermore, I also recommend that you increase the amount of external stimulation in your life, which you can do by doing the following activities daily and paying close attention to the thoughts that filter through your mind:
- Exercise on a regular basis.
- Have a non-writing-related hobby, like painting, gardening, or doing puzzles.
- Expand your social life and meet new people.
- Pay close attention to advertisements and other promotions that you see throughout the day.
- Turn your driving time into an educational opportunity by listening to audiobooks and podcasts.
- Visit local venues like museums, parks, neighborhoods, graveyards, and historical landmarks.
- Watch a great TED talk.
- Go to a local bookstore to browse books and magazines.P
- People watch at a local mall or outdoor shopping plaza.
- Look at Tweets, Pinterest pins, and Facebook updates to see which topics are trending, and to identify the content that best resonates with your audience.
Finally, whenever you have a great idea, I recommend storing it in a central location that’s accessible at all times. My tool of choice for this is the Evernote app. Not only can you use Evernote to organize your thoughts and book ideas, but the app also syncs with all your devices. So, you could record an idea in Evernote while walking and then access it during your next writing session.
Step #6: Use Time Blocking to Consistently Write
It should come as no surprise that as someone who frequently talks about habits, I recommend the practice of writing every day.
My recommendation is to aim for writing at least five times a week. If your weekends are focused on family time, then it’s okay to take off a day. But you should remember that if you want to hit those important milestones, you should try to do some level of writing—even on your “days off.”
The simplest strategy for hitting a consistent word count is to use the time-blocking productivity strategy.
If you’re someone who has trouble focusing, then try condensing your writing into short sprints and tracking them with a timer. A system for doing this is called the Pomodoro Technique.
The Pomodoro Technique is a popular time-blocking system created in the 1980s by Francesco Cirillo that has been embraced by entrepreneurs and work efficiency experts.
Cirillo recognized that humans can focus only for a limited amount of time before becoming distracted. He found that it’s better to create a system where people focus for a condensed period of time and then proactively take a rest break before beginning the next sprint.
Cirillo named his technique after a popular kitchen timer that looks like a tomato (hence the name pomodoro, which is Italian for tomato). The timer was used like any old kitchen timer, but Cirillo experimented with time blocking until he discovered the most effective usage of time blocks (for efficiency in work production).
The Pomodoro Technique
When using the technique, you:
- Choose a task (e.g., writing).
- Set a timer for 25 minutes.
- Work for 25 minutes without succumbing to any
- Take a five-minute break by getting up and walking around.
- Go back to work for another 25 minutes.
- After every four time blocks, take a 15 – to 30-minute break.
So, to put it all together, if you set aside 120 minutes for writing with the Pomorodo Technique every day, you would write for a total of 100 minutes, with three five-minute breaks between the sessions.
You might assume that this technique is not as effective as writing without breaks. But think back to those times when you tried to do a task for an extended period of time. In all likelihood, you were energized at first, and then you reached a point when your concentration dropped off, and finally you felt the urge to do anything besides writing.
The Pomodoro Technique prevents these distractions because it keeps your mind fresh and focused. With the scheduled rest breaks, you have an opportunity to take a few minutes off to relax. So even though you’re writing for less time, the quality of the content will be better than what’s normally created at the tail end of a marathon writing session.
If you’re interested in the Pomodoro Technique, you might want to download one of the following programs to start tracking your words:
- Team Viz (a program that syncs between your computer and mobile phone)
- Rapid Rabbit (iPhone and iPad apps)
- Flowkeeper (PC users)
- Pomodoro (Mac users)
- Pomodoro (Android users)
When it comes to time blocking, the amount of time you choose really depends on your personal preference.
I like the Pomodoro Technique because it has a nice symmetry. The 25 minutes on and 5 minutes off is 30 minutes. Four of these fit into two hours, which I consider to be a good day of writing.
Step #7: Track Your Daily Writing
Another strategy you can use (either in conjunction with the Pomodoro Technique or on its own) is to track your writing and use this information to identify those moments of heightened productivity. To get started, open a spreadsheet and create nine columns with the following labels:
- DateTime of day (morning, afternoon, or evening)
- Location (office, coffeehouse, train)
- Project name (What are you writing?)
- Type of writing (outline, first draft, or second draft)
- Total time blocks for the session
- Total word count
- Average word count per block (divide word count by the number of time blocks)
- Notes of anything that helped or hindered your writing
Update this tracking sheet immediately after completing a session. At first, this might seem like needless busywork. But do it for a few weeks and you’ll detect patterns in your word counts and when you work best.
You’ll identify a specific time of day and location where you do your best work. This is the best way to achieve your optimal flow state. Then, all you have to do is write in that location at a specific time.
Step #8: Eliminate Distractions and Interruptions
I recently read the book Deep Work by Cal Newport. The one thing he emphasized throughout the book was the importance of spending large blocks of time on your most important, deep-level activity. Newport talked about how we’re constantly bombarded by interruptions that seem important on the surface, but are usually nothing more than superficial interactions that ultimately aren’t important for our long-term goals. In my opinion, this observation is very applicable to writing.
The most critical activity you can do is writing. That’s why it’s important to be very mindful of the negative impact that comes from distractions and other interruptions. Allowing them to go unchecked will have a negative impact on your writing and ability to hit those time-sensitive milestones.
Remember, the average writer has time for only 30-60 minutes of writing a day, so it’s in your best interests to eliminate the distractions that will cut your time and productivity. My suggestion is to take responsibility for preventing interruptions by doing the following:
- Wear earplugs or noise-cancelation earphones
- Listen to instrumental music or anything that helps you concentrate
- Invest in a white noise machine (or app), one that comes with sounds like ocean, wind, or rain.
- Work in a space where you can close the door and block out most sounds.
- Sit in a remote part of a park, restaurant, or coffee shop, away from loud talkers or groups.
- Clear your writing desk of all unnecessary items.
- Silence your computer and phone so you won’t hear the ding when you get a new email or text message.
- Talk to your roommates, significant other, and children about your writing time. Make it clear that you are not to be disturbed unless there is a true emergency.
- Work offline and disconnect from email, so you won’t be tempted to surf the Web or get derailed by research.
It’s not easy to write on a consistent basis, and distractions only make it more difficult. So, the best way to prevent them is to plan ahead and eliminate disruptions from happening in the first place.
Step #9: Stick with Your Writing
It’s silly to think your writing will go smoothly throughout 2020. In fact, I urge you to expect the unexpected and plan for interruptions to your schedule. At the bare minimum, you can expect to possibly:
- Get sick or injured.
- Take care of family members who are sick
- Go on a vacation or take time off for the holidays.
- Experience writer’s block.
- Delay a book launch because a critical post-production team member is unavailable.
- Experience a family or personal emergency.
No matter how well you plan, there will be times when you’re blind-sided by an unforeseen event. But that’s not an excuse for failing to hit your publishing goals. The trick is to recognize that these random events happen to all of us, and then include them in your calculations.
Here are a few strategies that can help you do this:
- Be realistic about your future obligations when planning a book project. For instance, if your plan involves writing during the Christmas holiday season, then assume you won’t be able to get a lot accomplished during this time.
- Add a buffer week (or weeks) to the projected schedule for each task that gives you a cushion for when something happens.
- Set lowball goals where you make calculations based on a slow production schedule instead of one where you work diligently. So if you get ahead on your word count, then you’ll build an extra buffer in case of an emergency.
- Schedule vacations away from your writing, like during the summertime when you might spend time with family and friends. Sure, you can work a little, but don’t assume that you’ll be very productive.
- Update key team members about your writing schedule. So, if you know you’ll need an editor and cover designer in a month, then let them know far enough in advance so they can clear their calendars and be ready for your book project.
You can overcome any obstacle that comes your way. The trick is to expect the unexpected. If you plan for them in your calendar and make quick adjustments, then you can easily stick to your writing schedule for 2021.
There’s still plenty of time to produce great content in the next year. All you have to do is map out a production calendar, create milestones for each book, and work at them daily.
If you get stuck along the way, then I recommend reading “craft books” that solve specific problems that writers experience in the publishing process. Here are a few of my favorites (and a shameless plug of one of mine):
- The Miracle Morning for Writers by Hal Elrod, Steve Scott, and Honoree Corder.
- Write. Publish. Repeat. by Sean Platt and Johnny B. Truant
- Business for Authors by Joanna Penn
- How to Market a Book by Joanna Penn
- Dictate Your Book by Monica Leonelle
- Write to Market by Chris Fox
- You Must Write a Book by Honoree Corder
- How to Write Sizzling Synopsis by Bryan Cohen
- Self-Publisher’s Legal Handbook by Helen Sedwick
Well, I hope you found these nine steps to be useful. If you have a question or comment about anything I mentioned, then feel free to leave a comment below.
I wish you the best of luck in 2021!
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