Monday, July 23, 2012

What are You Doing with the Rest of Your Life: Long Term Goals

Photo by Glideongirl (Flicker)
The story is told of the great Medieval architect Sir Christopher Wren's visit to a construction site. According to the story, we found three stone masons cutting three stones. He approaches one of them and says, "My dear man, what are you doing?"

The man doesn't even look up and snaps back, "What's it look like I'm doing? I'm cutting a stone?"

Sir Christopher then stops by the second stone mason and says, "My Good man, what are you doing?"

This man wearily wipes his forehead and says, "I'm earning a living."

Sir Christopher finally comes to the third man. This man has been watching what was happening. So he had his answer ready when the great man asked, "My good man, what are you doing?"

He dusted off his apron, stood tall and said, "I'm helping Sir Christopher build his great cathedral."

Each of these men was doing the same job. One focused on the immediate task at hand. The second looked forward to a paycheck. The third, though, saw his work within the context of a long range goal.

When most writers (including myself) write about goal setting we usually talk about short or mid-range goals. We set goals like, "I'm going to write 1000 words a day." or  "I'm going to complete my novel this year." These goals are fine, but how often do we fail with them? There are many reasons why we fail. Some may be unrealistic. We may have a goal but no plan to reach the goal. There may not be an accountability stucture in place. We will talk about all of these in future posts. However, one reason we rarely talk about is that we don't see how that goal fits into the big picture.

Even when we reach the goal, we wonder, "Where do I go from here?" We are making short term goals without integrating them into long range planning. Consequently, we don't see how what we are doing fits into an overall plan. We only see the stone and not the cathedral.

Long range goals must come first. Think about it like a trip. Let's say you decide to go on a business trip. So, you sit down and carefully plan out how to get to the airport, how to get to the ticket counter, how to check your bags and reach the terminal gate, but you don't have a destination in mind, your trip will be a disaster. Too often we set daily, weekly and even yearly goals without ever once thinking of where they are leading us.

So, then how do we set these long-term goals? I follow a three step process in setting these goals.

Step One: Set the Time Frame

 The phrase "long term goal" is purposely vague. You need to define what you mean by it yourself. Some long term goals may be five years away. Others may be twenty-five. Basically, they are destination goals. They are goals that once achieved will in some way define your life over an extended period of time. While I would not set a hard and fast rule, I would say most long-term goals are going to be five years or more away. However, that may not be the case. For instance, a long term goal might be to finish a Masters of Fine Arts in Writing or a Journalism degree and you are currently only a year or two away because you have already been working on this goal.

In my case, I have set the time frame at five years. I may (indeed, I hope to) achieve these goals earlier, but that is my target right now.

Step Two: Visualize the Destination 

What will your future life look like if you make your goal? (I'm going to speak in the singular, but, of course, you may have many life goals and not just those related to writing.) Sit down and write about what you want your life to be like five or even ten years from now. One exercise I like to give people is a "Day in the Life" exercise. As the name implies you write a short description of a single day in your life when you have achieved your goal. Here's an example:

I will get up late morning. I will begin my day dealing with email from editors and clients. Then I check into an online class I'm teaching on magazine writing and post a new lesson.  After lunch, I will meet with an ad agency about a brochure project I'm working on with them. I meet with the business owner and gather the points he wants included in the piece. On my way back, I will stop at the bank to deposit the check I got from the agency. I also check my PayPal account for book royalties and direct payments for self-published books.  Later in the afternoon, I spend some time writing and editing my novels then take a rest until about midnight when I do more research and writing for a nonfiction book. I go to bed about 3:00 am. 
Step Three: Condense Your Visualization into a Single Sentence

Okay, after visualizing your future, you need to state that vision as a goal. A goal is something that is specific and observable. It also has a time frame attached to it. Now, your long-term goal will have the highest level of abstraction since it probably forms a portion of your lifestyle.

For instance, for me, I have the following goal:

Within five years at least half of my income will come from my freelance writing and teaching activities.

Now, you have a long term goal. But just setting that goal and not having a plan to get to it, is like setting out on a trip from San Francisco to New York without a road map or GPS. You might get there eventually, but I wouldn't count on it. Later this week, we will talk about intermediate and short term goals.


  1. Recently, I established two new goals for myself. After reading K.M. Weiland's "Outlining Your Novel" and corresponding with her, I decided it was time to commit to two writing projects that have been unrelenting in hanging around my head and demanding to be written. I committed to doing the work to writing two novels (yes, the "N" word, it scared me too). As a short story only writer, this was a scary commitment. I have given myself two years to fully outline, plot research and do characterization for these two books. I am not saying that they will be good books. I am just committing to doing the best job on them that I can do.

  2. Good advice! My long term goals are to finish my first 5-book series, and develop a spinoff mystery series and a juvie fiction series I have waiting in the wings. So much writing to do! It makes me positively drool.


I invite comments. However, please be courteous whether responding to my comments or the comments of other. Also posts with profanity, advertising (aside from a link back to your own website) or abusive language will be deleted.