March 14, 2019

How Do We Set Goals When Trying Something New?

Microscope on white background with text: Experiment for More Success

I’ve talked many times before about how we should think about and set goals for ourselves with our writing career. Knowing our goals can help us determine the right path for us:

In other words, if we don’t know our goals, we lessen our chances of success. Either we won’t have thought about how we define success to aim in the right direction, or we won’t have made a plan to get us to that point.

However, it can be hard to set goals when we’re starting something completely new. How can we know what “success” looks like when we don’t know what’s possible, impossible, or unlikely?

Writing and Publishing Is All an Experiment

Over the course of our writing career, we’ll have the chance to try many new things. Depending on our background, even the idea to write might be something we’d never seen in the cards for us.

Writing and publishing is always an experiment, so how can we set goals? Click To TweetUntil we complete our first story, we won’t know if we can finish one. We might need to try a different writing process for every book we write, leaning more toward writing by the seat of our pants or plotting more than we ever have before. We might branch out with a new series or genre.

We might change our publishing path from traditional to self-published. Or from self to traditional. Or go hybrid with both at once.

We might try different launch and release strategies for every book. And promotion is a never-ending experiment to see what works to get attention from readers this month.

So we’re often faced with the new and unknown:

  • What’s a reasonable word count goal for our writing process?
  • Will our readers like our new series as much as our old?
  • How many sales should we expect?

And so on… Those constant unknowns make it hard to set goals and know what our chances of success are—or even know what success would look like.

When Experiences Are New…

Over the last week and a half, I experienced two new things that made me think about how we measure success when facing the unknown. These experiences weren’t related to writing or publishing, but those of us who live-and-breathe writing know that everything can relate to writing. *smile*

I approached each situation differently, and that might give us insight into some of our options when answering the question.

Case Study 1: Setting Expectations

Two weekends ago, I mentioned off-hand on Instagram that I’d headed north to attempt to learn how to ski. (Unlike my local Phoenix area, where we get only about two weeks of “winter” with highs in the forties, Flagstaff, Arizona is high enough in elevation—over 7000 feet—to get several feet of snow.)

Facing the unknown? Set yourself up to win with reasonable goals... Click To TweetAnyone who knows me might have questioned my judgment to even make the attempt. After all, I’m a well-known klutz, and as recently as a year ago, I’d just finished a year’s worth of physical therapy to be able to walk again due to nerve and tendon issues that still exist.

However, after a record-breaking snowfall, a group of us were heading up—many who planned to learn to ski—and I knew I’d feel a strong case of FOMO (fear of missing out) if I didn’t even try. So I decided to join the others in a beginners lesson.

Before the lesson started, I set my expectations. Low. Very low.

With all the reasons that skiing and I don’t go together, I decided that I’d be happy if I survived the lesson. So that was the goal I set: Survive the lesson without injury.

By that measure, I succeeded. I didn’t “graduate” from ski school—as another storm came in during the lesson and ruined all the groomed snow for the newbies in the training area—but I also didn’t injury myself. *grin*

In other words, I set myself up to win, and that’s especially important when it comes to writing because it’s such a mental game. So… When we’re starting something new and we have no idea how it might work for us, we probably want to keep our expectations—and thus, our goals—low.

Case Study 2: How Are We Measuring?

Last week, I shared a picture on Instagram of my first brand-new laptop. All my previous laptops were hand-me-downs that hadn’t been wiped clean, and since they had other programs and settings and stuff, they never completely felt like mine.

Trying something new? Be careful with how you measure success... Click To TweetRather than feeling like a visitor—like I’d moved in with someone who already had their place decorated—this new laptop allowed me to do the decorating and organizing. So guess how I’ve spent most of the past week? *smile*

One goal of that organizing was finally fixing my personal email and calendar. That email program went defunct five years ago, and I’ve been limping along since then. Of course, I had no idea how to fix it, but I was determined to make it work.

After a full day of fighting with it, I still hadn’t succeeded, but during the night, I came up with a few other ideas to try. First thing the next morning, I got everything working. Yay!

I could have given up if I was measuring the goal against a certain deadline. Instead, my goal was just to make it work. Period.

Limiting the way I was measuring success made it easier to reach my goal. Rather than measuring against two specifications—results and timing—I limited myself to one.

The idea is similar to the saying “Fast, cheap, or good—pick two,” except it’s even easier if we pick just one. So… When we’re starting something new and we have no idea how it might work for us, we can limit the measuring sticks we’re using to judge success.

Experiment and then Learn and Grow

Once we gain more experiences, we’ll be able to make more educated guesses of what’s possible or not. Also, we’ll learn from our experiment and likely do better the next time.

In other words, the insights above might make us worry that trying something new isn’t worth it, but experiments can help us discover new processes or approaches that work even better than our usual methods. Yes, in the short term, we might have to cut ourselves a lot of slack, but that’s normal for learning new things.

In the long term, the more things we’ve tried, the more flexible we’ll be. The more options we’ll have in our toolbox when our usual tools aren’t working.

As I mentioned at the outset, trying something new and different is normal in our writing and publishing career. Whether it’s how we develop a story or how we reach out to potential readers, this industry is one of change. We’re guaranteed to have to try something new, so we may as well set ourselves up for success in the face of the unknown. *smile*

What unknowns have you experimented with in your life or your career? Did you struggle with setting goals or knowing how to measure success with that unknown? How did you determine whether the attempt was worth it? Are you able to see the attempt as a win on its own? Do you have any other insights or suggestions on how to handle goals or expectations when trying something new?


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[…] How Do We Set Goals When Trying Something New? […]


[…] Novelists, have you ever thought about writing a short story? Sarah Dahl considers the benefits of writing short stories. If you do decide to try your hand at short stories or a new genre, Jami Gold addresses how to set goals when trying something new. […]

Anne Kaelber
Anne Kaelber


I have struggled greatly with the lack of “visible” progress. Most people, when they learn I’m a writer, ask “how many words do you have written?” On the current project, I say, “about 50k” which sounds impressive, but doesn’t convey the struggle I’m having to actually make that 50k something a reader won’t throw across the room. I’ve been setting my own goals of “fix the MC’s wound/lie/etc.” or “try idea X”.

This last weekend, I attended a local writer’s group — my first meeting. I realized I’ve been so sure my work doesn’t measure up, I’ve not even tried to get feedback. When asked by this very friendly group *why* it’s not measuring up, I didn’t have a real good answer. So, I’m taking in the 2nd draft of my last SF novel (I’ve not been able to read it since finished this draft) to the next meeting. Maybe with external eyes, I can create some *real* goals to work towards.



[…] How Do We Set Goals When Trying Something New? by Jami Gold […]

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