One of the main reasons why academic writers aren’t productive is because they don’t set specific, time-bound writing goals before beginning their writing project. Consequently, they get sidetracked somewhere along the way by other topics that interest them or end up, for instance, browsing the internet to find more sources to research and read.
In beginning any writing project, especially the ones that appear to be challenging and vague at the outset, use the concept of SMART goals to break it into small Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant and Time-bound goals.
The idea of setting SMART goals originated in the field of business management and is often attributed to George T. Doran (1981). Here is an interesting article that traces the history and origins of the SMART objective acronym.
Specific goals help you to focus on narrow and concrete tasks that together make up your writing product at the end.
Let us say your writing project is to develop a book on sustainable transportation. Using the SMART goals concept, you first define the final specific outcome of your writing project as: “I will submit the final 500-page manuscript package to the book publisher on August 15th.”
Then you work backward to specify narrowed-down, concrete tasks that are relevant to your SMART goal, have a measurable outcome, are achievable, and are time-bound.
A specific task relating to the overall SMART goal in this example may be, for instance, ‘to discuss various sustainable modes of transportation and their origins’ in the section on Introduction. You could get more ultra-specific depending on your existing knowledge on the topic. You may need to do some reading and literature review on your topic before you can set specific goals for your project. Note that to ‘write the Introduction’ is not a clearly-defined specific goal.
Your specific goal should have a measurable outcome as well as metrics that help you assess your progress towards the goal. For instance, you make your specific goal ‘to discuss various sustainable modes of transportation and their origins’ measurable by specifying the number of pages or words you will devote to this discussion.
So, your specific and measurable writing goal now is ‘to write 4,000 words or 8 pages of discussion on various sustainable modes of transportation and their origins’ in the section on Introduction.
Make your specific and measurable goals achievable by realistically taking into consideration other demands on your time and by establishing knowledge-building pathways to fruition. For instance, if you have not read the existing literature on sustainable modes of transport and taken notes, you can’t expect to write an 8-page discussion on the sustainable modes of transportation.
The attainable aspect of a SMART goal ensures that you have done your homework to ensure that your specific and measurable writing task is achievable. Thus, ‘to write an 8-page discussion on various sustainable modes of transportation and their origins based on the presentation I attended last week’ is not an attainable goal whereas ‘to write an 8-page discussion on various sustainable modes of transportation and their origins by conducting a state-of-the-art literature review on this topic’ is.
Is what you are researching/reading or writing is relevant to your goal? It typically happens that we start reading or writing on one topic and all of a sudden end up going into a tangent about an item that may not be relevant to the overall topic. For instance, when I research about the sustainable modes of transportation, I discover articles on non-motorized transport and end up reading and writing more pages on this than other sub-topics which is not a desirable outcome (unless you intend it to be that way).
Thus, setting of relevant goals forces you to remain focused on what you want to go into your writing and prevents you from getting sidetracked.
Specific, measurable, attainable, and relevant goals that don’t have deadlines are never completed. Set specific deadlines for each of your micro SMART goals that will together constitute your overall SMART goal. This involves both short-term and long-term planning. For instance, we decided in the beginning that our overall SMART goal is that “I will submit the final 500-page manuscript package to the book publisher on August 15th.” Now, create multiple micro SMART goals for each of your chapters and sub-sections and tie them to specific timeframes. For instance, “I’ll devote 2 hours a day for 7 days to write an 8-page discussion in the Introduction on various sustainable modes of transportation and their origins”, etc.
By now you would have realized that setting SMART writing goals is a structured and systematic way to break up a challenging writing project that appears to be vague at the outset into smaller sub-tasks that are specific, measurable, attainable, relevant, and time-bound.
One note of caution that deserves mention here is that while result-focused goals are certainly useful to keep us focused and on our toes, we should not be discouraged by failures in achieving them. For this reason, we should develop more effort-focused goals that place more emphasis on our sincere efforts rather than on the final outcome.
Article Excerpted from The Productive Academic Writer: An Easy-To-Read Guide to Low-Stress Prolific Writing.
A Brief History of Smart Goals. Duncan Haughey. Available at: https://www.projectsmart.co.uk/brief-history-of-smart-goals.php
Doran, G. T. (1981). There’sa SMART way to write management’s goals and objectives. Management review, 70(11), 35-36.
Writing S.M.A.R.T. Goals. UHR, Employee Development, University of Virginia at Charlottesville, VA. Available at: http://www.hr.virginia.edu/uploads/documents/media/Writing_SMART_Goals.pdf