Do I Need To Set Goals To Be Successful?


Success – the ultimate achievement

I’ve always been interested in ways of improving productivity and efficiency to achieve success. Success is a nebulous concept–it means different things to different people. I’m going to use ‘writing’ as an example, because this is (mostly) a writing blog.

You may think that it’s pretty clear what it means to be a successful writer, but it turns out there are as many meanings to success as there are people who want to achieve it. I belong to a writing forum, and once someone asked people to define literary success. Here are some of the replies:

  • to ignite creativity in others
  • publishing books that other people read
  • getting your book into physical bookstores
  • having more than 100 people read their book
  • the act of achieving publication
  • when you can live off your earnings and quit your day job
  • to be able to accurately express your thoughts in writing
  • inner satisfaction with one’s writing

So success comes in many forms – personal satisfaction, acknowledgment/validation from others, financial success, and getting your name in print. There is no one type of success, you have to define what it is that would make you feel you’ve achieved something great.

Working towards success

Once you’ve decided what success means to you, you need to know how you are going to get there. Let’s choose a simple definition of success to illustrate the point, and say that success to you means self-publishing a novel.

Every day you might sit in the office at your day job, or sit at home with your kids, and daydream about how nice it would be to have a self-published novel. Then you stop daydreaming and get back to the job at hand. At the end of the day, you are no closer to success. Sleep and repeat every day … and a year later you will be no closer to success.

It’s said that of all the people who dream about writing a novel, only 5% of them will actually start to write the novel, and only 5% of those finish it. And only a few of those will publish it. Okay, my stats are probably a little off there, but the point is, not many people manage to achieve their success, and those who do often put it off for a long time before attempting to do anything about it.

Why do we procrastinate about working towards our dreams? Perhaps we are scared of failure. Perhaps we are afraid the reality won’t live up to the dream. Perhaps we are busy with the cares of life and feel we can’t afford the time.

Whatever the reason, if you don’t have goals, you have no hope of achieving the success you would like.


You may have heard about SMART goals. It’s a useful concept. SMART goals are a way of making your dreams of success seem more reachable.

So let’s turn our definition of success–wanting to self-publish a novel–into a SMART goal. SMART is an acronym, and to define the goal, use the letters as follows:

  • Specific: state exactly what you want to accomplish – what, where, how, why
  • Measurable: how will you know you achieved the goal – ensure you can you track progress and measure the outcome
  • Attainable: is it within your skillset to be able to achieve the goal – is it a reasonable goal to achieve
  • Relevant: how does the goal tie in with your other life plans and responsibilities
  • Time-bound: when do you want to achieve the goal by

My SMART goals for self-publishing a novel would be something like the following:

  • Specific: I want to write, edit and self-publish a novel on Amazon.
  • Measurable: I can track my word-count and the various stages of editing until the novel is completed, then I can publish it.
  • Attainable: I can write BUT may need to improve the following skills: grammar, writing description, plot arcs (etc.).
  • Relevant: I can write in the evenings after my day job.
  • Time-bound: I want to publish the novel in two years time.

Now you have a more defined concept of how you are going to reach success.

The problem with goals

Now you know what you want to achieve, the success dream still needs a lot of work before it’s achieved. And this is where making goals falls down. You could write this list out, read it once a day, and STILL not work towards it. And let’s face it, that’s what a lot of us do. Why don’t we achieve our goals?

Not knowing where to start is a key reason. My goal is to write a novel, but you can’t just sit down and do that in one evening. It may require planning and research and knowledge–some of which you may not have yet. To overcome this, you need to break down your goal into smaller goals. And even then, you can still be paralysed by not knowing how to begin.

Not making time. Having a deadline doesn’t always result in making you get on with the work. In fact, for some people, having a deadline can make you put the work off because you think you have ages to go and it can wait. This is fine if it’s a small task like writing an essay–arguably you can cram that into a day or two. But you can’t put off your goal of writing a novel and expect to do it all at the last minute.

Failure. Every day that you don’t take a step towards completing your goal you will look at that list and feel like a failure. Equally, even if you do take a step towards the goal, you will still feel like a failure until you achieve that goal. The goal system says that you won’t value your achievement until you’ve achieved the success. Until then, you are always in a state of working towards them, and if you’re an impatient person, the time it takes can lead you to apathy and feeling depressed about ever reaching the goal.

So, whilst I think having dreams of success and setting measurable goals is a good thing in general, something more is needed to make those successes come to pass, and more importantly, to enjoy the journey.  Will reaching a goal solve all your life’s problem? Unlikely. Unless you learn to enjoy the journey and celebrate small successes, life could be miserable and success may not be what you thought.

In the next post in this series, I’m going to look at the approach of developing systems and habits as a means to achieve success, rather than being fixated on goals.




  1. Great post! I find that setting goals forces me to focus more on what I’m doing. It also really helps me with managing time–I know how long it will take me to do a specific task, such as write 1500 words, and will then allot the necessary time toward completing that goal.

  2. Nice post! I can get so ambitious with my goals sometimes that I am too hard on myself or too reluctant to get working. This was a nice reminder that I can focus on things in small steps so I won’t have to feel that way. 🙂

    1. magicwriter

      I found the recent CampNaNo good for that as you’re encouraged to set ambitious goals to work towards – most of my friends made good progress even if they didn’t complete it.

  3. Pingback: Systems and Habits | Magic Writer

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