Writers: Are You Setting Yourself Up To Fail?

The unintended effect of well-intentioned word count targets

Adam Cairns
4 min readAug 1, 2019

A typical novel has somewhere close to 90,000 words. That’s a lot of words — if you piled them on top of each other they would stretch halfway to the moon.

At least that’s what it feels like when you’re just starting out.

When I started my novel, the sheer scale of what lay in front of me was daunting.

How the heck am I going to keep going long enough to produce that amount of words?

Being a writer with a day job is a balancing act. Most of the time the scales get titled toward what you get paid for. Which means writing has to wait in line.

There is one definite advantage to having a day job though. When I worked out what that was — it was a real breakthrough.

The Problem With Targets

I did the maths. 90,000 words over six months comes to 15,000 a month, or roughly 500 words per day.

500 words feels like a manageable amount of words to write each day, right?

Not so fast. If was just a matter of sitting down each day and pumping out that number of words, I’d have written dozens of books by now. There’s more to it than that.

Sure, I could set a plan to turn up each day and do this one small thing — it’s just 500 words for heaven’s sake.

But think about it. If it was that easy, everyone would do it. Maybe for some people it really is that simple.

Wake up. Eat breakfast. Write 500 words. Carry on with rest of day.

That’s not how my world works. I get way too many curve balls for that to be realistic — much as I’d like to pretend otherwise.

Then consider what not keeping pace with that simple, easy to achieve daily target does to your morale.

If I can’t even muster 500 words a day, I’ll never get it done.

The Difference Between Momentum and Inertia

This is not a physics lesson. Phew.

Instead of momentum insert ‘feeling good’ and instead of inertia try ‘feeling bad.’ That’s how my writing psyche operates.

I’m making progress or I’m stuck. If you peel away the skin, what that comes down to is how I feel about myself.

If I want to feel better about my writing, then it’s a smart strategy to avoid setting myself up to fail.

Make sense?

I’m A CEO: How Do I Manage Complex Projects Wearing That Hat?

I’m a full time CEO running five hospitals. I know, what was I thinking?

Whenever I’m tackling something complex and long term at work, I make a plan. The plan has a goal and then some steps I can take to get there.

This is what I’ve learnt about the plans that succeed and the ones that don’t.

A good plan starts with why I want to do it. Then I figure out what it will take to get there. Finally, I’ll decide how I’ll take action and when.

All good. Then what happens?

The projects that get done are the ones which get prioritised. That means they get a little of my attention, often.

Simple, right?

What does that look like when applied to writing?

  • Why? — I want to complete a first draft so I can edit it into a version I might publish.
  • What? — I must write 90,000 words, give or take.
  • How? — I’ll turn up every day and write as much as possible, even if that’s just one word.

The goal is a little, and often. I will leave the target to one side.

The Curse of Unintended Consequences

Here’s a true story.

A train regulator wants trains to run on time. So it sets a target for punctuality. The train operators understand that meeting the target leads to financial rewards. Not meeting the target leads to penalties.

What happens?

It’s true that trains are more punctual on average. That’s good.

The problem is that the number of people dying in train wrecks balloons.


Because the train operators cut down on essential track maintenance to ensure there’s no disruption. Disruption equals delay — and delays my friend, are verboten.

Result: more trains fall off badly maintained lines.

That’s the problem with targets. Targets can lead to unintended consequences. Which is why I no longer set a daily word count target.

Setting and then not hitting my writing target left me feeling demoralised. Instead of feeling like I was making progress, it always felt like I was failing.

No-one wants to admit defeat, so why create a daily opportunity to fail?

It’s hard to stay motivated with a miasma of disappointment swirling round your writing project.

Further Reading About The Unintended Consequences of Targets

  1. A Wharton Professor Says This Common Management Practice Can Have Unintended Consequences
  2. Target Culture: Lessons in Unintended Consequences
  3. Unintended Consequences and Goodhart’s Law



Adam Cairns

Exploring the intersection between good organisation and creativity |Blog | Digital Garden | https://bettercreativity.co.uk/