If you’re new to this series of essays on how to effectively set goals as a creative weirdo, Part 1 is a stock-check of what you’ve got to build with right now, and Part 2 deals with recognising & selecting dreams to work towards. They’re recommended, but not necessary, prerequisites to today’s lesson.
Being ‘creative’ is complicated. Things can be rather fraught when you make things, which suits me because ‘fraught’ is a good descriptor of my inner life (that and ‘dumpster fire’), but having my work so close isn’t always pleasurable. (It could be that everyone else is getting by just fine, and I’m the only one haggling with hulking, slobbering neuroses to make pictures…although I do find negotiating the ugliest of them yields the best art.)
I always wondered if there is a way to go about being an Artist (if you’ll humour the title), that I wasn’t taught. I struggle with too many ideas, too little patience, lots of raw enthusiasm but woefully little confidence. This year I want to be progressing in making dreams reality, so I’m concentrating on frumpy, dull kinds of creatures (instead of those interesting neuroses), like ‘productivity’ and ‘finishing things I start.’
So here’s the final part of my (very long) two-cents on achieving dreams through holistic goal-setting, especially for artists, makers, mystics, and weirdos. (You can’t just Law of Attraction this shit, please stop trying.) Today we’re building a system of flexible ‘focus areas’ and pathways, informed by the things you want to make happen, that will structure what you work on. Using focus areas to achieve goals isn’t new in business, but we’re going to borrow them from the Businesshumans for our own freaky ends.
BUT LIKE, WHY?
I think that art is important to human hearts and minds (and souls, if you’re of a similar bent to me). I think art enriches us, and has the potential to enrich more people than it is. I think magic and activism are the beginning of whatever new world is being born right now, and that the work and the voices that have been historically kept in the dark need to be brought to light.
I believe deeply in your book project, your blog, your drive to take more care of yourself, your over-ambitious crochet, your business idea, your workshop idea, your desire to spend more time with your beloveds, your meditation, your divination, and that song you’ve been re-writing for months.
Those of us who think we are small, and who think our creations and our efforts are small in kind, are really the turning tide.
These are hard assignments, though, the kinds of work you need to be really present for. If you’re working on something meaningful you can’t risk waking up on someone else’s ladder when you thought you were safely taking a snooze on your own. The task at hand is too draining, and too important, for this kind of wastefulness.
Being self-directed can make it easy to get lost. What we’re after is a rough kind of map, but you can’t just ‘have’ one, you have to make your own. Also it won’t be a full map, only a start of one, the beginning. We make the rest up as we walk.
But trust me, and trust yourself.
I wanted to write this for those that struggle occasionally to make the things they dream of happen, and who perhaps don’t engage in a lot of productivity, goal-setting, business literature. I’m trying to translate it for the leafy people. This is what’s working for me, I’m a very leafy person, but far from an expert, & far from achieving all my dreams yet.
None of us know where we’re going, anyway.
In 2009 the Harvard Business School published a paper called ‘Goals Gone Wild.’ (Do your best to ignore the dumb title that references sexist bullshit.) The paper argues that the things that make a ‘good’ goal can also make a bad one, and that goal setting is sometimes actively harmful to getting things done. The paper calls goals ‘over prescribed.’
BAD GOAL NO BISCUITS
Here are some of the things the paper identified as characteristic of ‘bad goals’:
Goals that are too specific and too narrow.
The paper uses an example of a university choosing which teachers get tenure based on how many papers they’ve published. This encourages and rewards candidates who put the quantity of work over the quality of it. This is compounded when the goal chosen is the wrong one from the get-go, and can easily lead to mindless task engagement over meaningful work.
Too many goals.
Many goals at once hurts our ability to focus on doing a single task well. We’re stretched too thin so we only see slow progress over a long period of time. Not seeing much movement makes us feel guilty, hurts motivation and along with it the likelihood we’ll give up altogether.
Goals that are too challenging.
This will be familiar – we decide we want to make twenty new paintings for a show, but when we come to act the enormity of the goal overwhelms us. Fear leads to inaction, inaction leads to shame, shame leads to giving up completely! Now we’re in a deeper emotional ditch than before we started, so we’re much thus less likely to try again. If you want to start writing this year, ‘draft my novel’ is a bad goal. If you’re not practised just sitting at your desk, aiming for an entire novel could be overwhelming. Over-ambitious goals are one of the most common causes of goal-failure.
Inappropriate time horizon.
I’ve experienced this for years as ‘get an agent’ has been on my New Year’s resolution list. Getting an agent is a long, complex task, but when I made the resolution I didn’t know anything about agents, so I assumed it couldn’t be that hard to do. I mean, I know people with agents! But I hadn’t put the work into researching how achievable it was, and what’s worse I’d never questioned whether it was the right goal in the first place. (I’ve stopped putting this on my list.)
Finally, Cheng, Subramanyou and Zhary (2005) report that firms issuing frequent earnings reports tend to meet or beat short-term expectations but spent less time and money on research and development. In comparison, companies that issued less frequent financial reports spent more on long-term growth. The very presence of a short-term goal can lead you to focus myopically on the near future, ticking off little goals, sometimes causing you to lose sight of your overall trajectory and always limiting your space to learn.
If you’ve ever worked in a team or done business organising of any sort, you’ve probably come across ‘SMART’ goals.
A ‘SMART’ goal is generally ‘Specific’, ‘Measurable,’ ‘Achievable,’ ‘Relevant’ and ‘Time-bound.’
In a YouGov poll from just a month ago (December 2017), 18% of US adults had set ‘read more books’ as a 2018 New Year’s resolution. I’ve set this resolution at least a few times. If you’re a painter or writer you’ve probably had ‘paint more’ or ‘write more’ as a goal at some point, too.
If we try to make a SMART goal of ‘read more,’ we might get to ‘read five books before June.’ If it was ‘paint more’ maybe we change it to ‘paint every Monday,’ or for ‘write more’ maybe ‘write a page a day.’
These work under SMART; they’re specific, measurable, (we can see how far we are from attaining the goal) achievable, (depending on who you are and what your schedule looks like) relevant (they’re directly related to our bigger goal of say, ‘getting a book published’ or ‘having a solo show’), and time-bound (they have schedules written right into them).
But, despite fitting SMART criteria, these goals could easily lead a creative person, and their dream, into a corner.
Remember the uni offering tenure to the candidate with the most papers published? Although they work under SMART, these goals incentivise quantity over quality. More books read does not necessarily equal better or more challenging books being read.
When painting, researching, making podcasts or running workshops, quality counts for a lot. A goal to simply ‘do more’ doesn’t help us ‘do better’, and goals that encourage us to ‘get there’ faster discourage us from trying out new methods.
LEFT HAND/RIGHT HAND – BALANCING LEARNING/DOING.
Focus areas act to organise all the work we do towards our dreams. If we take the time to design with personally relevant focus areas (and the pathways that lead us deeper into them) we’ll have a structure that means our energy and time are always focused in the directions we want.
If you did the work in the previous posts in the series (Part 1, and Part 2) you’ll have identified at least a few of your dreams, big or small, and weeded out the ones we’re not working towards right now.
Focus areas sit underneath these dream/s, acting, you guessed it, as areas to focus our energies into.
The Harvard Business School paper offers advice on good goal-setting, (via King and Burton (2003)), that we can use to create focus areas instead:
“The optimally striving individual ought to endeavour to achieve and approach goals that only slightly implicate the self; that are only moderately important, fairly easy, and moderately abstract; that do not conflict with each other; and that concern the accomplishment of something other than financial gain.”
One of the reasons focus areas work so well is they’re ‘moderately abstract’. Generally a focus area is a trait that you need more of to attain your dream.
Mine this year are very abstract; ‘Strength’, ‘Character,’ ‘Sharing/Connecting’ and ‘Knowledge/Wisdom.’ (How Saturnian!)
They could be ‘innovation’, ‘confidence’, ‘willpower’, ‘peace’, ‘expansion’, ‘balance’, ‘health’, ‘being proactive’, etc. If you look at your goals or dreams, try to see what traits you could nurture that would get you closer to achieving them. Then come up with two-to-five of these areas to focus on. What essential traits could help you achieve your dream/s?
Note that our focus areas aren’t going to be physical, so don’t choose ‘money.’ Money is likely necessary to achieve your dream, but it’s really a pathway to your dream, not your dream itself. (If it is your dream, others will surely be of more use to you than me!)
The conceptual, wide and moderately abstract quality of focus areas are why they sit at the top, covering all the rest of our goal-setting work. The brilliant ‘Centre for Artistic Activism’ states it plain:
“Every tactic or objective should have a fragment of our goal in it.”
So choose them well!
As well as abstract, King and Burton call for a goal to ‘only slightly implicate the self’, and be ‘fairly easy’ (‘achievable’ in SMART goals).
The level of ease of a goal depends firstly on how much time and energy you allocate it. You can only be awake so long, and you can only give 100% focus for way less than that.
‘Only moderately important’ relates to ‘fairly easy’ too, but can seem more confusing; “Why would I set a goal which means very little to me?”
If our dream is to publish a graphic novel, ‘draw more’ seems like a logical goal. This makes ‘draw more’ pretty damn important; it’s intrinsically linked to your passion, dreams and desire to connect with others through storytelling. So ‘draw more’ becomes a big scary boulder to push up a mountain.
So we can’t increase our waking hours, at least not without losing focus, and we likely can’t face pushing the giant boulder of our dreams up a mountain right off the bat. Instead we have to make achieving big things easier (and less terrifying) by cutting them up into little, teeny-tiny pieces.
WAY TO GO – PATHS AND LANES
The most important focus area I’m developing my writing in right now is ‘Character.’
Within this one focus area I also have various, smaller aspects of life where I want to develop ‘character.’ At the moment, these smaller aspects are ‘writing’, ‘drawing,’ ‘marketing,’ and ‘being’.
These ‘various smaller aspects’ are my ‘pathways’ through the area.
Pathways nestle within our focus areas and make sure we’re solidly on the right track. When they’re selected well, pathways guide us into our focus area without any effort; everything I do within a chosen pathway will work towards ‘Character’ because I spent time planning it that way. They’re less abstract than focus areas, smaller (but not too restrictive) and crucially they’re verbs – everything in a pathway must be actionable.
Pathways are as numerous as you like (but only if they’re long-term, not to all be done in a week!), giving us many different paths to our dream, and happily spill into different focus areas. All four of my focus areas include my ‘writing’ and ‘drawing’ pathways, but in my ‘Strength’ focus I also have ‘food,’ exercise,’ ‘finance’ and ‘driving.’. Likewise, my ‘marketing’ pathway is only in my ‘Character’ and ‘Sharing/Connecting’ focus areas.
Wider or more complex pathways need cutting down to remain manageable, so we make little ‘lanes’ to guide us through them if necessary.
So, a pathway like ‘driving’ doesn’t need a ‘lane’ plotted out because it has very few variables; it’s basically a step-by-step straight line (‘read the Texas driver’s manual’, ‘take online practise tests’, ‘get my permit’, etc).
A ‘drawing’ or ‘writing’ pathway is big and wide, though, so, to make moving forward as easy as possible, we need to add detail to our map.
Say I chose ‘occult subject matter,’ or ‘oil paints’ as new ‘lanes’ on my ‘drawing’ path. These lanes are exactly the same as a pathway, but smaller. They have no pre-defined outcome, only an idea of an interesting place to explore, and no defined end point. If you love it, carry on! If not, stop. If I enjoy a foray enough I may have found a thread that I will weave into my life or my artwork forever. It’s worth the wander.
Outside of the artistic realm, ‘alcohol’ or ‘relationship to my body’ are examples of complex pathways. These fall under my ‘strength’ and ‘character’ focus areas. Split up for ease-of-use, they can trickle into lanes such as ‘explore alternatives to alcohol for stress relief’ (if you have recognised that you use alcohol as stress relief, remember these have to be unique to you), and ‘explore new ways of being physical that bring me joy.’
WHERE ARE WE GOING TODAY?
Along our pathways and lanes we plan our ‘steps’, which are basically mini-goals to keep us walking forward. These are small, actionable, easy, often time-bound and often exchangeable, so we can shift our trajectory from one step to another.
Plotting steps is basically noting ideas of things you think could be useful. They don’t have to be chronological (mine rarely are), they’ll be totally unique to you, and numerous. In ‘drawing,’ some artists might have an idea that ‘explore measured perspective‘ could be a step to make them stronger. Others might want to ‘try making bigger artwork’ to loosen up stiff mark-making, others still might want to ‘try life drawing‘, ‘typography,’ ‘animals’, or all of the above. I keep a notebook with a page for each pathway, so whenever I have an idea that could help me move along a pathway (someone to submit work to, an interesting topic etc), I note it down. When I’m stuck for what to do, I go to the notebook, pick one and get to work.
Being small and unimportant, steps put you under no pressure to succeed. If you enjoy the task, or it’s useful, you concentrate on it more. If not, dump it and move onto the next idea. This is why they need to be small, unimportant, and easily exchangeable.
You have to decide how fruitful your steps are as you go. This requires an active approach to learning; you’ll need to regularly assess what’s working, what’s not, and what you can do about it. So much of what we do can’t be judged before trying it out, so it’s worth expecting to exchange steps for others occasionally!
Anne Lamott, in ‘Bird by Bird,’ suggests new writers start by dedicating time every day to writing down their memories from childhood.
This is a great step, and one I have this year, because it’s achievable, gives space to learn, offers us ample pathways to any writing-related dream and is delicious for my overblown Ego. If you write a short story based on washing your hair when you were six you’re well within this mini-goal of ‘write my memories’ whilst also nurturing long-term skills for your dream; honing your writing voice, practising your prose and developing discipline.
So size counts. The difference between ‘write my novel’ and ‘daydream about this character and scribble down anything of note’ is huge. The latter is still helping get us to the former, but without being as overwhelming.
THINK OUTSIDE THE GOAL
‘Steps’ don’t have to be SMART goals. With some self-evaluation you might discover more effective incentives to use.
I haven’t had a ‘read more’ goal for ages, but I still read more in 2017 than ever. I evaluated my reading habits and saw that I tend to read two or three books at a time, and often give up before finishing something. So, in 2017, I wrote down every book I finished. This little ‘win’ kept me reading when I would’ve otherwise stopped, because I wanted the satisfaction of the achievement. I ‘read more’ by creating an incentive that wasn’t a (hard-to-achieve, potentially discouraging) goal.
Another path to achieving goals without setting them is scheduling – selecting a block of time to focus on a specific lane or pathway.
I invented ‘Social Media Wednesdays’ last year. I’m the only one who does it, but it’s obviously a smashing idea; every Wednesday I just….do something towards my social media strategy. I’ve not set myself what, or even how much, to do, but I have to do it every Wednesday. It’s incredibly flexible, which can make it incredibly easy, increasing the chances I’ll stick to doing it. I could post on one of my social media sites, work on my blog or email updates, schedule posts for the rest of the month, or even just do some research around social media (Doing &/or learning all count!). I can spend 5 minutes or 5 hours on it, whatever is needed and available. Like Anne Lamott’s ‘write your memories’ exercise, if it stays in the lane it doesn’t matter what you do, but you absolutely must do it.
Flexibility means Social Media Wednesdays are easy to do, week after week, so I get closer to dreams that require an online presence, without once making the depressing resolution to ‘do social media once a week.’
Also, for those of us of a magical or astrological bent, I find that scheduling based on the planets helps. Whether or not this is actual magic is up for debate (like everything, yes?), but getting up on Wednesdays and being able to declare to oneself that ‘This is the best day for communication, Mercury blesses it, so hop to it sister’ is a pretty good motivator.
BUT WHAT ABOUT SHIT I DON’T REALLY WANT TO DO?
Okay, so what if something is genuinely useful to your dream but you’re not enjoying doing it? Well, I can be Victorian about it and tell you that ‘learning perspective’ isn’t fun, so take this old-fashioned, stoic Goal to make you to do it. But I’m not Victorian, for instance I have a nose-ring, and I don’t think this has to be quite so painful, really. Learning perspective, like studying anything, can be fun if it’s meaningful to you. And the key to things that are meaningful here is that they relate to a larger desire or dream. When we build a structure like this one, where everything points directly and consciously towards a larger dream, even small tasks mean something.
If learning perspective is painful, but you can see the difference in your drawing, you’re likely to carry on. Things do get easier as you do them more, but only you can decide what’s worth the discomfort of initially sucking ass at.
OKAY WE’RE DONE HERE, GO WORK
Finally I want to encourage you to dedicate some time to planning things. It’s January, it’s a good time for planning Big Things and slow, Saturnian things. With this system in place, I wake up in the morning, go to my desk, and if I’m a little stuck for what the fudge to do with my worthless gadamn life, I look at my lists of steps, lanes and pathways. I find whatever is interesting or easily achievable and I get to work. I don’t fret over what TF to do whenever I sit down, just grab and go, sugar. Every step in my lists is already aligned with my dreams because I’ve taken the time to set up this system.
This won’t work unless you evaluate regularly. This is an ongoing, holistic process that requires regular attention. You need to notice how much or how little you’re moving, if you’re happy with where you’re moving to, and if any paths need adding or removing.
It’s dedicating oneself to a process, not an endpoint. Designing processes instead of goals is exciting to me because I can’t predict the future (yet); I have no idea what’s going to happen, what I’m going to need to do, what opportunities or challenges will come up, what I’ll resonate with or what I’ll hate, or when my wrist will hurt too much to draw.
A goal of ‘draw for an hour a day’ seems sort of pallid and impotent in the face of all of this. But if I’m committed to a process of growth I can flow as required. Change is constant and flexibility is crucial, especially if you’re an artist, a creative, a weirdo, a mystic… Dedicate yourself to the journey, rather than the cold, distant star of a goal.
And please add ‘do nothing’ into your plans. It replenishes us, and often I find I need down time to realise how I want to proceed.
Let me know in the comments, on my FB, Instagram or even email, what your focus areas for 2018 are! I’m curious to see how different they are to mine, and what focus areas are being found for what kind of dream!
Blessed journeying and best of luck, beloveds,
BONUS NOTES for all the mystics: This (January 2017, especially early-to-mid January) is a good time to dedicate yourself to Planning The Work. You’ve got useful long and short-term skies right now, and a whole lot of Capricorn, with four planets sitting with the water-goat as I post:
Saturn’s ingress into Capricorn (linked above too) – rules, strength, maturity, work, accomplishment, manifesting,
And Venus in Capricorn, until January 17th when she moves into Aquarius.