Five Things for Creatives to Consider Before Setting Goals

by Michelle Hunter

Making goals meaningful for creative entrepreneurs

goal setting

There are a ton of different goal-setting formulas on the market. If you’re like me, you’ve tried many of them. Personally, I’ve created measurable goals and time-bound goals. I’ve balanced my professional and business goals with personal goals and life goals. I’ve made resolutions, written motivational quotes on sticky notes, and created charts to map my progress.

Over the past 5 years or so I’ve explored a number of different planners. From weekly views to daily views, quarterly review sessions, and feedback loops, I’ve challenged myself to organize my thoughts and plan my efforts. I’ve used project management software and paper calendars. I’ve used simple lists on legal pads and whiteboards with notes in a variety of dry erase colors.

Here’s the thing… I’ve realized that these methods and systems are wonderful, but often ineffective for me. Why? Because they are ways to achieve goals once they are identified… in using them, I was skipping the most essential component of goal setting- reflection.

Do you struggle with goals? Maybe you’re a bit like me… interested in the goal-setting process and seduced by the appeal of the latest organizational system, but lacking in the context required for meaningful goal creation. I’ve discovered recently that the system is secondary to the thought work. I’ve learned that I must guide my mind through five reflective steps in order to create meaningful goals I’ll actually achieve.

Want to move beyond the cycle of setting (and then forgetting) goals? Consider these things.

Experience and what it means for the future.

Our lives are rich in experience. From our first few memories to our professional path as an adult, we have gathered information and explored an incredible variety of options in our lives. This experience gives our lives context and meaning… and shapes the way we view our future potential.

I am a writer in part because I had poor vision as a child. Long before my parents realized I needed glasses, I discovered books and the wonderful entertainment value of flipping through pages to appreciate illustrations before grabbing a few crayons to create my own. As I learned to read, I realized I could weave my own stories with words and my imagination took flight.  Would books have captured my imagination if I could see clearly on the playground? I’m not sure.

I’m an entrepreneur in part because I struggled with the pace of corporate life. Where others might find the demands too much, I was bored by the slow pace of decision-making. I struggled to remain patient while management built a consensus around my ideas. A natural risk-taker, I wanted to take action and learn by trying things. The measured approach of a large organization chafed and pinched.

These are just two examples of the context experience provides. By reflecting on past experiences, I identify my own interests, energy levels, and desired pace. Evaluating successes builds confidence in the future and points toward a pattern of achievement. Evaluating past failure creates awareness of constraints I can use to guide me forward.

What do I mean by constraints? Since a heart attack in 2016, I am much more aware of my own energy levels and need for periods of rest. These constraints force me to be intentional about how I use my time, focusing on the activities that create success rather than those that just feel successful in the moment.

Social media (for me) is one of these activities. Like many of us, I can get lost in a Facebook hole… reviewing posts from friends, colleagues, and strangers, engaging in group discussions, sharing insights, watching videos. These activities feel like marketing. They feel like I am building a community around my business and my brand. The visibility feels like a good thing… but is it? Not really. Not unless I’m working intentionally to implement a marketing strategy that includes social media. Spending my time and energy without a strategy to guide me is simply wasteful… and limits my ability to work effectively in other areas of my business.

Does this mean social media is wrong? Nope, that’s not my point. Social media is lovely. Experience, however, teaches me that I need a measured approach if I’m going to work effectively within my natural constraints.

Reflecting upon our experience grounds us in reality. It gives us context to guide us as we set goals for the future.

When reflecting on my experiences, I use a lens to zoom in and out on the timeline. What did I learn in the last cycle (month, quarter, year) that challenged my assumptions or provided new insight? What do I know (from past experience) about how I handle stress or anxiety? When did I feel successful? When did I feel most engaged in my work?

I use a journal to capture my thoughts as I consider these questions and others like them. I reflect on past circumstances with a creative eye, looking for aspects I can appropriate for the future. Did I feel engaged in my work during a particularly challenging project, for example? Perhaps I need to weave intellectual or professional challenges into my goals. Did I feel overwhelmed during a season of rapid change? Maybe I need to add organizational structure to change points or slow the pace of planned changes to my business model.

I use the lessons of past experiences as a practical foundation for goal setting. Then I push myself to consider other, more esoteric elements.

Intuition and what it tells your heart.

Creativity is intuitive at its core. We sense the connections between word and emotion, image and experience, expression and meaning. We build those connections into our work, guiding others to an expanded awareness of the world around them.

My words simplify complex concepts and communicate strong emotion. They capture intent and share context; capture attention and inspire action. I’m a writer… words connect my intuition with the world.

Since intuition is such a driving force in my creative work, it obviously deserves a prominent place in my goal-setting process. Yet, it is the component often missed by goal-setting methodology. Rather than listening to our hearts to determine what feels right, we are taught to analyze data and draw conclusions based on reality rather than fantasy. While I understand this concept, I believe it to be a mistake for creatives.

Intuition is an amazing tool when used to evaluate an opportunity. Listen carefully to what it tells you. Business is full of shiny objects- courses to create, offers to package, networking events to attend, software to integrate into our processes. All of these things might be good… but not all of them are right. Use intuition to guide you.

Intuition is a powerful tool for self-evaluation. Pay attention to the way a particular goal or direction feels as you consider it. Your inner resonation chamber will send signals of heaviness or overwhelm when something is off. It will also send signals of excitement and joy when a path is life-giving and meaningful.

Intuition is a clarifying tool during periods of collaboration or communication. Creative work requires a high degree of collaboration with others- clients, colleagues, team members. It also pushes us to communicate openly about our creative choices and the intent of our work. As part of my goal-setting process, I use intuition to evaluate my engagement with others. I listen closely to my heart to uncover opportunities to collaborate more fully or communicate more openly. I also listen to the intuitive signals that point toward a misunderstanding or difficulty in my communication with others.

Motivation and what inspires you to achieve and create.

Once I’ve evaluated my experiences (both recent and further in the past) for context and let my intuition inform my choices, I turn my attention to motivation. Honestly, this has always been the weak link in my goal-setting chain.

Rather than diving deeply into motivation, I’ve historically set goals based on what I thought should happen, following the wisdom of experts and gurus as a path to success. I read lots of books and considered a variety of suggestions, and allowed others to provide the reasons behind the goals I set. Big mistake…

Turns out “should” and “ought” are not strongly motivating for me. I am a rebel at heart, taking pleasure in exploring new avenues and exercising my independence. Want to slow me down or stop my path forward? Just tell me what to do next. It’s as effective as an emergency brake. I’ve realized that external motivation has a similar effect. When I get bogged down, I’m likely to abandon goals that don’t mean anything to me personally.

Motivation is a personal thing… requiring us to get in touch with the reasons why we take action. Why am I in business? I want to help other creatives market effectively. This is a strong motivator for me. I’m also the main breadwinner for my family. Paying the mortgage gives me an end goal that is immediately relevant and tangible.

Motivation can also be a fleeting thing, especially when the return is delayed a bit. I’m motivated by a desire to relocate my family to a particular area of Michigan I enjoy. We are currently following a multi-year plan toward that goal. If I fail to tie my current actions with shorter-term rewards and benchmarks, I will lose motivation. I know this about myself… and I suspect it might be true for you as well.

However, I am not motivated much by tiny rewards. Telling myself that I will purchase a new outfit after I complete a set of tasks doesn’t really drive me forward. I’m just not that into small gifts or little luxuries. But create internal competition, and I’m totally engaged. I will go to great lengths to beat my current “best time” or better my performance in some way. This level of self-awareness allows me to wrap my goals in a motivating context.

What motivates you? Before you set goals for yourself and your business, dig deeply into the factors that drive you to take action.

Identify ways you can keep yourself engaged day to day as you take action toward longer-term goals. Outline the benchmarks you will use to chart your progress and ways you will tie today’s activities to tomorrow’s achievements. Plan to nurture your motivation over the long haul… and select goals that have enough meaning to go the distance.

Objectives and what you want to accomplish.

Objectives are the focus of goal setting… the statements that define what you’ll accomplish during the given time period. Many of us actually come to the goal-setting process with a set of objectives already in mind… things like a target revenue amount or a project we want to complete. Maybe we have a few personal objectives in mind too, like losing weight or decluttering our home.

I’ve always perceived this step as a personal strength. I’m pretty good at looking to the future and defining lofty objectives I could accomplish in the right situation or circumstance. Historically, I’ve seen this step as an exploration of possibility and taken a “sky’s the limit” attitude toward defining objectives. Oops… not very realistic, is it?

As I’ve matured personally and professionally, I’ve realized I need to filter these possibilities through the lens of my actual motivation and desire. I need to use the prior three steps- experience, intuition, motivation- as a limiting factor in the objectives I create.

Recently, I’ve adopted a practice I find pretty useful. I limit myself to three goals in any given period. I select one personal goal, one professional goal, and one community (family, social) goal. This constraint helps me focus my attention on what is most important to me… what I really feel motivated to achieve. It also naturally weeds out the “shoulds” and “oughts” of goal setting by isolating a single goal I find most important in each area.

Here’s how this works for me…

  • I brainstorm all the possibilities in a single focus area. So, personally, I might want to focus on weight loss, building strength, learning something new, honing a skill, traveling, or mastering a hobby. The list might be pretty long… and that’s okay. I don’t limit myself here.
  • I review the list to look for connections. Sometimes my list includes related goals that are actually part of a larger overall goal. For instance, weight loss and strength can be combined into a goal to build a healthy lifestyle.
  • I prioritize the list, isolating the top three options that seem most important. This is arbitrary, but very clarifying for me- taking the list from what is possible to what is important based on my previous thought work.
  • I review my motivation, and select the one goal (of the three remaining) with the best level of engagement and excitement. At this point, I get real with myself about my desire to take action. A weight loss goal might seem to be the best option, for example, unless I really don’t feel inspired by it. This step is about an appraisal of my willingness to take action over the long term. Lofty goals aren’t worth much if I won’t actually work toward them.

The objective stage is the point of overlap between thought work and more traditional goal-setting systems. This is where smart goal strategies come into play. Once you’ve identified a handful of objectives, challenge yourself to make them specific, measurable, actionable, realistic, and timebound.

So, instead of “embrace a healthy lifestyle” or something similarly vague, I might have a personal objective of “adopting a vegan eating plan and daily exercise routine beginning April 1st with a target of 80% compliance through the end of the quarter.”  I select this goal because I know it will create weight loss and increased strength for me over time and I set a realistic compliance target I can measure.

Can you have more than three objectives? Of course. Some experts recommend ten or more with one for each major component of life. Others guide people to set one objective for each major area of business or even a single overarching business objective per period. Every method I’ve studied has pros and cons. I recommend using the insight you built through personal evaluation of your experience, intuition, and motivation to find the right number of objectives for you.

Investment and the real cost of chasing your dreams.

In his book Essentialism, Greg McKeown points out that every YES is also a NO. This resonated with me when I read the book some years ago and continues to be a guiding concept in my life.

Every objective I choose to pursue carries with it a choice to abandon other objectives for a season. Every time I focus my attention with a specific intent, I set aside other options worthy of my time. Each action I take involves leaving behind other possible action steps.

The true cost of pursuing a goal is measured by what we leave behind.

This is opportunity cost- the price of pursuing a single opportunity instead of other potential opportunities. I might decide to write a book this quarter. Lovely… as long as I’m okay with not doing other things like launching a course or traveling to and speaking at a week-long conference. The true cost of a vegan diet can be measured in terms of the fresh, grilled salmon filet I don’t eat and the parmesan cheese I don’t sprinkle on my pasta.

It’s not enough to set goals and determine objectives. It’s not enough to create a plan for achievement and a system for tracking progress. In order to be successful, we must also consider the true opportunity cost and evaluate if our motivation is strong enough to warrant the level of investment required.

In the past, I’ve committed to opportunity costs I wasn’t willing to pay. When the time came to stay focused on my goal, I wavered. I struggled to follow my plan of action when an attractive option presented itself. I abandoned my goal, only to later realize I had little to show for my time and energy. Have you been there too?

The solution, in my experience, is a careful consideration of the opportunity costs of each goal I set along with a plan for failure. That’s right- a plan for what I will do when I allow something to pull me away from my objective. I think through the challenges I see and identify the areas where I will likely struggle. Then I map out a way to get back on track as quickly as possible.

A busy week, for example, might keep me from working strategically toward my professional goal. That’s okay. I can build margin into my plan to allow for these times.

A family event may pull me away from my personal lifestyle goal. That’s okay… I can anticipate those events and give myself grace, knowing I will get back on track immediately afterward.

Factors outside my control might keep me from a planned portion of my community goal. That’s okay. I can plan now for how I will reconnect with the people involved and focus on moving forward once the situation resolves itself.

Reflection is the fuel that powers the goal setting system you choose.

I believe in goal setting as a way of building a framework for personal and professional success. It is mindful, intentional, and allows us to focus our efforts in a way that creates results. As a creative person, I’ve discovered that reflection is the essential fuel that makes any goal setting system effective. Struggling to create meaningful goals? Put on your thinking cap and get to work. You can do this.

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