Maybe it’s Time to Rethink How You Set Creative Goals?

Welcome to Good Enough Creative, a podcast for Creative People.

Welcome back! I’m your host, Marie Greene, and today we’re talking about goals. You know, those things we set – especially in January – and then we may or may not actually reach the finish line. Goals.

Goal setting can apply to anything we do, even creativity. Maybe especially creativity.

Goals mean we’re aiming for something, that we want to do more than just show up – we actually want to make progress and achieve some kind of result. For example, I set a goal to release a new podcast episode every day for the month of February. I’m not quite 10 days in yet, but I’ll tell ya what – I am learning a lot. And I’m going to share what I’ve learned through this personal challenge after I wrap up the month. It’ll be fun to talk about my takeaways and the lessons I’ll keep going forward.

Speaking of which, if you’re new to the podcast, I don’t normally have an episode every single day. This is just a personal goal to see if I can do it, and to see if that level of consistency makes the process easier, or provides insights that might influence where I go as I move forward with this project. I love a good personal challenge, and I love what I learn when I make the decision that it’s time to level-up.

But goals and creativity don’t always work well together. So many of us think of creative work as very fluid, sort of resistant to rules (which is funny since I just talked about rules in yesterday’s episode), and just generally stubborn and moody. Like – it will arrive when it wants to, but not if you try and force it. And I think sometimes we might feel like setting a goal is trying to force creativity against its will.

Creativity is like a wild unicorn, not a horse with a saddle. Right?

My sons and I talk about this a lot – they’re super creative and somewhat resistant to goal setting. Some of it might be their age, but I think part of it is this idea that creativity strikes like lightning and can’t possibly be tamed or contained or directed. So instead of giving yourself a clear path forward, goals might end up feeling like obstacles.

Author and speaker Mel Robbins – who I absolutely love – talks about goal setting in a range instead of as a static number. For example, setting a goal to walk 3-5 times a week is more attainable (and statistically more likely to achieve) than a goal to walk 3 times a week or 5 times a week. The flexibility of the range makes you more likely to achieve it.

Isn’t that interesting? I think any kind of goal can get overwhelming fast if we jump in the deep end with no plan (although I’ll be the first to admit that the deep end without a plan is where I spend most of my time, so do as I say, not as I do). Part of goal setting is setting yourself up for success. And part of setting yourself up for success is knowing what motivates you – and what doesn’t.

I once had a friend who believed that telling someone else about her goals would jinx it. So she kept her goals a secret, and often – she ended up changing her mind, or not achieving the goal.

Telling your goals to someone else actually helps you be more accountable. But it does add pressure, right? And for some of us, that kind of pressure can squish an otherwise healthy seedling of a new idea.

So how do we make our way closer to where we want to be without adding the kind of pressure that might ruin the moment?

I love Mel Robbins’ idea about a goal range. Instead of “I’m going to paint one picture every single day this month” you might say, “I’m going to paint 7-10 new pictures this month.” I think that range – especially for creatives – gives us a little more freedom. Even before I heard Mel’s podcast about this idea, I had already instinctively started giving myself range goals.

For example, when the new year started I knew I wanted to get out and walk more AND I wanted to make time to practice my new watercolor hobby. But I also know that trying to make time for either of those things, much less both, on any given day would be too much. So I gave myself the option: Every day, I’m either going to get out my paints, or go on a walk. I didn’t even decide what I should do with the paints, but I figure setting the goal to get them out will sort of naturally lead me to use them. Having the flexibility gave me a choice every day, and I felt so much more excited about the goal when I knew that I got to choose depending on how I felt in the moment. Today the weather is crappy, so I’d rather get out my paints.

A goal is typically the outcome you are aiming for, and then everything you do to achieve that goal is the process of getting there. But in this case – my goal wasn’t to walk a 5k or paint a masterpiece. It wasn’t about a tangible outcome as much as the daily practice. I wanted to establish new habits. So, for me, the way I could measure the goal was just that I showed up and did it. That was the outcome I wanted. 

Recently, somewhere in passing, I heard that if you want to walk or exercise every day, the best goal to give yourself is to just put on your shoes in the morning, not necessarily have a specific walking goal. Having your shoes on makes it so much easier to walk out the door and go for a walk or go to the gym or whatever you’re trying to do. You’re not deciding what you have to do once you get the shoes on – anything is possible. But by putting them on, you make the next choice that much easier. Just like setting out my paints does not equal painting something, but it makes that next step easier. And I’m a lot more likely to sit down and paint something if the paints are sitting RIGHT THERE.

I was chatting with a friend of mine who is in Kenya right now, and she told me a story about an orphan elephant rescue that she visited this week in Nairobi. She said that she learned that they work with the baby elephants for 4 or 5 years until they reach a certain point in their rehabilitation and then they start leaving the doors open at night so they can start to wander out into the park and learn how to exist in the wild. Over time, these elephants stay out a little longer and a little longer until they finally feel ready and they just don’t come back.

What I love about this is that there’s no clock as to how long this should take – the elephant decides. It’s not forced on them. And I think the parallel here is that part of creative goal setting is really just opening the door so that we can wander out and explore. It’s putting your shoes on, so you can literally take the next step.

But the door has to be open, right? And I think that’s a great way to approach our goals. And it’s a little bit like giving yourself a goal range, rather than a hard, set number. As much as I like a challenge, I also find that some creative goals need room to breathe. But I still want to get there – right? I think you have to be aiming for something if you want to be able to recognize your progress. But if forcing yourself into a goal that feels restrictive or oppressive isn’t your jam, then maybe a flexible approach will be a better fit.

There are things we can’t control when it comes to reaching our creative goals. We can’t control if a publisher will want our book, or if our art will make it into a gallery, or if the pattern we design will be something that other people will want and buy. What we can control is our own willingness to do it anyway – with no guaranteed outcome.  

Leaving the door open for yourself makes it easier to do what’s next. So how do we rethink the way we set goals using this mindset?

First, choose which door you’re going to open for yourself. Is it setting up a comfortable space to write so that it’s easy to just sit down and do it when the mood strikes? Is it putting your shoes on first thing in the morning? Is it setting out your paints? Choose the door that you’re going to open for yourself so that it’s easier to do the next thing. This kind of loose, flexible approach to progress can work wonders if you’re someone who typically feels stifled when you set a rigid goal. Opening the door is really about putting yourself in the position to go forward. It’s like being in the car and the motor is running and the tank is full of gas and all you have to do is take off the brake and go.

Next, make it achievable and easy – set yourself up for success. Instead of saying, “I’m going to write 3 chapters a day” – you could set the goal to write for 20-30 minutes a day. (See? I gave us a range. Thanks, Mel Robbins.) Because – just like putting on your shoes or setting out your paints – once you’re sitting down at the computer, you’re more likely to keep going past that 20 minutes. But you’re making it easier to succeed. Plus, I don’t know if you’ve ever done any writing, but forcing three chapters out of your brain is either easy or impossible, depending on the day and your level of inspiration. You may not be able to control how much you produce, but you can control (at least to some degree) how much time you commit. If you make a small commitment to yourself that you’ll just do that first step, even if it’s not very big, you will make the other steps easier. The larger goal might be to write a book, and that’s the ultimate outcome. But every goal is made of smaller steps, and I think of those as goals, too – you don’t just roll out of bed and write a book and you’ve arrived at your destination. It’s 1,000 small decisions that you make every single day, and whatever you can do to get out of your own way, to experience the feeling of success, to be able to measure your own progress, and to see how far you’ve come… every one of those is mile marker on the way to the finish line.

Until next time, my friend – you’ve got this.

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