Goal setting, or: “when you plan all the things but don’t do them”

We are approaching the last week of the year 2013. Who else has had the feeling this year just flew by?

I wanted to talk to you today about setting goals. How appropriate, right? It`s almost 2014!
I have really immersed myself in this subject in the last few years and it resulted in me almost giving up on setting goals forever. I have, since then, learned a lot about goals, deadlines and discipline. I don`t know if I can tell you anything more than what`s already out there. (I will give some of my favourite resources at the end of the article) But let me tell you what I`ve learned about how to let the goals work for me instead of against me.

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First you have to know that I am a fairly unstructured person. I will remember to post a letter and a few seconds later walk right out of the door without said letter because I`m already thinking of something else.
Secondly, I have a really unstructured job. I work mostly ad hoc at no set times and places, which makes it hard to plan things in advance.
This combination made me search for a structure of some sorts to make sure I still did the things that were important to me, like working on Reminiscence and my portfolio and my blog, instead of letting my circumstances guide my everyday life. I bought books, read blogs and listened to podcasts that offered outlines or systems for getting organized, setting goals and keeping them.

The problem for me was that I love outlines and steps, and I have the tendency to be fairly perfectionistic with these things. And I love planning and coming up with new ideas, so I kept tweaking and thinking and eventually the systems, that had good information and techniques in them to make your goals a reality, became goals in itself. Combine this with my unconscious fear of failure which paralized me and soon I found myself making plans, dreaming about actually making those plans a reality, but not taking action. This brought about a lot of frustration, and making more rigid goals. Until several people told me to stop making resolutions. This made me think, because how could I do the things I wanted to do when I didn`t make any plans?

That`s why I rethought the whole goal setting thing. How could I still keep track of what is important and work towards this while staying flexible enough to allow for all the interruptions I have to deal with on a daily basis? A few things that I learned from all the goal setting kept coming back, but this time I adjusted them so they fit my situation. What I now focus on is this:

1 I focus on what is truly important.

First, there are things that are necessary and there are things that are the things that live in your heart. Some things just need to be done, no matter how much you hate doing it because it`s better for you and your loved ones. And some things you need to get done because you actually want to. There needs to be a balance between these two categories in order to be able to stay alive and healthy on the one hand and on the other hand to be able to do something that fulfils you.

Another thing to assess is if this is really important to you or your loved ones. Why do you do the things you do? Is it because you want to or need to? Or are you doing it because you think because you “have to” or that it`s expected of you? For me this meant I stopped setting goals for the things that, after a little thought, weren`t that important at all. I even said no to new opportunities a couple of times and quit some things that I originally wanted to do.

In order to change your behaviour or to work towards a finished goal, you have to believe in what you are doing.
When my physiotherapist told me that unless I started training my wrists, arms and back I wouldn`t be able to do my job as a Sign Language interpreter anymore when I got older, (and probably wouldn`t be able to sit at a desk drawing for hours anymore either) I believed the use of going to the gym. Before, I had no motivation whatsoever. Now there will be still times when I think only in the short-term (“why would one week of not training matter?) but I`m already more disciplined about going because I want to keep my body healthy. I also want to make training a habit because even though I now have a reason to go that I believe in, I`m still not a sports person. When it becomes a habit, it takes less convincing myself to do it.

Then there are the things that make you come alive. The things you really need to do or you`ll become unhappy and feel like you`re missing out on the thing you were made for. Or the things that you believe in so much you have to do it.
These things doesn`t have to be big. For some it`s drawing, for some it`s singing, for some it`s teaching, for some it means helping their company flourish, for others it`s doing fun stuff with friends, or playing with their child.
What makes you forget time? What are you willing to do even if nobody paid you to do it or saw what you did, or even in the face of resistance? Then go do that. Make room for it in your schedule. And you know what? If your heart is somewhere, people will notice and will be attracted to what you are doing.

2 I focus on the process instead of the finish line.

Making a comic is intimidating. Working on a brand new portfolio is intimidating. But I learned to take tiny steps that don`t intimidate me. This can be as small as: “search for reference of a black and white cat.” I have a list for things I need to do that I make up as I go, written in a way that the actions are things that I can actually do. “Design the city of Narrati” is far too broad a goal and is not actually doable. I can`t sit down and draw a whole city in one sitting. So these big things have sub goals that usually consist of action points for making a list of the settings and props I need, gathering reference, the studying of several things (both theory and drawing studies) and the actual designing process.
These tiny mini goals make me spur into action much sooner because I can work on something that is doable. And many little steps make for much progress in the long run. If I work on my comic even for as little as twenty minutes a day, I will have worked on it for over two hours in a week. That is 104 hours a year. That`s a whole lot more than nothing. Now imagine if I were to work on the comic more hours a week, how does that add up? But I won`t start working if I set unreasonable goals or goals that are not actionable.

3 I know my weak spots.

I did enough soul searching in the last few years to know what keeps me from drawing. I know when I probably will resist drawing, even though I want to. I know when I will resist going to the gym and I know the things that can lure me in and eat my time away. (Facebook, I`m looking at you!) These things are different for everyone, and not every temptation is bad for everyone. Some people will be too hard on themselves at times and they actually need some rest or a new perspective when they think they are slacking off. But it`s important to know and learn to discern when you actually need a break and when you`re just cheating yourself. Most of the time though, I for myself already know the answer deep inside.

4 I`m starting to tell people what I really want to accomplish, so they can help me.

Don`t get me wrong, I don`t mean this in a way that these people should motivate me to work on my goals. What I mean is that I`m used to doing stuff alone. I live alone, I`m a freelancer and I used to draw alone in my room when I was younger. I don`t mind, I love to work on my own without interruptions, but it does mean that sometimes I forget that another pair of eyes or the support of someone can help me. So at times I need to actively remember that I need the support of people that are important to me. I found it`s hugely motivating for me when people I care about ask me how my projects are going. Just that alone helps me getting out of my own head for a bit and put my stuff out in the world, even if it`s just in words. It`s also good to talk things I struggle with through with people so they can help me regain perspective on certain things. And of course, sometimes you need to just focus on other things than your own life, listen to other people`s stories and perspectives and forget yourself for a while.

When you`re an artists, it`s also very important to have a group of fellow colleagues that you trust that you can talk to, who will truly understand from experience what you face as an artist and they can provide you with feedback. For more information on how to go about this, listen to this episode of the Paperwings Podcast. One quick tip about this is that it is important is to make honest connections. Be genuinely interested in other people, seek people out and you`ll no doubt run into folks with the same interests and goals.

5 I celebrate “wins” along the way.

Whenever I finish something, that`s a win. Whenever it`s a big or a small thing, it is progress, and it should be acknowledged. I was reflecting on last year and figured I had designed a bunch of characters, updated my blog every week since I started it up again in October, finished a rough draft of the Reminiscence story, designed a monster (which was a first for me, more on that in the new year) and had some great conversations about art along the way. This was definitely a “win” moment for me and motivates me even more to continue.

So this is basically the stuff I learned in the past year about setting goals. I stepped back from rigid goal setting and visualizing outcomes and setting up huge lists of actions. I let everything just happen more now and work more with what I have in the moment.

Lastly I promised you my favourite books and links about productivity and setting goals. I use a combination of these resources below now, but don`t follow them religiously any more:

Getting Things Done, by David Allen (book) Gave me an outline for a system to getting organized.
Make it Happen in 10 minutes a day, by Lorne Holden (book) Gave me more perspective on the effect of taking little steps towards a bigger goal.
For the Dutch people: Dit word jouw jaar, by Ben Tiggelaar (book) People from outside the Netherlands: Ben Tiggelaar has written another book that deals with goals as well, although it`s a bit more elaborate on the theory behind it and less to the point in my opinion: Dream Dare Do; Managing the Most Difficult Person on Earth: Yourself
The Paperwings Podcast has some great episodes about productivity and working on (dream)goals as well:
What to do when your dream seems far away.
-Seven management tips to accelerate your personal project part one and part two.
The best advice that I heard about setting goals is found in this episode of Christ Oatley`s Artcast: Artistic growth is not a goal, and how to become an early riser. In order for you to have a goal that has meaning for you, but also will help you towards something finished, make a (personal) project of your goal. Have a finished product (in the broadest definition) that you can work towards taking little steps. At this moment for me, this is Reminiscence and my portfolio.

No matter what you use as your system of productivity, make sure the goal has meaning to you, set reasonable expectations and actions, have people support you and celebrate the little “wins” to keep you motivated.

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I wish you all a very creative and productive 2014. But first: have a good time this Christmas with the ones you love! See you next week for the last blogpost of the year.

Merry Christmas!

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