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Posted by

Ana Wang

Published on

October 10th 2019

If success is 99% inspiration and 1% perspiration, it's time to sweat (the good kind!), as we explore ways to get to the finish line. This is part 3 of our 4-part Skill Up guide on career goals - if you missed them part 1 is here and part 2 is here - where we reset some common perceptions on effective goal setting and break apart how to think about goals in a creative way, for creative people.

I’ll never forget how I grew up learning to set goals — courtesy of mom — who I astutely observed did not reach her own goals, every time she hit snooze on her “time to exercise” alarm at 7:30 like clockwork. It continued on for months at least, a very visceral and vivid example of procrastination; I only stopped hearing the alarm when she switched phones.

But I do credit a lot to her: every year, on December 31, more important than the midnight countdown (and for me, more fun), a list of 10 new year’s resolutions. We weren’t allowed to stop until we got to exactly 10. What were on those early plans? I don’t remember but I am 99% sure none of those things came true. It was arbitrary but it did start a life-long propensity towards planning, and gave me a “head start” (in air quotations because my head start still took decades to sink in) on the most important lesson any of us can learn: how to spend your finite time on infinite possibilities, and how to learn from failure.

I’ve since learned to get a bit more creative and systemic with the way I write goals, attaching visual form to planning as a function (all the designers in the room, stand up).

So, let’s explore how exactly to prioritize our goals and how to get to the finish line: this goal and the next one, to get the career and life that feels like home (Or a home run? You decide!).

Beyond the list

Now that you’ve gotten to know yourself and have a list of things you want to do, it’s time to think about how form informs goals.

This could look differently for everyone but at its core, it’s about taking a designer’s approach to goal-setting, and not just a random list of goal vomit with no sense of hierarchy, direction, or guidance.

Instead of, for example, 10 “goals” with equal weight down the page, approach it with 1-3 goals. My preference is 1 primary goal at a time (yes, just one! the thing that if you achieved, would be so amazing) and 1-2 secondary goals (things that are nice to achieve, as bonuses). This makes it easier to prioritize: most likely you’ll want to attach more weight to things that lead to your primary goal, less weight to things that lead to secondary goals, and optional weight to everything else.

There will be “else”; these are the things come up, the things that feel urgent or come crashing in (the brilliant whim, the unexpected call). Sure, you should make space for creative impulse but when you do, make sure it’s a conscious decision and not one that that edged out your goals by default. Feelings are powerful, and just like falling in love, we can fall in love with ideas just the same, forgetting what we really need and want in an instant, drawn to the allure of the new and exciting. As a creative person, you can just as effectively apply that creativity within the constraint of your goal, and get further than a string of lifelong whims every time you’re struck by eureka (which, I’ve realized, we tend to get, a lot).

Once you have some sort of hierarchy to your goals, outline the action steps and timelines to get there. If you’re like me, someone who is really guided by why (or even if you’re not, if you find yourself forgetting the macro), then I’d recommend putting that at the very top, before any mention of goals.

We’ve created the PDF worksheet as a starting point to help you outline your goals, but get creative with it because it has to work for you. Like a freeform approach? Try a mindmap! Tactile? Try sticky notes on your wall. A digital organization fiend? Try Notion.

There are some rare among us who don’t need any kind of form at all; they’re often referred to as intrinsically motivated. The funny thing is, I’ve been called intrinsically motivated mostly because my teachers and managers didn’t realize that I do in fact use a system. It just took me a while to get it down on paper. Everyone has a system of some kind: for some, it’s all in their heads. But as I’ve gotten older, I’ve found it more difficult to remember everything, much less track it all. So putting it outside of my brain just makes sense.

You can do anything, but you can’t do everything at once

I once heard that we overestimate what we can do in a year, but underestimate what we can do in ten years. Looking back, that feels right. Who I was ten years ago seems lightyears away from who I am now, but only incrementally different from who I was a year ago. And that’s because of a thing called compound momentum. Just like compound interest, the “investments” you make now in your career add up over time.

The sooner you embrace this idea and let go of the idea that this moment in your life, is the time to get it all done, all your wildest dreams and then some, the better off you’ll be in so many ways.

It’s hard. We all feel like we’re on this timeline, this race against the clock to have the perfect everything before x. No one ever said that it was going to be easy. And those first few years - when you don’t have any momentum at all — can feel particularly challenging, every day an upward grind, riddled with real life nuisances like student loans, relationship challenges and bills to pay.

There are all these expectations in life that we hold ourselves to. Career goals aren’t always the most important or urgent plate we’re juggling. There’s friends, family, love, and don’t forget self-care, what was once meant to help juggle all our plates but for many of us has now become another unfulfilled expectation.

Just like many other things, it starts with self-awareness. What are the things that are important to you? Not necessarily forever, but right now, for the next 3 months, next year? Try not to forget about your career goals along the way (remember, momentum! small steps still count), but don’t beat yourself up for making space for other things you need and want.

Getting good at time management helps, but that will only carry you so far. I’ve heard of people who have consciously decided to give up fitness, some people give up sleep, others delay relationships or life milestones. It’s so easy to compare ourselves to others, but realize that what you see isn’t the full picture — we all make our choices, many of them invisible to others. Whatever your choice is, remember that it’s your choice and it’s not forever, if you don’t want it to be. This involves taking a macro view of your goals, and managing yourself and your expectations.

We tend to complicate things but it’s simple math: you’ll get further faster if you allocate more resources (time and energy) to as few things as possible. That doesn’t mean you can’t get from x to y if you have commitments (life, job, bills, kids); it just means you’re on a different timeline. Or you have to be even more ruthless with priorities. And that’s okay. Progress over perfection, anytime.

Tip: Plan your priorities by year but keep anything beyond 3 months flexible. Starting macro with the end in mind puts less pressure for you to frontload all your goals at once. Start to look at your career as a journey.

Input vs output: Determining your creative cadence

When I realized that I was leading a bunch of people whose common thread wasn’t necessarily the role that they were in (even though technically, they all had the same job title) and that it was that they were all creative people, I started to see a pattern start to form, one that I ended up identifying and naming as learning to respect your creative cadence. Calling it something seemed to have a validating effect — oh okay, I’m not just a failure of a person. This is a core and meaningful part of my growth, not a period in spite of.

Similar to the art of prioritization, this one gets a bit more gritty into the lives and habits of creative people especially, those who are always exploring, learning, making. At its core, the idea is that creative people have periods of input and periods of output. And while it would be amazing if we were all machines of creative prowess, we’re not.

There are times — days, weeks, entire seasons and for some, years — where there’s a slow and almost imperceptible growth happening. We go through seasons of change, highs and lows. There are times when we’re riding waves of ambition, and other times where we want to crumble and hide. Sometimes it feels like we’re not getting anywhere. Often it feels like we’re going backwards.

For musical artists, this is the period in between albums where they seem to disappear from view and you wonder if they’ve secretly retired. For gym-goers, it’s the days between workouts you need for your muscles to catch up. For me and you, it’s those times when we don’t really want to work on anything, or it feels like we can’t. There’s just nothing good coming, or we just feel tired of it all. Maybe it’s when we want to coast in our careers, embrace the stillness for a bit. This is when we shouldn’t force a certain creative rhythm into place, and instead, embrace the concept of feeding ourselves creatively as a conscious act, in preparation and as lead-up to our next period of output.

โ€œThis is when we shouldn’t force a certain creative rhythm into place, and instead, embrace the concept of feeding ourselves creatively as a conscious act, in preparation and as lead-up to our next period of output.โ€

There’s a lot to be said about consistency and there’s certainly people who are consistently “productive” most days. But understanding that there is such a thing as creative cadence, and that everyone’s is unique, frees you up to see input as a positive and necessary part of creative and career growth.

In the context of setting goals, this is when you want to build in periods of reading, sponging, learning without purpose. Don’t feel beholden to the hustle hard mentality and forget that your career and creative work needs rest and reflection to not only work, but to work well. Think a bit on this when prioritizing your goals: input goals are just as valuable as output goals, and on most days, you’ll probably want a mix. The rest of the time? You may want to prioritize input vs output, or vice versa. Listen to what you need.

How to stay on track

Okay, but how do you actually get to the finish line? Here are a few ways to think about and experiment with, to get from goal to done:

  • If you like data and visuals: An Excel or Google Sheets spreadsheet
  • If you are a bit more tactile: A bullet journal
  • If you’re super tactile: Index cards or post-it notes
  • If people help you stay on track: An accountability partner (this can be as low-key as telling someone what you’re doing; they don’t need a title, you just need that external pressure)
  • If you need targets: Make sure to include measurable specifics
  • If you live by your calendar: Timeblock and color-code your action steps
  • If you’re driven by competition: Put yourself in environments that stimulate your drive

Notice it’s all about the ifs. If you’ve found it difficult to reach your goals, go down the list and explore a new way of keeping yourself on track. Again, there’s no prescription, only a tapestry of insights.

But here’s a commonality that many of us struggle with, no matter who we are and what kind of preferences we have: you most likely, some of the time, or given our ultra-connected world, most of the time, experience Shiny Object Syndrome (I want to do it all!) or its cousin, Analysis Paralysis (…but I can’t choose). That’s the most dangerous place to stay. But it takes us back to truly accepting that careers are a journey and you can’t do it all at once. You can, however, do a lot if you find some way to keep yourself on track for the short-term future: I dream a year, three years down the line, but I only plan and “track” 1-3 months out; anything past that goes into a mess of notes. I’ve learned by now that that’s just how it works, because I’ve never predicted my career or life accurately that far. And that’s been a great thing.

Stay Tuned

Stay tuned for the final post in this 4-part guide to creative career goals, where we explore the inevitable: what to do when goals go sideways and how to learn from failure. For now, get started on goal setting with our free PDF worksheet.

Read the final part in this series “Learning from Failure” now.