On goals: a compilation of good advice

Hey, it’s another goals post!

Goal Post.

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After I wrote my January Blues series of posts, I received a wealth of fabulous advice from friends, speaking to my exact worries about work and goal-setting. Some of these answers came in the form of blog comments, telling me to relax, take care of myself, and not fret so much. Others came as emails and links, giving practical and philosophical advice on how to set goals and meet them. I received so much incredible wisdom, I just had to share it with you. Here are some of my questions and frustrations, and the responses I got. I know it’s a lot to read through, so I’ve italicized the kernel of each piece of advice.

Q: I feel like I’m inadequate at everything I do, and have gone through the last couple of years failing to deliver on my various forms of promise. How do I stop feeling so crummy? (Part 1)

A: Stop being so hard on yourself! You’ve been neglecting self-care and complaining about it for months. In the grand scheme of things, one more month of not working won’t make a difference — use this January to give yourself a much-needed break.

Sherry: “January is always a time of purging in our house. Straighten closets, clean out the pantry and garage, donate stuff that we no longer need or use. It’s an emptying out that is so necessary to the creative process. And it’s also good exercise: bending, stretching, moving things around! Put the painting and writing on the back burner for a while longer and get your outer space in order. And above all else, take good care of yourself: walk, yoga, good food, rest, read, and lots of tea breaks. Write and paint if you just can’t help yourself, but don’t set any goals for January. I know that goes against your grain, but you really need a breather. And, hey, how about going on an artist’s date. You haven’t done that lately and you need it!”

expands on this: “After reading your post, and seeing some of myself in it, I realize that for 2011 [my resolution] needs to be this: ‘I resolve to understand that taking care of myself isn’t the same as being lazy. If it was, it wouldn’t be so hard to do. Gentleness requires strength. I choose to be as gentle with myself, as I strive to be with others.'”

Dr Dorothy Duff Brown (more on her later): “As a human being, you are entitled to and absolutely must take some regular time away from your profession. For the equivalent of one day a week, give [yourself] a mini-vacation and do something that is restful, refreshing and renewing… [and] unrelated to your field.”

Q: How can I set good goals I will actually meet? My goals are always too vague, or I can’t seem to set solid deadlines for them that I’ll actually honor. (Part 2)

A: Creative goals are not like other goals; they don’t have measurability built into them. The usual guidelines still apply, but you might need new approaches for thinking about them.

Willona (via email): “When you are setting [other kinds of] goals you can say, increase sales by 10%, increase # of Twitter followers by 10%, etc. But when you set creative goals like, increase skills in woodwork or be a better dancer, what does that mean? Painting better isn’t measurable. It [is] easier and more productive to set time goals, meaning, how many hours will you allot for each step of your process per week? Taking a painting class once a week, reading about technique 3 hours a week, and spending an hour a week watching videos about technique are measurable. You can check them off, the rest is practice… [but] you have put the time into it and that you can measure.”

One of my favorite college TAs, Rachel, sent me advice from Dr Dorothy Duff Brown (summarized by Dr Jim Miller). The suggestions are meant for grad students working on their dissertations, but they serve just as well for books and other large creative/synthetic projects.

  • On being overwhelmed by a project’s hugeness: “Do not envision your [book] as an infinitely long and completely comprehensive document of absolute perfection which will be worthy of infinite time in preparation.” Instead, make a table of contents (rather than endlessly-expandable outlines) or even a physical mock-up of the book to put in a binder, where you can fill in the pages/chapters as you draft them.
  • On not comparing your work to production-oriented fields: “When addressing questions about your progress raised by people who have not done [your type of] work, a good, all-purpose answer is: ‘Well, things are going just about as well as can be expected at this stage of the long process.’ By getting into too many specifics with those who are production-minded, you may get into the trap of sounding like you are apologizing for yourself…  If you have to, remind [your friends and family] that a major creative work, never done before by another human being, deserves a great deal of time and attention.”

Q: How can I achieve work-life balance? (Part 3)

A: My new 45-minute work session technique is helping a lot with this (see Part 3), but I also need to overhaul my thinking.

Tara Sophia Mohr and her goals course (recommended by Mo) remind me that my goals are supposed to exhilarate me, not stress me out. They exist to help me, and if they don’t, out they go!

  • On choosing which goals to set: “We can create goals that feel like huge gorgeous presents to ourselves–what I call ‘gift-goals’–or we can let fears and ‘shoulds’ generate goals that feel like burdens. You get to choose.”
  • On deciding what’s a gift-goal and what isn’t: “Gift-goals are as meaningful to pursue as to achieve. Gift-goals reflect your voice, not others’. Gift-goals leave room for imperfection. They feel good (and often scary!).”
  • On letting the goal evolve in my mind before I stress myself out with particulars: “When you first begin to think about a dream, vision or a big important goal, put questions about how to make it happen on hold for a while. Sit on the couch, stare out the window, and get to know your dreams. Date your dream. Treat it exactly as you would treat a lovely person with whom you want to develop an awesome relationship.”

Dr Dorothy Duff Brown (summarized by Dr Jim Miller) says to use my time wisely to avoid burnout. Dr Brown, whom I’ve already mentioned twice, is also the one who told Rachel (who told me) about the 45-minute work session trick.

  • On efficiency: “20 percent of your efforts generate 80 percent of what actually ends up in your [finished project]. You should therefore cultivate an ability to differentiate and attend to that most valuable 20 percent.” I’m not sure this is true, but it’s a good reminder that all effort is not equal.
  • On managing your work sessions: “For most people getting a firm control over the stopping time establishes much better control over the starting time. If you know, for instance, that you must stop at a certain hour, you are more likely to get cracking on the work in order to accomplish what must be done by quitting time. Many people make a serious mistake by viewing their quitting times as flexible, usually well into the night. In such cases, time wasted during the day comes out of other time slots, like family interactions and sleep.” This is actually a big reason the 45-minute technique has helped me: when I know I only have 45 minutes until my next break, I don’t drag my feet in getting started.
  • On not feeling guilty for things left undone: “Most highly intelligent, curious, well-educated and industrious people like you will have an inordinate number of things they want to investigate, master, and do. Unfortunately, the demands of [your work] will compel you to put these things on hold. This is never an easy thing to do. You will have to live with a goodly amount of guilt and frustration over all the things you can’t read or do. Dr. Duff Brown says, ‘You must sooner or later face the reality that you just can’t do it all, so you might as well learn to manage your guilt and frustration now and get on with the program.’ Managing your guilt may actually be more important than managing your time.” Preach it!
  • On burnout and why it often happens to people with long stretches of free time (like me!): “Burnout is what happens when judgment becomes so run down that all tasks, no matter how small, loom in one’s mind as having equal and overwhelming importance. The result is an irresistible desire to flee. To escape this debilitating cycle, seek more structure in your time than less. Ironically, people who have substantial, structured demands on their time (e.g., job, spouse, children, etc.) are usually more productive and less at risk of losing their way than are those with unlimited time.”

Whew, this post is already extremely long, so I’ll leave it for now and return on Monday with a follow-up on how all this wonderful advice has affected my own goals! (And it has a lot to do with what I decided back in December!)

Tomorrow’s Open Mic will have another evocative guest post from ! See you then!