A Creative’s Guide to Staying on Track with Resolutions

This is about the time of year when shiny New Year’s resolutions start to look a little tarnished.

Those thousand fiction words a day I was writing at the beginning of January? Yeah, not so much now. All that sugar I’m not supposed to be eating? Well, I may have made brownies a few days ago. And I may keep sneaking bites of my husband’s desserts.

I wrote last week about one important tool you can use to keep on track with resolutions and goals: accountability groups. But I think one of the biggest things you can do on your own is to create a system designed to support your new goals.

I’ve noticed a pattern in the goals of mine that have succeeded. It goes something like this: resolutions that begin life without intention and support never last for long, while those that I boost with good habits tend to get met.

I don’t know about you, but as I look back over the last month I can definitely see that same pattern emerging. The goals that I built up support around have actually gotten met. The ones that I just wished out into the universe? Nope.

Here’s the problem I see a lot with creatives, though: we resist building structure around our art.

We tell ourselves that we’ll wait for the Muse to strike, instead of committing to carving out 30 minutes every lunch break to practice our craft. We tell ourselves we’re too tired at the end of the day to write or paint or play music, instead of making the effort to arrange our schedules to support our art.

But I say that building structure around your goals is especially important for creative people.

Are you willing to take that step?

Do you want to carve out time for the work you love?

Or do you want to make the same resolution next January?

Set your intentions

I love this fantastic post by James Clear on setting intentions. In it, he talks about a study in which three groups were asked about their exercise habits. The first group (control) was simply asked how often they exercise. The second group was given a motivational pamphlet and speech. The third group was given the same motivation, but also asked to complete the statement, “During the next week, I will partake in at least 20 minutes of vigorous exercise on [DAY] at [TIME OF DAY] at/in [PLACE].”

Two weeks later, the third group was 3 times more likely to have exercised than the first two groups.

The moral is that simply saying “I want to write and submit a short story this month” isn’t nearly as effective as saying “I’ll write 300 words every morning before breakfast.”

Give yourself the best chance at hitting your goals by explicitly stating where, when, and how you’ll do them.

Set up a system

Great goals aren’t achieved in a vacuum – rather, they’re reached as a result of hundreds of tiny steps. Try thinking of your goal not as one single thing, but as a system of steps and habits.

For example, I’m working on the rough draft of a novella that I hope to have done by the end of February. To do that, I need to write to 20,000 words. Taking into account that I normally only write five days a week, I need to start writing 1000 words a day. I can write 1000 words in an hour – less time if I’m really into the story.

Knowing all that, I know I need to sit down at my desk one hour earlier every day during the week and get out those thousand words before I check my email and get sucked into client work.

Once I’ve set this system of Time + Place + Avoid Email into place, sitting down at my desk to write becomes easier.

Clear away your obstacles

As humans, we’re often our own worst enemies. It’s so easy to let excuses, inconveniences, and obstacles get in the way of working towards our goals – and so hard to let them go.

The biggest thing you can do for yourself as a creative person is to identify what obstacles are going to be get in the way of your goals, and nip them in the bud.

If I want to write fiction first thing in the morning, for example, that means I need to finish that pressing client project the night before, and install Freedom on my computer so I can block the internet. If I want to cut down on my sugar intake, I should probably (maybe) give away that box of chocolates grandma gave me for Christmas. If I want to stop getting distracted by Twitter, I should take it off my phone.

Track your progress

How do you know you’re improving if you’re not charting your progress? If you’re technologically minded, try using a goal-setting site like Lifetick or an app like GoalsOnTrack to keep track of goal progress. (For a nice rundown of different goal-setting apps, check out this post from Michael Hyatt.)

Or you can go old-school like me, and just hang a calendar above your desk with a color-coded system of check marks. (Feel free to give yourself a gold star when you’ve done extra well – I totally do whenever I hit 1000 words!)

Check in, and tweak as you go

The important thing is to not view your goals as static, but rather to allow them to adapt and change.

If writing three times a week before breakfast just isn’t working, try writing at a different time of day. Or try dictating while you walk, or some other form of writing that gets the words out. Scheduling yourself regular check-ins gives you the ability to adapt your resolutions as you go, rather than simply deciding they’re failures if they don’t work out on the first go around.

I saw this great post today on ZenHabits.net about conducting a monthly review. In it, Leo Babauta talks about taking a few minutes at the end of every month to check in with yourself and see where you’re succeeding, and where you could be doing little better.


 

How are your creative New Years resolutions going? What are you finding to be the biggest obstacles to making time for your creative projects? Let me know in the comments!

(This post was adapted from an article I originally wrote for GovPilot.)

How to Set Goals You’ll Actually Keep

(Note: I originally wrote this post last year for GovLoop, but as the year’s end has rolled back around I think it’s still relevant. I’ve adapted it for this blog.)

The new year is a traditional blank slate for most people, but despite our best intentions most of us don’t keep our New Year’s Resolutions much longer than January.

The problem with the usual way of making resolutions is that they’re not often made in the context of our lives. I’m as guilty of that as anyone, so I want to propose a new way: rather than simply picking a goal (“lose weight,” “volunteer more,” “get promoted”), take time to really evaluate your dreams and ambitions, and set goals that are truly in line with your life.

Want to join me?

A note about last year’s goals.

In my post about looking back on 2015, I talked about considering the goals that you didn’t hit. Writing New Year’s Resolutions can seem like a deja vu if every year you put the same goals on it that you failed to hit the year before. Rather, set your goals for 2015 to build on your accomplishments from last year – and give yourself permission to let go of any goals that no longer fit your plans.

OK. Here’s my 3-step plan for setting goals:

Set a theme for 2016

This sounds super cheesy, but I swear it works. How will you evaluate success in 2015? By your career growth? By your side projects? By how much time you’ve spent with your family?

  • For me, 2014 was all about getting work done at all costs. My husband and I had moved to a new city without many friends to distract us, and were both in new work situations. We’ve worked some crazy hours, we’ve worn ourselves out, and we’ve both built tremendous momentum in our jobs. It’s been an exhausting ride, but it’s been worth it.
  • The year 2015 was about harnessing that momentum and taking back time for myself. My theme for 2015 was “Balance and Health,” and I although I haven’t been perfect, I’ve definitely achieved a better sense of balance in my life. I’ve made huge strides in tailoring my freelance client list so that I’m doing the work I want to do, not saying yes to everything that comes across my plate. I’ve been exercising regularly, and making conscious decisions to practice self care, rather than running myself into the ground. (Most of the time.)
  • For 2016, I’m going to stick with the “Balance and Health” goal, since I know I still have lots of work to do in that area. As I ramp up my fiction business, I know I can too easily get carried back into the overtime-stressed-burnout mode of 2014 – so I want to make sure that I’m making each decision with this theme in mind.

This theme is your rubric for making decisions.

When you’re making your goals or deciding what kinds of obligations to take on next year, weigh it against your theme.

One great tool to help you out is a Will-do/Won’t-do List. As you plan for 2016, make yourself a list of possible projects or opportunities you will and won’t do, so that when new opportunities come across your plate you can make a quick decision and move on without regret.

Plan big, but act small

OK, we all know what SMART goals are, right? They’re: Specific, Measurable, Actionable, Realistic, and Time-related. But when most of us write our resolutions, we aim big and vague, writing down things like “I want to get in better shape,” or “I want to spend more time with my family.”

Dream big, but make sure your goals for 2015 are SMART. For example: “I will lose 10 pounds by March by cutting out sugar,” rather than “I want to lose weight.”

Once you’ve got your big goals in place, think about the small daily actions you’ll take to get there. If you want to cut out sugar, like in the above example, maybe start by making a little change. Only allow yourself candy between the hours of 12 and 6, perhaps, or switch to only putting one spoonful of sugar in your morning coffee rather than two. If your goal is to write a novel, set a daily habit of writing 200 words on the bus ride home, or on your lunch break.

If you focus on forming small daily habits, you’ll have a much better chance at achieving your goal than if you try to accomplish it in one fell swoop.

Start preparation

You’ve got until 2016 to turn over a new leaf, right? But what you can do for the next few weeks is to start dreaming so that you’re ready to hit the ground running on January 1st.

Ask for running shoes for the holidays. Start googling alternate careers. Check out a book on gardening from the library. Start a Pinterest board for healthy recipes. Research MBA programs.

You don’t have to make any changes right now, just use the next six to let your imagination run with it. This is a fertile time to let your mind wander, and will help make sure you’re not just throwing goals on your list because think you should.

Is your imagination sparked? What will your theme for 2016 be?

Get In the Habit of Yearly Reflection

(Note: I originally wrote this post last year for GovLoop, but as the year’s end has rolled back around I think it’s still relevant. I’ve adapted it for this blog.)

Brigid Schulte, author of Overwhelmed: Work, Love, And Play When No One Has The Time uses the word “time confetti” to describe the harried mishmash of time in modern life. Our days are sliced to ribbons by hordes of overlapping responsibilities, our constant connectivity to work allows it to seep into our personal lives, and the demands of our families seep into our work days. And any free time we manage to find? It gets contaminated by planning or worrying about what will come next, or what we’re forgetting to do.

Sound familiar? It certainly does to me.

The ability to plan and reflect on our lives has become increasingly difficult, which is why so many of us complain of being constantly overwhelmed, and rushing headlong through life.

The year’s end is a traditional time for reflection, but although most of us probably make the obligatory list of resolutions, most of us don’t take the time to truly, deeply reflect.

Part of the reason is that it’s hard to find the time. Between year-end work sprints, holiday parties, family visits, and the usual chaos of everyday life, it’s tough to carve out as much time as a true period of reflection takes.

But here’s the problem: If you’re never taking time to reflect on how your previous year went, how can you expect next year to go any differently?

  • You promised yourself that 2015 would be year you wrote that novel, but it never got written. Why will 2016 be any different?
  • You swore you’d quit your dead-end job and start making a living at your passion project in 2015 – but you’re still punching the clock and hating it. Why should 2016 be a better year?
  • You promised yourself you’d start taking care of your health, but you’re still in as rough shape as you were this time last year. What’s to change next year?

Part of making your dreams and aspirations actually take shape is to understand what factors are standing in your way.

  • If you want to be happier, it helps to understand what has been making you unhappy.
  • If you want to have more time, it helps to understand where you’re spending the time you have.
  • If you want to have better relationships, it helps to understand what relationship habits you’ve been in.

If you want to have a healthy, happy, amazing 2016, it helps to understand just what happened in 2015.

To do it, I want you to schedule an entire afternoon to yourself in the next few weeks – no distractions, no obligations, no excuses. You can take more time than an afternoon, if you want. I have a friend who takes a weekend vacation by herself every year on her birthday in order to reflect on her life and examine her goals.

In the time leading up to your Afternoon of Reflection, grab a fresh notebook or Word document (notebook is better, because no internet), and start jotting down notes as they come to you. Then, when you actually sit down to reflect you’ll have a head start and can dive in deeper.

In a season of celebration and giving, make this the gift you give to yourself.

Here are some topics to get you started.

Celebrate yourself

Think back through your year. What goals did you achieve? What personal or professional milestones did you pass? Maybe you were too busy to celebrate at the time, or maybe it didn’t seem to be that big of a deal. But this is your time to remember those achievements. Take the time to list your accomplishments, and to do something fun to celebrate them. I can think of several for myself this year that I’ve completely rushed past without acknowledging!

Your first assignment – leave a comment with a goal you achieved this year, AND how you plan to celebrate it.

Celebrate others

You’re not the only one rushing through life without celebrating your accomplishments. Think about your friends, family, and coworkers. Did any of them meet a goal or do something huge that they haven’t gotten recognition for? Take a moment to help them celebrate it, or to spread the word (such as writing a note praising their accomplishment to a supervisor, if appropriate). Who made your year a little brighter? Who helped you out? Celebrate these people’s positive influence in your life with a heartfelt “thank you.”

Start a list, but don’t let yourself get caught up in the enormity of it. Just send an email today, take someone out to coffee tomorrow, and work your way slowly through your list.

Consider your time

How did you spend your time last year? Probably a mix of at work, at home, and on other duties. Think back through your biggest time commitments, and evaluate what you liked or disliked about each. What did you love doing the most in 2015? When where you happiest? What times were the most stressful, frustrating, or dark? What can you do to shift that balance for next year? What could you have done differently this year?

Get specific – don’t just say “I liked spending time with my partner,” rather, list out your favorite moments and remember how they made you feel. Remember to list out the hard moments, too, and try to understand what you learned from them.

Consider your regrets

This is a tough question, but it’s not meant to get you into a funk. Think about the frustrations of last year. What opportunities (both professional and personal) did you pass up? What do you wish you’d spent more time doing? Less time doing? What words do you wish you could take back? What words do you wish you’d said? What fears or procrastinations held you back?

Take time to learn the lesson in your regrets. Some things may have been out of your control, but others may hold important lessons to help you live better in the future.

Consider the goals you missed

Was 2015 definitely going to be the year you changed careers, wrote that screenplay, started a business, or ran a marathon? Did you not, in fact, do that?

Rather than simply saying, “Well, then 2016 is the year I’ll finally do X,” take a moment to really examine why you didn’t accomplish the goal this year. Did life get in the way? Did you forget about it? Did you go in a different direction? Is it a goal you feel obligated to do, but don’t actually want to do?

Don’t simply transfer goals from one year’s to do list to the next without truly thinking about it. Then, decide either to let it go and be at peace, or to double down in 2016 and actually accomplish it.

Make a list of what you want to leave behind

Along with goals that aren’t aligned with you anymore, make a list of hurtful emotions, unhealthy relationships, bad habits, and anything else that you’d like to leave behind in 2016.

All these lists and considerations will help you hone in on your goals for 2016, and form the basis for a great year. I’ll talk about how to turn them into action steps and goals in my next post.