This is part 11 of a 12 day blog series called “12 Steps You Must Take To Get Into Creative Flow Whenever You Want” or the more seasonal “The 12 Days of Creativeness”.
I know that some creative types hate the idea of “goals”. Some even dislike the word. If you do, think of them as “outcomes” or “objectives”.
(I’m going to use “goals” here, because it’s much easier to type!)
While rigid lists of goals might work for you, they don’t work for everyone. I certainly don’t insist that my clients keep a strict and constantly updated goal list for every area of their life.
But psychology professor Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi (who wrote the book on Flow and who has studied hundreds of people in all walks of life who experience flow) found that they all have challenging goals of their own choosing.
And after analysing my creative career, although I didn’t refer to them as “goals”, just “stuff I wanted to finish”, when I had “stuff I wanted to finish” I was more inspired, worked harder and did better work.
It’s clear that goals, aims, outcomes or objectives are important.
But the traditional view of a good goal doesn’t address some essential characteristics which will cause you to experience creative flow.
You’ve probably heard the acronym “SMART” (Specific, Measurable, Agreed, Recorded, Time bound – or some variation of that). While doing my coaching diploma it was drummed into me that these elements were what made a good, motivating goal for a coaching client.
But as I coach creative people who want to get into that precious peak state of creative flow, I’ve always felt that SMART somehow misses the mark.
So I came up with my own acronym. A goal that will help you find flow will be:
Challenging. Recorded. Explicit. Affirmative. Time-based. Inspiring. Valuable. Enjoyable.
A good CREATIVE goal will be challenging enough to stimulate you but not so challenging that you get discouraged and run the risk of giving up.
Now I recognise that finding that fine line between too challenging and too easy can be a challenge in itself! I spend a significant part of the coaching process helping my clients find that fine line.
But once you start to walk it, you won’t look back.
Experiment with setting yourself tough challenges. I would always err on the side of “too challenging”, because I believe that most people underestimate their potential…
A goal that isn’t recorded is a dream.
Write your goals down, or type them into your computer or phone. Look at them daily or even better, rewrite them every day. I have found that when I do this I naturally make my goals my priorities, and don’t get so easily distracted.
And if you can, find someone who you can speak to about your goals. Simply the act of telling someone else will mean you’re accountable to them and much more likely to take action.
When you have an explicit goal, you’ll be able to say “I’ve achieved it”.
It will be clearly defined. Even better if it’s something you can measure e.g. the number or tracks you want to finish. And if it’s something you can’t measure, then create a way of measuring it.
For instance, some of my clients want to finish more music, but have difficulties due to lack of confidence.
So first I get them to make their overall goal explicit.
Client: “I will finish 2 tracks a month for the next 3 months.”
But in order to achieve their overall goal they need to increase their confidence. This is a smaller “sub-goal” which I ask them to make explicit:
Me: “On a scale of 1-10 how confident are you now?”
Client: “About a 4.”
Me: “Where would you have to be on that scale to allow you to finish 2 tracks a month?”
Client: “I think probably a 7 or 8.”
(So their sub-goal is to get from a confidence level of 4 to a 7.)
Then to find out what the first step would be:
Me: “What has to happen to get your confidence from it’s current 4 to a 5?”
So by breaking down the overall goal into smaller sub-goals, and making what isn’t well defined into something explicit, they’ll know when they’ve achieved each step and how much closer they are to their overall goal.
Go through a similar process yourself with your goals. You’ll be much more excited and motivated to take action.
I’m surprised at how many new coaching clients have no problem telling me what they don’t want, but find it almost impossible to tell me what they do want.
It’s not possible to achieve something you don’t want because a/ it might happen in the future or b/ you might do it in the future.
And by stating what you don’t want, “I want to stop procrastinating” you are focusing on it. By constantly referring to your procrastination you are much more likely to continue procrastinating.
It’s more effective to say what you want: “I will focus all my attention on producing music for 30 minutes every day until the end of the month.”
Give yourself a deadline.
You might find this difficult. But if you can put a time limit on each goal it will be less likely to drag on.
And if you’ve set a deadline you can hit, you’ve agreed it with someone else and you’ve recorded it, you will be in a position where you’re highly likely to achieve it.
This is a crucial and unique component of a creative flow goal.
You must make sure that every goal is connected to your purpose.
When your goals are “on purpose”, you will be inspired by them and even if they are challenging, you’ll have little problem achieving them.
Whether you’re thinking about your “overall goal” (what you want) or the smaller “sub-goals” (what you need to achieve to get there), if they are to propel you towards creative flow, they must be valuable to you.
Your overall goal must be something you value above almost everything else. You have to make sure it’s something you really want.
And you measure any sub-goal’s value by asking whether it’s the best step to take towards your overall goal.
This isn’t mentioned in any traditional goal setting methodology that I’ve found, but is essential to you if you want to experience creative flow more often.
Your goals must be inherently enjoyable, or you must work out how to enjoy them.
Because while your flow state will create enjoyment, enjoying what you’re doing also has the potential to activate your flow state.
Now I’m sure there will be some goals that you won’t think are inherently enjoyable. But by thinking creatively there are always ways of making them enjoyable.
I know that’s a lot of letters!
So if I had to pick the most important, funnily enough they wouldn’t be the ones related to SMART. Certainly not for creative people.
I believe that while the others are useful, in order to experience creative flow the absolutely essential qualities of a goal are Challenging, Inspiring, Valuable and Enjoyable.
(They don’t make a cool acronym though. Somehow VICE doesn’t quite cut it…)
(They don’t make a cool acronym though. Somehow VICE doesn’t quite cut it…)
I have to confess that I have had some problems with goal setting in my own life.
I thought they might be demotivating if I didn’t achieve them. I also worried that they’d be restrictive. When that inspiration struck I’d want to follow where it led rather than staying on track with my chosen goal.
But according to my personal experience, what I have learnt from my clients, and the available academic research, CREATIVE goals won’t stifle your inspiration, they’ll stimulate it.
When I coach musicians, discovering what motivates and excites them around goal setting is one of the most important parts of the coaching process. Not only do they achieve more, but they learn how to achieve more in the future.
But I’ve found that there are as many ways of approaching goals as there are clients, what motivates one will discourage another.
And while setting CREATIVE goals should mean you don’t feel restricted or discouraged, here’s my top 4 tips which have helped many of my clients set goals.
Use a mind map to record your goals instead of those boring lists!
Place your overall aim in the middle of the mind map and then create “thought bubbles” around it for the smaller sub goals and actions.
This works particularly well if you are a visual thinker, and can be a more creative way of thinking about goals.
There’s lots of expensive mind map software around, but I use Freemind. It’s open source, free and awesome.
An unusual but effective way of identifying sub-goals is to imagine yourself having already achieved your overall goal. Once you are “there”, write down all the things you have done to get there.
This is an imaginative way of both setting smaller sub-goals and planning actions. It works particularly well for creative minds. Instead of planning from the place you are now, you’re planning from the place you want to be.
Because you’re using your imagination to put yourself in the position of having achieved your goal, you’ll be more excited and motivated.
You’ll also find that you anticipate the obstacles you might face and more effectively work out ways you might get around, through, over or under them.
I got this from Stephen R Covey, author of the classic “The 7 Habits Of Highly Effective People” (which if you’re interested in personal development you must read).
When you plan, decide what you want to do in a week, not in a day.
This works excellently for creative pursuits as it simply and neatly avoids the potential for your goals to become restrictive. It also allows you time and space to follow your inspiration, and for life to get in the way.
Most people overestimate what they can do in a day and underestimate what they can do in a week. By working in weeks, you’re less likely to get discouraged and demotivated.
You change. Other people change. The world changes.
In a very real sense we are change. And while setting CREATIVE goals is important, being flexible when using them is more important.
I always put following my inspiration when it strikes before hitting a goal on deadline. This isn’t aimlessly drifting, waiting for inspiration to strike, and ignoring your goals, it’s being aware of your goals but flexible in your approach to them.
Your goals will change. Constantly looking at them and rewriting them will mean they change organically over time. That’s to be expected, in fact that’s healthy.
Flexibility is key to a successful creative career.
It seems contradictory that by choosing a course of action, you can be more flexible in the actions you take. But by setting your CREATIVE goals carefully, you will feel more comfortable about altering them.