How Do You Set Goals?

How Do You Set Goals?

This week’s question:

How do you approach setting goals?  (Why do you make goals, how often and how far out do you set them, how do you determine the target achievement, etc.)

I have a penchant for trying against the grain ideas for the sake of seeing if the common sense idea has true merit. Along those lines, I went through a period where I tried to get by without setting goals. I would just do what my intuition and passion of the day told me to do. This was fun for a bit until I came across things like “Hey, I’ll sit down and play this piece. Oh crap, I’m not good enough to play that.” A week later I’d get the same desire to play that piece and then it finally sunk in that if I wanted to achieve something that was above my current level of skill I needed goals. Mastery requires focus. Maybe there was something to the conventional wisdom after all.

Since then I’ve experimented with many different approaches to goals (chaining goals from big to small, quantity goals, quality goals, posting my goals in plain sight for me to see, etc.) which have all had some success. I’ve recently come around to two ways of setting goals that have helped me even more: identity goals and process goals. For me, identity goals are coming up with a handful of statements that I would like to be able to say about myself. Essentially giving my ideal short answers to a stranger of “who are you?” and “what do you do?”. Then I try to live my life according to these statements (even if I don’t fit the description yet). A handful of examples for me: “I’m a creator”, “I’m healthy and fit”, “I’m curious”, “I’m helping others”, “I’m sharing things”, “I’m a little weird”. They’re vague, but you’d be amazed at how much they can help when making decisions and setting goals that ring true to yourself.

Then I take these identity goals and make process goals out of them. These process goals are generally daily habits and fit under my larger goals as well. For instance, “I’m a creator”, what would be the process of becoming a creator? Well, obviously creating on a consistent basis. I have a large goal of writing 50 songs in 52 weeks. Through the process of writing music every day (or almost every day) I’m realizing my identity goal and the larger tangible goal. I have a whiteboard with all my process goals listed out one way and the days of the week the other. I make a check mark on each day that I do the daily process goal. It makes for a good visual of whether I’m actually living my identity goals or not.

Was I just fooling myself today or was I actually a curious, healthy and fit, creator that helped others, shared things, and was a little weird?

Matt Hanna
Musician/Composer/Teacher/Ecommerce Strategy Consultant/Personal Coach/Lover of Thinking and Learning
Boston, MA

This year I was not going to write down any goals. I caved a few days ago when I remembered I need broad goals as much as I need short goals. Every year I set big goals for the year that I can strive toward. Some are lofty and some are specific but they are my way to remember why I’m doing what I do.

My goals are determined by where I’m at with my work and where I want to go. I have a seven major goal list I hang over my desk. I also keep a To Do list in Evernote that is constantly changing and serves as my short and long term goals. As a creative person I often get lost in several tasks at once. I love challenging the amount on my plate. The goals and to do list keeps me focused and driving forward.

It’s hard to remember it takes a lot of little steps to reach big goals and achieving the small goals is just as important. I need to feel I’m making progress towards something and the only one who can hold me accountable is me. One of the best goals I made last year was to be rejected 20 times by a certain date. A little counterintuitive but as a writer it’s bound to happen a lot and I didn’t want to feel down about the rejections. So I made them a positive. If I was being rejected by an editor I was trying. I was working towards figuring it out and making it happen.

The most important part about goals is to take a minute to enjoy the time when you achieve one. When a large goal is met it’s vital to remember all the hard work that got you there and be proud of your achievement. It may be months or years before another large goal is met. Make sure to relish in the moment to build your confidence for the low periods. It’s tough taking risks in what you do but the payoff is great. Keep moving forward and set your goals high. “Shoot for the moon. Even if you miss, you’ll land among the stars.” – Les Brown

Naima Montacer, M.S.
Member, Society of Environmental Journalists

I feel like I’m rarely undertaking tasks that are similar enough to previous ones that I feel I can adequately plan for what will happen enough to set goals. What’s more, I’ve done enough self-reflection to realize that one of my most fundamental traits is the inability to predict contingencies. Nothing is more expected when I try something new than that something will go wrong, or turn out other than was anticipated. Having this information has lead me to adopt a tactic of embracing the unforeseen, valuing the wealth of learning that comes from the unforeseen. The kind of stress that comes out of this approach is–I find–the good kind: engrossing, exhilarating, life-affirming. In fact, by the time I’ve encountered the unexpected and assimilated it, by the time I could conceivably use this added understanding to undertake the same or similar task with greater fluidity, without hiccups, I find the task to have mostly lost its appeal. By then I’m ready to move on to something new.
In my teaching career I find my instruction to be the most vital, when I’m teaching something I’m not yet sure how to teach, when I’m still seeking out the best approach. I think learners respond well to the striving of a teacher they can see as, in a way, a fellow learner. It works for me. In my art-making it means my art is exploratory, experimental, what my all-time favorite art teacher dismissed as mere “futzing”. I suppose it adds up to my stuff being pretty self-indulgent. But at this point in my futzing, I’m okay with that. My goal is to futz, and futz I shall.

Colin Glanovsky
Art Educator

I almost equate goals with deadlines, and I’m very much of the Douglas Adams school of thought when it comes to those: “I love deadlines. I like the whooshing sound they make as they fly by.”

Setting goals can be a little defeatist, I find. Invariably, goals will be missed, and it can be easy to beat yourself up over missed targets. It’s better, I find, to just keep an eye on things from week to week, taking on jobs or starting projects that appeal, and then seeing where they go. Then again, for the really big projects, some sort of timeline is essential – I’m definitely going to finish the novel by May.

Or maybe September. Well, definitely by the end of the year, anyway. Possibly.

Lewis Packwood
Games Writer
Edinburgh, Scotland

“Be micro ambitious.” A comic named Tim Minchin suggested that to a crowd of graduating seniors during his commencement speech at UWA. I loved that suggestion because it finally put a label on the way I tend to approach my goals.

That’s not to say I don’t have big goals. I’ve set very large ones. The trouble is large goals aren’t the kind of thing that can happen in a day, yet we can only live for today. What gets done can only happen between the time we’re awake and fall back to sleep. So I need to treat days like steps forward. Those are my micro ambitions. Life will always have the things you want to do and the hundred thousand things you have to do in order to get there.

My favorite days are the large goal-setting days. They’re a time for reflection and commitment. Not the type of commitment you can text your way out of 5 minutes beforehand. Actual commitment – the kind you have to see through even on days you don’t quite feel up for it. My process involves making statements. I sit down in a place I can feel cozy without distraction for the next few hours and ask myself this:

“What do I want to be able to say at the next party I attend?”

I love this exercise, because it’s a scenario where we’re always telling people the current state of our lives and what we’re working toward, but the idea here is to imagine what would bring me the most pride and joy to say out loud to someone when asked about myself or what I’ve been up to. I end up with statements like, “I opened my online store” or “I’m fluent in Spanish,” always bolding the key word within the accomplishment. Later I print those statements out on 8.5″x11″ sheets of paper and tape them all around the walls of my bedroom. These print-outs act like a compass for me. They make it so those things I want to be able to say can’t escape my sight, and if I haven’t done anything that day to advance toward those goals, I feel responsible to follow-through on them before going to bed.

Here’s the most important part: micro ambition.

Once I have those large goals, I can easily set the small ones. I spend the rest of my time in that cozy spot working backwards from that statement. I plot out every step it takes to get from there back to where I currently am. It’s never a perfect prediction of everything necessary to achieve that goal, but it’s enough to get started, and that makes it enough. After all, what’s creativity if you’re not creating?

Which reminds me. I should mention that as of Monday, January 12, 2015, after more than a year and half of work, I opened my online store.

Dylan Klymenko
Creator at
New Jersey

I find it more productive to set short-term goals: day/week/month/3-month/6-month. We all have longer-term goals. I have just been more successful focusing on the shorter ones to achieve the longer ones.

Also, I find it very helpful to write my goals down on a piece of paper, in an upside-down pyramid form, with bars divided by lines. Long-term being the widest bar on top. I start with 3-month on the bottom and work my way up to 10-year on the top. I write the goals inside of the divided boxes.

Sometimes, well, oftentimes rather, my goals are not met in full. And that is OK. Target achievement is important to have, and with a little more work that you expected to give, it can be reached. 🙂

Solmaaz Adeli
SF Bay Area | Vienna, Austria

Goals to me are my dreams and passions that I put a deadline on. Last year, within a six months span, I had 9 people close to me pass away, so accomplishing my dreams seems more of an urgency, since life is truly short, and there isn’t a second that it’s taken for granted. When I set goals I do everything in sections, there are life goals, yearly goals, weekly goals, hourly. Everything has it’s place, and usually with my goals, I place them in different areas, knowing that I do have a tendency for my mind to wander, which can get frustrating. I have a bulletin board where I keep all my life, and art gallery goals, which is in an area which when I walk into the studio I can’t miss and I always have a reminder of where I want to be. The weekly and daily, I usually keep in a small calendar that I carry around with me along with my iPad which I set them as alarms.

I determine which goals to do, based on what is going on around me. If I have an art show/gallery I base on how long it takes with printing, setups, etc, as well as what is going on with the art organizations and galleries. In the end they do get accomplished, sometimes not in the order that I wish, but how the cards fall.

Paula B.

I look at setting goals based on what I want to do. I always am striving to better myself as a designer and artist. There is so much I want to learn and experience I have to set goals for myself to achieve these things. Setting small goals is the best way to tackle them. Instead of setting a large goal which can be difficult to stay on track, setting smaller ones makes it easier for me to tackle. I put what I want to do or accomplish on my calendar or board that I have so I can see it everyday. It is hard sometimes to stay on track when other things come up but I try to accomplish a little each week.

Desiree Zielinski
Graphic Designer
Scranton, Pennsylvania

I approach settings goals with uneasiness. After determining a goal, I have to feel nervous, as if I’m not sure I can do it. I’ve found that these are the only true goals worth pursuing. If a goal is easy to obtain then it doesn’t qualify as a goal to me.
Before I was a professional photographer, I would think “I want that profession but it’s for other people”. When I think like this about something that I need or want, in my life, then the goal must be made. I remember the moment I decided that this was going to be my profession and once decided, I could not and would not stop until the goal was realized.
I’m also more attracted to goals that others tell me are impossible or unachievable. My recent goal was building a darkroom for myself, by myself, that encompassed all of the processes I work with. I wish I had a dollar for every time someone would see what I was doing and come back with an unknowing negative remark…trying to help in their minds…but really showing their own weakness.
I find that a goal really has to push my envelope and put me on the line with myself and how I look at my own self worth.

Chuck Baker

I’ve come to believe in the power of setting a mix of both big and tiny goals.

We all know that big goals are important – without ’em, it’s easy to just stumble forward day by day without actually going anywhere, seeing as you had no idea where you wanted to go. For example, I knew right from the beginning of my career that a goal of mine was to work for myself. If I hadn’t set that goal, I would have never done all that freelancing on the side for 3 years. After all, watching Netflix is way more appealing than coming home after work to do more work, am I right?

On the other hand, I don’t like all my goals to be on that scale. When I set too many big goals in too small a time period, I inevitably fail at a bunch of them within a few weeks, and then I wonder why I can’t follow through. Then it’s easy to fall into the “Why am I so uncommitted/lazy?” trap, and that’s not a fun place to be. So, that’s where tiny goals come into play.

Lately, more of my goals involve doing very small actions every day to cement the idea that, hey, I actually AM capable of some change and momentum forward. I’m sure everyone’s heard of Jerry Seinfeld’s “Don’t break the chain” secret to productivity (, and I think it’s really effective. I don’t use a physical calendar to track the chain – instead I use an app on my phone called Daily Goals. I highly recommend trying it out – once you’ve convinced yourself that you can actually stick to something, lots of things are possible.

Dara Skolnick
Web Developer + Designer
Toronto, Canada

As a producer of live theatre for the last decade – specifically new plays – goal setting has been part of my daily work. Goal setting in terms of casting, design, budgets, time, labor, production timelines and ultimately the quality of the artistic product are necessary for every single play I do. In addition to that, I am a coordinator of many other people’s goals. That’s where things get challenging and where I get my greatest joy. When everyone’s priorities are competing, how do you achieve the best artistic product given the limitations of _________(budget, time, human resources, you name it)? When do you compromise? How do you choose which priorities to focus on?

I draw inspiration from Ed Catmull, President of Pixar – the animation powerhouse that brought us Toy Story, Finding Nemo, Wall-E, and Brave among many others. Catmull recently published an excellent memoir/guide to running a creative enterprise titled Creativity, Inc.: Overcoming the unseen forces that stand in the way of true inspiration.

I think he articulates some of the dynamism and difficulties of goal setting – and also best practices – when working on creative endeavors, such as:

Hold lightly to goals and firmly to intentions,” when trying to manage a creative process, Catmull suggests, because the goals will likely have to change as the situation changes. He goes on to say, “We are willing to adjust our goals as we learn, striving to get it right – not necessarily to get it right the first time.”

For me, this quote perfectly encapsulates the experience of realizing partway through the design or build process that some aspect of the design won’t work. Designers, the director and technicians all have to come back to the table and adjust the original vision for the design. In my experience, we often come out with a stronger concept that serves the play better by concentrating on the essence of what best serves the play and collaborating on the solution to the problem.

One wants to be nurturing and supportive when working on new plays, but protecting nascent ideas is not the same as isolating them from critical feedback. To be a good manager of creative enterprises, Catmull says, you have to “protect your employees from themselves. Because if history is any guide, some are diligently trying to polish a brick.”

Any manager of a creative process knows the sinking feeling when the artistic product is not coming together. It’s easy to panic, particularly if Opening Night is looming. This is where, as a producer, I organize either private or group discussions to get to the root of what’s not working. This is the point where I can help the artistic team by letting go of my own goals, where I can help achieve our artistic goals by authorizing more rehearsal time for new rewrites, hiring lighting techs to figure out the glitches in the moving lights, providing more money for an alternative costume choice.

It’s my responsibility as a manager to think creatively and act dynamically in some instances and to hold the line in others (the budget is maxed out or we’re out of time for additional labor). If I don’t do that then I’ve failed in achieving the ultimate goal – to create a work of art that is the best it can possibly be in the current circumstances.

As Catmull says in closing (emphasis mine):

“Unleashing creativity requires that we loosen the controls, accept risk, trust our colleagues, work to clear the path for them, and pay attention to anything that creates fear. Doing all these things won’t necessarily make the job of managing a creative culture easier. But ease isn’t the goal; excellence is.”

Kacy O’Brien
Trenton, NJ
Program Manager, Creative New Jersey

What do you think? How do you go about goals? Share your thoughts below.

Photo by Matt Hanna