Goal-Setting for Creatively-Minded People

Awhile ago I read this post at Nature titled “Goal-Setting for Scientifically Minded People.” It talks about how the goal of science isn’t something that can be easily measured or projected for, because a big part of science is discovery. While goals in science aren’t completely useless, you can’t say that Newton had the goal of inventing calculus, or that Einstein had the goal of uncovering relativity. These are things which simply arose through the process of doing science, of exploring and discovering.

I feel like a lot of this logic can also apply to the creative process. Like many of you, I’m one of them scientifically-minded folk, along with being a creative-type. I’m an engineer by day, and I attack most things like an engineer. I scope, I sub-task, I work iteratively, I test as I go, etc. As I’m trying to revise my novel and get it into some readable shape, I found myself having to say approximately when this hot mess would look presentable. At first I made some fretting sounds, but then I became an engineer who likes to scope her projects, and set an approximate date of when this thing might be done.

But how can I know for sure? Of course I can make up a great plan, something like: “If I write 500 words a day, every day, even weekends and holidays, then I’ll have a draft by this date. Then if I edit 20 pages a day I can get edits done by this date. Then betas, then revise from betas, then send it in!” But how can I possibly know it’ll be good enough by then? How can I know that after writing it, a set of edits, a round of betas, and then a bit more editing, I’ll have a manuscript that’ll make me happy?

At this point, I might be inclined to despair, wondering if goal-setting is completely useless. I mean, what’s the point of setting goals, if there’s no real way of knowing how the novel will look once I’m done with my projected work? I’m just flailing in a direction, and waiting to see how I land when I get there. So why bother?

Well, the article goes on to say that there’s a lot of good in setting aggressive goals. When students set high-reaching goals for themselves, goals which may be just outside their grasp, they tend to perform better than when they set realistic goals.

This makes me think of the phrase “Aim for the moon, because even if you miss, you’ll still be among the stars.” Although I think whoever said that did not have a very strong grasp on astronomy, I see the intended metaphor, and I’m willing to go along with it.

In the article, they describe two different types of goals: process goals, and outcome goals. They’re two different kind of goals, and keeping both in mind helps me deal with the angst of goal-setting. The outcome goal is probably the type of goal we’re all very familiar with. “I’m going to write a great novel.” “I’m going to get an agent.” “I’m going to publish with one of the big six.” These are end-point goals. And while they’re good to have, on their own, they can turn into a kind of personal kryptonite. When these goals prove elusive, it can be incredibly frustrating. You’ve worked so hard! Why haven’t you reached your goals?

But that other type of goal, the process goal, complements outcome goals in a great way. The process goal says “I’m going to write three hundred words a day.” It says “I’m going to outline three chapters this week.” Or “I’m going to do a writing exercise every day for the next month.” These are attainable goals that are fully within your control. While they may not get you a publishing contract or get people fighting over film rights, they are an integral part of working towards your outcome goals.

Eventually, the article comes to five points for scientists to keep in mind when it comes to setting goals:

1. it’s generally good to set goals, even if you’re a scientist

2. even if the ultimate result of scientific work, such as which specific discovery, or how you will make, is not clear, you can set process goals to at least make your behaviour helpful into becoming a scientist of high quality.

3. The best way to learn something seems to be by layering process goals with outcome goals; outcome goals helping to select the skills you need to work on, and the process goals giving you the skills to reach the outcome goals.

4. If a goal is far away in time, having smaller milestones helps

5. If you still have difficulty moving towards a goal, decide when (what day/time period) you are going to work on it, and what the first discrete (smaller) action is

So I decided, I’m going to re-write these, for creative types:

1. It’s generally good to set goals, even if you’re a writer/artist/musician/creative type.

2. Even if the ultimate result of writing a book/drawing a comic/painting on canvas/composing a song/designing a book cover is not clear, you can set process goals to at least make your behaviour helpful into becoming a writer/artist/musician/creative type of high quality.

3. The best way to learn something seems to be by layering process goals with outcome goals. Yep.

4 and 5. If a goal is far away in time, having smaller milestones helps. Break it up into small pieces, and decide when you’re going to work on each piece.

So now I just have to keep all of this in mind and not go completely insane with rewrites. So far it’s been helping me, and I hope it helps some of you too.

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  • Wendy N Wagner

    For me, I’m focusing on steps 4 & 5–and trying to work out some rewards for these smaller steps. I feel like I’m doing a really good job getting regular amounts of work done, but I also feel like I am as far away from my big goals (get a book published! by a NY publisher!) as ever I have been. I need to give myself some treats for putting in the hard work along the way, so I don’t get so frustrated.

  • Great post. Also for 4 and 5, the long term goals, make sure it’s not too specific and too limiting, otherwise you’d be constantly doubt your current steps. 

    Check my blog for some more goal setting resources.

  • Galen Dara

    okay this is awesome. Thank you for this post Morgan!

    I find i have some pretty divergent goals.  Some are specific projects for other people with specific deadlines, some are skills sets i want to learn. some are  my *own* artistic ideas I want to explore.  so I find myself alternating between number 2 and numbers 4-5.

    (and good luck with your re-write!)

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