I’m not a fan of New Year’s resolutions simply because they don’t stick. There are numerous reasons and studies for why 92% of resolutions fail. In my observation most goals set in the spirit of the holidays often introduce new habits without building a system to support and sustain the habit. Secondly, it’s easy to idealize ourselves in the future while ignoring the patterns of our past. If your spare time has been consumed by playing Overwatch, your epic environment painting will probably remain a fantasy. It’s not that I don’t believe people aren’t capable of incredible change, but rather the majority (myself included) grossly underestimate the work that goes into it.
When it comes to setting goals for your creative endeavours, are you making the same mistakes? Are you setting goals which are too big and vague only to be discouraged after a few weeks?
Here I share my personal system for tracking goals. You can download the worksheet I will be using in 2018 at the end of the article. At its core, the worksheets simplify the process of breaking down broad goals into manageable actions. It’s not fancy by any means but the format has helped me to:
As a freelance illustrator, I completely understand the desire to focus on designing and drawing while ignoring the grunt work of organizing and planning. But I also know the helplessness of being overwhelmed, distracted and lost when I don’t have a clear direction. So if you’re tired of having life happen to you and want to make your creative goals a reality, the next sections will explain how the worksheets can help you move forward.
Thinking about what you want to accomplish in a year can be a daunting task, making the first step of defining your Year End Goals a bit of a challenge. You might have a lot of interests you want to pursue or perhaps you have some vague inklings of what you would like to do. In planning ahead, a good place to start is to actually look back at what you’ve accomplished in 2017.
What skills or projects did you develop last year which you can build on? Which tasks made you the most excited and which ones were draining? Which clients provided the best income? What projects fulfilled you?
Take 10 minutes to write down everything that you would like to accomplish this year. Stop. Go through your list, cross out the ones that give you luke warm vibes and pick 3 that really sparks your interests or you know are pressing. Prioritization is key. We often underestimate the time we need to execute something well. In fact I challenge you to pair it down to a single goal if you can.
Now we’re going to make your goals sticky by stating a target and a purpose using one sentence for each goal. Some examples might include:
Once you’ve defined your goals, copy your top 3 picks into every worksheet provided. This will remind you of what you set out to do and provide focus when work and life become chaotic.
In the next section, we’ll be working backwards from the Year End Goals to break them down into manageable tasks.
While the Year End Goals provide you with a broad direction, we will need to break them down into a series of tasks, making it easy for you to take small actions. The chart I provided for every month helps you do just that.
Look at your Year End Goals and figure out what you need to accomplish every month to reach your annual target. So if you’re looking to land 12 new clients, it makes sense to aim to bring in 1 client a month. If you’re in the early phases of setting up a store, your first month can be to research and learn what goes into launching, managing and marketing.
All you are doing is dividing your Year End Goals into manageable parts.
Start with the first month for now. What do you need to do this month to meet your goal? If it’s producing weekly video tutorials, your tasks may include planning 4 videos, filming, editing, promoting, engaging with your audience and so forth.
Based on your experiences estimate the timeframe for each task. (Or calculate how many hours you have left when you take into account other goals, work or family responsibilities and divide the time among your tasks.) Be honest. If it takes 4 hours of filming to get the shots you need to produce 15 minutes of quality content then write that down. This is for you to track your process and development.
The point of filling out your monthly goals, tasks and time is to give you a bird’s eye view of what’s really important to you and how much you can take on. You might realize you won’t have time for everything so you will need to tweak your plan and even rethink your priorities.
Quick tip: I didn’t provide a weekly or daily breakdown because I found I was spending too much time maintaining the list instead of actually doing the work. The worksheets can be used together with your calendar or to-do list for your meetings and daily tasks. In fact I use Google Keep to track more complex projects. What I want you to get into the habit of is defining a goal, breaking it down into actionable parts and prioritizing the things that really matter to you.
In the next section, we’ll be tracking your progress.
After a month, let’s see how you did. The final section of the worksheets asks two simple questions to help you evaluate your month.
What were your wins last month?
What were your challenges last month?
Treat this as your personal journal and list your experiences, both good and bad. Your wins might be landing 2 clients, publishing 4 videos or completing a marketing course. Your challenges might be failing to launch, taking on too many clients or a project running longer than expected.
It’s important to not beat yourself up if you didn’t meet your targets. Take this opportunity to learn how to better use your time and reduce or even delegate tasks for the next month.
Were you procrastinating at the possibility of failure? Were you worried about what other people think? Or did you overcome your fear of rejection and pitch that project anyways? Write down everything that comes to mind about the previous month, whether emotional or practical. Eventually, you’ll have a record of your performance and mentality which will help you determine the best way to move forward.
After doing this exercise consistently in the last year, I noticed that a pattern of negative thinking was derailing me from my goals. Gaining awareness of my pitfalls has helped me to address the problems head on. Over the months I saw that my habitual challenges decreased and I was able to accomplish more.
Spoiler alert: The challenges never go away completely. Some months will be better than others and as you progress new roadblocks may appear. Tracking your wins and challenges gives you a balanced perspective of your progress allowing you to craft a plan based on your results.
Now that we’ve run through the process of creating and tracking goals, you simply rinse and repeat for every month. The worksheets are meant to help you build the habit of reflecting on what you’ve done so you can move forward from a balanced perspective. After you get the hang of it, I wouldn’t spend more than 45 min per month on the exercise because you’re going to need all those hours to act on your plan to see anything happen. And one last tip:
You don’t have to do it alone.
The main reason I was able to consistently follow the system and get more done is because I worked on my goals with friends and colleagues who I can be completely vulnerable with. I found it especially helpful to go over my wins and challenges with other people. It made me accountable for my actions (or lack thereof) and the exchange of insights was invaluable.
Huge thanks to all my fellow creatives who took the time to listen, provide support and offer input. The goal tracking process wouldn’t be what it is without you!
The caveat: I’m not going to pretend that I have it all figured out. In fact I still have a long way to go to reach my personal and professional goals. I do remember having high hopes in 2017 which quickly spiralled into uncertainty, indecisiveness and anxiety. Having a way to track my goals, tasks and time allowed me to make decisions based on results rather than emotions. A couple of months into the exercise, I gained focus and clarity which greatly improved my productivity. My intention for writing this article is to share what has worked for me to help you get started as well as stay on your track.
Half of the work is already done for you. Why not give it a shot?
Angela Zhang is a Toronto based illustrator specializing in 2D digital art. Creating a narrative is a central part of her image making process whether she’s working on a comic or a single painting. She has been helping businesses and individuals tell their story in unique and engaging ways through illustration and design. She is best known for her dark, gritty, atmospheric style which is well suited for dystopian, mystery and horror themes.