This Simple Tweak in Goal-Setting Changed My Creative Output

This Simple Tweak in Goal-Setting Changed My Creative Output

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In the past, I have focused almost entirely on product goals. These goals were outcome-based, with a strong emphasis on finishing specific tasks by specific dates. An example might be, “Write one chapter every three days” or “post four blog posts per week.” Just to clarify, these goals were not extrinsic. They weren’t based on the success or failure of something I made (such as “write a best-seller”). Instead, they were deeply internal.

These product-oriented goals worked on some level. I was highly productive. However, when I focused entirely on finishing a task, I didn’t enjoy the journey. Also, when a task took longer than anticipated, I would rush through the next phase and the quality would diminish. On a more personal level, when I experienced unexpected interruptions, I found myself feeling irritated by the “unproductive” moments of life. Stare at the stars? There’s no time. I’ve got a chapter I promised myself I’d finish by tomorrow. Play an impromptu game of Uno with my kids? I have a project to finish.

These product-oriented goals pushed success at all costs and now, stepping away from that, I am able to see what the cost actually was — namely, the enjoyment of creative work. Don’t get me wrong. I enjoyed making things. But I didn’t realize how anxious I had become in this drive to get things done until I changed my approach to goal-setting.

A year ago, I switched to process-oriented goals. Instead of saying, “I’m going to run 25 miles this week,” I’m said, “I’m setting aside 40 minutes five days a week to go running.” If I run slower, fine. If I run faster, okay. If something comes up and I can’t get it done, that’s fine. It’s not about mileage. It’s about routine. Instead of saying, “I’m going to make two videos per week,” I’m saying, “I want to spend about a half an hour a day working on sketchy videos.” I had almost an entire month where the video I attempted simply bombed. However, because I hadn’t focused on the product, I was able to take risks and learn from the mistakes. The process didn’t feel wasted.

In other words, I’m being less disciplined about specific results and more disciplined about my schedule. Because I am doing fewer projects, I have more flexibility when urgent tasks come up and I have to change my plans. Moreover, I am able to work more leisurely on creative projects. There’s no pressure attached to it.

See, when I placed the journey above the destination, I discovered that my goals were not destinations at all. They had become habits. They were sacred rituals that enabled me to do the creative work that I love without thinking too hard about results.

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But something else happened as well. My work improved because I began to take creative work. A.J. and I spent about three months longer on Launch, because we both used a process-oriented approach to the goal-setting.

Product Goals Still Matter

A little nuance here: I realize that there are times when deadlines are necessary. I understand that most projects require some kind of planning. There are times when specific tasks need to be finished, such as the syllabus for an upcoming course or the prep work for an upcoming keynote. In these moments, I still set product-oriented goals.

Even now, as I think of the upcoming year, I have three projects I’d like to finish. I will, no doubt, set up deadlines.

In other words, these two types of goals are actually complimentary. When I am doing long-term work with flexible deadlines, I am going to stick to process-oriented goals. However, there are moments when I have an exciting short-term project and I need to allow for a chaotic schedule where I throw myself into the project for a short time and passionately finish the tasks. This will be especially true as I start working on my doctorate.

In the past, however, I had packed my schedule with these product-oriented goals and I set deadline-driven goals for every creative work I tackled. In the process, I failed to create the routines and habits that would allow me to thrive. Now, as I continue to focus on process-oriented goals, I have the space to occasionally take on a product-oriented goal and pursue a creative work quickly, with reckless abandon.


This post is also available on my Creative Classroom podcast. If you’re someone who enjoys listening to podcasts on the way to work, this might be a great way to “read” my blog. (Note: if you enjoy the podcast, please feel free to leave a review on iTunes or Google Play). You can also listen to it below:

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