Your goals should help you, not haunt you

I have a confession.
I didn't follow my own advice.

In fact, I did the complete opposite of what I think is best, and I had no idea I was doing it.

To tell you this story, I need to back up a few weeks and tell you what happened when we went into the new year.

When 2017 started and my Fear Year ended, I recognized that a shift was happening in this creative journey of mine. During 2016 my focus was on fighting my own fears and getting to know my creativity again. It was both a reflective, introspective phase and one of exploration.

While I wanted to stay conscious of and open about what was happening inside me, I also wanted to shift my focus in 2017. I know I'm just one person with one set of fears and creative struggles, and while we are all very much alike, there are also times when we differ. I leaped into 2017 with the thought that I want to learn more about how my fellow creatives work and how I can best help others create bravely.

I made my word for 2017 CONNECT

The meaning was twofold - on one hand connect with my fellow creatives, on the other hand to connect the different parts of my creativity. By giving my word two meanings, I was able to both focus on my own creativity and on learning from others.

So far, so good.

But there was a stress that got mingled in: the stress of growth.

Now that my Fear Year was over and I wanted to connect more with others, I thought it was a good time to focus on growing this blog a little. Reaching more creatives, growing my social media accounts. Set goals for the art shop. Set goals for growing the traffic to my site.

All of those things that everyone say you should focus on when you're a blogger, and that I'd ignored when I was wrapped up in creating bravely.

I started working. I broke down my goals into monthly, weekly and daily goals. I planned and took action. But as the first weeks of January crept by, I found myself getting stressed. I redid my schedule, carved out more time for rest and recovery. It helped a little, but I still felt anxious.

I started sleeping badly. I kept updating my goals over and over during the day. Even when I was on track, I felt stressed, because I knew it was not enough to be satisfied with one day, because I would need to the same thing the next day or I would fall behind. 

My mind was spinning. If I fell asleep calmly, I could wake up three hours later with a racing mind that was trying to figure out how I would reach those goals. They weren't even too steep. They were actually quite reasonable, as long as I put in a little bit of effort. I didn't fully understand why it wasn't working, just that it wasn't.

Something needed to change

The anxious feeling I was walking around with didn't go away with yoga, meditation or hot baths. I could get the anxiety to go sit in a more remote place inside of me, but it was still there. After two weeks of this, I acknowledged that something needed to change. 

Because if I didn't change, I would lose what I loved so much about living this creative life. The freedom, the creativity and the joy.

So I changed my goals and how I was working towards them. The first thing I did was to delete the daily tracking. A rush of relief went through me. Then I took my goals and hid them in a document named "old goals", just in case. I kept my monthly tracking of traffic, social media followers, new Teacup Owls subscribers and art shop sales, but the goals were gone. 

My mind shifted. Before, when I looked at the growth that had happened in January, I had only seen how far I was from my goal. Now all I saw was the progress, and it made me happy.

Uplifted by this, I wrote out new goals for the year, entirely different ones. They were not as much goals as the were values. Here's what I wrote:

2017 is a year for creativity and connection in a sustainable, happy life.

In 2017 I want to connect with other creatives. Learn, listen, ask. I will be both a researcher and a friend.

What are they scared of? How can I help them? Where do they struggle?
In the things I create, I will think about how I can design it for connection.
In the things I create, I will let what I've learned guide me.

In everything I do, my values will guide me.

Authentic: Be honestly myself, let my personality and taste shine through.     
It's when I'm open, vulnerable and listen to my own truth that I connect with others the most.

Brave: To create bravely is my motto and it should always guide me. I'm not done, I will keep facing fears. I'm not the person who lets fear stop me from my dreams. I will make the brave version.

Creative: Creativity is what lights me up and it should guide me in everything I do. It will help me stay happy, keep me exploring and it will help me make better things.

I do this because I want to live a happy creative life.

I need to keep this life healthy at every stage.
Metrics should never be at the forefront of my decisions.

I do this for the love of creativity and the joy of creating.
It should never make me lose track of what's important.
If it's stopping me from living the life I want, something needs to change.

To stay happy, I need space in my life. I need to live slowly.
I will stay patient and keep stress out of my life.

I will evaluate projects and my creative life based on these questions:

  • How does this help me connect and learn from my fellow creatives?
  • How does this help me grow and develop the Teacup Owls?    
  • How authentic is it? Am I doing this in my own style, with honesty?    
  • How brave is it? Am I facing any fears?    
  • How creative is it? Am I doing it with creativity?    
  • How fun is it? Does it bring me joy?    
  • How much stress does it bring me? Does it help me stay calm and grounded?
  • Am I focusing on the process or the result?    
  • Does perfectionism hold me back?    

And then, I realized that I hadn't been taking my own advice

I had focused on the result instead of the process. Over and over again I tell others to forget about the result and lean into the process of getting there, because I know how powerful that shift is. I know that when we focus on the process, we dive into the joy of the journey, but when we only care about the result, we grow scared, anxious and stressed.

There's absolutely nothing wrong with wanting to reach more people with your creativity. Neither is there anything wrong with wanting to reach new goals or make money from what you create. That's not what this is about.

My point here is that we need to set goals that work for us. Goals that keep us happy and aligned with the reason we're doing this. 

Sometimes tangible, metric goals can help us get out of perfectionism and keep us moving. That's very true in the case of word count goals. When working on my novel, I always set word count goals and it has helped me let go of the end result and just focus on getting there.

But other times, turning something meaningful into numbers can shift your focus from the reason and the joy to the metric result. Then we need to keep track of the less tangible stuff, that are oh so much more important.

Your goals should help you, not haunt you

Goals are not there to punish you. They are there to help you. And believe me, the goals we set have more effect on us than we might think.

When I changed my goals, my anxiety released its grip and flew away. Stress departed and I slept so well that night. Changing my goals did what yoga and meditation couldn't do. 

If you're feeling anxious or stressed, think about what you're striving for. Are your goals making you happy? If not, then it's time to change them.

Sometimes we see changing our goals as a failure, and changing mine wasn't entirely easy. But if you've set goals that aren't good, the failure is to stick with them just because your past self thought they were good. 

In his book Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us, Daniel H. Pink writes about the difference between intrinsic and extrinsic motivation. That is, the difference between being motivated by the act in itself (for example creating for joy) and being motivated by something else, often a price or punishment. Pink describes how being extrinsically motivated not only gives worse results, it can make us forget about the joy that we were motivated by in the beginning. And - it makes us much less creative.

So when you are about to set a goal for a creative project, or make a plan with milestones, stop and think for a moment.

Ask yourself if the goals you're setting are helping you to lean into the process and forget about the result, or if it's doing the opposite. Are your goals connected to your why and what you enjoy the most? If not, you might just want to change them, if you're serious about making this project happen without burning out or growing tired of it halfway through.

Let your helpful goals determine the process

After finding my new value-based goals for 2017, I felt better. But soon stress and anxiety came creeping back and it took me a little while to realize that it was because I hadn't changed my process after changing my goals. 

In 2016, I created at high speed, for many different reasons. I used a fast pace to push through the fears I struggled with, and a big amount to get comfortable with creating and sharing. Having oppressed my creativity for so long and now finally being able to create, it was like unstoppable force of endless inspiration. My Fear Year had an end and I wanted to get a lot done in that year. And finally, I wanted to build up this online home for my creativity.

Now, I'm entering the next phase of my creative life, and it's about time I make it one that is sustainable in the long run.

I don't fear sharing my writing anymore. I don't fear drawing or painting, or selling what I've made. I can call myself an artist, a writer and a creative without cringing. My Fear Year did its thing and now I need to slow down.

I need to do what I should have done when the new year began: I need to take a step back and evaluate my creative life. I need to take a hard look on everything I'm working on, because it's a lot and it has taken over life in a way that is both wonderful and a bit too much. I need to make my creative life one that I can keep living without stress.

So starting next week, I'm taking a 2 week break from everything creative, followed by 2 weeks of silent contemplation and evaluation, deciding how I will proceed. That means I'm going to be gone from the blog between February 13 and March 13. 

I feel deeply that I need that break to gain some perspective, and at the same time I want nothing else than to dive head first into all those creative ideas I have. But sometimes we got to let our healthy, helpful goals decide, and that's what I'm gonna do, just like when I followed my not so comfortable goal to face my fears.