Setting Smart Goals

Many of us secretly (or not-so-secretly!) harbor ‘lifelong dreams’ to achieve something big. Our passion for these big-picture goals doesn’t fade. But our motivation to actually devote the minutes and hours required to them is frequently elusive. Other things – like cleaning the house or fixing the mower – seem more pressing in our short-term realities.

All too often, these really big goals can seem impossibly enormous. We throw up our hands in defeat:

“I’ll never pay off my debt, so why bother making this payment?”

“I’ll never finish this book, so why sit down and write now?”

But there are two tricks to making almost any big goal achievable:

  • Make sure it’s a SMART goal
  • Break it down into smaller milestones.

Making a SMART goal

If you want to actually achieve a goal, you need to make sure it is well-defined. A goal that is too open or ambiguous cannot possibly be ‘SMART’ – that is, Specific, Measurable, Achievable, and Realistic within a particular Timeframe.

Two example goals

Let’s consider some common goals from each of the other two spheres of our model, one artistic and one economic.

Imagine your goal is to pay off your debt. ‘I will pay off my debt.’
And you want to write a novel. ‘I will write a novel.’

A well-defined goal is like a brick wall, with many parts. We have to build these bricks in.

Make your goal specific enough to be measurable

Without some concrete definition, a goal cannot be specific, and it must be specific in order to be measurable.

‘I will pay off $200,000 of mortgage debt’ is specific.
‘I will pay off my debt’ is not.

Likewise, ‘I will write a 50,000 word Young Adult novel’ is specific.
‘I will write a novel’ is not.

Add a realistic timeframe

There must also be a timeframe in order for your goal to be measurable.

‘I will pay off $200,000 of mortgage debt in five years’ can be measured, evaluated for success on a predetermined date.
‘I will pay off $200,000 of mortgage debt’ alone cannot, and is destined to flounder on into the future.

Similarly, ‘I will complete a 50,000 word draft of my YA novel in November’ is measurable.
‘I will complete a 50,000 word draft of my YA novel’ is also destined to languish somewhere in your desk drawer or in your computer folders.

The importance of research

How do we pick what timeframe to use? Do a little research.

For example, I chose the five year timeframe based on Anita Bell’s excellent book Your Mortgage: And how to pay it off in five years. It’s a superb guide, regardless of whether you pay your mortgage off in five, ten, or fifteen years, and most importantly, it contains charts with different loan amounts and interest rates that will help you determine what a realistic payout date might be for you. While paying off a mortgage in under five years might sound really difficult given the average loan term is around five times this long, it can be done! (Read more about why you should view your mortgage’s end date as a ‘speed limit’ and not a goal to aspire to on Enrichmentality)

For the novel goal, I chose the 50,000 words in one month timeframe based on the National Novel Writing Month guidelines. Every November, writers from around the world strive to complete 1,667 words per day in order to finish a 50,000 draft novel in the span of a month. While 1,667 words might sound like a lot too, it’s actually a pretty typical day’s work for most writers. [LINK TO SARAH NEOFIELD BLOG POST HERE]. So, if you’re looking to be a professional writer, aiming for this daily word count would be a fairly realistic place to start.

Why do we need so many details?!

It can be scary to set out our goals in detail. Even if we tell nobody other than ourselves.

This is, at least in part, because we fear failure.

A simple goal like ‘I will save money’ is much more attractive. Because it is much easier to satisfy. You could set aside a 5c coin you found under the couch and claim to have achieved your goal.

But we all know that’s not what you really meant when you set that goal, and you aren’t going to go anywhere fast with that level of commitment to your savings.

A goal like ‘I will save $5,000 in a high interest account by the end of this year’ requires, at a minimum, that you open up your savings account on December 31, and see if your balance is at or above $5,000.

The opportunities for failure with a well-designed goal are many. You could get to $4,999 instead. You could reach your goal – but in January. You could save the $5,000 by December, but neglect to open a high-interest account and miss out on bonus interest rates.

That’s why having a SMART goal can be scary. But it’s also why it makes it much more likely that you will actually achieve what you truly desire, instead of pretending you’re satisfied with less.

Returning to our building block analogy…

A well-defined goal is like a brick wall.

It has a number of blocks, and if one breaks (e.g. the ‘one year’ timeframe, or the ‘$5,000′ amount) you can easily replace that broken brick with a new one (e.g. ’18 months’ or ‘$2,000’) and still have a strong wall.

Bricks

A poorly-defined goal that lacks detail and substance is like a pane of glass.

There are no discrete elements to separate out and replace if one gets broken, just a vague statement (e.g. ‘I will save money’, ‘I will write a novel;, ‘I will pay off my debt’). If the glass breaks, the whole thing becomes useless – or even dangerous, with the sense of failure cutting like shards of glass. And you have to start all over again.

If your sense of failure is too great, you might not even bother to replace the glass at all, and simply board up the window (I’ve really taken the analogy too far now, haven’t I?!)

So even though it can be scary to be specific about what you want, what appear to be many opportunities for failure in a SMART goal are actually opportunities for adjustment. You give yourself more opportunities for success by monitoring and being flexible with your goal, adapting those specifics to suit changes in your circumstances.

How do we monitor our goal and decide where to make changes?

Break it down!

So, you’ve created a goal that is specific, and set a realistic timeframe in which to achieve it, which makes it measurable, But there’s one more step to ensure you actually achieve it. And that’s breaking it down!

There are two reasons smaller goals are so important:

First of all, in terms of our mental well-being, it allows us to focus on one thing at a time. To work on a bite-sized chunk without having to worry too much about the overwhelming big picture.

Secondly, in terms of the actual outcome, it allows us to achieve something. Too often, we focus on getting something perfect instead of just getting it done.

Procrastination and Perfectionism

In my experience working on big projects (paying off our mortgage in four years, completing a 100,000 word PhD thesis, an 80,000 word novel), and teaching and supervising students undertaking similarly enormous goals, I’ve noticed two reasons people tend not to achieve what they set out to do, even when they have the skills required to do so. Procrastination and perfectionism.

When a goal is so huge it feels overwhelming, we procrastinate. In the absence of any concrete, achievable steps, we see other, more concrete tasks, as more important. Like washing the dishes or doing the ironing. Procrastination gets in the way.

And when we have a clear, idealistic vision of the end-goal, but no idea of what a work-in-progress should look like, we wind up discouraged along the way. The first line we write for our novel doesn’t sound as good as what we’ve read in other people’s books. The sketch we’ve done isn’t as good as one of DaVinci’s. Perfectionism gets in the way.

In this module, we’ll look at the first of these reasons: how breaking a goal into bite-sized pieces helps us to avoid the procrastination that accompanies a feeling of overwhelm.

Let’s return to our artistic and economic goals.

You want to want to pay off your mortgage so you can start working towards financial independence, and you’d like to write a book.

These are both enormous goals. But every debt is paid off one dollar at a time. And every book is written one word at a time.

“A word after a word after a word is power”

Margaret Atwood

Create milestones

Your next step with either goal would be to break it up into achievable milestones.

Mortgage milestones

How big your milestones are will depend on how large your outstanding debt is, what sort of an income and expenses you have, and how long you plan to spend paying off the loan.

Someone with a big budget planning to pay off their home in the next couple of years won’t need as many milestones as someone who has less cash and will need to sustain their motivation for a much longer period.

Ideally, you want to space your milestones so they are achievable, but still give you a sense of achievement.

On a $200,000 loan, rewarding yourself with a chocolate or a dinner out for every $1 paid will quickly become meaningless (and worse, it will actually cause you to go financially backwards!) On the other hand, only celebrating when you get to the halfway mark of $100,000 might cause you to lose momentum along the way.

Writing milestones

Writing a whole book in a month is a pretty huge task. Even if it is a relatively ‘short’ book of 50,000 words (most debut novels are around 70-80,000 words, and in some genres, they’re much longer again).

But NaNoWriMo participants achieve this by breaking the goal down into smaller goals. 50,000 words over 30 days is the equivalent of 1,667 words per day. Even a ‘hunt-and-peck’ typist should be able to write that many words (assuming their ideas can keep up!) in a little over one hour a day.

Sounds far more achievable now, doesn’t it?

Activity

Think of a goal – either a creative or a financial dream you have. Write it down. You might use the ‘dearest dream’ you identified in the module on Getting Things Done. [NEED TO CHANGE THIS LINK WHEN NAME OF THE MODULE IS CHANGED]

Now, think of how you can quantify the steps required to achieve this goal. For instance, if your goal is to ‘become a better painter’, consider how many paintings you think you may have to complete to achieve this goal. Or if your goal is ‘pay off my car loan’ work out exactly how much you have outstanding. You need a SMART goal (check out this article on Enrichmentality for more about how you can set smarter money goals).

Break the goal down into achievable chunks.

Now that you know where you’re headed, it’s time to start working on your goals, and keeping track of your achievement over the long-run.

The Science of Art: Lifelong Experimentation

Life is an experiment. The more experiments you make the better.

Ralph Waldo Emerson

Life is the greatest experiment of all. And you are its subject.

If you’re anything like former Mythbusters host Kari Byron, you might now be saying “I’m not a scientist! I’m an artist, a curious person who likes to make stuff”.

But experimentation is something artists and scientists have in common.

Frequently, we see a rigid divide between ‘art’ and ‘science’. But are they really distinct? Is there a clear definition between them?

These are questions Prof. Stephen Mumford, Dean of the Faculty of Arts and professor of metaphysics at the University of Nottingham asks, noting that there is no universal agreement.

Art vs. Science

All too often, we assume that art = creativity and science = the rigorous application of a method. But in reality, scientists apply creative thinking to define and solve problems, and artists use scientific methods to test and develop new ideas.

The line between ‘art’ and ‘science’ has always been blurred. Like the boundaries of all subject areas, it is an artificial construct, an intellectual shorthand. Before Aristotle divided up the subjects pretty much along the lines we recognize today, art and science were simply considered forms of knowledge.

Today, Byron advocates recombining them, adding ‘A’ for ‘Arts’ to ‘STEM’ (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) to form ‘STEAM’.

So many of humanity’s greatest innovations have come from some combination of the fields we consider art and science. Novelist Mary Shelly is the grandmother of science fiction. Ada Lovelace had the idea of using numbers to make pictures – essentially inventing digital computing.

‘Use both sides of your brain’ commands Byron. ‘Foster art, combine it with science, and you’ll get something that is truly groundbreaking.’

In her book Crash Test Girl, Kari Byron dispels the myth that you are either born creative, or you are not. ‘Every single person is born to be a maker, a generator of ideas.’

Byron also busts the myth that you have to be a scientist to use the scientific method. Not only is she herself not a scientist (at least in the sense of someone with a qualification in one of the physical sciences) but her co-hosts Tory and Grant are also ‘creatives’ – not scientists.

We aren’t ‘creative’ types or ‘logical’ types. We are all both.

We are all creatives

It is true, Byron says, that some people may appear to be gifted with what seems to be a ‘natural’ talent in the arts. But while talent is useful, ‘it’s not essential to creativity. All you need is a curious mind and the drive to follow wherever it leads you.’

Aptitude is defined as ‘inborn potential to do certain kinds of work‘. Those with outstanding aptitude are often described as ‘talented’.

Talent vs. Hard Work

Aptitude is difficult to pin down. It’s easy to test abilities, but much harder to test underlying potential. And according to Malcolm Gladwell, it is difficult or even impossible to distinguish between someone ‘talented’ and someone who got there through hard work.

Could that be because there is no difference? That hard work really is more important than some innate, difficult to define ability?

That’s the position of Anders Ericsson and Robert Pool, authors of Peak: Secrets from the New Science of Expertise. While in the past, learning was considered to be “just a way of fulfilling one’s genetic potential”, they argue that our brains are plastic, not hardwired. Importantly, the authors suggest that whether we want to succeed in arts, music, or sports, deliberate practice is key.

Lifelong Learning

Life is but an endless series of experiments

Mahatma Gandhi

The most important gifts we can bestow upon children is “confidence in their ability to remake themselves again and again and the tools with which to do that job” write Ericsson and Pool. As the concept of lifelong learning recognizes, learning should not confined to childhood or the classroom, but takes place throughout life, and in a range of contexts.

Novelist Charlotte Wood, author of The Weekend composed an essay for the Griffith Review entitled ‘Experiments in the Art of Living’. She describes how life actually gets better as we age. And it’s not just her experience and anecdotes that suggest this. Global studies show a ‘paradox of age’. Following childhood, happiness tends to decline. Most people are miserable in their forties. But those in their eighties and nineties are as happy as – or even happier than – those who are eighteen or nineteen.

The purpose of aging, says psychologist James Hillman, is to fulfill our true character. To become our essential selves. Ageing itself can be its own art form. Therefore, Wood suggests, artists can teach us to practice aging:

‘Push beyond your first ideas… Develop a tolerance for solitude, and for failure. Make your mark, defend it, then challenge it, overturn it.’

Or, as Jasper Johns puts it, ‘Take an object. Do something to it. Do something else to it.’

Rather than capitulating to reduction, Wood says ‘we can keep adding to our concept of how to age – turn our thinking about oldness into an art, and keep exploring it. Doing something to it, and doing something else.

In other words: keep experimenting.

As a writer, a failure is just information. It’s something that I’ve done wrong in writing, or is inaccurate or unclear. I recognize failure—which is important; some people don’t—and fix it, because it is data, it is information, knowledge of what does not work. That’s rewriting and editing… It’s as though you’re in a laboratory and you’re working on an experiment with chemicals or with rats, and it doesn’t work. It doesn’t mix. You don’t throw up your hands and run out of the lab. What you do is you identify the procedure and what went wrong and then correct it. If you think of [writing] simply as information, you can get closer to success.

Toni Morrison, Write, Erase, Do Over in The Art of Failure: The importance of risk and experimentation

We are all scientists

The scientific method, Kari Byron says, is more than just an elegant method for figuring out all sorts of things. It’s the ‘perfect narrative vehicle for proving and disproving myths’. Including our own life lies.

Here are the five steps:

  1. Question. Learning begins with ‘I wonder what would happen if…?’ Authors and actors will notice that this is suspiciously similar to how many writing and improv prompts.
  2. Hypothesize. Formulate a theory about what will happen based on what you already know.
  3. Experiment. Find out what really happens.
  4. Analyze. Study what occurred.
  5. Conclude. Answer your question, and think of how you might do things differently in the future.

The science of inspiration

So how do we apply the scientific method to creative problem solving?

Consider something as elusive as ‘inspiration’. How could science possibly help us figure out where our ideas come from – and how to get more of them?

Byron asked herself this question, and developed the hypothesis that for great ideas, ‘you have to be able to concentrate, alone, in a quiet room, with no distractions.’

And then, she tested it: comparing how inspired she felt and how productive she was in a variety of settings. In her own apartment, set up exactly as she wanted. In a busy cafe. With a roommate who was in a band. And in the hustle and bustle of India, versus in a quiet ashram.

What did she find?

Byron concluded that ‘When you have no choice, you rise to the creative occasion.’

All too often, we have a picture in our head of what creativity is supposed to look like. We tell ourselves we ‘can’t’ be creative or inspired unless we have the ‘perfect’ conditions. We might, for instance, tell ourselves the life lie that without Byron’s ability to seek ‘enlightenment’ in India, we are unable to create.

But while she was in India, taking in the exotic sights, sounds, and smells, Byron learned that she could be creative anywhere. Nor did she need to follow any specific rituals.

Like many of us, Byron believed that in order to be ‘enlightened’, she needed to learn how to meditate. She believed that she needed the sweet Indian coffee served in the tiny cups she drank on the way to yoga each day.

Yet, after observing her, Byron’s yoga teacher Rama Krishna, told her she did not need to learn meditation: ‘you are always painting. You are an artist. That is your meditation,’ he said. ‘You will never be able to be quiet. You must paint.’

And what about the mystical coffee Byron loved so much?

One day, she arrived at the cafe early and saw it being made.

Her ‘morning enlightenment in a cup’ was Nescafe and condensed milk.

In hindsight, Byron says her quest for enlightenment feels ridiculous. ‘Now I know that you get “answers” (practical or mystical) by asking questions and experimenting.’ The creative journey, she concludes, is always inward.

Of course, you don’t need to travel to experiment with creativity and inspiration. You can perform an experiment just as successfully by keeping a journal in which you write down how you felt when you wrote, played, painted, or sketched in various conditions. Make a note of the time of day, place, your general mood, and any other relevant factors, and look for patterns.

Novelists who take part in the annual National Novel Writing Month may have already taken part in such an experiment, tracking their mood, writing method, location, and word count on the website.

If you put your mind to it, you’ll find lots of ways you can improve your life using a little creative science.

Everybody’s a mad scientist, and life is their lab. We’re all trying to find a way to live, to solve problems, to fend off madness and chaos.

David Cronenberg

Activity

Brainstorm some questions that relate to your life. This could be a question about your creative life, like where your ideas come from, or whether it is possible to be creative on demand, as Byron explores in her book. It could be about your finances – in her chapter on money, Byron asks ‘What role should money play in life and love?’

Next, develop a hypothesis. For example, Byron puts forward the hypothesis that money = security and stability. (Or maybe, for you, money = freedom) {LINK}

Design an experiment to test that hypothesis. Byron put together a ‘Starving Artist Financial Plan’, seeking advice and becoming the ‘CFO’ of her family.

Analyze your results, and come to a conclusion. Kari Byron found that while money is necessary to keep you fed (important to avoid being a starving artist!) money can’t buy happiness.

There really is no such thing as a ‘failed experiment’. Any test that yields valid data is a valid test.

Adam Savage

Keeping Motivated Long-Term

Breaking down your big goals into smaller ones and implementing strategic practices like the Pomodoro technique is the first step towards achieving your dreams in any area of life, including artistic and economic goals. But you still need a system to keep track of these short-term activities, and assess how they are contributing to your long-term goal. And that is where the second part of this series on motivation comes in.

In the previous article, we looked at how these strategies can help you stop procrastinating and start achieving goals as enormous as paying off a mortgage, or writing a novel. In my own experiences of paying off our mortgage and writing my own first book, as well as observing the postgraduate students I used to supervise, I’ve come across a number of tips and tricks for maintaining motivation over big projects.

Ten ideas to keep you motivated long-term

Some will appeal more to some people than others, some will work better for some projects than others, but here are ten ideas for you to experiment with:

1) Thermometer.

For your mortgage (or any other debt) you could write your total debt at the bottom, and $0 at the top. Then, fill in the gaps with 5% increments. So, if you have a $200,000 mortgage, you would use $10,000 increments. Each time you pay off another 5%, you can colour or highlight that amount. If you have a creative goal, replace these financial figures with word counts, number of minutes practised, etc.

2) Advent calendar.

Draw up a chart with $10, $100, or $1,000 increments, (or any other amount that suits your goal). Put this on your fridge and remind yourself of how far you’ve come, and what you’re aiming for. You might even reward yourself with chocolates on certain squares!

3) Vision board.

A small plastic sleeve at the beginning of your financial journal, or a Pinterest board of creative ideas is a great way of maintaining motivation.

4) Put it out there.

Make yourself accountable by telling other people about your goal. If they laugh, so much the better. You can prove them wrong! But if you can, find a supportive community of like-minded people.

5) Use tickers.

If you’re a member of any websites related to your goal or comment on blogs, why not create a ticker you can link to or post? Even if you only use it yourself, it’s a great way to visualise your progress. (If you don’t want others to know your personal details, simply set the ticker to display percentages rather than dollar figures). Tickerfactory.com has a nice range of free tickers you can use for savings, debt reduction, and other goals, like writing, number of paintings completed, hours of music performed, etc!

6) Use a calendar.

If you have a monthly savings or creative goal, divide it by the number of days in the month and write that figure (e.g. 1667 words, one painting complete, no spend day, or $100 of debt gone) on each day. Give yourself a big tick or sticker for each successful day.

7) Decorate your spending plan or creative space.

We kept a photo of our house in our budget spreadsheet to remind us of why we were being so stringent about planning our spending.

8) Have a once-a-month meeting.

Although my husband and I ran (and still run!) a pretty tight ship when paying off our mortgage, our one big treat was a once-a-month dinner out during which we discussed (and celebrated) our progress. You can do the same with a writer’s group or other supportive group of fellow creatives.

9) Use apps.

There are lots of mobile apps that can help you visualise your savings or to track your creative goals.

10) Keep a reminder.

Put a photo of what you’re aiming for somewhere like your wallet or keyring so you see it frequently.


Of course, I don’t necessarily recommend using all of these methods at once, but I strongly believe celebrating achievements is more effective than feeling bad when you haven’t achieved a goal.

And that brings me back to the second reason why it’s important to break big goals down into small goals: too often, we focus on getting something perfect instead of just getting it done.

Why avoiding perfectionism is important

Perfectionism plagues many people. While it’s sometimes talked about like a good thing – in fact, we’re often even encouraged to mention our perfectionism in job interviews, as if it’s a flaw that is actually of benefit – in reality, it can be crippling.

During my years as a lecturer, I taught many students whose desire to be ‘perfect’ resulted in them almost giving up on courses, or almost refusing to hand in assignments.

And you know what?

Most of them were way off the mark when it came to assessing their own capabilities.

I can’t count the number of times I encouraged a student to submit an essay they assured me was terrible and definitely going to fail – only to discover that not only was it not bad, it was among the best pieces of writing submitted. High distinction quality.

The same is true of financial goals. I have spoken to intelligent, well-educated and well-paid people who have essentially given up. I’ll never be able to pay off my student loans, or my mortgage, they tell me, so I’ve given up trying.

When shouldn’t you give up?

Let’s say you’re an English major, and you’ve written an assignment that you’re pretty sure is going to fail. It’s a big deal – worth 50% of your overall grade (the final exam is worth the other 50%).

If you submit it, and fail – let’s say you get just 30%. A pretty convincing fail. That’s very disappointing.

If you don’t submit it, you’re guaranteed to get 0%.

Both of these results are a ‘fail’ in most grading systems. But let’s consider what happens when you go to sit that final exam. If you submitted the assignment, you’ve already earned 15% of the overall course grade. If you study really hard and get 70% on the final exam, you will still pass the course.

On the other hand, if you didn’t submit the assignment, you now need to get 100% on the final exam or you will fail the entire course. That’s going to be a lot harder.

And who do you think is in a better position to do well on that final exam? The student who submitted their assignment, got some feedback from the teacher, and maybe even met with them for extra tutoring after the teacher noticed they were struggling? Or the student who submitted nothing, and therefore, got no feedback on what they were missing?

“The first draft of anything is shit”

Ernest Hemmingway

Trying leads to improving

Maybe you’re not enrolled in any formal course. You’re just doing something for fun. The same principle holds. Who is going to be a better writer? The one who got something down on the page – even if it was terrible – which they can edit, get feedback on, and improve? Or the one who stared at a blank page?

Who is the better painter? The one who puts paint on canvas, or the one who can’t even pick up a brush? The better musician? The better sculptor?

“You can’t edit a blank page”

Jodi Picoult

We can see the benefits even more clearly when it comes to economic goals. Even if you don’t completely eliminate your mortgage within five years, even if you don’t totally wipe out your debt (ever), you’ll still benefit from having less debt. Because less debt means less interest pay every month.

Motivation… and life lies

Finally, consider whether the lack of motivation you’re feeling might be related to life lies you’re telling yourself.

Is it really true that you’ll never finish that book? That you’ll never pay off that debt?

Or are you afraid to start, so you’re telling yourself it’s impossible?

You may even discover that some life lies, you can flip on their head and turn into a source of motivation. On my finance blog Enrichmentality, I describe an encounter I had with someone who said it’s easier to succeed financially when you don’t have kids.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I’m not going to argue that having children makes things financially easier on people. I don’t think many would say that! But, just like it’s not impossible to write a novel in a month, and just like it’s not impossible to pay off a mortgage in five years, it’s not impossible to achieve financial independence with children.

There are plenty of examples of people with kids who have managed to quit their jobs. And there are even more examples of people without kids who haven’t.

An example: Retiring early with kids

In his book Cashing in on the American Dream: How to Retire at 35, Paul Terhorst devotes an entire chapter to ‘Retiring with kids’. This (now, sadly out-of-print) book begins its chapter on families with a very familiar and depressing picture of the ‘average’ family in the 1980s, with everyone living in their own bubbles (and we couldn’t even blame iPads back then!) It doesn’t sound as if things have changed much in the past 40 years.

Terhorst drives home the message that your kids need you now, and makes a good case for parents retiring early if at all possible. Influential blogger Mr. Money Mustache, who is both a parent and an early retiree himself, makes many of the same points in the current decade.

Transform your excuse into your inspiration

In short, if you have children, make them your inspiration, your reason to achieve financial independence, not your excuse.

The same is true of essentially any goal in life. If you want to be a writer. A painter. A singer. An actor.

Of course, your kids deserve time with you. They deserve the material necessities of life – food, water, shelter. They deserve to feel like the most important people in your life.

But they also need a good role model. Do you really want to model the kind of behaviour that sends the message that money is more important than fulfilment? That having material goods is more important than pursuing your dream?

Teach yourself well

And it’s not just kids. We train our own brains to recognise what is important by repetition.

If you spend all day at work, and all night thinking about work, that’s what you will find important in your life.

But if you use the big-picture motivational techniques referred to in this article, and and little-picture time management techniques referred to in the last, you’ll start to automatically prioritise the things that really matter to you.

Activity:

Choose one or two of the motivational ideas listed above and apply it to the SMART goal(s) you identified previously.

Keeping Motivated Short-Term

Motivation can be elusive. And huge goals are especially difficult to maintain motivation for. Like writing an entire book. Composing a whole album full of music. Trying to save for a home deposit or financial independence. Or implementing a new daily practice.

The Pomodoro Technique

Once you have defined your goal and broken it down into achievable chunks, the next step, of course, is to actually do it. And this is where the Pomodoro technique comes in.

Francesco Cirillo’s Pomodoro Technique is a time-management method which uses a timer to break work down into short intervals of 25 minutes, known as ‘pomodoros’. (Cirillo’s kitchen timer was shaped like a tomato, hence, the time interval is named after the Italian word for tomato, pomodoro.)

The technique, as explained on Cirillo’s site, consists of six simple steps.

  1. Decide on the task to be done. You might even break this down into smaller tasks, each achievable within a single pomodoro (25 minutes). For example, you might check your bank balance, transfer the required amount to your mortgage and update your chart in one pomodoro, and in the next, you might prepare a budget for the month ahead. Or, you might aim to write 833 words of the scene in your book where the bad guy gets away, and then another 833 words of a different scene.
  2. Set the timer. If you have a cute tomato-shaped kitchen timer, great. If not, there are lots of free apps that do the job for you!
  3. Work solidly on the task. If you’re sitting at a desk, for instance, you shouldn’t be getting up from your chair except in case of emergency (the police are at the door, your small child needs you etc.). All forms of procrastination – getting up to go to the toilet or make a drink or wash the dishes etc. – you should try and get done during the break times, not during your precious pomodoros.
  4. When the timer rings, stop working and put a checkmark on a piece of paper (an app will generally do this for you).
  5. If you have fewer than four check marks, take a short break of 3-5 mins. Go back to step 2.
  6. After four pomodoros, take a longer break of 15-30 mins. Reset your checkmark count to zero, and go back to step 1. (Again, an app will usually automatically schedule breaks for you)

Preventing procrastination

If you’re anything like me, sitting down to write (or picking up my fife, or a paintbrush) often acts as an immediate invitation for my brain to think up other ‘urgent’ things to do. Like the dishes. Or the laundry.

The Pomodoro technique can help you to protect your creative time by carving out little 25-minute chunks in your day. And trust me. You’ll still find time to get all of those other essential tasks done.

In fact, FlyLady has a technique for cleaning and decluttering your home in just 15 minutes at a time – meaning that you can, in one ‘pomodoro block’ get your housework and your creative work done – while still having a rest! Check it out:

Here’s how you can combine Pomodoro and Fly-Lady methods:

  • Pomodoro #1 (25 min)
  • Break (5 min)
  • Pomodoro #2 (25 min)
  • Break (5 min)
  • Pomodoro #3 (25 min)
  • Break (5 min)
  • Pomodoro #4 (25 min)
  • Long Break (30 min – including 15 min FlyLady)

*Note: the beauty of this plan is you don’t need to find a big uninterrupted block of 2 hours to complete these tasks. The most you ever need to find at any given time is 25 mins. Read this article for more on how to find time in your day.

Activity

Think back to the goals you set in the last module, and test out the Pomodoro method on one of them now. How can you work towards achieving your first milestone today?

Keeping motivated long-term

So, you’re getting things done. You’re getting that debt down. You’re writing that book. How do you keep track of the big picture? You’ve got a way to stay motivated in the short-term (the Pomodoro technique) but how can you keep motivated long-term?

Click here to discover how you can put these practices into long-term use.

Cushion

‘Cushion’ is the second of the three pillars of financial freedom outlined by the authors of Your Money or Your Life Vicki Robin and Joe Dominguez.

It refers to saved money that can act as a safety net or emergency fund.

Your ‘cushion’ may be a few months’, or even a few years’ worth of expenditure. It’s there for you to rely on if you lose your job, or if your investments suffer.

See also: Cache, Capital

Capital

‘Capital’ is the third of the three pillars of financial freedom outlined by the authors of Your Money or Your Life Vicki Robin and Joe Dominguez.

It refers to the money you have invested to provide an income. This investment may be in assets like real estate or shares.

Once the income from your capital is sufficient to cover your expenses (after accounting for inflation and a safety margin), you have reached the ‘crossover point’, and the highest definition of ‘Financial Independence‘.

See also: Cache, Cushion

Cache

‘Cache’ is the first of the three pillars of financial freedom outlined by the authors of Your Money or Your Life Vicki Robin and Joe Dominguez.

It refers to the skills you have which save you money.

These skills may include the ability to cook. To grow your own food. Perform maintenance on your car or computer. Cut your own hair. Or even, skills you can swap with others. Some of your artistic skills may fall into this category.

See also: Cushion, Capital

How to Use Criticism

In one of the earliest modules in this course, we looked at freedom of thought, and how some forms of relativistic thinking can make us intellectually lazy. A strong version of relativism, you’ll remember, suggests that all viewpoints are equally valid – whether that viewpoint is that ‘the Earth is flat’ or ‘the Earth is not flat’ or ‘the Earth is made of cream cheese and rotates around the moon at a billion kilometers an hour’.

These sorts of claims all deal with objective statements about reality. Ones we can empirically test using scientific methods. But subjective statements are different.

Subjective claims are opinions, such as ‘this movie is bad’ or ‘this book is boring’ or ‘that painting is crap’. Reviews are one area in which a stronger interpretation of relativism is usually called for.

Activity

Look at any film or book with multiple reviews, and chances are, you’ll find the opinions regarding it run the gamut from 1 to 5 stars. This is true even of wildly successful series. (Fascinatingly, it seems that audiences tend to rate the later books or movies in a series more highly than the originals – even though most agree the originals are better. Why? Read this article to understand more about selection bias)

Take a look at the criticism one of your favourite creative works has received. Read some of the 1-star reviews. Even if the opinions about your favourite work are overall positive, it’s almost inevitable that someone has said something bad about it. (And chances are, if no one has, it hasn’t been read or seen that widely, or it didn’t engage people enough to provoke a reaction).

A quick test to see whether something is subjective or objective is to consider: should this statement be expected to hold true over time and space?

The statement that ‘the Earth is flat’ is an objective one, because it shouldn’t matter when it was said or to whom. It was wrong when it was first uttered (even though people didn’t know it). And it’s equally wrong now. (As far as we can tell!)

On the other hand ‘this is a bad novel’ is subjective, because it will certainly matter when it is said and to whom.

A book may be well-received by fans of its genre, but panned by everyone else. Does this make it ‘bad’? Of course not.

A book may be popular when it is written, but not make it as a classic. The opposite can happen, too. Many books have only become respected and enjoyed long after their author’s death. Does this make them ‘bad’? Of course not.

How to use criticism

This isn’t to suggest you cannot use criticism to improve your work. Taking an extreme relativist position about your own work is dangerous too. It can make you believe there’s no progress you can make on your creative journey, if every piece of work is as good (or as bad) as any other.

Instead, evaluate the criticism you receive, and how it relates to your goals. If you’re interested in being popular or making money, you’ll need to listen to what your audience says. And what the current trends are.

If you want to be well-respected in your niche, you’ll need to concentrate on the advice in your genre.

If you want to win awards, you’ll need to look at their criteria.

If you want to be published or have your work exhibited or put on stage, you’ll need to consider those organisations’ guidelines and feedback.

Once you know what you are aiming for, you can make decisions about this information and not get overloaded. If you try to take on board every bit of criticism aimed at very different goals you’ll end up paralysed by indecision. You’ll suffer cognitive dissonance. And you may even become unable to create.

If (or when!) you receive negative criticism on something you’ve created, try to separate the subjective and objective aspects. Don’t be fooled by critiques that may look objective, but are actually subjective. For example, ‘This book has too many characters’ is not a measurable statement. For some books, 20 characters may be a lot. For others, it may not be many.

If a lot of your early readers say that your book has too many characters, you may want to narrow the focus to just a few key characters. But there is no magic number for the ‘correct’ number of characters. 

There may be other ways of dealing with the criticism, too. You could make the characters more distinct. Or reduce the number of nicknames they have, to make them easier to keep track of. Consider which aspects of the criticism might be constructive. Ignore everything else.

Three Kinds of Freedom

Creativity is all about freedom. Both the presence and the absence of it.

In fact, life itself is, in large part, about how we navigate and negotiate our freedoms.

What is free will? How much of it do we enjoy – if any at all?

These are important philosophical questions. But those most relevant to us as free creatives appear in a series of seemingly paradoxical statements:

  1. Too much freedom of space makes us lazy and buy too many things.
  2. Too much freedom of time makes us lazy and do too many things.
  3. Too much freedom of thought makes us lazy and think too many things.

Let’s look at how not only both laziness and excess can be true of unrestrained freedom, but actually, inevitable.

Freedom of space

‘The question of what you want to own is actually the question of how you want to live your life.’

Marie Kondo, The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up

If you’ve lived in a small space, even for a short while, you’ll know how difficult it can be to keep a small space organised.

It would seem the less space you have and the less stuff you have, the easier it is to keep house. But in reality, it often requires a lot more work and thought, at least at first, to keep a small space well-organised. Only once your systems are in place does the ‘small places take less time to clean’ promise become a reality. Why is this?

Larger homes can make us lazy

In a larger home, you have the advantage of space. This can make cleaning – or at least, what might appear as cleaning on the surface! – a breeze. Guests coming over? Close the laundry door! Dump the unwashed dishes into the dishwasher. Sweep the kids’ toys into the spare room. No time to make the bed? Quick, shut the bedroom door.

Perfect!

In a tiny home or a studio apartment, none of these options are available. If your bed isn’t made, you can’t hide it by closing a door. You have to make it. If the dishes aren’t done, you don’t have the space for a dishwasher. You have to wash them.

To achieve the same appearance of cleanliness and tidiness in a smaller home requires a higher level of organisation and better systems. But it also results in a home that truly is clean and tidy, rather than just looks it.

Larger homes encourage us to buy too many things

Because of the space larger homes afford, they can encourage us to buy things we don’t need, in two ways.

First, we seem to have a desire to fill space, so it doesn’t look ‘sad’ or ‘lonely’. If you buy a house with two lounge rooms, even if you’ll never have people sitting in one at the same time there are people sitting in the other, chances are, you’ll buy a second couch. For the same reason, if you have two spare bedrooms, chances are you’ll buy two beds, even if you never have two guests at once.

It’s not just big ticket items. Think of all the decorative items. Rugs, photo frames, lamps, and knickknacks, bought to fill an ‘empty’ looking space. The clothes to fill our wardrobes (which eventually fill our laundry rooms).

This not only wastes money but it wastes time, too (impeding your temporal freedom). Think about how much extra washing and folding and bed making and dusting and vacuuming every item involves.

‘Tidying’ a home to make it presentable may take less time the bigger your house. But properly cleaning a large house filled with things takes a much longer than a small home with less clutter.

The second way large homes encourage us to buy more stuff comes under the guise of ‘organization’. Organizational goods are a multi-billion dollar industry, having doubled since the early 2000s. The average American family home has doubled in size too. But despite having double the space and double the organizational goods, this stuff doesn’t seem to be doing much. It simply shifts the problem, considering it one of ‘storage’ instead.

In a small home, you can’t afford the space to store things you infrequently (or never!) use. Rather than buying storage boxes, you:

a) cut back on buying things you don’t need in the first place, or

b) adopt a one-in-one-out policy, selling or donating things when you don’t need them.

These steps result in, once again, time and money savings. There are fewer things for you to spend time taking care of. And by cutting down on spending, and selling things you no longer need, you save money too. And learn to value what you have more.

Takeaway message:

An excess of physical space can result in our not seeing a need for organizational structure. This results in the accumulation of clutter. And in our time and money being tied up taking care of our house (or office or studio). This detracts from the creative freedom we crave.

By encouraging us to be more organized and frugal, having less space can (seemingly paradoxically) give us more freedom of time and money.

Freedom of Time

‘Lack of time is not the issue… The real problem is a lack of clarity and definition’

David Allen, Getting Things Done

How we fill time is like how we fill space. We often get more done when we have other things on. Not run-off-our-feet-busy, of course, but when our days have some structure to them.

If you’ve ever had long stretches of time with no commitments, you may have noticed you didn’t seem to get as much done as you’d have liked. And, seemingly paradoxically, when you have a commitment that gives your schedule a little organisation, suddenly, you’re getting more done.

Again, there may be two reasons for this:

Spare time can make us lazy

When you have lots of time stretching out in front of you, it’s easy not to take action immediately. Both on creative and non-creative tasks. Why do the dishes or pay that bill now? I don’t feel like it, and it’s not urgent. Why try and create now? I’ll just wait around for inspiration to strike me.

Free creatives don’t wait for inspiration to find them – they go out and find it. But with no constraints on your time, there’s no impetus for you to make a schedule and get things done. No reason to focus on what matters to you.

Some people diagnosed with terminal illnesses have a tough time dealing with this devastating news. Yet others find the newfound knowledge their time is not unlimited sparks them to do more in six months or a year than most of us achieve in a decade.

Spare time can encourage us to take on too many things

When we don’t have a clear idea of what we want to do with our lives, we can end up filling our days with stuff that isn’t important. Just as we fill our houses with clutter.

Everyone’s time clutter is different. But we all have a hard time saying ‘no’ sometimes. Or we waste more time than we’d like to binging shows or social media. The average person spends 5 hours passively watching stuff. And 3 hours on social media, ‘liking’ things other people have created, or watching to see if others have ‘liked’ what we made. That’s 8 hours of wasted time.

Even if you only waste 4 hours a day like this, that’s 2.5 months in a year.

Imagine if you had 2.5 months each year to devote to creative projects.

YOU DO!

In essence, we’re all always doing something. Filling your day up with the right things is what it’s all about. It’s easy to put off being creative, longing for great uninterrupted stretches of free time. But the reality is, most people who have this luxury don’t do anything with it. Creativity often draws its inspiration from the other parts of our lives.

Takeaway message:

An excess of free time can result in our not seeing a need for time management. This results in our wasting time on activities that aren’t aligned with our life’s purpose.

By encouraging us to be more organised, and by giving us creative inspiration, structured activities can help us value our time better and give us more creative freedom.

Freedom of Thought

‘When intelligent people read, they ask themselves a simple question: What do I plan to do with this information?’

Ryan Holliday, Trust Me, I’m Lying

Thinking creatively does not have to mean being ‘out there’. It doesn’t mean suspending logic and believing everything you come across. On the contrary, just as systems are important for managing our space and time, systems of logic and reasoning are vital for managing our thoughts, too.

Relativism is defined as the idea that there is no universal, objective truth. That every viewpoint is thus equally valid.

It’s important to note that you can believe in the existence of truth without knowing what it is. Or even without believing that we will ever know what the truth is for sure.

For example, some say the Earth is flat. This used to be the accepted wisdom. More people these days, believe the Earth is round.

A strict relativist position would be that both viewpoints are valid, and it is impossible to tell which is best.

A more moderate interpretation of relativism would state that while we will never know 100% for sure which (or even if either) is correct, there is more reliable evidence to suggest that the Earth is round.

Why is this important?

Relativism can make us intellectually lazy

A strong version of relativism, in which we consider every viewpoint equally valid, means there’s no point engaging with various ideas. No point comparing or contrasting them. No point trying to synthesize or build upon existing knowledge.

Instead, it encourages us to throw up our hands and say ‘what does it matter’?

Relativism can encourage us to think too many things

While it is not possible to think too much, it is possible to think too many things. Cognitive dissonance is the name for the discomfort you feel when you hold two or more contradictory ideas or beliefs. Strong relativism forces us into a position of cognitive dissonance. We need psychological consistency to function in the world. 

This doesn’t mean conforming to the system. Popular opinion is not what makes something right. The vast majority of people used to believe the Earth was flat. Nor does it mean selecting an idea at random. While strong relativism preaches that all ideas and perspectives are equally valid, a more useful method is to evaluate the logic and evidence supporting each idea, and then make your decision.

Takeaway message:

An excess of relativistic thinking can result in our dismissal of logic. This results in an inability to respond to or generate new ideas. And this kind of thinking can pervade all aspects of our lives. Resulting in an inability to organise our time or our space either.

By encouraging us to think critically while acknowledging our limitations, logic, evidence, and a weaker view of relativism can help us to make better decisions. And to generate new and build upon existing ideas. That is, being creative.

Fear of Missing Out (FOMO) and the Low Information Diet (LID)

Humans have always had a ‘fear of missing out’ (FOMO). But it’s only since social media’s massive influence on our everyday lives that this has become a common cry.

Thanks to the internet, we have access to more information than ever before. This can be engrossing. And, as master media manipulator Ryan Holiday says in Trust Me, I’m Lying, people have come to confuse their constant consumption of media with actually doing something.

Personal finance blogger Mr. Money Mustache advocates a ‘low information diet’. This gives you ‘the most powerful asset of a free mind’. Likewise, Your Money Or Your Life recommends evaluating every activity in your day according to whether it was a good use of your ‘life energy’. We can apply this kind of thinking to creative pursuits:

Is cleaning the spare room a good use of your life energy, aligned with your purpose in life? Has it advanced your creative development in some identifiable way?

What about your 2 hours on Facebook?

Or the time spent doing your makeup?

Or the time in front of the TV?

While Your Money Or Your Life encourages you to reflect on your spending behaviour, David Allen’s Getting Things Done methodology asks you to assess every task as it comes into your life according to whether it is going to further your purpose.

Activity

Ask yourself these questions about everything that comes into your life:

Is this thing I’m buying (or gift I’m receiving) either necessary to living or going to further my purpose in life? Or is it just something extra for me to waste time working for, cleaning, etc? (Spend a few minutes now and try out the life energy calculator – you won’t believe the results!)

Is this activity I’m planning (or invitation I’m accepting) either necessary to living or going to further my purpose and enjoyment in life? Or is it just a distraction?

Is this objective claim a reliable, likely one? Or is it just misguided nonsense? Is this subjective opinion healthy for me to think (or listen to)? Or will it just make me depressed?

To be a free creative, you must learn to curate your space, time, and mind.

‘We are naturally creative beings… The challenge is not to be creative, it’s to eliminate the barriers to our natural flow of creative energies’

David Allen Getting Things Done.