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.

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.

Getting Things Done (GTD)

“Effectively doing while you are delightfully being” 

David Allen

This GTD approach will free your mind to be creative. At the very same time it will also help you to do the things that must be done to become a Free Creative.

This approach will marry your vision of what you want to achieve with actions in your day-to-day life. And energize you to break through the barriers along the way towards making your dream a reality.

Photo by Denys Nevozhai on Unsplash

The following lesson is based upon the book: “Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-free Productivity” by David Allen, Penguin, 2015. [To purchase the book].


Needed for this lesson: 60 minutes; notebook; pencil; eraser; calendar; an in-tray; Trello (optional) [To download Trello].

This lesson will include 6 short exercises and 1 short break to move the body and rest the mind.


Setting up Trello

Exercise 1: Will take 5 minutes

Trello is an excellent organisational tool that is free to use. It gives you information at a glance, where you can drop and drag items as you work through your to do list.

You don’t have to use Trello if you don’t want to. You can do the rest of the lesson without it—using your own productivity system.

Set up a board in Trello called “Freedom”. Then build the following lists:

  • In Tray: To capture things as they come to mind
  • Next Actions: The things you will work on next
  • Waiting For: For things that you are waiting for others to proceed
  • Someday Maybe: For things that you would love to do but not yet
  • Reference: For things that you want to remember, but are not actionable
  • Done: For things that you have completed

Mind Sweep

Exercise 2: Will take 5 minutes

Put a stop watch on and spend 5 minutes dumping every single thing that is on your mind at the moment into your notebook.

You can use a MIND MAP if that helps but the important thing is to be fast. Don’t worry about making connections between things just list them. If you run out of space turn to another page and continue. Get it all out.

What is Your Dearest Dream?

What is your heart’s desire in life? What would life look like if you achieved it? Let’s get that down quickly. Off the top of your head. Write it in your notebook.

Processing Items on the Mind Sweep

Exercise 3: Will take 5 minutes

Download: GTD Workflow Diagram
[You can purchase a really cool version from the GTD website.]

Let’s pick things from the Mind Sweep list to process using the GTD workflow Diagram.

For each item ask What is it?

Is it actionable? (something you can do something about, as opposed to something that is just occupying your mind, etc). If it is actionable, add it to your In Tray. [If you are using Trello, make a card for each item in the Trello In Tray list.]

If it is not actionable, but you would like to remember it—put it in your Reference list. Anything else can be literally torn up and thrown in the bin. Get’s it off your mind.

If you haven’t processed the whole Mind Sweep list by the end of 5 minutes, come back and continue later till you are done—which is a very cathartic experience.

Processing Items in Your In Tray

Exercise 4: Will take 5 minutes

Now it is time to decide what is the next action for items in your In Tray.

Start by selecting things that are most important to you. By asking: “How does this relate to my Dearest Dream?”

If it is not important or related to your Dearest Dream, set it aside for later. [In Trello, move it to your Someday Maybe list].

What is the Next Action?

This is the most critical question in the entire GTD process.

If you answer this question appropriately you’ll have the key substantive thing to organize.

The “next action” is the next physical, visible activity that needs to be engaged in, in order to move the current reality of this thing towards completion.

Here we want to turn undefined, vague words into clear action statements. What we would see you doing as you work on and complete this action.

For example: A vague word like “de-clutter” becomes “empty my sock drawer of old socks.”

The action statement must be specific, concise and doable.

The Next Action Decision Standard is a process of working backwards to find the absolute next action and forwards to connect this with your Dearest Dream. Back and forth between the two until you have a precise next action statement.

Thinking backwards: Often people start further down the track when they identify an action to start with. It often helps to ask yourself “is there anything else, no matter how trivial, that must occur before I can do this action?”

It also helps to ask: “what am I trying to achieve by getting this action done?” This is a big picture question. A high level, quality of life question.

Thinking forwards, make sure that getting this thing done is going to be worth the effort it will take and result in moving you closer to realizing your Dearest Dream. 

What does done look like?

Lastly, as you drag this item into your Next Action list, you have to consider what getting it done looks like. How will you know if it is done? What will be produced? How will you feel? You can describe this outcome in the description section of a Trello card, if it helps keep your on track.

Waiting For…

Sometimes you start an action, then have to wait for someone else to complete their part before you can get it completely don. We park these items in the Waiting For list. It is important to check up on these regularly so they don’t slip off your radar.

Short Break

Get up, stretch, walk around the room, get a drink, go to the loo, come back in 3 minutes.

Projects

Exercise 5: Will take 5 minutes

A project is any action or series of actions that will take more than 2 minutes and no longer than 1 year to perform. 

Best practice: Knock off the stuff that takes 2 minutes or less while you are processing your In Tray.

For any action that will take more than two minutes to complete; you may have to break it down into doable chunks. If you are finding that you Next Actions list is too long, you can start creating lists that group related actions under a project name.

For example: “Prepare to move house” Is a project that may take weeks to complete. You would create a list with this heading and start to identify doable chunks of work such as “Empty sock drawer of old socks“.

Go through your Next Action list and arranged your items into appropriate project listings.

Remember:

  • Projects should tie directly into your Dearest Dream: especially how they help to make you a Free Creative.
  • Project list headings can describe what done looks like. For example: a vague word like “new house” becomes “Set up in new house.”
  • Organize projects in order of priority:
    • Park a project into Someday Maybe if it is not of the highest priority and you have high priority things to get on with.
    • Always be willing to cancel projects and actions. Just because you thought of them and wrote them down does not mean you have to do them, right?
    • Only move an action item from Projects into Next Actions when you are imminently ready to work on it to get it done.
  • Don’t spend time thinking too far ahead listing potential actions for a project, this just clutters up your lists.

Add action items when they come to mind—via the In Tray.

Outcome Focus

Exercise 6: Will take 5 minutes

In the Getting Things Done universe there is a concept called Horizon Scanning. The idea is to set your big picture visions and dreams, then work backwards from that distant horizon, through five closer horizons, to arrive at the current actions that need to be taken to progress your dream.

Five horizons to scan when making your plans

We suggest you spend a few minutes considering your big picture. As someone on the path to creative freedom, your scan might look like this, (working backwards from your higher purpose):

  • Horizon 5: Purpose and principles: Be a Free Creative (Dearest Dream).
  • Horizon 4: Longer term vision (3-5 years): Become a master of my art.
  • Horizon 3: Goals (next 1 to 2 years): Have an exhibition of my work.
  • Horizon 2: Areas of focus and accountability: Paint 50 pictures for my exhibition.
  • Horizon 1: Current projects: Working on my latest painting.
  • Ground: Current actions: Block in the under-painting for my latest painting.

Putting GTD into practice

From now on everything that occupies your attention should be put into this GTD system. Straight into the In Tray, then processed on a daily basis.

Daily Practice:

You will need to set aside time each day to get your Next Actions done.

If they cannot be done quickly, move them back into Projects or Someday Maybe.

Weekly Review:

Once a week you will need to set aside time to:

  • Get your In Tray to empty (another cathartic experience)
  • Review the Next Action list: mark things as done (the fun part)
  • Review your Calendar: add items that popped up here to your In Tray
  • Review the Waiting For list: check if you can progress these items
  • Review Projects: move items to Next Actions for the upcoming week

In a crisis use the Weekly Review to get back under control. Whenever you fall off the GTD wagon, it is easy to get back on—just perform another Mind Sweep and add it all to Trello.

Quarterly Planning Session:

Take the time once every 12 weeks to think about how you are progressing. Perform an in depth Horizon Scanning exercise. Look at your Projects—what is taking too long? Can you hurry it up?

Look at Some Day Maybe—what’s been sitting in there for too long. Shall we just cancel it now? Can we just tear it up and throw it in the bin. Get it off your mind?

Ultimately GTD is about writing your dreams down, defining real projects, then ensuring that next actions are decided on—until the finish line is crossed.

It takes about 6 months to form the habit and 2 years to master GTD.

Good luck. Enjoy.

Portfolio

Portfolio = your possessions, investments, assets and education.

Leather portfolio with a laptop inside

In the design world a portfolio is what a designer puts together to demonstrate their work and their skills. It used to be an impressive leather bound case with a golden zip, containing sheets of paper with pictures, drawings and designs. Now it is also digital.

As designers go along they earmark pieces of work for inclusion in their portfolio. “Oh, I really enjoyed making this and I am proud of how it turned out—so it’s going into my portfolio.”

At some point they will go to the trouble of printing it out or marking it up for presentation purposes. This is a commitment to the future. It assumes that future employers and clients will want to see it. That it will be relevant for future interviews and sales pitches. Which, in a way, determines which potential employers and clients will get to see it. There is a subliminal decision being made about where their career is headed, based on what they have most liked doing.

In the world of finance a portfolio is the total holding of securities, commercial paper, etc., of an investor.

Both the design and the investment portfolios are very fluid. They are always changing. They both require continual trimming, tweaking and reevaluation.

A portfolio is also the office or post of a minister of government. And is sometimes used to describe a range of duties or work for a range of employers.

At creatementality portfolio means all these things. Think of it as the kit of skills, resources, assets and knowledge that you are developing to keep your edge. To increase your mastery.

Your portfolio contains the things that really matter—those things into which you invest your time, energy and hopes for the future.

Creative Freedom Weekly Planner

8 Steps for Putting Your Plan into Action

You only get good at the things you practice. And you will only get out of the hole you are in if you take action and make changes in your life.

The following exercise gives you a framework upon which to plan your path to creative freedom.

Getting Started

Print this blank weekly planner [print blank planner]

Start with instant gut feelings. Don’t overthink your answers. The whole exercise should only take 20 minutes to complete.

Step 1: How Creative Do I Feel?

This question sets the tone for the rest of the session. It is helpful to be aware of your energy levels and creative capacity before you start. This provides a benchmark to gauge your progress.

You will get the best outcomes if you are relaxed, happy and optimistic about your future. But even if you are not feeling 100%, by the end of this exercise you will feel a lot better.

How Free Do I Feel?

The main purpose of running this exercise is to evaluate your sense of freedom and make sure you do things to improve your situation.

If you are able to increase your freedom, even if it is only a thought, you will build up the courage and confidence to make your plans happen.

Step 2: How Would I Rate My Sense of Physical Freedom?

Did I have the space and tools to practice my art this week?

If not what was lacking?

Step 3: How Would I Rate my Sense of Temporal Freedom?

What type of practices and activities did I spend my time on this week?

Am I happy with the balance?

Step 4: How Would I Rate My Sense of Mental Freedom?

What was occupying my mind this week?

What Will I Do Next?

Now it is time to make some plans.

The main purpose of running this part of the exercise is to ensure that your daily practices deliver the outcomes you need.

Remember that it is through repeated daily practice that we gain mastery over our art and achieve our big picture goals.

Step 5: What Would I Like to Achieve This Week?

Focus on things that will really help you on your path to creative freedom.

You could begin this by doing a mindsweep of everything that is drawing on your attention and energy. This helps to clear the mind.

Then describe in a simple sentence or two what goals you have for the upcoming week.

It helps to think about what you want to be experiencing in the future; and therefore what will be the most important and effective things you could do in the following week to really improve your situation.

Step 6: Which Artistic Practices Can I Prioritize this Week to Achieve My Goals

In this course we put our artistic and creative practices first. So they do not get overshadowed or sidelined by life’s other demands. You will never gain mastery over your art unless you make this commitment.

First principle: I get my art done each day and worry about everything else after that. Even if it means I have to get up at 5 am and spend the first two hours painting, drawing, writing, creating.

Source: A Day in the Life of a Free Creative

The most effective daily routine is arranged so that your artistic practices (A) are supported by your strategic practices (S) and economic (E). And there is a synergy between the three.

Creative Freedom Model [See the model explained]

Step 7: Which Strategic Practices Can I Prioritize this Week to Achieve My Goals

Here you must think of the strategic things you must do this week to make your goals happen. For example: what you will need to learn; what systems you will need to put into place; what tools or resources you will need to acquire. This is where you make sure you are sharpening the saw: learning, thinking, and reflecting. 

Step 8: Which Economic Practices Can I Prioritize this Week to Achieve My Goals

Living a moderate lifestyle takes more time and effort than the traditional extravagant one we are leaving behind. This means you will have to be prepared to factor in practices such as: finding bargains, selling or weeding out things you don’t need, learning how to manage your finances, checking your expenses and so on.

Your portfolio (your possessions, investments, assets and education) is going to need continual attention to grow and stay healthy.

How Free Do I Feel Now?

Hopefully, at the end of this process you are feeling like you have achieved something. Encouraged to move ahead with your plans.

Print your poster out and put it in a prominent place to remind you of what your need to achieve this week.

Creative Problem Solving is a Superpower

There seem to be many problems in the world at the moment. Which often feel overwhelming and even insurmountable. How can we save the environment? What will happen if our economy fails? How do we survive a pandemic? How do I keep my business afloat in these troubling times? How can I afford to live if I lose my job? How can I be happy with less? How can I live with uncertainty? How can I have a lifestyle of a high quality that heals rather than harms our global eco-system?

Problem solving cat [Photo by Tomas Tuma on Unsplash]

The good news is, that you are a natural born problem solving machine. After 7 million years of evolution, you and your siblings are the pinnacle of 350,000 generations in your family line. [Using an average yield time of 20 years per generation]. As a result, your physiology, genetics, mental capacity and general fitness for survival is superior to all those ancestors before you.

Given your superior ability and the tools at your disposal; your prospects of succeeding are ever-improving. The greatest of these tools is your creative mind—and its fine capacity to innovate—to come up with something new that will free you from harmful traditions and speed you towards safety.

In this module you will learn how to put your mind into top gear; using the creative problem solving process. This is a superpower that will help you to invent a high-quality, sustainable lifestyle.

The Scientific Method of Inquiry

“Problems worthy of attack prove their worth by fighting back.”

Piet Hein

Humans have an excellent way to solve problems and learn from their experience and mistakes—they run experiments.

Experiments help us to test what will work best, going forward. 

You see little children, even babies doing this instinctively. For example, a baby will adjust the noise it makes to get it’s parents to pay attention and do things for it. If a high pitched yell doesn’t work, then choking-type sounds will certainly have them galloping into the bedroom in the middle of the night. Clever babies register such results and reuse effective sounds until they stop producing the desired results. Since this is all they have to control the world—the sounds they make—babies are really inventive in the audio realm. If you went into a maternity ward or a creche and observed: you would hear the most amazing range of audio experiments being conducted—inciting squads of adults to action.

Over time this experimental approach to problem solving for humans has crystallized into what we now call “the scientific method of inquiry”. Simply speaking this involves five simple steps:

  • Question: Ask “I wonder what would happen if…?” 
  • Hypothesize: Formulate a theory about what is going to happen. 
  • Experiment: Do it. Make it happen. Test your theory.
  • Analyze: What happened? Did it match your theory?
  • Conclude: What do you conclude and what should happen next?

This approach is a time-honoured method that shows up in all fields of human endeavour. Science, engineering, academia, design, medicine—you name it. It has taught us everything we know.

It is very scientific, but also very practical. Anyone can be systematic and follow the above procedure. Especially when the stakes are high.

It is widely used. You can watch hours of fascinating experiments using this method on the Mythbusters TV series. In her book “Crash Test Girl” Kari Byron, from the Mythbuster series shows how to “crash test your way through life, no lab coat required.” She thinks the scientific, experimental approach is the perfect way to solve everyday issues. [See our article about The Science of Art.]

Creative Problem Solving

But where is the creativity in all of this? Well we are not machines or computers so we have lots of scope to use our imagination. [Trying a choking noise to control your parents, as a baby, when you are not actually choking is pretty imaginative, don’t you think?]

The scientific method is augmented by creative thinking approaches.

This is what designers and other creatives do when they problem solve. This type of creative problem solving is also known as designing.

How Do You Get Really Good Ideas?

“If I had an hour to solve a problem I’d spend 55 minutes thinking about the problem and 5 minutes thinking about solutions.”

Albert Einstein

The value and effectiveness of the creative problem solving process depends upon the quality of the ideas being explored. Predictably, crappy ideas for experiments will result in crappy outcomes—and a waste of time. We need to solve big problems, so we need big brilliant ideas.

In the end, we want to design solutions that will work not only for individuals and the economy; but also for communities, society, the future and the planet. In other words: solutions that are truly sustainable.

The Design Process

People in creative professions adopt the design process to make sure they are truly innovative (different, new and better than anything beforehand). The design process involves:

  • The design brief: Creating a clear statement of the problem and the design goals and requirements helps to set you on the path to success. This becomes an essential baseline and navigation tool as you go exploring ideas and running your experiment.
  • Ideation: Running sessions (alone or in groups) to rapidly and exhaustively generate and brainstorm many ideas. Rather than settling on the first idea that comes to mind—this approach loosens up the imagination and gets the creative juices flowing.
  • Concept selection: Strategically selecting the pick of the litter. Among your brainstorm ideas will be some real gems worth pursuing. These often stand out immediately; or you can search for themes, patterns and qualities that match the requirements of the brief. Designers tend to limit the selection to three options to avoid confusion.
  • Concept development: Experiment and test. This usually involves making mock-ups, models and a functional prototype of the selected concepts and running experiments on them to see if and how they work. Through a process of analysis, elimination and perfection you will arrive at the final design. This is an iterative process because you can continually return to the brainstorm, if your ideas fail to make the grade. Concept development is the engine room of experimentation. Each idea passes through iterations of development till one emerges as the superior option. (Similar to the way you have evolved.) The tests to which you subject your ideas determine how robust the ideas are and how fit they will be for purpose. [Being creative and imaginative about the tests is just as important as coming up with the ideas in the first place. Creative testing expedites development.] Presenting to clients, users and critics to seek their feedback is a critical test in the development of a concept.
  • Implementation plan: Specifications and a plan will be required for building the final design. Describing the form of the finished product. How your idea will manifest in the world. What is visible, apparent and readily perceived by others. For example, if you are designing a new way to manage your finances:- the finished product may be a set of budget goals and rules, an expense recording app, and a tailored savings and investment portfolio, etc.).

Designing is creative experimentation in the real world. It is so commercially effective that the entire economy is invested in it. Every effective product, service or system on the market has been designed—using the above process.

Now it is time for you to invest in becoming a designer by adopting the design process to change your life for the better.

Life is an Ever-Improving Experiment

“All life is problem solving.”

Karl Popper

Looking at the historical improvements in the life expectancy of humans (shown in the chart below) we can see clear evidence that our experiments are paying off. And each of these experiments was started by an individual and eventually taken up by the whole human race. That’s a superpower right there!

For example—looking at the lines below—in the 1870’s we (the human race) found ways to improve health care for mothers and babies—which significantly reduced infant mortality. In the 1930’s we discovered antibiotics. In the 1950’s we introduced vaccinations. Each of these interventions began as an experiment in a lab by a scientist and was then adopted by the rest of society.

Life expectancy [Source ourworldindata.org]

Very encouraging! But now we must solve the problems that naturally arise when you keep more people alive for longer. 

As the population grows, the dynamic between individuals intensifies. Which means that every lifestyle choice we make as individuals has an increasingly significant impact in the wider world.

Take for example the recent rush on toilet paper in Australia, in the early days of the coronavirus crisis:—

In the beginning, each person decided to get a few extra packets of loo roll to tide them through a period of isolation at home. A simple, individual decision.

As a consequence, within a day every supermarket ran out of stock on their shelves. So everyone—seeing empty shelves—got scared and decided to stockpile a few extra rolls the next time they were available. Another simple individual decision. But then every supermarket ran out of stock in their storerooms. 

Some customers started to complain and fight for the limited supply. Which led the supermarkets to introduce security measures and put pressure on their distribution centres; who then put pressure on manufacturers; who put pressure on paper mills; all the way down the line through to the timber industry. 

All of a sudden (and this only took 21 days) a noticeable impact was felt on the environment because the timber industry increased the logging of trees to fuel economic demand. These forests and this supply of trees was already under stress due to recent destruction by bush fire.

This type of chain reaction has cumulative, exponential power. So that the pressure felt by the logging companies was far greater than the pressure exerted by the consumer. (Except when they started throwing punches).

Here we see how the seemingly minor lifestyle choices of individuals lead to significant impact on the wider world and environment.

If exponential growth is not interrupted or moderated it will quickly get out of control. Watch the following simulation of exponential growth which shows the dynamic between individuals. 

VIDEO OF THE CORONA CHANGE OVER TIME SIMULATION By Stevens, Harry. (2020) Why outbreaks like coronavirus spread exponentially, and how to “flatten the curve”. Washington post. [View simulation.]

A Moderated Lifestyle

“Pay attention to the inner voice that tells you when something feels right. Much of your creative problem-solving occurs at an unconscious level.”

Nita Leland

We need creative ways to interrupt, moderate and counteract the behaviours that cause the big issues. To be effective, these new ways will have to work at the individual level.

At creatementality we help you to bring your lifestyle into equilibrium. We argue that if you can do that, you will be far less susceptible to the pressures of the world around you, which will allow you to contribute in positive rather than negative ways when faced with problems.

We focus on building a moderated lifestyle that places reasonable limits on how you use your energy, resources and time. And we encourage you to establish daily practices that will free you from the frantic/panic mainstream world that hordes and fights over toilet paper. 

Scientist are predicting a pretty challenging time for the human race over the next 100 years.

“We are at an extraordinary crossroads in human history and our actions, or failure to act, will determine the fate of the earth and human civilization for centuries to come.”

James Martin, the Meaning of the Twenty First Century

In his book, The Meaning of the 21st Century, Jame Martin as you to “think of the 21st century as a deep river canyon with a narrow bottleneck at its centre. Think of humanity as river rafters heading downstream. As we head into the canyon, we’ll have to cope wit the rate of change that becomes much more intense—a white-water raft trip with the currents becoming much faster and rougher… At the narrow part of the canyon, the world’s population will be at its highest and worlds resources under their greatest stress. In these coming decades, as we are swept towards the canyon bottle neck we must unlock extraordinary new technology… and find ways to get the whole of humanity through with as little mayhem as possible into what we hope will be smother waters beyond… Solutions exist, or can exist, to most of the serious problems of the 21st century… The bad news is that the most powerful people today have little understanding of the solutions and little incentive to apply them.

Which leaves the ball in your court. In our court as individuals.

If you are free from frantic consumption, aggressive competition and the fear of missing out (FOMO); you will be able to hear that inner voice that tells you when you are on the right track. Instead of getting caught up in a dodo-like race over the edge of the cliff, you will be concerned with the well being of others and be able to design constructive solutions.

Ultimately, we aspire to sustainable practices and finding ways to make a quality lifestyle ecologically neutral, so that everyone in the world can also have it.

Exercise to Test the Theory

“At some point, everything’s gonna go south on you and you’re going to say, this is it. This is how I end. Now you can either accept that, or you can get to work. That’s all it is. You just begin. You do the math. You solve one problem and you solve the next one, and then the next. And If you solve enough problems, you get to come home.”

—Mark Watney, the Martian

Let’s get you to run an experiment and use the creative problem solving approach. If it works this time, you can use it again and again, until you solve enough problems and we all get safely through the canyon.

Pick a problem that you would really like to fix in your life right now. Download The Creative Problem Solver worksheet and fill in the blanks. 

Thinking through problems in this systematic way is always helpful. Whether you completely solve any given problem—you will be better off in the end for having given the issue some creative attention.

If the experiment does not entirely solve the problem the first time —be like a designer and simply run a new experiment. Till you do solve the problem. And then the next problem. And the next. In this way you take your superpower and turn it into a lifestyle.

In this way you will be part of the bigger solution, no longer part of the problem: because you will be thinking creatively instead of just consuming and living mindlessly.