It’s a new year, and you know what that means: everyone in the whole world gets bombarded with messages about how we need to make this the best year ever, how we need to change our habits and our bodies, and how we need to be better in every way as we move into this new year. Well, that’s not the energy I want to enter 2024 with. So let’s talk about goal setting for creatives. As an artist and a person I am always looking to level up my skills, but the amount of shame and pressure that comes along with the majority of new year’s resolutions just doesn’t vibe with me. Let’s talk about ways that we as creatives (and as human beings) can set goals for ourselves without judgment, shame, or fear.
Take some pressure off.
Is it just me, or do some goals just feel super high stakes? I feel like when I set a big goal for the entire year, I end up feeling like the pressure is on for me to perform perfectly so that the whole year isn’t ruined. Now, I’m lucky, because I get to celebrate several new years. I of course get to celebrate the new Gregorian calendar year on January 1st. I also get to celebrate the Jewish new year on Rosh Hashanah. Then, because I’m greedy, I also mark a sort of new year on the summer solstice each year. I also see my birthday (I’m a November Scorpio) as a new beginning. For me, this takes a lot of the pressure off; if I set a goal on January 1st and it’s not working out or it’s no longer serving me, I can just… try again at the next new year that rolls around. Now, maybe you don’t celebrate four entire new years. That’s fine, I know I’m extra. But there may be other ways to set goals that feel shorter-term and lower-stakes than choosing one thing in January to focus on for an entire 12 months. Maybe you could try setting quarterly goals, or even monthly goals. You can choose all of these at the beginning of the year, or you can come up with them as you go along.
You can also take pressure off yourself with the type of goals you set. You have to remember that life happens, and in 12 months (or, honestly, even in 6 or 3 months) you’re going to be in a different position than you are now. You might even feel like a totally new person in a year’s time! So be thoughtful about the nature of your goals. For example, as a novelist, I could set a goal to write two books in one year. On the surface, this seems like a good goal. It’s specific, it’s ambitious, and based on how quickly I write I feel confident I could achieve it if I worked hard. That is… if nothing happens. I can work that quickly if I don’t get sick, if I don’t have any major life events come up, if I’m not grieving, if my job is going well. The truth is, over the course of 2024, probably all of these things are going to come up for me. I don’t know how long any given sickness will last or what form grief will take for me, but I can bet good money on the fact that I’ll experience both of these things during the year. A healthier goal for me might be to prioritize writing. People always tell you to pick highly specific goals, but that doesn’t always leave room for you to have the flexibility you need. If I just choose to prioritize writing, that might mean I spend one month writing every single day, but the next month I mostly spend on reading and research. It might mean that I make an effort to connect more with writing friends, mentors, and critique partners, or it might mean that I really put effort into learning new skills by taking classes or writing something outside of my comfort zone. Regardless of what life throws at me, this is something I can accomplish if I’m willing to work at it, and I’m less likely to give up on the goal if I have a hard week or month.
Here’s a story: I really love working out, and it’s amazing for my mental health. I have a gym membership, but I also love running and going to yoga classes, so I don’t always feel like I get my money’s worth out of my gym membership. So, I set a goal to make it to the gym 3-5 times a week and lift weights. On the surface, this is a good goal, because it’s flexible yet specific, and it allows me to do something I love that also prioritizes my health. Except then life happened, and I got sick. I’m not saying I got the flu; I had a flare-up in my chronic illness that was so bad I couldn’t even go for a walk, let alone deadlift. This flare went on for months, and on top of the chronic illness feels and the grief at having to totally change my lifestyle, I also had to contend with the fact that I was not meeting my goals.
What if my goal had been to prioritize movement? Would things like stretching and chair yoga have made me feel good, like I was meeting my goals even if I had new life circumstances and limitations? I honestly think the answer is yes. This is an extreme example, but I can’t stress enough that a year is a long time, and some years are going to be more challenging than others. Setting low-pressure goals that can change as your circumstances change is a great way to avoid shame, stress, and negative self-image. This is the foundation of how I think of goal setting for creatives, my thesis if you will; we have to get rid of shame and fear of failure in order to live a creative life, and that includes letting go of those things within our goals.
Think about what serves you.
Everyone knows the typical new year goals. Lose weight, exercise, perform better at work… the list goes on. I’m not going to say there’s anything wrong with wanting to do these things, but I think it’s worth thinking about what is actually going to serve you. Will losing weight improve your life, or do you just want to feel better about yourself and like what you see in the mirror? Do you actually need to be running three days a week, or do you want to find a form of movement that makes you feel good, physically and emotionally? Do you want to perform better at work, or do you want to learn new skills that will serve your career long-term?
Get creative about what would actually materially improve your life, and set your goals around that. I already know you’re creative, because you’re reading an article about goal setting for creatives, not boring people. Back to the exercise example, instead of setting a goal to work out a certain number of times a week, you could make your goal to try five new forms of exercise. Who knows, maybe you would really love spin class, or snowboarding, or pickleball. If you’re self-conscious about your body, maybe instead of trying to change it you could set goals to find out what types of clothes make you feel confident, or even learn more about body positivity and self-love. If you want to make a ton of short films, maybe you could make your new year’s resolution to be that you’re going to say yes to the filming opportunities that come your way, or to meet more filmmakers so you can find a creative partner that you vibe with.
This year, I’ve decided that what will serve me the most is to get better with money. Like a lot of artists (and a lot of people in general) money is a source of stress for me and I often worry I’m making the wrong choices, even when things are going well. This is a super general goal, but in some ways that helps; I can take a webinar here or there, I can listen to an audio book about investing, I can do small things like make sure my money is in a good high-yield savings account or that I’m using the right credit card to maximize my airline miles. It’s not something I have to do every day, and I can’t really “fail” at it, because even if I literally only do one thing on my list, I’ll end 2024 feeling that much more confident with money. You might be thinking that this goal isn’t related to my creative life, but that’s not true; I am learning skills that will make it easier for me to do things like take time off work to focus on my writing, travel to places that inspire me, or get to the point where I can comfortably self-finance a short film. Anything that improves your life can and will impact your art, even if you’re not specifically setting goals around your creative ambitions. You’re a creative person even when you’re not actively engaged in the act of creating, and these things have a ripple effect.
Meet yourself where you’re at.
If you know me you know I’m an avid reader. Nothing makes me happier than diving into a really good book. But for the past few months, I’ve been in a major reading slump. It’s been so hard for me to pick up a book, and even harder to focus once I start reading. Now, I really want to get back into reading, in part because I miss it, and in part because there are so many good books out there that I want to get around to. It would make sense for me to set a new year’s goal around reading. But I don’t know why reading has been so hard for me, so I’m not really sure how to solve it. I know that if I buy a bunch of new books or take a trip to the library, I’ll find things that interest me, but that isn’t going to translate into actually reading them. If I set a goal to read a book a week, which is what I used to do before this slump, I’ll just wind up mad at myself when I can’t muster up the focus. So instead, I plan to meet myself where I’m at. I downloaded an audiobook I’m interested in and have been listening to it during my commute. I found a book of horror short stories I’m excited about, which I have found is both easier to pick up and easier to focus on.
I do in fact remember that I’m supposed to be writing about goal setting for creatives. So how does this translate into creativity? Well, maybe you want your goal to be that you’re going to write and produce your first short film. It’s an admirable goal. But is it realistic based on where you’re at? Do you know how to write a short film that can be easily produced? Do you have the funding to make a short film? Are you an experienced producer, or is all this new to you? Do you have friends and colleagues who can help you out, or are you on your own? Meeting yourself where you’re at might mean learning to write a strong screenplay, or it might mean writing and crowdfunding for production next year. It might mean making new filmmaking friends, or getting more gigs on other people’s film sets so that you know how to run your own set once it’s time. I’m not saying your initial goal of shooting a film isn’t realistic, I’m just saying you should really take stock of where you’re at before your commit. This isn’t just about being realistic. It’s about having compassion for yourself. No one can do it all, which is hard, because indie filmmakers and other artists are expected to do it all. Really think about if you currently have the resources to make your goals happen in the timeframe you’ve set for yourself, and if you don’t, think about how you can work towards your dreams anyways.
Remember, goals can be fun
We always think that goal-setting is about self-improvement, determination, and working hard, but what if I told you that your new year’s resolution could be fun? What if your goal was to try new restaurants, or to travel more, or to produce that one short film you’ve always wanted to make but thought was too weird or out there? What if you signed up for a dance class, or decided to go on a walking tour of your own city, or scheduled a weekly coffee date with a friend, or tried your hand at writing a romantic comedy screenplay instead of your usual drama? What if you made your goal to maximize the joy and pleasure in your life, instead of doing something boring or hard for the sake of constantly improving yourself?
The secret is, even fun goals make you better. They make you happier, they make you more well-rounded, they let you explore and play and fail in a way that’s low-pressure, low-stakes, and ultimately really useful. Remember, you can’t create art unless you’re also living. Living, of course, looks different for everyone; we all have different preferences, restrictions, abilities, and dreams. But the point is that doing fun things makes you a better person and a better artist. I’ve written about why rest is so important for artists and how it helps you create better art. Joy is the same way. There’s this narrative that artists create their best work out of grief and trauma, and while those things can be used to create something beautiful, so can happiness and enjoyment. Even if you have a more serious goal (like my financial education goal) why don’t you also set one that’s just for fun? It can be as small or silly or insignificant as you like. Just pick something that will make you happy and try it out. I promise it still counts as a new year’s resolution.
Do you have other thoughts on goal setting for creatives? I’d love to hear what’s worked for you and what advice you might have to offer other filmmakers and artists! Reach out and let me know what your thoughts are.