For the last fourteen months I’ve been practicing a new form of goal setting:
- Have only one goal at a time, that closely aligns with life purpose.
- Set an “evaluation date” for the goal (a deadline, more or less).
- Set up a reward for completing the goal, and a “kick-in-the-butt” motivator if needed.
My most recent goal was to finish the first draft of my sci-fi novel. I didn’t finish by my evaluation date (June 30th) which led to a kick-in-butt motivator of no alcohol until the draft was complete. (I did finally finish. Kia read it in two days; at least for one person the book is a page turner.)
I’ve refined the one-goal system considerably since I’ve started, so I thought it might be a good time to share my mistakes, missteps, and adjustments along the way (including how my goal-setting led to a mid-life crisis).
Churn vs. Life Shaping
Why set goals? I don’t think there’s any intrinsic value in “getting more done.” In the United States (and maybe most Western cultures) many of us engage in the collective delusion that “enhancing productivity” improves quality of life. An overemphasis on productivity and churn rate overshadows more subtle dimensions like quality of consciousness, receptivity to new ideas, and rest and relaxation.
So churn isn’t the point. Before switching to the new system, I used to make a list of goals for each month. I was trying to maximize on all fronts, without focus or direction. This resulted in a lot of activity each month (billable hours, music releases, blog posts written, etc.) but little life progress.
When I started choosing a single goal that was aligned with my life purpose, it shifted my perspective. I still make a list at the beginning of each month, but I have renamed it for what it is — Tasks. There are things that need to happen every month (a certain number of billable hours, for example, if I want to pay my bills), but now I’m clear about what I add to that list, and why. No more productivity for productivity’s sake.
Summary: General productivity isn’t the point; a single goal helped give me direction and focus, with less frenetic activity.
Understand What The Work Is, and the Time Required
Earlier in my goal-setting process I made the mistake of setting a goal without fully considering or understanding what kind of daily efforts would bring me closer to achieving the goal. In hindsight that’s obvious, which makes the details somewhat embarrassing to share. But I’ll share them anyway, for your benefit.
About a year ago I was focused on gaining some tangible, measurable successes in the music industry. While I had already achieved many music career milestones (in terms of getting signed to my favorite labels, getting played by my favorite DJ’s, getting TV licensing placements, and so on) my own label Loöq Records hadn’t had a chart-topping release in a long-time. I was going to change that.
Through a combination of good luck, marginally effective marketing efforts, and (I think) a good album, we managed to sell enough music to achieve my first goal (hit the Beatport Top 100 list) well before my self-imposed target date. Momu – Rising made it to #72 on the Top 100 Beatport Albums List (and held the #3 spot in the Chill-Out album list for several weeks).
Confidence boosted, I decided to double-down. My next goal would be to hit the Top 100 Tracks chart with a Loöq release (on Beatport, the individual tracks chart is much more competitive than the albums charts).
Well, that didn’t work out. I diligently went about the work I *thought* would lead to achieving that goal (signing and releasing more music, commissioning a remix from a high-profile artist, learning and using marketing tools like Topspin), all this with the help of my music cohort and label partner Spesh. Despite our best efforts, no Loöq Release cracked the chart in question.
But were they really our best efforts? Certainly we were working hard, but our efforts weren’t yielding results. In hindsight, I think we made the following mistakes:
- we underestimated the difficulty of the task
- we didn’t spend enough time understanding the granular subdivisions of subgenres that make up the Top 100 at any given time; we didn’t completely understand our target audience
- while we employed a grab-bag of methods, we didn’t have a cohesive strategy
- we didn’t focus enough on helping our artists organically grow their own fan bases, one person at a time
- we didn’t allow nearly enough time for achieving this goal (in terms of getting feedback and adjusting our course of action)
One possible lesson I could have taken from this experience is that it’s not a good idea to set a goal in a competitive sphere where you can’t completely control the outcome. I think that would be the wrong lesson to take. After all, it is possible to engineer success with concerted effort and a proven strategy. Tim Ferriss has shown the world this is possible, achieving massive books sales and NYT bestseller status with all three of his self-help books. Some of his methods might cross the line (arranging contests that encourage his readers to buy hundreds of copies of his books, or using bait-and-switch tactics to secure meetings with popular bloggers), but his techniques work.
So what was the right lesson to take from this failure? I think it’s less important that I didn’t initially understand what it took to succeed in this area, and more important that my timeline (four months) was far too tight. Really I set myself up for a very limited number of attempts, with no way to make course corrections if those initial attempts failed.
Lastly, I don’t think I chose a goal that was in harmony with my life purpose. I would still love to take a relatively unknown artist to chart-topping success via Loöq Records — that would be awesome. But during the time I was chasing chart success, I noticed my mind wandering to other subjects (including this blog, and writing in general). To me this was a clear sign that I wasn’t firing on all cylinders towards my main goal.
Summary: After an early lucky success, I failed at my next goal because I didn’t understand how to approach it, how hard it would be, and I didn’t leave myself enough time for course corrections. Most importantly, my heart wasn’t in it.
Life Direction, the Bigger Picture
It was a sobering realization, to realize I wasn’t passionate about the thing I thought I wanted.
Around the time I started this blog, I realized I had no more interest in musical performance. Fine, no problem. I could still write and produce music. I could still be the label guy. There was still plenty to do, I could still express myself, I could still experience all the rewards of creating and releasing music.
But when I tried to push that part of my life to the next level, I fell flat. Not meeting my own goal was no big deal; after all, I could always keep trying. But I found that my appetite for success in that area had slacked.
My own goal setting had led me right into a mid-life crisis.
There was nothing to do but zoom out and reassess. If the goal of chart-topping success for Loöq Records artists (including myself) wasn’t aligning with my sense of life purpose, what would?
Should I give up the music biz entirely? I considered it, but quickly decided against it. Sure, it might free up a few hours a week, but I would be walking away from a good thing (a great partnership, a profitable business, a great community of artists, an outlet for releasing whatever music I wanted to, etc.). Instead of walking away, I could simply take a more organic, less goal-oriented approach to the activities. (Current and potential Loöq artists who might be reading this — that’s what you’ll be getting — feel free to search for a more ambitious label head!)
I tried to imagine what my ideal life would look like, five years into the future. The most important things? Health for my family and myself and my good friends, everyone thriving and getting along well, enough money to buy fancy cheese. Beyond that, a simple vision came into focus: writing fiction every day, my novels published and widely read, while also continuing the other activities I enjoy (making electronic music, writing this blog, etc.).
Slowly it dawned on my that what I was thinking about was an actual career change; one that would take a number of years (and steady concerted effort) to orchestrate.
With this in mind, my next goal came into focus.
Summary: goal failure led to a minor mid-life crisis, and a reevaluation of my life priorities
I gave myself a full sixth months to complete my next goal, which was to complete the first draft of a novel that I would be proud to have published. I had written (and rewritten) two earlier novels, but both were riddled with serious “first novel” mistakes, and were best left unpublished. With structures in place that would prevent me from repeating earlier mistakes (such as weak characters who are buffeted about by events, plots with logical irregularities, a lack of suspense, etc.), I embarked on my new mission.
And met with … resistance.
My heart was in the right place this time. This goal felt right. But the work was hard! Even though I diligently blocked out the time to work everyday, I had trouble getting started, and kept getting distracted. What was going on?
I was experiencing a steep learning curve, pushing myself to do something I didn’t fully know how to do. At first, it sometimes took an hour to write a few good sentences. Some things I thought I knew better than I actually did (correct use of punctuation, definitions of certain words), and other things I knew I didn’t know (like to how effectively create suspense).
My brain was working hard. For one thing, I was out of shape, mentally. As I kept at it, the writing process got easier, and became more rewarding.
Did I mention it was difficult starting out?
I don’t think I can overemphasize how hard it is to change the inertia of your life. Your body and mind want to keep doing what they’ve been doing. It takes a lot of willpower to radically change your lifestyle. But if you keep at it, it starts to feel natural. Creating a writing ritual was helpful in terms of staying focused and avoiding distractions.
Summary: steep learning curve made brain hurt, kept at it anyway
“Reward” and “Punishment”
Just a few quick thoughts here. In terms of creating a reward for succeeding, I’ve made the mistake of setting up a “big” reward, only to find that the logistics of the reward are more complicated than achieving the goal in the first place (like organizing a big celebratory dinner for eight busy people). So now I keep it really simple. My reward for achieving my current goal is key lime pie. The main reward for reaching your goal, after all, is the success of of reaching your goal. Anything else is just sprinkles on top.
Re: punishment, there is a goal-setting site/service called stickK that will hold money in escrow on your behalf. If you fail at your goal, they’ll donate the money to a friend, charity, or anti-charity (a charity who you don’t approve of).
Clever, but what happens if you don’t meet the goal by your deadline? The negative incentive is immediately discharged. I prefer the self-denial method: no <insert thing you like here> until you achieve the goal. As long as you’ve put a beloved vice on the line, this method is more hardcore, and will ensure you keep at it until you succeed.
Summary: Simple, logistically uncomplicated rewards are best (and success at your goal is the main reward). Instead of “punishment” if you miss your target date, instead consider some form of austerity/self-denial until you succeed.
Goal-setting is selfish/self-involved, but it’s also a path to discover and maximize your ability to contribute to the world. If I can emphasize any one thing, it’s the importance of pursuing a goal that feels true to yourself, that aligns with your heart.
I didn’t mean for this post to be so confessional, but that’s where it ended up. Hopefully sharing my own trials and tribulations in the goal-setting process will be helpful to you. I’m trying to create an effect goal-setting system, but as you can see it’s a messy process. I’m making it up as I go along.
Please feel free to share your own experiences below.