Overcoming The Fear Of Setting (And Not Reaching) Goals

image: dan james

Are you afraid of setting goals in your life?

What kind of feelings does the phrase “goal setting” conjure up in you?

Recently on CCS, our community of artists, I asked – What would you like to have created a year from now?

I thought the question would excite and inspire people into coming up with some wonderful goals and projects they could see themselves being the proud creators of.

But whilst this is what happened for a few, many more seemed almost paralysed by the idea of setting any kind of long term goal.

Too often in the past it seems, lofty goals were set and elaborate plans made, then for whatever reasons, life turned out very differently, and the goals fell by the wayside.

Rather than evolving and adapting as they went, the person saw the fact that they didn’t achieve what they set out to do in every last detail as a complete failure.

Worse than that, it led to them retreating further from creating, from fear of “failing” again – the exact opposite of what setting the goals was meant to help with in the first place.

Personally, I’ve changed significantly in my relationship with goals and goal setting in the last few years – both in my own creative life, and in what I believe and proffer as a creativity coach.

At the core of my life are daily habits and stacks.

Rather than set huge goals each year, I might write down some of the things I would like to do, some of the projects I plan to embark on.

But far more important than that, I focus on what small, daily practices I can maintain and introduce that will help me live the life I want to live.

Think of it like this –

Which of these sound more achievable to you?

a) I’m going to take 365 photographs this year.
b) I’m going to take just one photograph every day.

Another scenario –

a) I’m going to write a novel this year.
b) I’m going to write 250 words a day.

(This post is already over 300 words, to give you an idea of how little 250 words is…)

Taken over that 12 month period, the end volume is exactly the same. You’d have your 365 photographs and enough words for your novel.

But the way you frame it, and the way you approach it, seems so much more manageable when we talk about daily habits, little and often.

Aside from helping us almost completely sidestep the kind of goal fear that can be crippling, when we think on a day to day basis like this, it helps in other ways.

Doing something small every day soon becomes second nature.

You don’t forget to do it, you just do it. It just happens. It goes on to that same goes-without-saying-To-Do-List as breathing, eating and sleeping.

Which then means you can add another little habit to it.

This is what I meant before when I mentioned stacks, and if you’ve been reading here for a while you’ll know it’s something I often talk about. Because it works, and it can change your creative life.

A stack is simply two or more little habits done one after the other.

The initial action, or trigger, starts not just one habit, but a stack of habits.

I’m sure you already have them in other areas of your life. For example – alarm goes, you get out of bed, visit the bathroom, make a drink.

All of us have some kind of morning ritual that at its core remains pretty consistent. You don’t wake and think about whether to visit the bathroom and then make a drink, you just do it, because you know that’s what you need to help you get the day started. And to keep your body functioning, you need to take care of certain output and input needs!

Creative habits are just the same. You have that initial trigger (which can be an alarm, or waking up, or indeed visiting the bathroom) and that signals the start of the stack.

Now, some types of creative activity are more portable and flexible than others.

(Which is one reason why my own main two creative pursuits for the last few years have been writing and photography – you need minimal equipment. In fact, I could put up a pretty good argument that you don’t need any equipment – you can write stories and poems and make photographs in your head.)

But whatever your main creative pursuits, you can I’m sure find small, daily actions that will keep you creating, and help build those habits, then stacks of habits.

Nurturing a stack of daily habits is quite possibly the most powerful thing you can do to further your artistic life.

Don’t let a fear of setting (and “failing”) big goals hold you back – you simply don’t need to do them.

Instead, think about the single little step you can take today. Then tomorrow, and the next day.

Think about the tiny yet virtually indestructible habits you want to have at the core of your creative life.

Start small, make them stick, make them work for you, then build from there.

A fortnight from now you could be feeling the benefits of a daily creative practice that will make you wonder if you ever need to concern yourself with goal setting again, let alone be crippled by the fear of failing to reach them.

And how freeing would that be?


Thank you for reading. Please share these words. Subscribe for free updates.