How to Achieve Your Goals — Without Losing Your Creative Soul

How to Achieve Your Goals—Without Losing Your Creative Soul

Ever feel like you’re never getting enough done? Or can get things done — but at the expense of your creativity?

left and right brain
I was that kid in the soccer league who failed at defending the goal because I was off in the field distracted by picking flowers.

I was always getting lost in my own world, thinking up a new idea or starting a new creative project.

But somewhere along the way, that part of me — that inner imaginative “Flower Girl” picking flowers in the field, took a few hits.

Got weakened, blow by tiny blow.

Because as I grew as a woman shaped by social forces, another persona grew inside me.

I call her Girl Friday.

My Girl Friday is the part of me that’s trained to do things like anticipate logistics and needs — especially of others. It’s the part of me that is always “on call,” planning and project managing.

girl friday brain

My Girl Friday is the part of me that remembers to send thank you cards. It’s that part that remembers the plan for next Tuesday so we can get ahead of it this week.

Girl Friday is thinking three weeks ahead, and the Flower Girl has no clue what day it is.

crossed arms
“Girl Friday,” the logistical secretary role, is a role that I see many women pushed into.

I’m a career coach who works with midcareer women in design, innovation, and creative fields. I’ve heard from women — and even a recruiter in design — how women are pushed into project management instead of design.

I believe it’s a vestige of the “Mad Men”-style professional world we’re only a generation or two removed from — where men did the creative work, and women handled the details that got in the way of their big ideas.

This comes up in so many ways for my clients: Like the director who was so loaded up with office admin (even creating project management plans for other people’s projects!) that she couldn’t even envision what she wanted next in her career.

women and men

And it’s not just in their heads. There was a recent Harvard Business Review article on women’s greater likelihood to volunteer — and be volunteered by others — for “promotionless tasks.” These are tasks like taking the meeting notes, organizing office events that matter — but will never be worthy of a promotion or a raise. Authors like Gemma Hartley and Brigid Schulte have covered the larger household “‘logistical point person” role that women often face and the incredible burden it takes on women’s attention and focus.

That logistical anticipating, what social scientists call “the mental load,” takes up brain space. It takes up bandwidth. It’s like an old clunky computer program taking up a bunch of RAM, leaving less space available for creativity and flow.

Does project management brain block creative brain?

I remember reading Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own in high school. Woolf described the process of having creative ideas as insights as sitting by a pond and seeing fish flitting — glimmering faintly in the water. To grasp the beginning of an idea — to pull it out of the water and make it real — was what the creative process was like for her.

But Woolf knew that to pull the idea out of that glimmering water and make it real takes sitting by that pond: Showing up with time and attention for your creative process. It takes space — not just physical space, but space from being on demand and on call all the time.

When I’m worrying about all the moving parts, I don’t grasp that little glimmer of a fish — of an idea. I can’t have the big insights. I can’t get lost in the flow state that creativity requires and have that big insight.

koy fish pond
Do I regret having an inner Girl Friday?

No, well, not exactly. I may have been inevitably marched down the path of developing my inner Girl Friday by socialization, but I am often glad that she’s there.

She’s really good at getting things done.

crossed arms and stars
flowers inside rope
But I don’t want to always have to be Girl Friday.

I don’t want to be the one in the room who always writes the meeting notes. Or who always cleans up after the synagogue reception. I don’t want to be the one in my romantic partnership who has to remember all the details or is the default go-to for any social plans.

And I don’t want Girl Friday to keep me from the creative work I want to create — that I can only do when she’s not around.

For that, I need my inner Flower Girl — because it’s she who moves through the nonlinear, uncertain creative process and makes something that I’ve never seen before.

I’ve found the key is to “hack” my inner Girl Friday and Flower Girl to work together — so I can get things done and leverage my creative brain.

Over the years, I developed a set of practices to do this, and I started to notice in my work as a career coach that many of these specific tools I taught helped my clients get more things done. They helped my clients get more of the bold, creative things they wanted to get done (even when they were intimidated).

I wanted to share one of the most powerful practices I developed. I call them “Set it and Forget it Habits”.

If you’ve ever tried to use a new productivity system or planner only to abandon it sooner thereafter, you’ll appreciate “set it and forget it habits.” I developed this approach out of the ashes of my own experiences with “revolutionary productivity systems” that made me feel like a disorganized failure.

Set it and Forget it Habits have helped me:

  • Write hundreds of essays on the creative process and creative career growth for women
  • Sell out my career coaching program the first time I launched it
  • Build a course
  • Even write this essay… which is the precursor to a book I’m writing on productivity for creatives.

If you want to follow along with my process of writing a book, you can see it here.

And instead of forcing me to be someone who I’m not, “Set it and Forget it Habits” are a way of getting my inner Girl Friday and Flower Girl to work together.
notebook with stars

What are Set it and Forget it Habits?

Set it and Forget it Habits are simple, ideally repeatable actions that move you forward to achieve your big goals that you put into place for yourself today, so you can just show up to check them off your list in the future.

Set it and Forget it Habits are meant to help you achieve a goal that matters to you — and one that isn’t naturally going to happen without commitment and intention — like changing your sheets or working on the project that your boss assigned to you.

How do you create Set it and Forget it Habits?

1. Choose a goal

To create a Set it and Forget it Habit, you get clear on the goal you want to achieve — like writing the first draft of your book, or getting 5 new clients for your website business, or getting a grant for the idea you’d like to get off the ground.

set a goal

2. Set a time period for your goal

You want to set a time period for your Set it and Forget it Habits — and to keep it simple, ideally a time period for them all. I set mine for a quarter, but anything from 6–12 weeks is long enough to get enough repetition in the mix to really make some progress, but short enough to not be locked into it forever.

I originally “discovered” Set it and Forget it Habits when I created one to get myself to prioritize my body during the work week — my first Set it and Forget it Habit was to work out three times during the work week.

set a time frame for your goal

At some point, I discovered the 12 Week Year — a productivity system by Brian Moran to get people to achieve more in a quarter than organizations typically do in a year. In the 12 Week Year system, you set a quarterly goal and then work towards it in small steps that you track every week of the quarter. So, for example, if you’re trying to hit a sales target by the end of the quarter, you might assign yourself to have 10 sales calls a week.

12-week year planning sheet

But I like to apply the system to creative habits as well as business or career goals. So my 12 Week Year goals include things like making referral calls, but also to things like making an illustration a week.

3. Translate the goal into repeatable habits

And then you want to ask yourself, “What would it take to achieve this goal, and how can I break it up into the most simple, most repeatable set of habits?”

So if you want to write the first draft of you book, you might decide to write one page a day. Or if you want to get 5 new clients for your business, you might decide to call up one past client per week to ask if they know anyone who needs a new website.

Translate your goal into repeatable habits
It’s best when Set it and Forget it Habits are as simple as possible.

Here’s why: We’re all seduced by those sexy Gantt Charts that show complex project production and everything working together seamlessly.

But the complexity of a complex project takes up precious mental space.

And yes, I used complex twice in that sentence. Partially because I was just being redundant, but partially because I liked how jargony it sounded — it felt like it proved the point.

And even if you did spend the time to make one of those fancy Gantt charts (that require you to get your PhD in Gantt charts along the way, by the way,) real life never goes that simply. Things go wrong, things end up taking longer than you think, or a step is skipped, and that massive web of complexity has to be adjusted and changed.

When a project is complex, you mentally have to keep more of the big picture in the background and it takes up mental space even if you don’t think it will.

When you have a simple habit, you have much less you have to remember, and it clears up space to just show up for executing the habit itself.

But what about goals that can’t be reduced down to a simple habit?

So sometimes there isn’t just one habit that can lead you to success. You may have a goal that may turn out to have multiple sub-strategies necessary to complete it. Landing a grant, for example, will require researching and developing connections with funders and developing your grant idea and proposal.

Or writing and illustrating a book, for example. In that case, I like to break the goal down into the simplest number of substrategies, that then, can be broken up into simple habits.

goal substrategies

My Girl Friday is the one that’s really good at thinking about the dependencies. So at the start of a project or goal, I task her with figuring out the substrategies that will be required to achieve a goal, and deciding which I will pursue in what order.

And she “hands over” my list of Set it and Forget it habits so I don’t have to hold onto the big plan while executing.

You are “outsourcing” the planning to your Girl Friday — especially for more complex goals.

4. Set a Few More Goals, But Not Too Many

Today, I usually have 3–4 big areas I am working on with 1–3 habits underneath each. And I stack them so any given week is not too intense in terms of workload or mental effort.

set it and forget it habit tracking

But I started with only one habit.

My first Set it and Forget it Habit was an exercise challenge. I had to work out three out of five workdays.

Taking on too many habits, especially when you are building the habit of following Set it and Forget it Habits (yep, that’s meta alright), sets you up to fail.

If you’re new to Set it and Forget it Habits, I’d recommend starting with just one outcome area with just one habit.

5. Give yourself a "power habit".

Set it and Forget it Habits are particularly good for making yourself into the person who you want to be. Or doing the things that scare you to achieve the thing you don’t fully feel qualified for.

I refer to habits like these as “power habits.” Power habits are actions that are short on time, but big on facing fear and the level of challenge involved.

Most of us have core limiting narratives about ourselves and what’s possible for us that hold us back. Power habits make us into who we are capable of being through practice.

You can either give yourself a standalone “power habit.” Finish work at 5:30pm once per week was a big one for me — which took on my perfectionist tendency to overwork.

Or you can integrate your “power habit” into another habit or goal. For example, if I’m asking for a publisher or agent introduction per week, in pursuit of my goal to write a book, I might raise the ante by making every other ask to someone who intimidates me.

tracking more goals

6. Take action on your habits

Ever gotten a new productivity system and it was so onerous to actually use that you abandoned it after a few days or weeks?

For creatively-minded, immersive people like me, a productivity system must be “cheap” to use — it can’t take up a lot of my time — especially as I’m in the thick of the day-to-day or else I don’t use it.

Make it Easy to Track

The first step is to set up a system that makes tracking easy. In my quarterly Set it and Forget it Plan, I have a spreadsheet where I need to record whether I did it (1) or I didn’t (0). It’s on my Google Drive, so I can access it on my phone if need be, and it’s meant to be easily, quickly updated.

If the idea of a spreadsheet makes your eyes cross, then use a sticker chart. One of my clients has a star chart with those cute grade school gold stars that she uses to track her high-level goals and reports back on them to me.

In my first Set it and Forget It Habit, my partner gave me Ninja Turtles stickers when I achieved my exercise goals for the week.

set it and forget it habit chart
Build in Social Accountability

But truth be told, I’d never actually do that if not for the second way I make it easy to actually “use” the system. I report back to someone — a real person — weekly.

I have a “business wingwoman.” It’s my favorite term for a success parter or an accountability partner.

We run different businesses, but we connected through a business community about six years ago and have been meeting weekly to share progress, set goals, and work through challenges for almost as long.

We meet for an hour a week and really get into the thick of some of the challenges we’re facing as business owners, but your social accountability can be “cheaper” than that. It could be a text chain with a group of friends who have ambitious goals or reporting back to a partner or a best friend.

I know that five minutes before my weekly meeting with Kristen, I’m scrambling to fill out my Set it and Forget it Plan so I can report back to her.

It’s a “hacking” of my little Girl Friday’s “please the teacher” tendencies.

social accountability is about hacking your inner people pleaser to focus on you
Aim for 80% Perfection

In the 12 Week Year system, upon which my Set it and Forget it Planning System is based, you only need to achieve 80% success to usually hit your goals. If you need to make 3 sales calls a week and you miss a week or two, you’ll probably still achieve your target.

So as long as you’re hitting 80%, you’ll be fine.

What I love about this is that it pushes against the binary thinking that scarcity narratives and perfectionism thrive on. “If I’m not always hustling, I’ll never make it.” “If I don’t do it perfectly, it’ll all fall apart.”

80% Is about finding and hovering in that gray zone where good enough is good enough. Many of us struggle to spot that gray zone and to have the skills of self-management to navigate ourselves into it and remain there. But the key to maintaining a full, rich, creative life is balance and being able to be in the driver’s seat of what effort and energy you contribute to what efforts is part of the work.

80% perfection is about finding and hovering in that gray zone where good enough is good enough
Leave Some Habits for Later

Like many creatives, I have A LOT of ideas. Too many to ever act on in a lifetime. Sometimes, when I can see the first glimmer of an idea, it’s all I can do to not drop everything and start getting it out of my head and making it real.

In the beginning of my journey as a creative entrepreneur I picked up the book Making Ideas Happen by Scott Belsky. Belsky saw many creatives get tripped up by the “messy middle” of a project — the slogging work of production and dealing with the implementation challenges of making our new shiny ideas a reality.

In the “messy middle,” our excitement wanes, and we often abandon our project in favor of another new idea of ours — one that excites us more. So we end up with constantly abandoned projects and don’t feel like we’re ever accomplishing anything.

Belsky suggests we keep a “Someday Maybe List.” It’s a list of all the new ideas we have so that they don’t distract us from the current project.

The Someday Maybe List is so helpful for me because it allows me to feel like my precious ideas are safe. To feel that if I don’t pursue them now, it doesn’t mean that I’ll never get to it. It allows me to sidestep the sense of loss and grieving that I don’t get to pursue it now.

In my quarterly Set it and Forget it Plan, I include a page of “ideas for future ideas” so that it’s easier to say, “I am working on these 3–5 now.”

7. Analyze the "data"

The incredible thing about Set it and Forget it Habits are that when you have six weeks, eight weeks, a month of Set it and Forget it Habits under your belt, you actually have developed a data set of what works — or what doesn’t — to reach your goal.

So let’s say you’re job searching. If you put in 2–3 applications for a director role when you’re just a manager, you don’t know really know why you didn’t get called in.

But if you submit 10 applications and don’t hear anything, it may be sign that something is off in your application.

And if you get called in for two interviews, then you can try to understand why those two places called you in, and whether there’s clues on the kinds of organizations you would thrive at.

If you’ve posted 2–3 times on social media, you have three posts and a handful of likes and comments. But if you’ve posted 12 times, you now can start to see patterns on which of your posts are resonating and why.

Because “data” really means a body of work.

Set it and Forget it Habits are uniquely great for creating a body of work and just simply making enough work to get to the point where you can critique it and improve on it.

Years ago, I created a drawing of a mushroom a day for thirty days. Some were nice, some were really, really ugly. But I got to practice different skills and test things out.

By the end of the thirty days, I had clear knowledge about what ways of rendering things I liked and wanted to build on — and I had a couple of really nice drawings too.

collection of mushroom renderings

And those bodies of work add up to larger bodies of work. When I trace back the thread that led to the book I am currently writing and illustrating on this approach to productivity, those mushroom drawings are part of the larger body of work that led to that book — and this essay.

pathway to goal completion

Because while the Flower Girl can do stuff, let go and create, she needs Girl Friday to pick her up and set her in the right direction.

And Girl Friday only knows how to lead in directions she’s seen before that lead to predictable outcomes. So she needs the Flower Girl to create something that didn’t exist before — and reveal the start of a pathway in a new direction.

If you enjoyed this essay, guess what? I’m writing a book about productivity strategies that work for creatives (shocker).
If you want more behind-the-scenes looks at my creative process for writing my book, follow along by entering your name and email below.

Follow along with me on my creative productivity book writing process.

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    Hi I'm Maya

    Mia Scharphie , career coach, headshot

    I’m a career coach and strategist with a secret power (I mean, past career) as a designer. I love road trips, graphic novels and helping people like you design the career you love on your own terms.