On Goal-Setting

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So this post comes a little late to be any real use to people setting goals for 2014. But it emerged from my own process of goal-setting, and it's kind of in the nature of reflecting on things that you have to do the things before you can reflect on them. These thoughts build on my musings about work-life balance from last March, but also emerge from the realisation that this summer it will be five years since I turned freelance.

One of the things that I was interested in when I left full-time employment in higher education was developing a new relationship with time. I had spent every year except one since the age of 5 governed by the academic calendar, and the patterns of dash-and-crash that it seemed to encourage. What has developed in tandem with this is a new relationship with a sense of duty.

In an institutional setting, there are always deadlines. Some are externally imposed, some one defines oneself. There is a considerable degree of autonomy in some dimensions (for example over the direction of your research interests) and very little in others (for example the need to get the requisite number of research outputs completed in a certain time frame). You are constantly being pushed along by both internal (self-imposed) and external (institutional) senses of 'must' and 'ought'.

In the freelance life, the only solid deadlines (other than I suppose your tax return) are the ones you choose for yourself. Yes, in accepting the work, you make yourself accountable to others, but you can always say no to the work in the first place. If you find yourself doing something you find boring or uncongenial, it is genuinely your own fault for agreeing to do it. You may decide to keep doing it for some greater good to come, or because it pays well, but it remains that this is a conscious choice.

The combination of the passage of time (it takes a while to change your emotional habits), and some rather difficult bits in 2013 when circumstance pushed me right off-piste has landed me up with a very clear sense of what my internal imperatives are. Meanwhile, my sense of what I 'ought' to be doing has withered to vestigial proportions - the imagined approval or disapproval of others looms much less coercively over me.

So my goals for 2014, rather than a concrete list of things I want to have (feel I 'should' have) achieved by the end of the year, have taken the shape of a set of criteria I want what I do to fulfil.

In essence, I want to spend my time on the things that make me feel good about myself, to whit:

  • Things that help others (my work, running Magenta, family, neighbourliness)
  • Creative things (writing, arranging, comedy, cooking)
  • Social contact (this can include virtual as well as real relationships, but needs to be active not just passive - so more getting in touch with people, less lurking on social media!)
  • Keep healthy (diet, exercise, sleep patterns)
  • Balance of 'local' and 'global' (i.e. giving attention to both home life and wider spheres of activity)
  • Never go too long without doing something that expands my boundaries (I will blog on this idea at greater length soon)

What struck me when I'd written this list was that whilst it was framed in terms of me-ness - what makes me feel good about myself - the actual content wasn't as selfish as that makes it sound. The list gives the order in which the ideas occurred to me, and it appears that the primary thing I need to feel good about myself is to be useful. (From what I read, this is quite normal.)

The other thing that struck me is how creativity is a distinct category from helpfulness. Much of the creative work I undertake has the intention of being useful to someone - to share ideas, to provide them with something to sing, to nourish them, to entertain them - but it is not this end that constitutes the pleasure in the creative act itself. The interplay with the materials, the sense of invention, the emergence of both self and created artifact as more complex as a result of the activity are rewarding in themselves, whether or not the product ever sees the light of day.

Of course, people who like SMART goals are having kittens at this list. (Can I have one? I like kittens.) But the thing about SMART goals is that when you've done them, they finish. They're great for projects, when you want to sign off a deliverable and get it off your to-do list.

But 2014 is going to last a whole year whatever I do with it. I don't need to get 2014 off my to-do list. I just need to spend it feeling like the space I'm taking up in it is being used in such a way as I will be happy to live with myself into 2015 and beyond.

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