set the right goals

You’re working hard, but have you set the right goals?

It’s that time of year again. Everyone and her sister is talking about setting life goals for next year, promising themselves that this time will be different. I’m not immune. I’m thinking about my own goals altogether too much. For good reason: Like you, I’ve been burned before. If we’re going to kick the year off right, we have to figure out how to set the right goals for ourselves.

When I don’t achieve my life goals, I blame myself. I think “I didn’t work hard enough,” and recommit myself to work even harder next time. I’m constantly hearing people say that the secret to creative success is “doing the work.” Butt in chair.

I’ve even kind of waffled on this myself, saying in one place that it’s not as simple as all that, while elsewhere saying that the key is thinking less and making more.

setting the right goals - jessica at desk, working

But the real secret to creative success is defining “success.” For yourself.

You can work like a burro, head down and pushing through, day in and day out, and never seem to get anywhere.

That’s because simply working harder is not the answer; it’s working on the right thing. And in order to clearly define what that “thing” is, sometimes you have to spend time envisioning your future projects. More to the point, you have to envision your future SELF (so you can set the right goals to get there).

Who do you want to be in the future? And are your current efforts leading you there?

So, this is embarrassing…

I hear that I seem to be setting myself up as “some kind of guru or something,” about creative productivity (according to an old friend I saw recently…it was said with love…). But even though it’s quite true that I care deeply about helping other creative people get their work done, I don’t want to be a guru. Because if I’m a guru, what I’m about to tell you is even more embarrassing for me to admit than it would be otherwise.

Here’s the truth: of all the articles I’ve written about leading a creative life and improving creative productivity, this post is the one that talks most clearly about what holds ME back.

Lack of clarity on where I wanted to be—and lack of planning about how to get there—basically define my adult life.

You want examples? I’ve got ’em.

When it comes to finishing projects I set out to finish, I turned a corner a long time ago, and for at least the last 10 years, actually getting the work done has not been a problem.

Actually getting the work done is not the problem. The problem was—and is—which work?

Writing this article has made me think of a minimum of four or five major life phases I went through where I devoted myself to some project, which I in fact finished, but it was the wrong project. I had pointed myself in the wrong direction.

Four summers ago, I spent untold hours hand-drawing a GIF animation for a book trailer for the release of my book Trish Trash in the French market—a country where they don’t make book trailers, and no one ever sees book trailers—thinking that it would help the book…somehow. I had absolutely no strategy about how I would get it distributed. I guess I sort of thought the publisher would see it and run with it.

They didn’t.

In fact, it has been seen by virtually no one. You can see it now if you like, it’s on my Trish Trash page, and the soundtracked version (fyi: music? Not my pick.) is on YouTube. 139 views. Yep.

I’m happy with how the clip came out. But it did nothing towards the goal of getting my book noticed, and getting people interested in buying it. It was an enormous waste of energy, and the opportunity cost was immense: I was drawing this thing rather than enjoying my summer vacation. That’s just dumb.

Even making my podcast, which I’m incredibly proud of, and very glad I made for a whole variety of reasons, could be seen as a huge waste of energy—IF my primary goal was to sell a lot of books. It didn’t sell very many books, and it took almost all of my time for 6+ months.


I’m not even going to tell you about how I vaguely hoped that drawing a 250-page black-and-white literary graphic novel would somehow lead to me becoming able to support myself as an author. I would never want to not have created La Perdida. It’s changed my life for the better in so many ways. But if I’d thought things through, and realized how unlikely it was that this book would make a positive change in my financial circumstances, I might have made different choices about what else I was doing to build a viable career during those—count ‘em—six years.


Life goals are bigger than individual projects, even when those projects are really really big.

This is the key to understanding why finishing some amazing project can ultimately feel so disappointing. Your goal was “finish the project,” and you may not have figured out the bigger why. WHY finish the project? What is it for? Picture it: what is the life goal that this project builds towards?

What happens when you haven’t set the right goals.

What happens when you don’t think that stuff through—what happened to me—is that you get to the end of a long project feeling proud and happy about the thing itself, but puzzled and disappointed that whatever change you thought would have magically happened as a result of completing that project (money, fame, attention, access, love, whatever), didn’t.

And what usually happens then—at least this is what happened for me—is that you plunge straight into the next project because all you can think to do is to keep working, working more and harder, and hoping that somehow the quality of the hard work you’re doing will be noticed eventually.

And the longer that goes on, the more embittered you may feel, and that’s what will make you want to stop doing the work. Which is no good. No no no no no.

My point is not to talk you out of doing work isn’t going to make you a bunch of money. I sincerely want you to make whatever work you want to make.

My point is to help you get clear about setting your larger goals, and then figure out how…and if… the work you have in front of you builds towards those goals.

It gives me immense satisfaction to help creative people build the life they want to build.

The question is, what life do you want to build?

Envisioning your future projects may be holding you back, but envisioning your future self is the key to becoming that self.

How can you set the right goals?

When you’re drowning in Idea Debt, your main focus is (and probably should be) simply on doing something, on building a creative practice of any kind. But when you sit down to work, you’re likely to be distracted and scattered, unable to choose among the many options for how to spend your limited time.

In the One Goal article, I dispensed some relatively simple, tactical approaches to deciding what it is you should spend your energy on. But what that activity assumes is, the right choice is already sitting on your list.

If you’re not clear where you’re going with your creative work, you really can’t know if you’re spending your only precious life in a way that will lead you to a sense of accomplishment and contentment…or not.

What role should creative work play in your life?

  • Is it what keeps you sane? You just need to do it?
  • Is it meant to be paying your bills?
  • Is it a means to an end? And what is that end?

And then get more specific:

  • Do you want to make comics?
  • Or do you want to have lots of people read your comics?
  • Or do you want to make a living as a cartoonist?
  • Do you want to have a deeper knowledge of your area of study?
  • Or do you want to get a faculty job?
  • Do you want to make a podcast?
  • Or do you want to be a professional podcaster?
  • Do you want writing to be a part of your daily life?
  • Do you want to have a large, passionate audience for your writing?
  • Are you driven to build relationships with other writers?
  • Or do you want to be full-time writer?
  • Do you want to paint, and have others appreciate your work?
  • Or do you want to quit your day job to devote yourself to painting?

Let me emphasize, these are all completely valid choices. However, they’re completely different choices. Setting the right goals requires getting even more specific about what these choices entail.

For example: While making a living as a cartoonist will definitely include making comics, there may be a lot less of this than you might imagine, and a lot more entrepreneurship: building your audience, marketing, and sales.

If you want to make comics that are read by a huge number of people, but you’re not that concerned with making a living at it, you may make totally different choices about how you publish and how you build your connections with your audience. You also may end up making a living at it. But then again, you might not, not if you’re not focused on that outcome.

This is why setting the right goals is paramount.

If your goal is to be able to afford to quit your day job to paint, simply working harder at painting will not get you there.

For the most part, hard work (and good work) is the cost of entry.

But harder work and more work will not create exponentially better results.

The key to achieving your goals is envisioning your future success. But it’s envisioning it in a very specific, detailed way…and then using that vision to build a plan that will get you there.

Here’s what I suggest:

I call this the Vision Charting, because I wanted to choose a name that you’ll have a hard time taking seriously. Laughter and anxiety don’t cohabitate well.

Imagine yourself in 5 years:

You’ve built your defining body of work (whatever it is) with 2-5 major projects, and any number of smaller bits and pieces. Imagine what kinds of creative work and research you’re engaged in.

  • Who are your colleagues and peers? What kinds of personal and professional qualities should they have? Can you name actual people who you want to go from people you admire to being your colleagues?
  • What kind of world do you move in, and at what level? Do you want to be a passionate amateur, a devotee, a journeyman professional, top of the game? What kind of conferences and professional events would you go to, and in what capacity? Are there awards or acknowledgements you want to win?
  • What relationship will you build with an audience around your work? Are you seeking an enormous public audience, an intimate, intense audience, a few select clients? How do you want them to think of your work? What role will it play in their lives?
  • What income, if any, will you derive from creative work? Do you want this to be your job? At the center of your professional life, or is it just one component of a bigger picture?  What other compensation do you want? Time? Recognition? The pure enjoyment of creating?
  • How do you spend your days? What does your workspace look like? Full time, or part time? Working with staff, or alone? Employed by someone or freelance? How much travel? What about how much admin as opposed to creating?
  • How do you want to feel in your skin way out in the future?

Imagine that future-you as fully as you can. Define specific benchmarks that will indicate “success” to you. Setting the right goals means taking a hard look at those indicators.

Now, is the work you’re doing today what you need to be doing to achieve that vision?

Find an expanded version of this article, as well as the accompanying activity, in my book, Growing Gills: How to Find Creative Focus When You’re Drowning in Your Daily Life.

Meet Jessica Abel

Meet Jessica Abel

Author. Cartoonist. Teacher. Coach.

I help people whose imagination and creativity are the ultimate source of everything they do in their professional life stop grinding and start carving out the deep focus needed to finish—and launch—the game-changing work they want to be known for.  Discover my Courses, Join the FREE Creative Engine Workshop or find out more about me.


  1. Mark Braun on December 14, 2016 at 5:08 pm

    Well, well-written as usual, Jess.
    So, are we all sell-outs to the dream? You and I have had some extraordinary lives. We also know when a project drops down into a hobby, and loses some of its luster. And we know those things that just don’t pay; truth is, we’re still here to tell the tales.

    For your tribes:
    Amass good projects. Money sometimes can’t lead; let a good notion out.
    Become very good at a couple of things, not just one. Doing a daily grind pays bills; doing something else feeds the soul and gives back to the universe. But do bank some money.
    Sell your work where it’ll be seen and appreciated. Also tested, seen and collected.
    Even if you have to do a mundane daily grind to pay the bills, do it to feed your inner beast. That day gig will carry you and care for you when you need to eventually end… and you will end, trust me.
    Get the hell away from negative people. I’d spent a lifetime between feeling undeserving and a failure at a couple of things because really destructive people put that on me. Change the climate. The best revenge is wealth, accomplishment, comfort, happiness and leaving a trail of great works.
    Accept that sometimes a failure is the natural solution to stupidity; pigs don’t fly, but a better project will someday, with work, fly faster and higher.
    And accept that some people just hate when you do well. Suck it up and laugh; you’ll find by seeking out (as you’ve done time and again) supportive people who’ve accomplished something. One of my mentors was a failed cartoonist who led me toward the same joyous failures at publishing, but he was a multimillionare, a pal to Milt Caniff and Al Hirshfeld, and a great life guide. Nobody EVER said he was a failed cartoonist. His personal success was far from that, and he was a generous supporter of great stuff.

    Cheers! M

  2. Jessica Abel on December 14, 2016 at 5:49 pm

    Hey Mark, thanks for chiming in with very good advice! It’s all about getting a realistic view of what you’re actually doing, isn’t it? In so many aspects.

  3. Brian Fies on December 14, 2016 at 9:28 pm

    This is a good, thoughtful, constructive post. I’m just coming to terms with the possibility that a project I’ve spent three years on, based on the promises and assurances of people I trusted, may go nowhere. It happens a lot in creative fields–some screenwriters spend entire careers writing scripts that never get shot–but I’m not a kid and am painfully aware my time is finite. I haven’t quite gotten to the point that I’m sorry I did it; I think it was a shot worth taking. Not sure what I would’ve done differently. I’m also not sure what I’m supposed to learn from it. “Don’t trust people?” That’s not right. “Get it in writing” is closer, but I’ve had that bite me before, when they want it as soon as the contract is signed and you haven’t really begun work on it. “On to the next thing” is the best I’ve got right now. “Vision Quest” sounds helpful, if ridiculously named. Mark’s comment is apt, too, thanks.

  4. Jessica Abel on December 15, 2016 at 12:51 am

    Hey Brian, that is just super painful. I’m sorry you’re going through it! Among the projects I listed in the post, The only one I really regret doing at all is the GIF. That was just misplaced enthusiasm. I don’t regret the others, I just wish I’d thought through how they would play out and made other decisions around HOW to do them. There are others on my list I regret, though, that I don’t feel like copping to just at the moment…

    I think the take away from any long-investment project that doesn’t play out as planned is complex. Certainly, “get it in writing” but also “why did I think this was a good idea, and does this map to objective reality?” “what could I have done differently that would have set this on a different path” and maybe others.

    Enjoy the silly Vision Quest. Maybe I’ll come up with a new name! Open to suggestions.

  5. Rob Levin on December 17, 2016 at 4:18 am

    Thanks for this and your other wonderful posts! I sent you an email, but, just thought I’d mention that I think another potential situation folk might relate to, is the person in early transition. As in they’re starting to fall in love with a new skill or hobby like drawing, coding, dancing, authoring, etc., but haven’t learned enough to know exactly how/what they’d want from it, or how it’d fit in to they’re, otherwise, established life. But they just feel compelled that it somehow could. Maybe food for thought for a topic to address (sorry if I’m being presumptuous suggesting a topic!)

  6. Jessica Abel on December 17, 2016 at 5:05 am

    It’s a good idea, Rob (and I did get your email!). Your goal (“get good at X”) needs to be oriented around a project or series of projects in order to take on flesh and blood. You need to embody what you’re trying to do in a series of steps that require specific actions, and that have achievable end points you can arrive at and use to mark your progress. Good luck!

  7. Rob Levin on December 18, 2016 at 7:01 pm

    Thanks Jessica, and thanks so much for emailing me back! It’s interesting, you know…my “day gig” is building an amazing project management solution. You very much remind me of a PM (Project Manager) in the way you approach personal creative goals and self management. Obviously, there’s some merit to this, as it’s absolutely the way any real project works. I think what’s also interesting is the interplay with those practical systems and approaches and the psychological issues that need to be addressed before these systems can work for you. All stuff you’re blog gets in to. Looking forward to reading more Jessica and thanks again for the recommendations. I’m sitting here on this chilly morning trying to figure out the pay attention to your attention and “what’s my taste? what do I love?”. Hopefully that can turn to some project-based milestones I can use for the one goal worksheet!

  8. Patrick on August 7, 2017 at 9:39 pm

    Thank you. This is one of the hardest things for me. It’s so easy to get wrapped up in people and projects that aren’t going to help on your journey, career-wise or creatively.

  9. Jessica Abel on August 18, 2017 at 3:59 am

    You’re welcome, Patrick. Glad it helped!

  10. Alberto G on September 27, 2017 at 4:55 am

    Hello Jessica. I’ve been following some of your online chats and posts for some time. Very few times I’ve found an article/post that could pass as a whole course as this one, which also comes as a key time in my life. Attempting to do a long story short here: I always wanted to make animation and/or comics since I was a teenager. Majored in graphic design at an SVA equivalent. However when time came to find a job, web design/IT jobs were easier to come by and paid well so I jumped on that bandwagon. Fast forward twenty years, and after being dumped from my last job as UX designer I began to realize I probably gave my best years to something I never was really that passionate about — it was all about the money and the gigs. So here I’ve been busy reinventing myself, off my savings, as a creative professional focused on children’s entertainment. Which is not being easy from a financial standpoint either, and should I have to return to the corporate grind, it better be at least on something truly creative — I’ve been through enough boring, dry, and ultimately futile projects in my career; these days, it takes more than a fat paycheck to pique my interest. It takes true meaning, purpose and joy. On the plus side I’ve learned a lot about project management, making business plans, projections, Gantt charts etc. Right now I’m assembling a pitch for a children’s book that, should it be greenlit, has potential to move my new career in the directions I want. I know you’d understand all this so I wanted to share. Thanks again.

  11. Jessica Abel on October 15, 2017 at 9:36 pm

    Thanks for the comment, Alberto – sounds like you’re in exactly the position I describe…but it’s great to focus on what you DID get out of your professional life previously that you can use. You’re not a blank slate!

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