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TJ Walsh: Goals for your Creative Flow

Okay, I know a lot of artists hate the idea of goals. In fact, some even dislike the word itself. When I ask them why they don’t like the idea of goals, I often hear things like, “they’re too rigid,” “I can’t keep up with them,” “they’re just not for me.”

While rigid lists of goals might work for you, they don’t work for everyone. I don’t pressure my clients to keep a strict and constantly updated goal list for every area of their life, but studies have found that people from all walks of life who experience flow actually do have challenging goals that they’ve chosen for themselves.

As for me, I don’t have a solid list of goals hanging around but I do keep a running list of things I want to accomplish knocking around in my head. When I have this list running through my head I tend to be more inspired, work harder and accomplish better work than times when I’m not working toward accomplishing specific “things I want to accomplish.”

What kinds of goals work for creative people?

I truly believe that goals, aims, outcomes or objectives are important. Like I said, when I don’t have some goals in sight I don’t do as good of a job on my work.

But I’ve learned over time that taking the traditional approach to identifying good goals doesn’t address important characteristics to help you experience creative flow.

You’ve probably heard the acronym “SMART” (Specific, Measurable, Agreed, Recorded, Time bound – or some variation of that). You’re most likely familiar with this acronym because the elements that make it up are what’s commonly taught to us as the elements that make good, motivating goals.

But as I coach creative people who want to get into their state of creative flow, I’ve always felt that SMART somehow misses the mark.

I prefer a different acronym. A goal that will help you find flow will be:


(Appropriate, right?)

This stands for: Challenging, Recorded, Explicit, Affirmative, Time-based, Inspiring, Valuable, Enjoyable.


A good CREATIVE goal will be challenging enough to stimulate you but not so challenging that you get discouraged and run the risk of giving up.

I totally realize that finding that fine line between too challenging and too easy can be a challenge in itself! I spend a significant part of the coaching process helping my clients find that fine line.

But once you start to walk it, you won’t look back.

Experiment with setting yourself tough challenges. I would always err on the side of “too challenging”, because I believe that most people underestimate their potential…


You all. Let’s face it. A goal that isn’t recorded is a dream.

I really want you to write your goals down, or type them into your computer or phone. Then, look at them every day or even better, rewrite them every day. I’ve discovered that when I do this I naturally make my goals my priorities, and don’t get so easily distracted.

If you can, find someone who you can talk to about your goals. Simply the act of telling someone else will mean you’re accountable to them and much more likely to take action. This is part of the reason I created the Bold Creatives Collective on Facebook. It’s a place where we can actively talk about our goals and hold one another accountable.


When you have an explicit goal, you’ll be able to say “I’ve achieved it.”

By definition, explicit goals are clearly defined. Even better if it’s something you can measure (e.g. the number of paintings, pages or tracks you want to finish in a particular amount of time). And if it’s something you can’t measure, then create a way of measuring it.

For instance, some of my clients want to finish more paintings, but have difficulties due to lack of confidence.

So the first thing I do is to get them to make their overall goal explicit.

Client: “I will finish 2 paintings a month for the next 3 months.”

But because they are having difficulty with confidence, in order to achieve their overall goal they need to increase their confidence. This is a smaller “sub-goal” or “micro-goal” which I ask them to make explicit:

Me: “On a scale of 1-10 how confident are you now?”

Client: “About a 4.”

Me: “Where would you have to be on that scale to allow you to finish 2 paintings a month?”

Client: “I think probably a 7 or 8.”

(So their micro-goal is to get from a confidence level of 4 to a 7.)

Then, my client and I need to find out what the first step would be to get to that increased level of confidence:

Me: “What has to happen to get your confidence from it’s current 4 to a 5?”

So by breaking down the overall goal into smaller micro-goals, and making what isn’t well defined into something explicit, they’ll know when they’ve achieved each step and how much closer they are to their overall goal.

Go through a similar process yourself with your goals. You’ll be much more excited and motivated to take action when you do!


I’ve always been surprised at how many of my new clients have no problem telling me what they don’t want, but find it almost impossible to tell me what they do want.

Let me in on a secret. It’s not possible to achieve something you don’t want because (a.) it might happen in the future or (b.) you might do it in the future.

And by stating what you don’t want, “I want to stop procrastinating” you are focusing on it, right? By constantly referring to your procrastination you are much more likely to continue procrastinating.

It’s more effective to say what you want: “I will focus all my attention on producing music for 30 minutes every day until the end of the month.” Voila.


Give yourself a deadline. And stick to it.

I know, I know. “I’m an artist so I suck at managing my time.” Which is exactly why you need to put a deadline in place. If you can put a time limit on each goal it will be less likely to drag on.

And if you’ve set a deadline you can hit, you’ve agreed to it with someone else and you’ve recorded it, you will be in a position where you’re super likely to achieve it! Exciting!


Okay. So, here we go. This is a crucial and unique component of a creative flow goal.

You must make sure that every goal is connected to your purpose.

When your goals are “on purpose,” you will be inspired by them and even if they are challenging, you’ll have little problem achieving them.


Whether you’re thinking about your “overall goal” (what you want) or the smaller “micro-goals” (what you need to achieve to get there), if they are to propel you towards creative flow, they gotta be valuable to you.

Your overall goal has to be something you value above almost everything else. You have to make sure it’s something you really, really want.

And you measure any micro-goal’s value by asking whether it’s the best step to take towards your overall goal.


The idea of joy isn’t mentioned in any traditional goal setting methodology that I’ve found, but it’s critical to you if you want to experience creative flow more often.

Your goals have got to be inherently enjoyable, or you have to figure out a way to make them so.

Because while your flow state will create enjoyment, enjoying what you’re doing also has the potential to activate your flow state.

Of course it’s going to happen that there will be some goals that you won’t think are inherently enjoyable. But by thinking creatively there are always ways of making them at least a little bit more enjoyable.


I have to let you know that I have had some problems with goal setting in my own life.

I thought they might be demotivating if I didn’t achieve them (fear of failure). I also worried that they’d be restrictive. When that inspiration struck I’d want to follow where it led rather than staying on track with my chosen goal.

But according to my personal experience, what I have learned from my clients, and the available academic research, CREATIVE goals won’t stifle your inspiration, they’ll stimulate it!


TJ Walsh, MA helps artists and creatives GROW so that they can get over their shit, envision their dreams, and develop innovative ways to make them come true. Download his free guide, “4 Steps to GROW Your Creative Life” at

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