Yule Update: SMART vs VAPID goals

Setting and achieving good goals has been a general theme for me in 2017, and now that we’re just about done with it, I thought I’d talk about one of the ways in which I’ve done so. Firstly, most of the advice I have to give is ultimately distilled from listening to Cortex for approximately 90 hours over the course of two years. Provided you don’t have ninety hours available this evening but still want to learn about good goal-setting, let’s talk about seasonal reviews and SMART goals.

So, I set goals for myself for every six-ish week interval between holidays on the neopagan wheel of the year, not because I’m an actual dedicated pagan (although invoking the muses has certainly worked out for me at least once) but because a focus on productivity and efficiency can make me feel really fake and corporate. That’s fundamentally ridiculous, because fake and corporate sorts of people aren’t like that because they want to be good at their job but rather because of what they want from their job: Prestige and authority rather than to actually accomplish things. Nevertheless, my spite for people who don’t care what they’re doing so long as it makes them look good is intense enough that I kind of dislike talking about things like “goals for Q3” as things that I have, rather than as things that other people have to worry about. So I go with the pagan holidays instead, because they’re evenly spaced and about as anti-corporate in attitude as you can get. Every time we hit one of these holidays, I look at how I did on the goals I set myself on the last one and make plans for what I’ll do on the next. This post was written in advance, but it’s going live on Yule (Yule actually covers several days, I picked December 21st from among them mostly at random), when I’ll be examining the goals I set for myself at Samhain and setting new goals for Ostara, which is pagan new year’s and thus when I’ll be examining how the entirety of 2017 went for me (technically February 2017 to January 2018, but basically it’s 2017) and what I should be adjusting for 2018.

The goals I set and examine on these year wheel holidays are SMART goals. SMART is an acronym for Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, Timely goals, whereas VAPID goals are Vague, Amorphous, Pie-in-the-sky, Irrelevant, Dissociated goals. Each letter in SMART corresponds directly to its counterpart in VAPID, so SMART goals are specific and not vague, measurable and not amorphous, and so on.

specific goal is a goal which accomplishes a specific thing as opposed to a vague one. This is one of the more straightforward components of a SMART goal, so it doesn’t require a whole lot of explanation: Your goal should be something specific like “I want to make a living off of my writing” rather than something vague like “I want to be a professional writer.” They sound similar, but the first one is going to be focused on being able to write for a living while the second one might end up getting distracted trying to print bookmarks and attend conventions without asking whether or not that actually helps to achieve the goal – the goal is so vague that almost anything could be construed as helping to achieve it. This step is important not because it’s difficult to figure out, but because it’s easy to forget about entirely.

A goal that is measurable rather than amorphous is one where you can easily discern whether or not it’s been achieved. The earlier “I want to make a living off of my writing” is specific, but amorphous. To pin it down to a specific measurable goal, you might say “I want to make at least $40,000 a year from my writing.” You might need to adjust the number upward or be able to adjust it downward depending on local cost of living. What matters is that you can tally up your income for a year and say “yup, that was $40,000” or not.

A goal is achievable if it’s something that you can reasonably pull off, as opposed to pie-in-the-sky goals which are absurd. “I want to make at least $40,000 a year from my writing” is a reasonable ten-year ambition, but a bonkers nonsense goal to set for yourself on January 1st, having never written professionally before in your life. This can be hard to gauge, which is why regularly reviewing how your goals are going is important. During one of my seasonal reviews (which happen at both the height of a season and at the transition point from one to another, because that is how Celts do) my takeaway is sometimes “this goal is not achievable in this timeframe, I need to extend it” or alternatively “this goal is not achievable in this timeframe and not worth taking longer, I need to abandon it.”

The second one has been more rare simply because my overall goal right now is to go back and finish abandoned projects, although it did come up a couple of times in a temporary way. Twice I looked at Project Erinyes, saw how much chipping away at it was draining my energy for other projects, and decided to instead focus on projects that could easily be recycled for this blog, rather than one that made absolutely no sense in blog post format and in any case had extremely narrow appeal. Particularly with Erinyes (and the Vestitas hexcrawl) there are multiple occasions where I’ve realized that completing a project in a certain timeframe was not as achievable a goal as I’d first guessed, and had to set myself a much longer timeframe to complete it.

Also remember that some goals are pie-in-the-sky even given your entire life to complete them. Getting a major Hollywood movie released based on a book you’ve written is pie-in-the-sky even if it’s a lifelong ambition.

A goal is relevant if it actually gets you something you want, as opposed to irrelevant if you cannot draw a line between completion of the goal and any of your ultimate goals. This is something that only comes up when dealing with sub-goals, and it’s one of the reasons why, other than fulfilling existing promises to finish existing projects, things like Erinyes and even the Vestitas hexcrawl are very unlikely to recur in the future. These goals are relevant to my ultimate ambition of being able to make a living off of my creative projects only in the sense that they are directly relevant to my creative interests – but they are not very likely to actually scale up and ever make me more than a few hundred or maybe, if I’m lucky, thousand dollars a year. The only reason I’m continuing to pursue them is because having lots of complete projects is good for my personal morale while leaving broken promises in my wake makes me feel bad as a creator (even though that’s the usual way of the internet). If I’d been focused on SMART goals when I started these projects, I would have either adapted them to be more relevant or else never started them at all in favor of things that were more relevant.

Finally, a goal is timely as opposed to dissociated (from time) when there is a specific deadline, which is again something where my wheel of the year pacing is helpful. Rather than committing to write a novel someday, NaNoWriMo challenges aspiring writers to write the first draft of a novel in the month of November. My plan to reach one million words is something I intend to complete before Mabon of 2018, Erinyes should be complete by the same date (and will directly contribute to those million), I’m hoping to have a scaled down version of my initial Thar project finished before Imbolc, I’m hoping to have all Vestitas hex encounters complete by Beltane, and so on.

I can’t say for sure that I’ll be able to keep to these deadlines with perfect accuracy due to the number of projects I’m juggling, but having a deadline at all has made me much better about closing projects off. Monkeys With Guns got shoved out the door when I realized that thorough enough playtesting to make a campaign shipped with it any good would take several months, which would cause me to drastically overshoot my Yule 2017 deadline, so I decided that feature-complete was good enough even without the campaign and released it as it was.

While the specific goals I’m pursuing and the wonky neopagan calendar I use to check progress on them are probably not particularly up your alley, odds are pretty good that the general concept behind SMART goals is going to help you actually get stuff done. If you haven’t ever tried it before, do so. The next time you want to accomplish something, put it into the terms of a specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, and timely goal. Even if the only thing you discover is that you don’t actually want that thing after all, at least you’ll know to not do that instead of creating a backlog that takes nine months and counting to work through – and it’d be pretty optimistic to say I’m about half done.

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