How to Set Goals Creatively

Does setting goals require creativity? Or is it simply a matter of writing down a wish list and making a plan of action. Following my two-flow theory of creativity, I’d say goal-setting is a highly creative activity. But often goals fall apart when they make contact with reality. I believe this has a lot to do with how well you are able to use both sides of creative flow when setting goals.

Two-Flow Creativity and Projects

Creativity can be split into two different directions, or flows: creation and destruction. Like a river can’t flow both upstream and downstream at the same time, neither can your brain. Either you are creating new ideas, or you are destroying (perfecting, simplifying and eliminating) current ideas.

If you get stuck tilting towards destruction, you end up with nothing. You have no ideas and no actions. Self-doubt, negativity and perfectionism are all symptoms of pushing too far into a destructive flow when you don’t have enough ideas to begin with. With goal-setting, this manifests itself as cynicism, a lack of motivation and chronic procrastination.

If you get stuck tilting for creation, you end up with too much. You try to accomplish everything at once and end up too busy. You set overly-ambitious goals that fail outright. Burnout, fatigue and large volumes of unfinished tasks and projects are symptoms of too much creation. Hopping from idea to idea, you never have enough time to finish anything.

Balance Isn’t The Answer

Upon looking at these two problems, the immediate response is to simply balance the two. Don’t switch fully towards creation or destruction and balance the two forces. In theory, this sounds like a useful idea, but in practice it fails miserably. You end up feeling apathetic, half-working and half-lazing around.

You can’t balance creative flows when setting goals. A river that doesn’t flow upstream or downstream gets nowhere at all. Instead you need to enter into cycles of creation and destruction strategically. Entering into these cycles allows you to have the energy to start big goals but the patience to work through them.

Operating Within Cycles of Creativity

When you aren’t taking any meaningful actions, and you lack ideas about where to get started, this is the time to tilt towards a creation-based flow. Brainstorm new ideas, set new goals and carve out new plans. When you aren’t accomplishing anything because you aren’t doing enough, this is when you need to create.

A lack of focus is a sign you need to switch to a destructive flow. When you find yourself extremely busy and your actions are spread between many different ideas, you need to start cutting back. When projects and goals are growing in size faster than you are accomplishing them, you need to simplify.

Using Cycles Doesn’t Mean 50/50

Balancing work and rest doesn’t mean working for twelve hours a day and sleeping for another twelve. A 50/50 balance for creative flow isn’t always ideal either. For some areas of your life, creating will be incredibly easy, and you will need to spend 90% of your time in a destructive phase, pruning off excess ideas. Other goals will require a 99% creation-focus because new ideas are hard to generate and it is easy to slip into a destructive viewpoint.

For myself, writing articles requires that I almost completely focus on creating. My natural tendency is to want to eliminate article ideas, so a destruction-focus would accomplish little. However, working on books and projects causes the opposite problem. I get so many ideas that my goals quickly balloon from 1-2 month endeavors to 6-9 month behemoths if I’m not careful.

Knowing your natural tendencies will be helpful in striking the right ratio when switching between creation and destruction.

Setting a Goal Creatively

I’m going to use this approach with setting a goal, but it could be used with everything from planning an essay, writing a to-do list or structuring a project.

The first step is to gather up ideas for what you want. If I’m writing an article that means creating lists of ideas for what I could write about. If you’re setting larger life goals this means brainstorming what you would like to accomplish. This requires a creation focus to make ideas.

The second step is to restrict, eliminate and simplify those ideas. This means completely eliminating the ideas you don’t like. Simplifying huge and complex goals into smaller, achievable targets. Restricting lifetime goals into milestones you can accomplish in the next day, week or month.

After you determine your goal, you would go through another stage of creation followed by destruction to write out your plan of action. If you decided to write a book, this would mean gathering ideas for all the things you want to write about then, in a separate process, reducing and eliminating all the ideas that won’t work.

Ready, Fire, Aim

The two-flow model of creation and destruction fits nicely with the ready, fire, aim approach. The “fire” in this case is the creation flow and the “aim” is the destruction flow. Ready, aim and then fire, can result in a creative block where you have no ideas to refine from. But ready, fire, fire, fire… is hardly an improvement.

When evaluating your goals and progress, look at which side of the flow you are currently leaning towards. If you’ve been stuck in one side for too long, you might need to switch directions in order to reach your goals.

In the last article about this topic for the week, I’ll give more tips for actively pushing yourself towards either direction of creative flow.

  • Kali


  • Snigel

    I spend a lot of time writing things and I think I have intuitively adopted something along the line you have put down here. However, it is always nice to read when somebody else has thought more about it than I have and has also managed to word it eloquently. Thanks.

  • Karl Edwards

    You described me to a T!
    Thanks for the helpful insights.