March 01, 2011 — I don’t make New Year’s resolutions. I make those kinds of commitments any time of year; whenever it becomes clear they’re necessary. But I do make plans at the beginning of every year. I review my mission, goals, projects and actions lists. While I do this at the beginning of the year, this isn’t the only time I do it. I also do this every time I find something significant has changed in my life. Doing this helps me clarify where I want to go, making sure I’m on the path to getting there, outlining the steps necessary to get there and setting realistic timelines. Doing this consistently has helped me more than double my productivity in a meaningful way. It has also helped me make tough decisions when I’m faced with too many choices.
It’s not that I didn’t have a life’s calling before I wrote my mission. It’s just that I wasn’t clear about it—now I am. As a result, I feel personally empowered. To find my mission took a little time, a lot soul-searching, and it’s still a work in progress.
Make your plan. Whether you’re engaged in your creative life professionally, or simply as a vehicle for personal growth (an important distinction to make), I recommend you make a creative plan. If you do this, you too will find both your productivity and fulfillment will increase in a way that’s meaningful to you.
Having defined what you need to accomplish your unconscious will go to the work of fulfilling it, generating many ideas over time. You’ll find yourself ready to make the most of unexpected opportunities as they arise. Put this all in writing using your own words. Writing increases retention 72%. If you write something down, you’ll be 75% more likely to take action on it. Remember, while other people can help you discuss and refine your plan as it develops, no one can do it for you. For you to truly understand and benefit from it, you have to do it. More importantly, for it to be right, it has to be yours.
Break it down into clear, manageable pieces. Set a mission (why you’re doing it), goals (what outcomes you want), projects (the big things you do, set goals for one year, two years, three years, five years and end of life) and actions (the small steps you take to getting your projects done, detail your one year, next action’s list) for your creative life. You’ll have one mission, several goals, many projects and innumerable actions.
Many people use a metaphor of varying altitude to describe the relationship between these parts; the mission is cruising altitude where you see the big picture, while the actions are on the runway where you see more specific details.
As you drill down, the items get more concrete, specific, timely and numerous. For this reason many people find that the most difficult part of the plan to do is the simplest, least-detailed, but most abstract portion—the mission. Some like to work bottom up, rather than top down, because they can sink their teeth into something more concrete. You can work it either or both ways—top down or bottom up. However you get there, make sure that when you arrive that your mission really resonates within you, and is something that you would consider an inner calling, not something generated out of today’s particulars and practical realities. A mission should call you to a higher ground of your own choosing and activate new inner resources along the way. Many find that by aligning their efforts with something greater than themselves (i.e., service to others), they do better work and derive more satisfaction from it than they could have first imagined.
Here’s a specific example of how my personal plan unfolds. Mission—Incite conscientious creative interaction with our environment. Goal—Train creative advocates to encourage greater appreciation of, empathy for and involvement with the natural world. Project—Develop workshop(s), exhibit(s), book(s), and Web site(s) to promote awareness of a remote but globally important region: Antarctica. Actions—Shoot, edit, and sequence one hundred images plus research and write several essays for a publication, first as a print-on-demand book, later revised for a mass-market trade edition.
Align your creative mission with your life’s mission. Most people need at least two missions; one for their life in general (which includes many things—health, family, finances, etc.) and one for a specific area, like their career or creative life, which may or may not be the same. Make sure that your missions share something in common, something other than yourself. The more you can align them, the more likely you are to achieve them, increase your productivity and be more fulfilled. Without this alignment, you’re likely to be pulled in many competing directions at once, which will lead to a dispersal of your resources (energy, time, money, etc.) and frustration.
Set priorities. It’s more than likely that you will have too many possible projects to take on at one time. Prioritize them. Rank them based on their importance, your desire to do them and how practical they are. Move forward on projects that have an optimum balance of importance and practicality. Make sure the urgent doesn’t displace the important. Don’t be afraid to dream big! Blue-sky thinking is important for connecting with your deepest values. It’s extremely important when you’re developing your mission, and secondarily your goals. It will help you decide the value of specific projects, but it won’t help you get them done.
Learning to find a balance between these sometimes opposing forces, in a way that’s optimal for you, at a given point in time, is part of the value of creating your plan.
Set timelines. Timelines can be used to combat procrastination and/or distraction and encourage you to produce work. Set realistic timelines. Unrealistic timelines simply produce frustration.
Chart your progress. I track my progress on projects to help me understand where I am and how much time things have taken. With time, I’ve found I’ve become more realistic about how much to take on, and how long it will take to get things done. You’ll find this process gets easier every time you do it. The first time you do it is always the hardest; it requires a lot of soul searching and some setting up. But once you find your answers and you set up your system, it’s much easier to do the next time.
Be flexible. I always find a few things on my list that have been postponed (and I ask why) and a few things get dropped altogether—because I decided to prioritize even better opportunities along the way. I also find that things get added to my past year’s list that weren’t on it at the beginning of that year. It’s important to be open to new opportunities along the way. Creating a plan will help you decide whether they’re right for you or not.
Update your plan. A plan is a work in progress. The best plans are flexible and can be modified. If I don’t learn something new from a process, then I feel I haven’t truly excelled at what I’m doing. I expect to improve my plans. That doesn’t mean I shouldn’t waste time making plans. It does mean I can waste time making plans that are too detailed or too speculative. In addition to learning when and how to plan, it’s also important to learn when to stop planning. But do plan. Planning not to plan, is planning to fail. If you don’t make plans, life just happens and you may not make the time for the things that matter to you most. Make that time.
The time you spend clarifying why you’re doing what you’re doing, and what you’d like to see come of it will save you hours, months, even years by ensuring that you’re going in the right direction—a direction of your own choosing. When you make a plan, you take control of your life.
David Allen does an excellent job of describing this process in his books, Getting Things Done and Making It All Work. I highly recommend them. They changed the way I live my life. But don’t wait to read his books to get started! Just get started!
John Paul Caponigro, is an internationally respected environmental artist, author of Adobe Photoshop Master Class and the DVD series R/Evolution, and a member of the Photoshop Hall of Fame, Canon Explorers of Light and Epson Stylus Pros. A highly sought after lecturer, he offers an array of workshops throughout the year. Get over 100 free lessons with his free enews Insights at www.johnpaulcaponigro.com.