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Life Structures to Invite Creative Energy

My therapist asked me at the beginning of this year to come up with some goals for the year they can help me with. They weren’t expecting what I gave them.

There’s a management framework called Objectives and Key Results (or OKRs, more at the bottom), where you outline a small number of broad objectives you want to achieve over a period of time, and ways to measure if you’re achieving those objectives. I decided to take the idea and twist it a bunch to fit in as a personal life tool.

As way of explaining using this in your creative life, I’ll start by sharing my current (slightly edited) draft of my 2019 mission statement and OKRs.


Mission statement: To leave 2019 physically, psychologically, and financially better than I entered it.

Objectives: what I actually want to achieve. Key Results: potential ways to measure if I’m working on them (in the form of recordable actions).

At the beginning of each quarter, I’ll take an honest account of how I’m doing on these with compassion. I’m not trying to succeed at all of them right away. I’ll do what I can as I can without breaking myself. And I can’t do all of these at once. And even hitting some just KRs on a given O is enough to say I’m rocking that O.

O. Create and maintain safe physical health routines

  • KR. Observe and record my weight once a week, so I’m more aware of changes
  • KR. Safely work out for at least 40 minutes twice a week
  • KR. Record eating habits to be self-accountable
  • KR. Do my mobility exercises at least twice a week

O. Create and maintain routines for keeping my space not cluttered

  • KR. At least once a week take out all trash/recycling/whatever shouldn’t be here, even when it’s fucking cold
  • KR. Spend at least two hours a week picking up, beyond cleaning the kitchen and doing laundry
  • KR. Do a deep clean once every three months

O. Get on the ball with being aware of my finances

  • KR. Record my core financial transactions and keep up on them weekly
  • KR. Budget to assume convention and trip planning of $[xxx]/month, rather than rely solely on credit cards (or seriously reconsider trips if I can’t make that happen)
  • KR. Pay off 70% of incoming credit card purchases within the same billing cycle (and understand what I’m doing to my situation if I’m not doing that)

O. Continue developing tools for new crises, to deal with panic attacks before they cause crises

  • KR. Continue going to therapy (still once a week for now)
  • KR. Journal at least twice a week
  • KR. Keep to not gut-posting on Facebook
  • KR. Keep to my mood tracker app

O. To redevelop the ability to focus

  • KR. Meditate at least five times a week
  • KR. Spend an hour of dedicated reading a week
  • KR. Spend 10 hours of focused work a week without phone, FB, email, or TV distractions

O. To give more to the community and charitable causes

  • KR. Budget 5% of monthly day job income to causes or people in need
  • KR. Give 10 hours a month to volunteering efforts—mentoring or assisting in causes
  • KR. Continue work on charity projects

But what about being creative?

You may notice no specific objective about being creative. Where this intersects with me as a creative producer: many of these feed indirectly to inviting creative energy into my life.

  • If I’m working on my health, I’m working on building more energy and strength, and reducing some of the overall physical pain that keeps me from being able to focus.
  • Overly cluttered spaces are at best distractions, and at worse psychological pits. Unfucking that creates space where I can do creative work. And the time spent getting/keeping my house in order can be used to muse on creative work.
  • Finances are fucking stressful. Removing big stresses invites more room in my mind for creative energy, and more resources for putting broader endeavors out into the world.
  • Psychological stress is the biggest consumer of mental energy. I keep doing the work to navigate and recover from crises. As I get stronger at that, I have more space to be creative.
    • That said, I have to also watch how consuming mental resources in creative struggles can tax my head and leave me with fewer resources for psychological struggles (or as a loved one calls it, “lowered mental immune system”).
  • My ability to focus for long periods has tanked since my divorce, partly because of my psychological stress and partly from how my relationship to the world via phones and computers changed. Or rather, what I can focus on for a length of time became interactive rather than solo writing/reading. Learning to focus again naturally flows into creative work.
  • My creative life and my philanthropy are intertwined, so while it’s tangential compared to the other objectives, that’s still relevant.

Key results aren’t about failure

To understand what this plan means, though, is to talk about how the KRs are not objectives themselves. And in my case, they’re about building up habits, to be contemplated routinely but evaluated only by looking at them over months, not over days.

Saying “I’ll work out 40 minutes twice a week” as an objective in and of itself sets me up for failure when I can’t achieve that, and potential self-shame if repeated. That’s an indicator of working on its objective, and not the only one. I have 20 KRs here, and I can’t hit them all right away. By the end of 2019, I may find some I didn’t hit as many as I’d like to. That’s okay, if what I’m doing is holding to their objectives.

The KRs give me a way to periodically analyze if I’m doing that work, and consider why not. Consider if that KR is a good fit for me now, of if it’s one I decide is better to pursue later in the year, or adjust or even discard so I’m focusing on success rather than failure.

Because if I’m focusing on failure, I’m not inviting creative energy into my life. That said, there’s an idea I’m holding to of “compassion responsibility/accountability” where I admit with self-love when I could do better. If I’m beating myself up over my own goals, I’m not inviting creative energy.

Having a creative objective

Maybe you need a creative objective. An objective can be nebulous if it’s part of ongoing growth, or specific if about achieving something finishable. I’m wary about projects as objectives because my projects involve other people doing shit, and making results based on other people is okay in the workplace and terrible when you’re dealing with freelancers and volunteers.

So let’s talk self-achievable objectives. If you’re trying to get into the habit of writing (or of writing again, when you’ve been out of practice), you could do something like:

O. Integrate creative writing into my life

  • KR. Spend 45 minutes focused on writing without distractions at least three times a week
  • KR. Produce a small work (short story, game, whatever) and lightly self-publish it once every three months, even if just to friends
  • KR. Read at least ten new-to-me works a month to learn from others and engage in the community
  • KR. Publish eight blog posts a month

If you try this idea and can’t hit those after three months, then ask yourself:

  • Does the overall objective truly interest you, or does the idea of being a creative interest you more than the work? Either answer is good, because this is about knowing yourself.
  • Do you have room in your life right now for this? If not, can you reasonable make room? It’s okay if you can’t, because life makes other plans.
  • If you can’t make room, are you interested enough in this to scale the KRs back to make you more successful? You can always scale up as you build of strength through success.

Evaluating progress and success

Such questions above work for all of those key results. As you ask yourself if you’re hitting your objective and if those key results are right for your life in a given moment, hold to compassionate accountability: it’s okay to not succeed right away. These are about self-improvement, which is an ongoing process. And the understanding you gain through evaluating against data is another vehicle of self-improvement.

Don’t get mad at yourself if you can’t hit your OKRs. KRs aren’t whips for self-flagellation, they’re coaches telling you how you’re doing. Objectives aren’t unattainable goals, they’re hopes you can believe in. Life changes all the time, and what you hope and believe you can achieve will run into hurdles you don’t anticipate.

Don’t try to hold yourself to every KR every day. KRs are things to look at as you make plans for a week, things to consider as you think about how a month’s treated you and how your relationship to your objectives is playing out.

Above all, if you try this method and it doesn’t work for you, take a little time to reflect on it, and maybe throw it the fuck out. Try it again later, or decide it’s not your jam.

More on OKRs

I don’t know if it’s really helpful to look up info on OKRs elsewhere, because of the focus on management techniques rather than how I’ve adapted it as a single-person life tool, but if you want that:

(If you read those and look back at my KRs, you’ll see where my KRs don’t match up with some of what they’re talking about. I’m aware of that and am okay with experimenting in this form. I’m not ready to quantify further some of these things, because I unlike making OKRs for a corporation, I’m doing this work for myself by myself.)

—Ryan

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