How to Set Realistic Goals for Your Art Business

We set goals because it helps us to clarify what we want to achieve in our surface design business. This then helps us to stay focused and on track until we get there. 

Easy, right? 

Well, yes… and no. 

Identifying what we want to achieve is usually fairly easy, but achieving it is less so, and pretty much impossible if our goals are unrealistic.

How do you know if you’re setting unrealistic goals? Here are some questions for you:

  • Have you ever set an income goal for the year and not even come close to it? 
  • Have you ever set a project goal for the month and not even started working on it because you couldn’t find the time? 
  • Have you ever written a task list for the day and crossed off less than half by the end of the day? 

If you said yes to any of these things, then you’ve definitely been setting yourself unrealistic goals. 

How to Set Realistic Goals for Your Art Business | Sketch Design Repeat

I know that we’ve been told for years to aim high and shoot for the stars, to keep hustling and stretch ourselves. Of course, there are benefits to hard work, determination, persistence, and stretching ourselves. But constantly setting unrealistic (and impossible) goals is really not helpful. 

The problem with always setting goals that we are unable to achieve is that it leads to feeling frustrated, ineffective, and disappointed with ourselves. Eventually, we can lose all confidence in what we’re doing and want to give up completely because it’s just too hard. 

These terrible feelings are particularly detrimental to creatives because we need our creative energy to produce our best work.

The good news is that failing to achieve all your unrealistic goals has nothing to do with your ability or potential for success. It has everything to do with your unrealistic expectations — and that can be fixed. 

The Benefits Of Realistic Goals

Something amazing happens when we set goals for ourselves and actually achieve them because it’s much more motivating than struggling and always falling behind. We start to feel accomplished and capable. And this increased motivation means we’re actually likely to achieve more than we planned (which is unexpected but true), which makes us feel incredibly productive. 

I know it feels less productive to have only a few things on your task list, but it’s actually more productive. It forces you to be selective and prioritize doing the things that really matter, instead of trying to do all the things. It’s working smarter and not harder. 

Another thing that happens when we really focus on one aspect of our business at a time is that we make much more progress in that area than when we jump about from one thing to the next. I have noticed that those who excel in their surface design businesses are the ones who focus on one area and get that established, instead of diversifying their income streams too soon

Setting realistic goals is not only good for you and your mental health, but it’s clearly also good for your business. So, how do we do it?

Setting Realistic Goals In 3 Easy Steps

Here are three easy steps to setting realistic goals for your business. 

  1. Set an outcome goal
  2. Make it actionable
  3. Break it down into small steps 

Let’s look at each stage in a bit more detail.

Step 1: Set an Outcome Goal

These are the goals which identify the outcome (end result) you want to achieve. It’s the most common type of goal that people set when running their own business; usually set every year, but they can also be quarterly or monthly goals.

Before we look at some examples, all your goals will benefit from using the SMART checklist. This prevents you from making vague, open-ended goals which are much harder to act on. 

You’ve probably heard of this acronym before, but here’s a quick refresher. SMART stands for:

Specific: Use real numbers, not vague amounts
Measurable: You can count or measure your progress
Achievable: It’s possible and realistic!
Relevant: It makes sense for this stage in your business
Timely: There is a date or time for completion

Outcome Goal Example:
“I want to earn $50K from licensing my patterns in 2023.”

SMART check: it’s specific ($50K), it’s measurable (you can count the money), it’s relevant (if it makes sense for your business), and it’s timely (within the year 2023). 

But is it achievable?

Like most income goals, this is something we can’t completely control because it relies on other people to license our work. How achievable it is will depend on various factors, including how much was earned from licensing last year and what we do this year. 

Many of the outcome goals we set in our business fall into this category. We know what result or outcome we want, e.g. income, clients, wins, etc, but they’re outside of our direct control. It’s still good to set these goals, but to increase our chances of achieving them, we need to add some actionable details to them. 

How to Set Realistic Goals for Your Art Business | Sketch Design Repeat
Step 2: Make It Actionable

What actions could we take to increase our chances of achieving the income goal above? Creating lots of new patterns and reaching out to more clients would improve our chances of earning more from licensing, so let’s turn one of those into an actionable outcome goal.  

Actionable Outcome Goal Example:
“I want to add 100 new patterns to my portfolio in 2023.”

This is a goal that is completely within your control because it’s entirely up to you to do the work, so it’s actionable. But let’s also do a SMART check: it’s specific (100 new patterns to portfolio), measurable (you can count them), relevant (it supports our income goal), and timely (within the year 2023). 

Is it achievable?

It sounds possible, but this can be hard to assess immediately, which is why we need to break it down in the next step.  

Step 3: Break It Down Into Small Steps

To ensure our actionable outcome goal is achievable, we need to break it down into steps. This is how and when you will take action. I recommend you write each step down using the SMART checklist to ensure each one is specific and timely, which really helps to avoid procrastination. 

Let’s take our Actionable Outcome Goal of “I want to add 100 new patterns to my portfolio in 2023” and break it down into smaller and smaller steps.

“I will create 25 new patterns and upload them to my portfolio each quarter”
“I will create 2 new patterns and upload them to my portfolio each week”
“I will create 1 new pattern every other day from Monday to Thursday and upload them to my portfolio on Friday”

You can see that by breaking those steps down to what would be required each week and day, you can really see what work is required to achieve the goal of 100 new patterns in a year. 

Is it achievable?

Now you can properly assess this for yourself because you know how long it normally takes you to create a pattern and present it in a way that is portfolio ready. If you normally spend a week on each pattern, you either need to reassess your goals or speed up your process somehow. Consider also what other goals you want to achieve, any other commitments you have and whether you want to take any time off.

Now you can decide whether it is achievable and realistic for you, or whether you need to go back and review your Outcome Goals. 

Make sure to break down all of your other goals to properly assess whether they are truly realistic. The more you break it down, the clearer it will be. While you’re considering what’s realistic, I want to warn you of a psychological tendency that I call Magical Future Thinking.

Beware Of Magical Future Thinking

Magical Future Thinking is our tendency to have an unrealistic vision of our future, and in particular, our future selves. Here’s an example:

“Tomorrow I will leap out of bed early, feeling refreshed and super organized, eat healthily, do yoga, and get all the things on my task list done before 5 pm. Nobody will interrupt or distract me and I will remain focused, productive, and motivated for the entire day. I will achieve at least three times as much as I did today and time will stretch and expand until everything is done perfectly.”

We’ve all done it; unrealistic expectations of our future selves. Obviously, I’m exaggerating here but you get the idea. It’s why diets always start tomorrow, not right now… because nobody wants to do hard things right now. 

Here are some reminders to stay realistic and avoid magical thinking:

  • Your future self is usually just as tired, distracted, and unmotivated as you are today. Plan for that.
  • Life will always be full of interruptions and unexpected situations. Allow time for that.  
  • Don’t put hard things off until later because by then you’ll feel even less like doing it. Rip the Band-Aid off and get the hard stuff done early. 
  • You are not a machine. Schedule breaks and fun things too to fuel your creative energy.

So, when you are assessing your goals to make sure they’re realistic, don’t fall into the trap of magical thinking. 

RELATED ARTICLE: Setting Healthy Boundaries
as a Work from Home Artist

So remember, while setting unrealistic goals feels like it will help us achieve more, in reality, it doesn’t. Constantly pushing yourself to your limits is not sustainable or healthy and constantly failing to reach your goals isn’t good for your mental health. 

The best goals are the ones you can achieve most of the time. Sometimes you’ll need to push yourself to get finished, but they’re always possible. Sometimes you won’t reach them, and that’s OK!

Bex Morley
Written by Bex Morley

Instagram: @bex.morley

Bex is a British illustrator, pattern designer and business coach living on Vancouver Island. She sells and licenses her designs to fabric, stationery & home decor manufacturers all over the world. She also coaches, and loves to help others succeed in their creative business goals.

  1. Samira says:

    Completely amazing!! You nailed a part of the creative struggle and provided practical steps to overcome. Thank you!

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