Click Here to Get the Workbook for this article.

Generally, I try to avoid clichés. That includes writing year-end posts with titles like “How to Have The Most Creative Year Ever In [ insert year here. ]”. But since I’m so fond of irony, i’ll go ahead and write this post because i’m willing to do just about whatever it takes to help you get the most out of doing the creative work you love.

This is a very unique week of the year. It’s that little sliver of time we often use for watching movies, rest, carrying wrapping paper and empty boxes to the curb, and consuming delicious leftovers. We finally joined the Amazon Prime bandwagon just before the holidays, so I’ve been trying to tear myself away from Prime’s video offerings (unfortunately for my productivity, there are actually some pretty great movies and tv shows on there!)

It’s also a time when we artists and creative people can sit down to consider their goals for the upcoming year. Confession: I used to scoff at planning things. “I’m an artist, that’s a license to just wing it, right?” That was before I found out that planning really does work. So this article is designed to help you get the most out of your alone time this week as you reflect and plan. It’s also hopefully fun to read and encouraging to you. So, to that end, I’ve come up with a little mnemonic to help you (and me!) That is what I like to call the “Four P’s of Productive Planning”. They are:

  1. Processing

  2. Pruning

  3. Planning

  4. Powering up!

If you follow these four “P’s” then you will have some closure on your previous year as well as some solid planning for the year to follow. This will get your 2016 off to a roaring start!

To get the most out of this article, I’ve devised a free workbook that you can print out and fill out as you go along with the exercises. Click here to download it.

1. Processing (or Postmortem)

Processing is evaluating your previous year and honestly assessing what you did and how well it went. Many people call this a postmortem. Either way, it’s hugely useful to do. Because no matter what you did, regardless of how big your successes were or pitiful-seeming your failures were, there are valuable nuggets of information hidden in those actions. (Nuggets that we’ll use later!)


Give yourself a solid block of time to get out your notes, open up your accounts, pop open your spreadsheets, whatever you need to do to gather an overview of how you did. Focus on the big picture, don’t get too bogged down on specifics.

Ask yourself some questions, such as:

  • What have I created or done this past year that turned out well? What results am I proud of?
  • How do I feel about what I’ve accomplished this past year? Really focus on the feelings here, the emotions that come up when you think about it. These feelings lead to truths that you may be suppressing.
  • Are there any loose ends that I want or need to tie up before year’s end? This may include unfinished projects, unsent invoices, bookkeeping, a bunch of unread emails, etc. These loose ends can drag you down, and you want to go into the next year with as little baggage as possible.
  • What did I do that did not turn out so well? What mistakes can I learn from? Don’t beat yourself up here. In fact, celebrate your failures and mistakes as learning tools to become better.

Spend at least an hour or two, and quickly jot down your thoughts. You’re ready for the next “P”, which is Pruning.

2. Pruning

You see that huge, beautiful bonsai tree over there? Even if you don’t see it, just use your creative powers to visualize it. Okay. Now imagine Mr. Miyagi spending year after year of his life carefully and lovingly pruning that little tree to grow up huge and awesome-looking.

"Bonsai", not "BANZAI!" There's a difference, Daniel-San.

“Bonsai”, not “BANZAI!” There’s a difference, Daniel-San.

Pruning involves shearing off the dead or dying growth of a plant. This is necessary in order for the plant to give more attention to the parts that are left. It also controls the look of the plant. It will develop its growth in the direction you want when the nonessential parts are snipped off. Does it hurt the plant when it’s pruned? Plants don’t talk, but I imagine that if they could they might admit that it hurts a little bit. But it lengthens the life of the plan by making it healthier, and besides, don’t you think that every plant would want to look good in pictures?


Your creative business needs pruning, especially if you found yourself saying “yes” in the past year to every little idea or side-quest that came along. If stuff didn’t work, and you don’t plan on continuing it, then lop it off immediately. If you’re not sure if you should keep doing something that hasn’t worked yet, then consider carefully the consequences of keeping an underperforming member of your creative “plant” around. Have a plan to honestly evaluate it and give it a go, and if it doesn’t work, drop it.

Remember, everything has a cost. So that dead weight of a project or venture is draining precious time and resources for every day that you keep it on your radar.

3. Planning

This is the one we will be spending most of our time on… but if we’ve processed and pruned properly, then this should be fun and easy because we will already have the most important aspects of what we want to do with our creative business in clear focus… without the hindrance of what we don’t want.

The stuff that’s left is the cream of the crop. It’s the stuff that worked or (worked well enough) this past year to keep doing it, and to keep doing it better than last year.


Central to the planning process is to consider what you want to achieve this next year. Just like a painter generally doesn’t approach a blank canvas without the faintest idea of what he or she is going to paint, we won’t go into our year without a solid idea of what we’re going to do.

There’s a common acronym with setting goals called S.M.A.R.T. and it’s actually pretty good. Goals that have each of these five properties stand a really good chance of getting done. Here’s what each letter stands for:

S – Specific. You should know exactly what the goal is.
M – Measurable. The goal should be able to be quantified.
A – Attainable. Make it something within reach, even if difficult.
R – Relevant. How important is it to you?
T – Timely. By when do you want to achieve it?

Start your planning by listing each thing you want to carry over from last year, and then add your new goals for the next year. With each specific goal, list out each of the S.M.A.R.T. steps. Tell what it is, why it’s important, what steps you will take, how it’s realistic, and when you will do it.


A note about this: each goal should be balanced between being a pushover and something that scares you a little bit. In other words, don’t make it impossible to achieve but don’t make it too easy, either.

4. Powering Up!

This is the execution part. If you do each of the first three steps, then it stands to reason that you have given yourself the best possible chance to succeed. But planning is useless unless it’s paired with ACTION. If you don’t do anything to forward your creative business, then you might as well put this project away and do something else.

Notice that I haven’t talked about New Year’s resolutions yet. Are these the same thing as goals? Sure, they can be. But what’s the thing most people think about when they think about New Year’s Resolutions? Well, I think about how by the end of January, they are usually already dead in the water. If that’s what you generally think of, then I’d advise you to just name them something else, like goals for the year of whatever. You certainly don’t want to fight an uphill battle in your mind before you even get started.

One great thing about a new year is that in a way, it’s a fresh start, a clean break with the previous year. Use this as a reset button of sorts. Use it to give you some renewed energy.

VISUALIZE your success. Imagine yourself actually doing the things you planned to do, and image how it will feel to check the action steps off your list. Visualize the result of those goals and how completing them will yield results that you desire.

Beware of “analysis paralysis”. Use some time this week to plan, but don’t let it leak over into your new year. Have the planning done, so that you can hit the ground running when the year starts. Take a little action, then a little more, and just keep going. Take pleasure in the little successes and accomplishments. Give yourself permission to succeed! This will give you some momentum.

This is also where I’d like to mention the subject of motivation. For those of us who work for “the man” (or “the woman”) at a company as an employee then there is a degree of built-in motivation for the work we do there. But for those of us who do our creative projects on the side, or who are self-employed artists, designers, photographers, or musicians, things are a bit different. We may find that we struggle to focus our energy on what needs to get done, or how to manage our time.


We may, in fact, be so used to being told what to do by someone else that we struggle when that “someone else” is no longer there. This is especially true for those of us with day jobs that create stuff in our spare time. When we’re building a creative business from the ground up like this, we have to assume all the roles (or “hats”) in our little company of one. In order to make this work, we absolutely must learn management skills.

Yes, management skills. Even if you’re the only employee in your little venture. Because you are filling multiple roles, you have to be able to step out of the studio and into the office from time to time. You must be able to develop the ability to jump in and out of this when needed so that you can manage your time and get the production that you need our of yourself.

I’d like to share a book recommendation with you. I started reading it this past fall, and it’s called Motivation for Creative People, written by Mark McGuinness. It’s an excellent resource for managing the creative person within yourself.

One more resource that you will find helpful is specific to time management. This is my very own short e-guide I wrote for my Artist Myth subscribers called How To Build A Creative Time Machine That Gives You More Time For Your Art. (Wordy, I know… but the search engines like it! How’s that for pandering?) It contains some thoughtful ideas as well as some exercises that will help you get more time our of your day, no matter how crunched for time you are. You can get that for free when you join the Artist Myth newsletter at

So here’s the big irony in all this planning: keep in mind that plans may change, and that’s okay. You may find that you need to pivot a bit and modify your goals. That’s a good thing! Just be sure you are giving your goals a chance instead of constantly changing your mind. A “grass is greener” mentality and lack of commitment will kill your progress and leave you with a bunch of partly finished projects… and that helps nobody.


The key to balancing this is to be consistent enough with a project to get measurable results. Be diligent enough to have enough accomplished so that you can say, “Is this successful? If not, what do I need to change?

Failure IS an option. Failure is okay. Being an artist is all about managing all the little failures. Some may prefer to call them “explorations that didn’t amount to much”. Whatever you call them, be brave enough to fail, and honest enough to see what didn’t work and be willing change it. Then move on and keep going.

Finally, HAVE FUN! Being an artist doesn’t have to mean a journey of torment and suffering, though some think it does. YOU are in control of your destiny, and YOU can decide to take joy in the process of being paid to create every day.

Well, that about does it for planning your next year. Here’s a quick review with points to remember:

  1. Remember the four “P’s”: Processing, Pruning, Planning, and Powering Up!
  2. Process what did and didn’t work for you in the past year. Get some closure!
  3. Prune away the dead stuff: get rid of what didn’t work and isn’t worth pursuing.
  4. Plan your year using S.M.A.R.T. goals.
  5. Power up your motivations and self-management so that you can start the year with some momentum!

I’m so glad you stuck around for this article. I truly hope it helped you in even the slightest way to get the most out of your time as a creative individual. You deserve success!

Your Friend,