One artist’s journey to become a better version of himself by focusing on systems instead of goals or resolutions

“Inspiration is for amateurs. The rest of us just show up and get to work.”
Chuck Close

This year I’m not doing New Years resolutions. Instead, I’m doing something a little different.

Top Level: My Word of the Year

My word-of-the-year for 2017 is “Discipline”.

Discipline – noun
• activity that provides mental or physical training
• orderly or prescribed training that corrects, molds, or perfects one’s behavior, skill, mental faculties, or moral character
• self-control

During 2017 I plan to focus on 5 areas [1]:

1. My Daily Ritual
2. Artwork Production
3. Artwork Promotion
4. Spending time with friends and family
5. Exercise (Strength, Fitness and Recovery)

Most of my daily tasks should fit into one these categories.

I’m a work-in-progress

Please understand that I don’t claim to have everything figured out. I am not an efficiency or productivity guru. I am simply a professional artist, trying to do good work and live a meaningful life.

When I’m trying to look good, I can make a good case for how much I have it together. But I know better. I procrastinate. I (currently) don’t have a consistent studio practice. Sometimes, I spend too much time on Facebook.

You get the point. Maybe you can relate…

A shift in focus

Right now (December 2016) I am working on a batch of 10 digital murals for a client. (They should all be done by early February 2017.) The work is steady (and appreciated) but it doesn’t spark my passion as an artist.

In the coming year, I plan to shift my focus to my fine art— that is painting and sketching. I will limit the freelance work that I take on, and dig in deep for several hours a day at my easel. I’m working on a daily schedule that reflects this plan. (I’ll share my exact daily schedule in an upcoming article.)

This year I’ll be focusing on systems

James Clear challenges the conventional wisdom of goal setting, and encourages focusing on systems instead [2]. Here’s why: Goals can actually be discouraging because they highlight the gap between where you are and where you eventually want to be. Systems, on the other hand, focus on what you should be doing today and the methods to accomplish important tasks. James Clear suggests that, “…goals are good for planning your progress and systems are good for actually making progress.”

2017 Goals

Painting Series – I am planning to create several series of artwork. Here’s a sneak-peek: “Primavera” (a celebration of spring), Charleston SC (architecture & scenes), Cafe Paintings & Drawings, WNC Landscapes

Working in a series will accomplish at least three things:
1. It will give me a direction when I’m not feeling particularly inspired
2. It will encourage me to go to new places and take on new challenges
3. It will produce a cohesive collection for art lovers to enjoy

Display my art in Art Exhibits – I want to share my art with as many art lovers as possible. There’s no substitute for seeing original art in person.

Earn $50K/Year Income – In order to make my shift in focus from illustration to fine art sustainable, I need to earn some income from selling paintings. This is a stretch-goal.

2017 Travel

• March/April – Eastern Caribbean, 25th anniversary Cruise with my wife
• May – Charleston, South Carolina
• June – Roan Mountain Paintout with Scott Boyle
• October – Charleston, South Carolina

2017 Systems

Systems for doing important things*
• Calendar
• Daily Schedule
• Painting Production Schedule
• TO DO List
• Morning Minutes [3]

Systems to eliminate distractions*
• Freedom/Antisocial [4]
• Unplug. Literally unplug the Ethernet cable from my computer.
• Accountability
• The DON’T DO List (things to avoid doing)
• Hourly Chime (reminds me to stay on task or refocus if my attention has drifted.) [5]

*NOTE: These are not complete lists

This is an outline of my strategies to work more efficiently in the coming year. In future posts I will go into detail about specific strategies and report on my progress.

I’m sharing this with you for three reasons: 1.) I want you to have a behind-the-scenes look into an artist’s life. 2.) I hope to inspire you to live your life more purposefully in line with your goals and values. 3.) Writing and publishing this encourages me to think through my plans and provides some accountability to help me actually create good habits.

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I’d love to hear about the strategies that you are using to accomplish your goals and create good habits. Please leave a comment below and share one thing that you plan to focus on and one strategy that you plan to implement to achieve that goal

1.) 5 Areas of FocusPeter Bregman 18 Minutes
2.) Goals vs. Systems: James Clear – Blog Post – Forget About Setting Goals. Focus on This Instead.
3.) Morning MinutesPeter Bregman 18 Minutes
4.) Freedom/Antisocial Eighty Percent Solutions – Computer Apps that block email and/or internet access for set periods of time in order to reduce distractions.
5.) Hourly Chime – Peter Bregman – Audio interview: Making Your Decisions Match Your Priorities: Dan Heath interviews Peter Bregman

This article has 15 comments

  1. Matthew Lee Reply

    Interesting post Brennen. I came across it via Alyson Stanfield’s blogpost. I haven’t heard much about shifting the focus from goals to systems, but it makes sense. You still have to have goals though, right? I’m reminded of Alice in Wonderland…..

    “Alice: Would you tell me, please, which way I ought to go from here?
    The Cheshire Cat: That depends a good deal on where you want to get to.
    Alice: I don’t much care where.
    The Cheshire Cat: Then it doesn’t much matter which way you go.
    Alice: …So long as I get somewhere.
    The Cheshire Cat: Oh, you’re sure to do that, if only you walk long enough.”

    I love Asheville, what a great place to live. I paint plein air as well….

    • bmcelhaney Reply

      Hi Matthew, Thanks for taking the time to comment! Yes. I still have goals, but I’m trying to break them down to bite-size (actionable) tasks so I don’t get overwhelmed.

      Love the quote from Alice in Wonderland. So much Zen wisdom.

      Asheville is a cool place. By the way, if you’re ever in the area, feel free to come out and paint with us. WNC Plein Air Painters and Asheville Urban Landscape Painters. All paint-outs (for both clubs) are free and open to the public.

    • bmcelhaney Reply

      Alyson, Thank you so much for your ongoing encouragement and generosity! The response has been wonderful, thanks to your Facebook post.


    Followed link from Alyson ?

    I have goals and systems. My goals are big picture (like my earning goal). My systems are How To and are done at different time intervals (like daily, weekly, etc.). When I want to do something new, I try to create systems to support the new. I love grabbing a system (example is for shipping) & mindlessly getting thru a task effortlessly.

    I have to have a list of goals in order to remind myself often why I want to do what’s difficult and not so fun (like painting – because that’s easy…but the sharing isn’t always).

    Thank you for inspiration!

    • bmcelhaney Reply

      Hi Angeline, Thanks so much for your note! I appreciate your comments. I love the photo of your studio on your website. It’s clear that you have systems in place for making your art.

  3. Diane McGregor Reply

    Thanks for sharing these ideas, Brennen. I really appreciate the links to James Clear — a goldmine of advice! I look forward to reading about your daily schedule in future posts. Thanks again, and all the best in 2017!

    • bmcelhaney Reply

      Hi Diane, Thank you so much for your comment! Yes, James Clear‘s writings are refreshing and inspirational. Lots of great stuff. Wishing you the best for 2017!

  4. Madeleine Reply

    Great little article. 2016 for me was a bit of a mishmash – with no consistency to when I painted or what I painted. So this year I plan on focusing on what I paint. Your article is the 2nd one I’ve read in as many days that me mentions painting in series and I think this will help me to keep focus. So I know I like to paint local scenes – we live along the coast so have some great places to paint, and also paint beach culture type paintings as everyone loves a beach painting in there coastal house haha. I’m now going to try and break those generalised themes down into some series for more focus. My other aim this year is to think “15 minutes”. With work, home, veggie garden, tying to exercise…haha life in general….by attacking things for just 15 minutes (if that’s all I have time for), and doing that every day, then it’s surprising how much you actually get done. I love your word for the year and may have to use qthis one myself. Discipline is definitely something I need to work on.

    • bmcelhaney Reply

      Hi Madeleine, Thank you so much for your comment! Wishing you the best in your painting. I like your “15 minute” strategy. Sometimes, just getting started is the key to being productive. Cheers!

  5. Dolly Dickinson Reply

    Great insights. I like the Hourly Chime as reminder to bring focus back.
    It’s so easy to drift now that I’m retited. While I have larger “goals,” I’ve developed the habit of praying to know the next right thing to do.

  6. Don Gilman Reply

    Great post, Brennen! You inspire me! I just wish I saw a trip to SB on your 2017 agenda!

  7. Brynda Bechtold Reply

    One of my goals for the next few months is to let go of 45 year old figure drawings that I did in art school. Much of the paper is deteriorating, but the drawings are good and they’ll require frames to save them, but who wants to spend the $ for frames on an old drawing? And not everyone wants nudes on their walls. That will be the beginning of clearing space in the art studio which has become a storage area as I do most of my art sitting on the sofa or away from the house. I enjoyed this newsletter. It’s so different from what I usually see. Thanks!

    • bmcelhaney Reply

      Hi Brynda, Thanks so much for your comment and your kind words. I’m so glad that you enjoyed the newsletter.

      I feel your struggle of wanting to get rid of old art, but valuing it and feeling connected to it at the same time. For what it’s worth, my recommendation is to give yourself permission to throw away the artwork that you don’t feel connected with. Also allow yourself to keep (either temporarily or permanently) some of your drawings that you really feel good about. By the way, you don’t have to frame everything to protect it. you can keep works on paper in a clear plastic (polypropylene) sleeve for archival storage and protection.

  8. bmcelhaney Reply

    Note: I’ve written a follow-up blog post, My One Thing in which I re-access my plan and commit to take one step toward being a more professional artist.

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