A few years ago, researchers at the University of Toronto found that setting specific, measurable goals–and writing them down–could increase academic achievement amongst students. In some cases, this simple exercise helped students earn more credits; in others, it significantly decreased their likelihood of dropping out. 

These kinds of specified, targeted goals aren’t just for academics. We recently asked more than a dozen artists to tell us about how they plan for a successful future. Time and again, they underscored the importance of setting realistic goals–both in the short and long term.

When we talk about “realistic goals,” we’re not necessarily talking about goals that are easy to reach. Sometimes these smaller, shorter-term goals are actually the most labor-intensive–and they’re also the easiest to ignore or let fall by the wayside. These are the goals you set every single day, week, or month. They aren’t lofty or glamorous, but they’re essential. 

Emil Alzamora in the studio
Emil Alzamora in the studio

“The way I see it, there are two basic types of goals,” sculptor Emil Alzamora tells us. “There are the ‘nebulous’ goals–for example, ‘I want to make art that speaks to humanity.’ These goals are more intuitive and energizing. And then there are functional goals, which are practical and often depleting–for example, ‘I have to get this ready for FedEx by week’s end.’

“Both are critical in my eyes. To stay fixated on the long-term goal is to overlook the often tedious tasks that help bring the bigger plan together. Goals to me are a combination of vision and discipline; both are necessary to cultivate. In the end, my sketchbook is opened far more than my planner–but I might benefit from opening the planner a little more.” 

A different lake by Xaviera López
A different lake by Xaviera López

The artists we interviewed consistently set ambitious goals for themselves–ones that are realistic and attainable.. “It’s all about the tiny steps,” artist and animator Xaviera López tells us. “It’s like the work of an ant–slow and steady. Being an artist is not theoretical. It’s about concrete things you do every day.” 

These everyday goals can be as simple as opening up an email or uploading a photo to Instagram. Studies suggest that setting–and achieving–these tiny “micro-goals” can actually boost our dopamine levels and increase productivity. 

Crystal Ranch by Erin Hanson
Crystal Ranch by Erin Hanson

For ten years, oil painter Erin Hanson set herself the annual goal of doubling her income every year–but she also set some weekly goals to help herself realize this ambition. 

“I track about 25 weekly statistics and analytics—including things like the number of emails written, the number of new email subscribers, the number of people who walked in my gallery, the number of hours I spent painting every week, the number of paintings hung in people’s homes, etc.,” Hanson says. “I can then compare how I am doing from week to week, and I can make changes to improve my ability to attain my goals.” 

By getting into the specifics and breaking down her larger goals into smaller, more manageable parts, she was able to meet them. 

Most of the goals we heard came with a fixed time frame, whether a few days or a year. Part of setting a realistic goal comes down to giving yourself the right amount of time to achieve it. In some cases, that might mean years, or even decades.  

To See Is Not To Speak #06 by Conrad Jon Godly
To See Is Not To Speak #06 by Conrad Jon Godly

“When I was younger, I set myself the goal of having a solo exhibition in an art museum,” Swiss painter Conrad Jon Godly remembers. “I worked very hard, day by day, for seven years to reach that goal. Many young artists don’t have the patience to reach their goals. But patience and endurance are necessary. I am interested in progress and not in repetition. That’s why I still set new goals year by year.”

When artists shared their long-term goals with us, we noticed another pattern emerge: while some hopes and dreams remained fixed in place, others changed over time. Adapting and modifying our goals is key to avoiding disappointment and staying motivated. 

Resilience by Shana Levenson
Resilience by Shana Levenson

Painter Shana Levenson keeps a running list of galleries where she’d like to exhibit her work, and she adds to it on a regular basis. “I don’t expect to get into the top contemporary gallery right away, so I work my way up to that by continuously getting better and pushing my work further,” she explains. “It’s important that artists don’t set expectations that are too high too soon. All that does is set us up for disappointment.”

Levenson’s advice? “Set yourself up for success for looking for spaces that fit your career level and style. I’m a total believer in reaching for the stars, so don’t sell yourself short. Research artists that are at the same level, and find out where they are showing. Go visit galleries when you can, and research what’s being represented.”

Orange Isolation by Alexis Cortez
Orange Isolation by Alexis Cortez

When setting goals, it can help to focus less on factors you can’t control–and more on how you spend your time. As a college student with a demanding job, Alexis Cortez knows a thing or two about juggling her art and her outside responsibilities. 

“I try not to make promises to myself that might stress me out to the point of breaking,” she tells us. “Especially when I’m in the middle of a semester, my goals are very short and transfer week-to-week. They are usually along the lines of ‘I will paint for two hours a week’ or ‘I will wake up an hour earlier to finish the few parts of the painting that need to be done.’”

There’s a common misconception that once you reach your goals, you’ll find lasting happiness (psychologists refer to this as the “arrival fallacy”) but the reality is sometimes more complicated.. Your growth as an artist doesn’t end once you meet your goals; in many ways, that’s when it really begins. 


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Header/Thumbnail image credit: A different lake by Xaviera López

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