The MapleMoney Show » Money Psychology

Keys to Successful Goal Setting, with Michelle Black

Presented by EQ Bank

Welcome to The MapleMoney Show, the podcast that helps Canadians improve their personal finances to create lasting financial freedom. I’m your host, Tom Drake, the founder of MapleMoney, where I’ve been writing about all things related to personal finance since 2009.

What’s standing between you and your goals? Is there something big you want to accomplish, but you’re not sure how to make it happen? Perhaps you’re like me, and get yourself into trouble by committing to one too many projects?

My guest this week is Michelle Black, a freelance writer and founder of the Credit Writer blog. Recently, Michelle accomplished a big goal, when she made the switch from part-time to full-time freelance writing. In this episode, we chat about the role that goal setting has played in helping Michelle accomplish both personal and professional goals.

Michelle explains that she prefers to set specific, actionable goals, then break them down by working them back to the starting point. To do this, she uses an old fashioned, paper-based planner to track her progress. When I mentioned my own tendency to focus on too many different projects at one time, Michelle reiterated why she only commits to one personal, and one professional goal at a time.

Once your goal is set, telling someone else, like a spouse, a close friend, or an accountability partner greatly increases the chance that what you’ve committed to actually gets done. If goal setting is something you struggle with, be sure to listen in!

Our sponsor, EQ Bank, has partnered with TransferWise, to give Canadians a better way to send money abroad. The result is fully transparent and remarkably quick international money transfers that are up to 8X cheaper for EQ Bank customers. To find out more, visit EQ Bank today!

Episode Summary

  • Why Michelle sticks to one goal at a time
  • Goal setting – Start by working backwards
  • Sometimes, it’s ok to press pause on your goals
  • The value of an accountability partner
  • Spending money to make money
  • A goal must be trackable
  • A goal planner for every purpose
Read transcript

What’s standing between you and your goals? Is there something big you want to accomplish but you’re not sure how to make it happen? Perhaps, like me, you get yourself into trouble by committing to one too many projects. My guest this week is Michelle Black, a freelance writer and founder of the Credit Writer blog. Recently, Michelle accomplished a big goal when she made the switch from part time to full time freelance writing. In this episode, we chat about the role that goal setting has played in helping Michelle accomplish both personal and professional goals.

Welcome to the Maple Money Show, the podcast that helps Canadians improve their personal finances to create lasting financial freedom. Our sponsor, EQ Bank has partnered with TransferWise to give Canadians a better way to send money abroad. The result is fully transparent and remarkably quick money transfers that are up to eight times cheaper for EQ Bank customers. To find out more, visit Now, let’s chat with Michelle…

Tom: Hi Michelle, welcome to the Maple Money Show.

Michelle: Hi, Tom. Thanks very much for having me.

Tom: We were chatting previously so I want to go through this idea of how you set goals. Goals are something I can be a little bit terrible at. I get stuff done but I always call it stumbling forward. I don’t really plan it out. I just do one thing then another and eventually end up at the end result. But I like this idea of actually planning things out and achieving them. So before we go into the process, just straight up, what are some examples of different times where you’ve used goals to achieve something? Big goals, small goals, whatever they were?

Michelle: For one, I don’t set these big goals for everything because I’ve done that in the past and I find I get overwhelmed and bogged down with these steps. So I try to reserve it one big professional goal at a time and maybe one big personal goal at the time that I’m shooting for. Professionally, one of the most recent ways I used this was when I transitioned from a part time freelance writer over it into a full time freelance writer.

Tom: What made you come to that point? Did you just decide, “Okay, I’m doing this part time but I want to go full time. How do I make that happen?”

Michelle: It got to where I had been writing for my business for years and years. Then I started writing for some of my friends. I started ghostwriting for them. They owned similar businesses in the credit space. It got to where writing and sharing credit tips and things like that with consumers on a broader level rather than one-on-one level was my favorite part of the day. And the income potential was good, too, of course.

Tom: Yeah, exactly. You were getting some traction I assume, and realized this would work better going down that path?

Michelle: Yeah, I think so.

Tom: You mentioned the idea of keeping just one personal and one professional goal at a time. Is that just a matter of focus? What’s the point there to planning it out that way?

Michelle: For me, it is. It’s definitely focused. I get overwhelmed. In the past, I’ve gotten really excited because the goal setting thing does work well for me when I do it. I have all these things that I want to do so I’m going to break them all down and set goals. I was trying to finish a novel. I had some personal health goals and some business goals. I had some personal goals on my minimizing our house and possessions. We had probably six or seven really big goals going at a time with daily things I needed to hit. And it was driving me crazy. And I was not doing well at any of them because I was trying to do too much at once.

Tom: Maybe that is more like me because in my head, I do have a lot of big goals. So it’s not that I’m not making the goals in the first place, but maybe just not mapping them out and working through it. So how do you set these goals? Is it just saying, “I’m going to do this by the end of the year,” with no planning within? Or are you kind of breaking it down?

Michelle: I’m breaking it down. I have a good hypothetical example. It’s not a goal I’m currently working on, but it’s one that I’m probably going to tackle next year. Let’s say, hypothetically, that you wanted to write a novel this year. Think of that being your goal. You need to write 30 chapters total and edit it before you start chopping it out to potentially be published. That would be my big goal. The finish line would be the novel. Then I would try to break it down into quarterly steps. So by the end of Q1, I want the first 10 chapters completed. By the end of Q2, I want 20 chapters completed. By the end of Q3, I want all 30 chapters. And by the end of Q4, I want all of my editing done. That’s when I’ve gone through a few drafts and have something I’m proud of and ready to shop around with to see if anybody’s interested. Then I’ll take the quarterly goals and break them down into monthly, and further into even daily bite-sized pieces.

Tom: Is this a hypothetical or are you planning a book next year?

Michelle: I’m planning a book next year. This is one of the goals I wound up setting before and abandoning because I was trying to just do too much at once. I found that I couldn’t transition from part time to full time freelance writer and do all these other 12 things I wanted to accomplish at once, and write 700 pages a day in my novel and be creative. It would mean I wouldn’t be a good mom, a good spouse or a good friend. There was just not enough time in the day for me to do all those things.

Tom: That’s a good point because even though I have a bunch of goals in my head it’s okay to push them back. I realize there are things that I really want to do now and there are things that would be nice to do next year of two years from now. It’s tough to do everything at once. It’s okay to say this is a lower priority thing. Like this book, maybe it’s next year. Or if something comes up that’s more important, maybe you will push it back further.

Michelle: Yes. For me and my sanity, I really limit the goal setting at this tedious level to just to one personal, one professional. That way I am happier. I could maybe accomplish more. I could maybe push myself and try to hit more at a time, but I think by honing in on focusing on those two goals more, I’ll move faster and achieve more by doing that.

Tom: I wouldn’t say that you’d accomplish more because I’ve tried that. At one point, I had dozens of different websites that I was managing and trying to build up equally. But the more I focused down on just what mattered in my business, the better I did. I don’t want to get too much into website talk here, but merging sites and caring about what was really working, just went so much further because I wasn’t equally distracted amongst 20 things. I was focused on two or three things. I saw the difference by not spreading yourself too thin.

Michelle: I agree. It will absolutely drive you nuts and kill your overall productivity, I think.

Tom: For sure. Let’s get into the process you’re using here. You’re breaking this down. Are these the smart goals? Do you do that or do you care as much about a system? How does that work?

Michelle: I do you have a system It’s one I’ve kind of developed myself. I’ve seen good things I recognize in other people systems and kind of have just taken what I like, what works well for my personality. I use a very basic planner. At the beginning of the year or whenever I’m setting a new goal, (sometimes it is mid-year) I’ll go ahead and start with the finish line. This is what I want to accomplish. I want to earn X number of dollars this year. I’ll break that down into quarterly earnings goals, for example. Then it’s broken down monthly and daily. Usually I keep most of my professional goals to 20 days a month—primarily business days. If I want to earn $20,000 a month freelance writing then I need to write $1,000 worth of articles per day times 20 days in order to hit that goal.

Tom: Todd Tressider was a big fan of this too. He told me it was almost like a secret in the book. He made it sound so obvious that if you want to make more money you just set that amount and work it back. He really believed in this idea. And I see it working, but at the time it sounded kind of crazy. It’s was like, “Oh, you want to make more? You just do this…” But it does make it more attainable instead of saying, “I’m going to make this amount in the year,” and you’re kind of lost from January to November. Then you’re realizing in December that there’s no way you’re going to make that goal, so I do like this idea of breaking it down and trying to actually achieve that on a daily basis—or at least weekly so you’re actually working towards that goal and not just throwing a number out there for a finish line.

Michelle: Right. And then the weekly tracking, which you just brought up, I find this really important because like I say, if I want to hit $1,000 a day to $5,000 a week, there are days that I will fall short of that. Life will happen or I’ll be working on my website, chaperoning my kid’s field trip—something will happen and I won’t sit down and write that much that day. But that’s okay. I can make course corrections within the week. That’s what I try to do. I’ll try to earn a little bit more on the subsequent days or I’ll work a little bit more on the weekend. But I try to never close out a week behind. And definitely, I never try to close out a month for I’m behind my goal or I’m going to miss it. I’m not going to reach the finish line if I do that.

Tom: This is very similar for me, this weekly check point. What one thing I found very useful is just to have someone to be accountable to. In business, this could be a business partner in your life. It could be your spouse. Do you do that? Do you say I’m going to do that, this week and then check in at the end of the week? Or are you just self accountable which is pretty good too, if it works for you.

Michelle: So far, I’ve been self accountable. But I do see value in having an accountability partner. I tell my husband the goals I have whether I hit it or not. But he is not very tough on me about it. If I hit it he says, “Hey, great job honey,” and if I don’t he says, “It’s okay. You’ll do better next week.” Maybe I need someone to push me a little further—I don’t know.

Tom: I find just telling someone is most of it, actually. Even if your spouse isn’t going to give you a hard time about it after—

Michelle: That’s a good thing. I’m not complaining.

Tom: Exactly. Just the fact you tell him, though. In my case, I find it makes me more accountable. I’ve said, I’m going to do this thing and I do it. I do this with J.D. Roth at another site I run which is Get Rich Slowly. We meet every Monday morning. To be able to say I’m going to do this thing by next Monday morning has been very helpful. Sometimes I’m not breaking it down as well as you do—down to a daily level. So what happens is it’ll be Sunday night and I’ll realize I still have one goal to meet so I’ll just knock it out quick. I could do better than doing a Sunday night, I realize. But the fact that I’m saying I’m going to do roughly three things this week, to have that deadline imposed where you’ve told someone, I find you often get that thing done because you feel this need to achieve that goal before you move on to the next ones.

Michelle: Oh, yeah, absolutely. And that’s the great thing about goal setting systems; you can kind of adopt good things that you learn from other people along the way. That’s totally what I do is, I hear a good idea and I’ll try to incorporate it. Sometimes I don’t keep it because it doesn’t work well for me. But sometimes it’s great and just amplifies the results.

Tom: I’ve mentioned a few times on this podcast, it took me a while to get used to Asana, which was the program we’ve been using. Now, we’re using one called, Freed Camp just because I got a better deal on it. But with Asana it took me probably three tries to really get into it, to fully adopt the system because if you’re not using it, it kind of becomes a distraction instead of something that actually helps you. If we could hop back for a second, one thing you mentioned I wanted to ask more about was you mentioned a planner. Are we talking about an actual paper planner?

Michelle: Like an old school paper planner, yes.

Tom: How do you find that works for you because I don’t write a lot down? I’m very computer-based. Similar to talking to a partner, I hear writing things down kind of makes them a little more real. There’s some strange thing there about writing it down on paper.

Michelle: For me, absolutely. It’s kind of a mental thing it does for me. Writing it down and checking off that thing that’s accomplished with a silly little checkmark does a lot for me. It gives me a sense of completion, achievement. The planner I use is called, Tools for Wisdom. I think it’s about $35 on Amazon. I love it because it facilitates writing down annual, monthly and daily goals. So for each day in my planner I have the six most important things I want to accomplish for that day. Two of those slots I always dedicate to whatever my big goal is that I’m working on professionally or personally at the time. Next year when I do the novel, assuming that it makes the cut next year, I would write around 665 words per day. That would be on my six most important things list. When I got to it I would check it off. And if it rolls over into the next day, I’d write down what I accomplished and then the next day shoot for more and still be able to check off both goals so I make sure I’m on track for the week.

Tom: You mentioned a few times the idea of what’s for next year. Are we talking year’s resolutions? Are you big on that? Or is it that’s where you’ve kind of set your goals?

Michelle: That happens to be where I set my goals. I feel like January is a natural time for me to plan out what I want to accomplish in the next 12 months. But I’ll do mid-year goals. And sometimes my goals are shorter term. When I switched from part time to full time freelance writing, I did that in four or five months. So that wasn’t a full year goal. Then I adjusted into earning goals—how much I wanted to earn freelance writing for the rest of the year. And now I still shoot for an earning amount but it’s not one of my yearly goals that I track. It’s so automatic. I still track it every day to make sure I’m doing it. But it doesn’t take a lot of energy for me to continue reaching those goals because I’ve kind of gotten used to it. So now I can stretch and add another professional goal on top of that as well.

Tom: On the other side of personal finance, do you ever find you’re setting goals where you’re going to stop spending on something or reducing on things? Are you setting goals in that way at all?

Michelle: Yes. We’ll do an eating out challenge. That’s our area where we don’t like to sink too much money into. So we’ll set goals for the month that we’re only going to eat out X number of times. They’re not usually monetary goals but by reducing the frequency we save more and we can use that to accomplish paying down a certain debt. And there are still a few of those we’re chipping away at as well as certain savings bonds we’re building up toward. But absolutely, the system can work well for personal finance goals.

Tom: You said with not eating out it’s not necessarily a finance goal. But obviously, there’s that benefit. Do you do budgeting and would you consider that a goal? Are there goals within it or is that a separate thing?

Michelle: I do budgeting separately, but I do set goals within the budget. I like to set things that are really trackable on a monthly or weekly basis so that’s why I would personally choose something like only eating out twice a week at a maximum for the next four weeks. For us, that’s a lot less frequently than we have been. It might be that we’re going to pay down X amount of debt over the next quarter. And that I can also track and I’ll break it down by three months and then write down little steps to do that. Are we going to increase income to reach that goal? Are we going to cut spending in other areas? I like to track those really specific small things, whatever those steps are. That way, in the end they add up to help reach whatever that goal is.

Tom: Now, our mutual friend Miranda Marquardt, she’s a big fan of spending to help her earn more income. When you’re talking about cutting out restaurants, I don’t want to put words in her mouth, but I think she’d probably say, “I don’t want to, but I’m going to.” I think she’d probably say that she’s actually fine with those kinds of expenses because it allows her to make more money. Have you considered that? I don’t know your particular situation, but is there a certain amount of time for preparing a meal that would actually hurt your chances of earning income? Or is that kind of a separate time anyway? Maybe you’re done working at a certain point in the day and it would be irrelevant?

Michelle: Typically, I try to be done by the time my kids are done with their homework. I try to finish wrapping up my work by the time they need help with their homework. That doesn’t really cut into income earning time. But absolutely, I see the value in what she’s saying because I do pay extra for grocery delivery and things that could be considered as luxuries that I could cut from my budget and do without. But I’m not going to because my time slot is worth more than that hour and a half drive into the grocery store, picking everything out and bringing it home.

Tom: I haven’t tried grocery delivery. We seem a bit behind in Canada. It’s just a population thing. It exists, but it’s a lot less common. You can’t get groceries delivered by Amazon at all except in major cities. Most of the groceries do have some sort of delivery option and I’m a big fan of that but I haven’t used it yet. I want it to exist though. I want everything to come from heaven just be able to have that happen.

Michelle: Absolutely. I agree.

Tom: There is only so much time in a day where, yes, it would be nice to save some money. And I hate extra expenses.

Michelle: Sometimes they’re worth it.

Tom: I like that you have a clear break there anyways. There’s work time and mom time. You can take care of the kids and make a meal and all that. Is there anything else I’m missing here with how you set up goals? Is there anything else that needs to be said?

Michelle: I’d say two of the biggest keys, I think, to success when I use these goal setting techniques; one, it has to be trackable. Whatever that action step you’re going to take on a daily basis is, I think that has to be very trackable. And number two, it needs to be visual. My planner is a big part of that. I see what I’m going to accomplish. I write down what I want to do for that day but I also have a vision board for the year that I have on my screensaver or I have one printed out on corkboard beside my desk. So I’m a big believer in that just because, psychologically, I think it helps you to stay focused and picture that finish line, because there are some days where you will get tired of doing these little, tiny, baby steps. But if you see that visual reminder sometimes—for me anyway, it gives me that kick in the pants I need to bite the bullet and finish what I have to for that day so tomorrow won’t be so bad. But anything gets tedious that you repeat over and over and over again.

Tom: That over and over again part, though, is what gets you to the end. Like your book example. If you’re doing 650 words a day, that’s tedious, but it’s a lot better than saying you’re going to write 7,000 words in a certain time frame. Breaking it down into those little bits seems to go a long way.

Michelle: Yeah, I think so. Tracking works well—for my brain, anyways.

Tom: You mentioned your planner. When we’re talking about systems working well for people, there’s a planner in every kind of format. If someone starts looking around on Amazon, you’ll find a planner that works for you. Some are daily, some are weekly. Everything we’ve talked about, there’s probably a planner that meets a different kind of goal. I wish I remembered the one I was looking at. There was one that was a 13 week planner where you’re doing a quarter at a time. It was basically how I handled my weeks. Like I mentioned with my Monday morning calls it said what I was going to do this week and listed that out. With bigger goals down the road, you could list that out. Every week kind of gets chunked out that way. I don’t know what it’s called, but hopefully I’ll find it and add it to the show notes.

Michelle: You’re right. There are a ton of planners and a ton of digital options too. You just have to pick what works best for you.

Tom: Thanks for going through all your process for making these goals a little more attainable. Can you let people know where they can find you?

Michelle: Yes. My website is I’m also on Twitter @Michellelblack.

Tom: Great. Thanks for being on the show.

Michelle: Thank you very much, Tom.

Thanks, Michelle, for your tips on breaking down your goals and actionable steps. You can find the show notes for this episode at my I’d like to take a moment to thank you for listening to the Maple Money Show. I appreciate your support in helping us continue to grow. If you have Apple podcast app on your phone, can you pull up money and give it a quick rating? Even better, leave a review and let everyone know what you think of the show and I’ll see you back here next week.