Wednesday, August 3, 2016

Goals advice

Through my teaching and just through living life I've collected various bits of wisdom that I've found to be helpful in making progress on goals.  They sort of coalesced into my head this morning, so I thought I'd share them in hopes that some of you will find them useful or have thoughts to add.

1) Track your progress.  Find a way to make your efforts and the outcomes of your efforts easy to see.

If you want to lose weight, for example, track your calories.  Merely being aware of how many calories are in that Starbucks frappe helps you form new intuitions that make your judgments more sensitive to calorie content.

Don't get bogged down in making your tracking system too intricate or even super precise.  Make your tracking system easy enough to do so that you actually get into the habit of doing it.

This is one thing I like about the math exercises on Khan Academy.  The tracking there is built in, and I try to make a habit with my students of regularly checking on how much time they are spending on math each day.

Just being aware of your progress (or lack thereof) can make a big difference.

2) Show off your results.

Find someone who will let you check in with them and show them whatever results or outcomes you're tracking.  They don't have to give feedback or advice, they just have to pay attention when you show them your progress.  Knowing that you're going to show your progress to someone else can be a big motivator, and having someone witness the results of your hard effort can be very gratifying and encourage more effort as you go forward.

3) Set baseline goals.

Make your baseline goals so easy that you can't make any reasonable excuses for failing to meet them.  I call these "no excuses goals".  If you find these baby-steps goals uninspiring, you can combine a set of baseline goals with a set of high goals.

Say I'd like to complete an online class in a certain amount of time, but I'm not in the habit of studying as much as that timeline would require.  I could set a high goal that would keep me on track, but it's essential to also have a "no excuses goal" to go with it.  "Spend at least 15 minutes", or "Complete at least 3 problems".  These goals should be small enough so that pretty much whenever you remember to do them you will be able to spare the time and energy (even if it's already past your bedtime).

I've been learning Norwegian and when I started off my baseline goal was something like two minutes a day.  Now I've been able to increase that and I regularly do more like 10 or 15 minutes a day.  Now that I have the habit I would easily be able to increase that further and speed up my progress significantly.

The important thing is that even when you don't meet your high goals you ensure that you are still making at least some progress.

4) Form habits.  As much as your schedule and lifestyle allow, work on your goals at the same time every day.

One difficulty in sticking to goals is that you have to continually make the right decision to make your goals reality.  Without a habit in place you have to make the active decision to practice piano each time.  Once a habit is there the active decision becomes skipping practice.  Not practicing is no longer the default decision.

Habits mean that you can "decide" to do something without thinking about it, which has the added bonus of freeing up your attention for other things.

It takes about three weeks to form a habit, so you have to be especially rigid in your routine for those first three weeks.

5) Foster a growth mindset.  I put this last, but this might be the most important thing I've learned from my teaching so far.

There are two ways to conceive of one's own abilities and intellect.  Sometimes we think of ourselves as malleable, always growing, with potential for improvement that is proportional to the effort we put in.  That's a growth mindset.  Other times we think of ourselves as having inherent abilities or intelligence.  That's a static mindset.  Most of us fluctuate between these two depending on our mood or the current context.

This is an area where the language we use can make a big difference in how we think, feel, and behave.  Avoid static model language like "smart", "stupid", "talented", "untalented", "I'm bad at this", "I'm good at this".  Instead use growth mindset language like "I'm getting better at this", "I bet you've worked a lot on this", "I could use a lot more practice at this", "I'm happy with my effort so far". Praise people for effort rather than outcomes, and ask the people in your life to do the same for you.

So there you have it.  What bits of wisdom have you collected?

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