Note: This post has been updated and incorporated into 10 Ways to Be a Better Learner – an essential read for the serious lifelong learner.
No rocket science here, folks. No snake oil. Just good ol’ common sense that, unfortunately, often fails the rigors of execution. So it goes with goals. As I have suggested before, if you really want to learn something, you need to set clear goals.
More often than not, we have only a vague notion in our minds of what we want to learn. And even if we seem to state it clearly – e.g. “I want to learn Spanish,” or “I want to understand classical music” – we don’t tend to break our larger learning desires down into manageable chunks. Time passes – years, too often – and somehow we have not achieved what we had hoped we might.
In my experience, there are three key reasons why we fail to achieve learning goals:
1. A lack of rigor in setting goals
This takes four major forms:
2. A lack of conscious commitment to goals
Stating a goal is one thing; truly committing to it can be quite another. Being rigorous and clear with your goals can help with establishing a true sense of commitment because it gives you a more realistic perspective on what achievement of a goal will actually require. As Jeremy Dean suggests over on PsyBlog, we’ve been conditioned by a great deal of self-help literature to believe that positive visualization or fantasizing about success is one key to making achievement of our goals a reality. Research suggests, however, that we more authentically commit to a goal if we can clearly see the contrast between a positive future and our current reality and then consciously embrace the work that it will take to move from the present to the future.
3. A tendency to treat a goal as a fixed outcome rather than a process
By their nature, goals tend to take time, and many goals defy completion in any definite sense. If your goal, for example, is to be a great leader, when are you done? Even with more concrete goals, however, we tend to forget that the goal is as much about the journey as the destination. This is yet another reason why objectives and measures are so important. It’s all too easy to lose motivation if the top of the mountain is nowhere in site, but by plotting out reachable points along our path we maintain a sense of progress. This is also an aspect of goals in which reflection is important. The process of reflection makes it clear how much we learn along the way, even if achievement of the overall goal is far in the distance.
In my experience, if you address these three areas, you can’t help but become a more effective learner. What’s you experience? Please comment and share. Also, I encourage you to check out the other posts in this series:
I am an avid lifelong learner who writes and speaks frequently on the critical role of learning in our fast-changing world.