Man on top of mountain. Conceptual design.

10 Ways to Be a Better Learner: No. 5 – Set and Manage Goals

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:

  • We set too many goals. I recently highlighted a video from FranklinCovey that stresses the importance of having no more than three “wildly important” goals at any one time. Beyond that number, the chances of achieving goals starts to decline rapidly.
  • We don’t state clear objectives to support our goals. Objectives are the smaller, concrete achievements that lead to realizing our goals over time. If you want to learn Spanish, for example, you will most likely need to set clear objectives around mastering verb forms, memorizing vocabulary, and engaging in conversational practice.
  • We don’t set – or track – clear metrics. Objectives are so important because they tend to be much more clearly measurable than goals. But we often don’t set measurements for ourselves or test ourselves on them if we do.  Can you pronounce and define that list of vocabulary? Did you spend 30 minutes in conversational practice this week?
  • We don’t set clear deadlines. Some goals can be wrapped up neatly – and for these we should clearly state “when.” Others  – as noted below – may never be fully achieved, but it should always be possible to put a timeline on the objectives that support a goal.

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:

See also:

2 thoughts on “10 Ways to Be a Better Learner: No. 5 – Set and Manage Goals”

  1. Yes, I think not setting too many goals and setting clear, measurable objectives for the goals you do set are the most obvious and yet most powerful aspects of pursuing goals. Perhaps because they are so obvious, we tend to not place the importance on them that we should.

    Send a poem into Mission to Learn. I’m sure we’ll publish it 😉


  2. The reminder to break goals down into objectives is one I needed to hear. I’ve had a soft goal of getting myself better known as a poet for a while now. With this post in mind, I’m going to set a publishing-in-journals objective and figure out the right metric for measuring that (number of acceptances probably–although it would be easier to go with number of submissions since I can control that!).

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