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07 January 2016

Self Education: How To Make Achievable Goals

 A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away, I worked professionally with this brilliant behavioral psychologist named Dr. Sara, and she taught me some things about setting goals that have really been a blessing to me, so I thought I'd share them with you. Here's the secret to a good, achievable goal: 
A really good goal is concrete and measurable, both in terms of amount accomplished, and time to accomplish it in.

"Come unto Christ" is lousy, as a goal or New Year's Resolution, because it's vague, and you can't tell if or how much you did it. Much better to format it into several specific goals, like this: 

In 2016, I will come unto Christ by:

1. Getting a job where I do not work on the Sabbath. 

2. By reading the Book of Mormon cover to cover. 

3. I will learn to worry less by studying peace in the New Testament, and then writing 5 blog posts/journal entries about it.

In that way, you have specific, concrete and measurable goals that are bounded by a deadline - "in 2016". I've seen things like the phrases "Come Unto Christ" or "worry less"  suggested as goals, but these are inspiration for goals. It sets folks up for failure when they resolve to "worry less" as a goal. How do you even know if you're doing that in an afternoon, much less a year??

So, the next thing that Dr. Sara taught me about goals is that you need data. Preferably, including data from before you start, but I find that for New Year's Resolutions I can skip that step. It can be a really important step, though, and she showed me that using one of our residents as a case-in-point. I'll call him Bob. Bob was autistic and non-verbal. He didn't seem to understand much of what when on around him, and we had very little idea what was going on in his head; he just couldn't communicate much with us. Bob was a spitter. Dr. Sara had us track his spitting, and he was spitting on staff over 100 times in a day, often in staff's faces. It was gross. Bob was always in trouble. Some of the staff kept their perspective, but others really didn't like him; nobody likes to be spit on. So we counted his spit. Then we started a new behavioral plan for him. A week later, staff were complaining that it wasn't working, and wanted to change it, and Dr. Sara brought out the data. The spitting incidents had fallen from over 100 per day to around 50 a day -- at 50% reduction! That's huge progress, in a very short time, but because spitting is such an unacceptable behavior the perception was that there was no progress at all. If we hadn't had data, we might have abandoned a very successful intervention, thinking that it was an utter failure. Instead, we kept at it, and in a few more weeks he hardly ever spit. Bob's life and staff lives improved in meaningful ways. Data was at the heart of that success.

So good goals not only need to be written in a measurable way, they need to be measured as you're going on. For instance. I am working on learning Japanese and Welsh. Learning a language is a huge, overwhelming project. (Yes, I know. Two at once is crazy. What can I say? I can't choose between them.) But when you start looking for ways to make it measurable, then it gets better. I've tried a couple of different ways of measuring (I've been setting goals for Japanese for a number of years now), and my favorite is measure the podcast lessons. I use Japanese Pod 101 which has many short lessons, and a very reasonable subscription cost. One of my goals is to listen to 4 of them a week. It doesn't matter which ones - new ones, old ones, the same one four times: I just want to listen to four of them in a week. I know from experience that doing this moves my study forward at a pace I am happy with. If I do 4 in a week, in 52 weeks, that's 208 lessons listened. I know that I miss some, so I just round that down to 200 lessons in the year, which becomes my goal. Then, I write out the numbers 1-200 on my chart where I track things, and each time I listen, I cross it off. If I haven't finished by the end of the month, I'll just skip to February's numbers - see the little F where it changes color? - and start crossing out numbers there. I like how that feels when I look at the chart, late in the year, better than bunching them all up. But it doesn't really matter; the important thing is to set a goal and then track your progress.

I have several goals relating to Japanese. One is to attempt to read the Teaching of the Prophets lesson before it's taught in Relief Society. Doing the whole lesson is too hard; I usually only read two or three sentences. But when I have a go it stretches my ability to read those words, and even with only doing a couple of sentences in any one sitting, over time I can tell that it's getting more possible: I do 2-3 sentences now, rather than struggling to make it through one. Steady progress is what I'm after; Baby Steps. The flashcard goal is a new one this year, and I'm pretty excited about it. I have a cool flashcard app called Sticky Study that lets me make flashcards for not only words, but whole sentences. When I can understand and pronounce whatever is in the question, then I pass it. As I'm (attempting) reading stuff, I take the sentences that are hard, or the ones that I want to remember, and I put them in my flashcards. Then I learn the whole sentence, the way that a native speaker said it. It's awesome. So much good is coming from this. (You can read about this method here and here and here.) But to keep it going, I need more sentences to make more flashcards. That's measurable! So I want to make 1000 flashcards this year. Every 100, I get to mark a little thing off. Awesome. And those sorts of things make language learning very measurable. And (I can say this from experience), if you do those little measurable things, then there will be progress. You don't have to do Some Big Thing. Little stuff, consistently, will do the trick. Pick stuff that interests you, and try to do it in your foreign language. If you can't do a whole article about watercolors, then do the first sentence. Or the first three words. But come back tomorrow and do the  next bit. Pretty soon, you'll have some meaningful progress. Baby Steps are amazing.

Other areas can be done like this, too. Last year, I set a goal to do blog posts on the first 40 Psalms. I made it through 8 - obviously not a success. Except that when I looked at it, I realized that I'd done 20 blog posts about the Psalms -- not a failure, either! That's the other cool thing about measurable goals. I actually seldom hit the full goal that I set for myself. I tend to set big ones. I'd rather be ambitious: I'll certainly make progress, and if I should manage to make the full goal, then I'll make big progress. I like that. And I can live with the empty spaces that I know will happen on my chart-- there'll be enough there to show me that I did, in fact, make some meaningful progress towards fluency, towards watercolor competency, towards all the different areas that I track. Because I keep data, I will be able to see, in a real and measurable way, how I am better than I was a year ago. And you can keep a lot of data on a single sheet of paper! Check this out - it'll keep me busy all year:

So, make some goals! Cross off some numbers! Find a method that works for you -- and if you blog about it, or post it on Instagram or whatever, drop by and leave a link. I'd love to come cheer for you!


Rozy Lass said...

Thanks for sharing this. I've known about S.M.A.R.T. goals for a few years (and wish I'd know about it from the beginning of my life! (specific, measurable, attainable, realistic, timely) Your input sure helps figuring some things out. I've set one major goal for this year, but I can see that I could possibly add a couple more that I can work on. Keep up the good work!!

Ritsumei said...

Wonderful! I'm so glad to be helpful! Good luck in your goals this year!!


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