How I Approach Goals
As part of my effort to get back into my own writing projects, I’m exploring a few potential ways of documenting things in the spirit of old-school, journal-style blogging.
To begin, I’ve decided to experiment with posting the goals I set myself each month, updating the post as I make progress, then adding a review at the end of the month. While writing up September’s goals, I started explaining how I set them, then realised it made more sense as a separate post.
So, here’s an attempt to condense and define how I approach goals. This post falls into the category of ‘things I’ve written for my own reference but which might be useful if you’re a reasonably similar person.’
I tend to only set specific goals on a month to month timeline, as this enables me to regularly reassess what I’d like to focus on and explore new areas.
When I tried longer timelines in the past, I found that goals became uninteresting or irrelevant after a while. Or I forgot about them.
A clear finish line is motivating and it’s easier to gauge what’s possible in a month or how your life might change than, for example, in a year.
At the same time, I mostly choose goals that feed into a long term, hard to quantify aim — while also having intrinsic benefits and value even if I end up abandoning the long term aim.
For example, I would like to be competent enough at speaking, reading, and writing German to navigate daily life without needing to ask people to switch to English, or relying on friends for help. That’s not a very good goal to set though. It’s impossible to measure. It treats language competency as a threshold, rather than a continual process. It would take years and might never happen. So I break language learning down into small goals, like reaching 1500 learned vocabulary words on Lingvist this month. Even if I later give up altogether on learning German, this won’t feel like a waste of time.
Sometimes I just want to try something new for a bit. Other times, I want to make a big initial push to ingrain a habit or to refresh an old one. A month seems about the right length of time for that.
Breaking nebulous aims into small chunks creates momentum. You get to make continual, visible progress. It’s easy to gauge if you’re on track with short term goals and to make quick adjustments to how you approach them if not. Small chunks are less intimidating to work on.
That said, I avoid aiming to do something every day in a given month because it’s unrealistic. Break the chain and you’ve failed for the whole month.
One of the hard parts about leaving formal education is time becoming one undifferentiated mass, lacking the rhythms of the academic year. When I manage to sustain it, working on different goals each month gives life some kind of cadence.
Measurable goals are best because you can’t fool yourself. Whether you complete them or not is a binary question.
On occasion, I find that a particular goal is better suited to being a subjective intention rather than a numerical target. Mostly, numbers are a good idea even if they’re arbitrary.
For most people, input goals seem to work better than output goals because outputs often depend on uncontrollable factors. In theory, deciding to study German for 30-minutes per day would work better than deciding to learn a certain number of words.
After experimenting with both, I’ve found that this isn’t the case for me. Input goals make it too easy for me to feel like I’m getting somewhere without actually doing the thing that matters. If I just decide to study for certain amounts of time, for example, it becomes easy to do it at a time when I’m too tired to absorb anything.
The goal of goals
The main way my approach differs from the norm is that I don’t think completing goals is the most important part. What matters more is that they narrow down my focus, provide useful information, and that I try not to end the month with nothing.
My guess is that one of the main benefits of setting goals is that they keep you from getting distracted by new things you don’t really care about. (A full post about this is in the works.)