How to Set Goals

In All, Blog by Robert PoolLeave a Comment

In a recent e-mail to me and Anders, Marina E. asked about the most efficient way to write down your goals. I thought it was a good question, and so I’m repeating here what we told her.

Anders’ answer was short and to the point: “Seek a teacher who has successfully helped other individuals with similar background skills achieve the general goals that you have in mind. That teacher would be able to prioritize and specify goals and associated practice methods.

“If that is not possible, seek out someone who has attained your general goals and interview that person or persons about how they did it.

“If neither of those options are available I would argue that the key is to identify a specific goal where attainment of the goal can be objectively measured so you can chart your progress. Trying to achieve more than a couple of goals might be counterproductive.”

My answer was a bit longer and more general:

“Anders’ answer is exactly right, so instead of expanding on his answer, let me offer a metaphor that may help you think about how to set goals. Imagine that you want to climb to the top of a high mountain peak. That is your ultimate goal, but it will take months or years of training, and the goal of ‘reaching the peak’ does not really help you with the short-term issue of what sorts of training you need to undertake in order to reach that goal. So, first lesson: a ‘big’ long-term goal (reach the peak of the mountain, run a 6-minute mile, learn to paint a realistic portrait, etc.) is fine to help you know where you want to end up, but setting that goal is only the first step. Now you need to figure out how to reach that goal, and that involves setting short-term and intermediate goals.

“To continue with the mountain climbing analogy, you will need to map out a path to the top and then figure out what you will need to learn how to do in order to be able to make that climb. Each segment of the climb will require that you develop certain skills to complete that segment, so you need to have a good idea of the set of skills you need to develop that will enable you to reach your long-term goal. Then for each of those skills, you will need to set out a training regimen to develop them, and you will generally break those skills down into manageable pieces, with a number of goals set along the way.

“So that is the big picture: You will generally have a large overall goal, from which you map out a path that will require various accomplishments along the way (intermediate goals), and to develop each of those pieces you will break them into manageable chunks, which are your short-term goals. Because it is really difficult for someone with no experience in a field to know what it will take to reach a long-term goal, it is best to engage the services of a teacher who knows what it takes to reach that goal and what the best training techniques are at each step. You can do it yourself, but it will inevitably then be done through trial and error, and you will end up making a lot of mistakes in your training and sometimes having to go back and do something differently. (Back to the metaphor: You might think the best path up that mountain is one way, but once you’ve gotten halfway up, you realize you can’t go any higher, so you have to go down and look for a different path up. Long-term training for anything works the same way.)

“Just remember that the development of any skill is an additive process, where you are constantly building on what you have already accomplished. Once you have reached one goal or perfected one skill, you move on to the next, constantly challenging yourself to get better. So in the simplest sense your goal each day or each week should be to move just a little further down the path to your ultimate goal, whatever that is. Dream big, and keep pushing yourself.”

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