Saturday, January 7, 2012

Goals: Part 1

Normally at this time of year I take some time to look at the goals I've set out for myself over the past few months. I make adjustments to them, add new goals and, in general, make decisions about what projects I want to undertake and what new paths I want to explore. I'm a little bit behind schedule, what with the events of last week and all, but this presents me with an opportunity to share something I talk about in my classes fairly often, but less so outside of school.

With my students, I spend a lot of time on the topics of setting goals. Very often, it's within the context of doing things like building habits of daily practice and making good choices about time management, but in general I try to impart the value of actively engaging in the process of goal setting while modeling effective ways for people to think about where they are and where they want to be. Over the next few posts, I thought I might do some thinking about this out loud for you. Apart from the entertainment value of reading someone's internal dialog, perhaps seeing the process unfold will be helpful for you if you've ever had trouble seeing your goals realized.

My students are often confused when I talk about the process of setting goals. Many think of it as simple decision making. They think that if they say, "I'm going to be a lawyer," or, "I'm going to get my homework caught up," that this should equate to making it happen. Most of us as grownups know well from experience that this is not the case, but when you don't have that experience it's sort of looks like a magic trick.

"Watch me pull a goal out of my hat!" *TADA*

It's reasonable for them to think that way, especially if the only parts of the process that they actually see are the parts where someone says what the goal is and (if it ever happens) the goal itself. That's what most of us see, and it explains to a large degree why we view goal setting as something designed to produce an end product. It also explains why when we talk about goals, we do so with linear terms like "climb a mountain" or "reach your goals".

Most of us have come to accept that we will very often experience failure when we set goals. We've had to contend with frustration time and time again when we didn't realize what we set out to achieve. We approach the task of setting goals with a healthy dose of cynicism, or we simply quit doing it because we know we'll never be successful at it. We look at people who experience success and think there must be some sort of magic in it, some sort of quality that they possess which we do not.

I would submit that this is not the case. I would further submit that much of the problem lies not with our abilities, but with the way in which we view the task. In looking at goals only as things to be accomplished, we're missing the greatest part of their potential. Sort of like seeing your 4G iPhone as just something to use to make calls to your grandma. It'll do that, sure, but that's not what it's really there for.

Let me propose a thought: What if we consider the act of goal setting as a cyclical process instead of a road to be followed? What if, when we set a goal, we see the goal not as a finished product, but as a moment, an experience that, by its very existence creates another cycle, more goals, more choices?

I developed a way of thinking a few years ago called the Learning Spiral. It looks like this:

The text you see associated with it is has to do with learning, not goal setting, but the underlying idea is the same for both: 

Think of a cyclical process instead of a product to be created.

I put this out there because this paradigm is fundamental to how I approach my thinking this time of year. I think about the spiral to see where I am on it relative to my goals, and I make decisions about how to move forward based on where I am. It takes a little while because I may be at different places on the spiral depending upon which goal I'm thinking about. It's hard for me to explain it without taking a long time to do it so, over the next little while, I'll try to show you what it looks like with a couple of different examples.

If you'd like to follow along with an example of your own, I'll ask you to think about one goal that you'd like to realize. It doesn't matter what it is. It could be a big thing, like deciding on a career. It could be a small thing, like finding a place to put your keys so you don't lose them every day. Whatever you choose, write it down so you can look at it from time to time. You don't have to commit to it right now; commitment comes from an understanding of all that's required to realize it, and you might not have that yet. For now, it's enough that you've made a choice. If I do this right (and understand, please, that I'm not working from a script or a book here), you'll be able to follow my process with your example and end up in the same place. That's the plan, anyway.

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