Don’t let your goals get in the way of meeting your goals.
At my last few jobs, my employers have emphasized the importance of “S.M.A.R.T.” goals–that is, goals that are Specific, Measurable, Assignable, Realistic, and Time-bound.
There’s nothing wrong with S.M.A.R.T. goals. I set them often, both at work and in my language learning.
But S.M.A.R.T. goals have a time and place. They’re not always appropriate. For instance, you wouldn’t use them to track a romantic relationship: “Goal: Take girlfriend out to T.G.I. Friday’s for date night 8 times by the end of the fiscal year.”
Kind of takes away the magic and mystique, right? Well, it’s no different for language learning.On my blog, I regularly take on language projects. Sometimes those are guided by S.M.A.R.T. goals. But sometimes I set really vague success criteria, as in the case of my news project, in which my goals are to “improve” and to “get more comfortable with the news.”
Why am I occasionally so wishy washy?
- Language learning is fun for me, and if I put stringent expectations on myself all the time, I’ll suck the joy out of it.
- Putting pressure on yourself can get results, but putting pressure on yourself all the time can make you miserable.
- Sometimes I just want to focus on what I’m doing at the moment and not worry about the desired end result.
- A few goals–such as “feel more comfortable” or “be more confident”–are valid and important, but not very easy to measure and track.
- If you have a specific goal and tailor your efforts only to that goal, the consequence is that you don’t give yourself any space to explore.
Let’s talk about point #5 a little more. Language is broad and immense. There are so many areas you can dive into and things you can try. If you always have very specific goals, such as “learn 200 vocab words in 3 weeks” or “read four books by the end of the month,” you’re always working toward those goals and nothing else. You’ll study vocab or read books, and that’s it.
Admittedly, that’s kind of the point with S.M.A.R.T. goals. They take away distractions and make you focus on what’s important. But I think if we’re always focused on the destination, then we’re less creative in the journey; we close our eyes to opportunities in front of us. An example of what I’m talking about: In my current project, I identified early on that I was having trouble with some basic grammar and usage points, so I bought a textbook to help dial in the ABCs. So far, studying out of that book has been really helpful and surprisingly fun. If I had set more stringent goals for my projects–number of vocab words, minutes of news listened to, articles read, etc.–then I wouldn’t have let myself try something I hadn’t planned on and would’ve missed out on something useful.
What I’m saying is, occasionally put away the calendar and the calculator and try some goals that are D.U.M.B.:
- Disorganized – Require little to no planning or coordination.
- Unrealistic – Ambitious, wild, and exciting.
- Meandering – Allowing or even encouraging you to stray from the path.
- Borderless – Fuzzy, ambiguous, and inexact.
Basically, the idea is to give yourself just enough of an objective–long-term or short-term–so that you have an idea of what to do, but don’t go nuts with the details. A good example would be, “I want to read my foreign language every day.” There’s very little that’s specific or measurable about this goal, and there’s no end date. But everyone knows that if you sat down and read something–anything–in your new language every day, you’d make progress. And since your rules are so vague, you’d gravitate toward stuff you like, such as comic books or pop culture blogs or cook books. And the more you read, the more stuff you’d discover that catches your interest.
People who say, “I want to read my foreign language every day” and carry through would probably make comparable progress with someone with more specific goals, and enjoy themselves more in the process.
Other examples of D.U.M.B. goals:
- I want to understand more when I listen.
- I want to get a little more comfortable with speaking.
- I want to read with greater ease.
- I want to be fully bilingual (or trilingual or multilingual).
- I want to do things like set up my Internet service in a foreign country confidently.
- I want to write a novel in my new language.
- I want to maintain what I’ve learned this year.
Let me say again: Do not give up on S.M.A.R.T. goals altogether. They have their place, and they can be very effective for your progress. But use D.U.M.B. goals for times when your motivation needs a kick in the pants, or when you’re feeling a little burned out, or when you have too much going on in your life to devote to a rigid schedule.
For instance, if you’ve been on a strict S.M.A.R.T. program for six weeks, take three to six weeks off and work on some D.U.M.B. goals. Use the time to recharge and explore and just get some of your mojo back.
Not only will your language learning be more pleasant, but you might even discover an area you want to work on. And then your next S.M.A.R.T. goal program can really take off.