Set D.U.M.B. Goals – Motivation March – Part 3

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.

"It's been a great day, but unfortunately I have to bring up your TPS reports." By Norayr (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

“It’s been a great day, but unfortunately I have to bring up your TPS reports.”
By Norayr [CC BY-SA 3.0], Image Source

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?

Five reasons:

  1. 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.
  2. Putting pressure on yourself can get results, but putting pressure on yourself all the time can make you miserable.
  3. Sometimes I just want to focus on what I’m doing at the moment and not worry about the desired end result.
  4. A few goals–such as “feel more comfortable” or “be more confident”–are valid and important, but not very easy to measure and track.
  5. 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.

  • Shiva

    You are doing a great job on this blog. Keep up the good work. I am a fellow Duolingoler. What language are you learning?

    • Ron G.

      Thank you for the kind words! I’m learning German. Taking a break from Duolingo to try some other strategies, but I come back pretty regular to update my skill tree. How about you?

  • Jorge Sivit

    Nice that you mention D.U.M.B. (I love it!) goals!

    I also think both types of goals have their place.

    Personally, during productive times, I may substitute S.M.A.R.T. goals with any D.U.M.B. goal I come up with, since Iโ€™m going to make progress anyway.

    When I notice I start procrastinating too much, itโ€™s time to get the S.M.A.R.T. goals back to put me on track again. But they must be smart enough to guide me without adding pressure.

    • Ron G.

      Bingo. I’m like you. With putting pressure on myself, I always balance intensity of pressure with duration. I can sprint 100 yards, but I can’t sprint a marathon. (For the sake of my health, I should probably consider throwing in some literal 100-yard sprints now and then.)

  • Roman Shinkarenko

    My SMAR goal is to make a comment on each Motivation March post. So far I’m doing good.

    • Ron G.

      LOL…awesome. Your D.U.M.B. goal is to be the best Motivation March commenter of all time! …hmm…haha

      • Roman Shinkarenko

        BTW, thumbs up for Armenia!

  • Lindsay Dow

    I like this! I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the joy of “softer” (or as I now know, DUMB!) goals. My Japanese lately has been left behind and I don’t mind too much because I know that stressing about it will just make me sad because there is literally no time to do enough Japanese right now to achieve a SMART goal, so why stress it? I’m doing all I can, I’m enjoying Japanese, I know that I’ll progress at a slower rate but other things (like academic Spanish) are having to take priority. When that’s done, I’ll be pumped to get back on the Japanese horse again! Hakuna matata! ๐Ÿ˜‰

    • Ron G.

      Yup, exactly. You’re still going to make *some* progress by getting in Japanese when you can, so when you’re ready to attack it later, you’ll take off running. You have the right attitude–there’s no reason to beat yourself up over this language thing.

  • Chiara Grandola

    Interesting perspective, Ron. Thanks for pointing it out!

    I obsess waaay too much over S.M.A.R.T. goals and I feel sooo guilty when I’m not able to accomplish them.

    “Donโ€™t let your goals get in the way of meeting your goals” is my new motto! :-)

    As a side note, I always learn new idioms when I talk to you or read your blog. “Wishy washy” is the one I learned today! ๐Ÿ˜€