Remaining focussed

Sticking to our goals is often an arduous task and there are many points along the way when we might want to give up. Even when every factor has been addressed there will still be times when motivation drops and procrastination and self-handicapping strategies come into play (see Chapter 7). When my son was seven years old he asked me if he could have guitar lessons. He began reasonably well but soon I was struggling to get him to practise for even ten minutes each day as his enthusiasm waned and every evening we engaged in a battle of wills. He (we) persevered but by the time he graduated to secondary school we both realised that things weren't going as planned. It would be a couple of years before he picked up the guitar again, but when he did, the enthusiasm had increased tenfold and, more importantly, was maintained. Now in his late teens, he has become a confident and competent guitarist. We all have our own examples of when we or people we know have abandoned a task only to engage in it later with renewed determination. Goal setting can help to address these dips in motivation.

In order to succeed with our goals, we need to practise with focus and effort. Simply insisting that my son practised each day wasn't leading towards the desired outcome so we need to take into account the quality of practice and not just the quantity. This means that the so-called 10,000 hours rule popularised by Malcolm Gladwell in his book Outliers (Gladwell, 2008) remains highly erroneous in its interpretation of the work of Anders Ericsson (on which the 10,000 hours rule was based) and described in his 2017 book Peak. When engaging in deliberate practice we must ensure that we don't mistake quantity for quality. Sustained deliberate practice also requires high levels of self-regulation, which can be nurtured through some of the strategies previously discussed in this chapter.

In action

Successful goal-setters share a set of common strategies that make goal completion more likely and less arduous.

Aim high

But ensure that the goal has a reasonable chance of success. Setting high (or hard) goals leads to increased motivation because they require us to attain more in order to be satisfied. Our feelings of success occur when we see that we are able to grow and meet the challenges by pursuing goals that are both important and meaningful. Goal pursuit, therefore, is positively related to levels of wellbeing. However, goals also need to be embraced gradually and with careful deliberation.

Having never completed a 5 к run, I wouldn't set my sights on running a marathon in a couple of months' time. First of all, my body just wouldn't let me because it's so unaccustomed to running such a distance (or any distance, for that matter). This is an example of aiming too high, because reaching my goal is unrealistic. A more realistic goal would be a 5 к park run and then gradually build up from there; it's still a challenge and I'm still aiming high, but the chances are that with appropriate preparation I can achieve my goal, while if I attempt a marathon, the chances are I'll be carried off in an ambulance long before I reach the finish line.

What about goals within an educational setting? Let us take the example of a high achieving 15-year-old who has set her sights on becoming a doctor.

Our student needs to transform herself from a school pupil to a medical professional and this can't be accomplished overnight. Becoming a doctor might be the end result but there could also be other motives at play, for example, the desire to help others (which could itself be related to an even higher existential aim - to find meaning in life by becoming a good person).

Within this good person narrative, there will certainly be hierarchical nested frames (such as being a good student, a good friend, a good daughter and so on). Being a good student is therefore associated with, for example, working hard, being conscientious and adhering to rules and regulations imposed by the school as a whole (and teachers specifically). Further up the hierarchy we find more specific goals with their own nested frames, such as getting good exam grades and obtaining high grades in science subjects so that these can then be studied at an advanced level. We, therefore, break our goals down into steps that need completing before the next one can be attempted (our student can't study medicine until she has first acquired the pre-requisite qualifications that would allow her to do that).

As each sub-goal is successfully completed, our student grows in confidence and competence, but when something happens that moves her further away from her goal, she can become de-motivated and despondent. Support networks are, therefore, important to ensure that our student is able to bounce back when inevitable setbacks occur. Goal pursuit, therefore, begins by establishing micro-routines that eventually become automatic. These inevitably include some of the useful study habits discussed in the previous chapter.

These routines are important for several reasons. First of all, routines make it easier for us to create more useful routines - the creation of useful habits makes habit formation more successful. Accumulating such habits also makes it easier to work towards both the ultimate goal and the nested or sub-goals. If our aim is to become a better person, engaging in regular acts of kindness will work towards that goal. Once such behaviour has become automatic, we can forget about engaging on a conscious level because it requires little direct, conscious effort.

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