Set growth goals or ‘personal bests’

Growth goals are those that pit us against ourselves, rather than against those around us (such as other pupils in a class) and are the result of a learning or mastery goal orientation. Educational psychologist Andrew Martin describes them as personal best goals (or PBs) because, just like our sprinter who is attempting to better a previous time, we look to increase our previous performance instead of doing better than our classmates.

Personal bests centre on a specific personal challenge (e.g. T want an A in my next essay because I got a В in my last one') and the specific steps required to reach the goal - so PBs are competitively self-referenced - doing better than you did before. They can also be treated in the same way as conventional short- and long-term goals and can form part of the sub-goal structure.

PBs have been found to increase engagement and academic achievement (Martin & Liem, 2010) as well as promote other skills including self-efficacy, intrinsic motivation and 'flow'. They work by drawing on this incremental philosophy and use a series of small steps to go from one personal best to the next. Furthermore, PBs aren't confined to specific cultural groups, having been generalised to non-Western (Chinese) contexts (Yu & Martin, 2014).

PBs encourage students to examine feedback constructively and set out a plan by which they either maintain their current level or exceed it, ensuring that they take on board teacher comments and identify gaps in either subject knowledge or study skills. In many ways PBs are similar to the SMART- type objects used in employee appraisal systems and coaching in that they provide specific time-bound criteria by which progress can be made without relying on extrinsic factors.

Time management

The ability to manage our own time is an obvious skill worth pursuing. Students need to ensure that they adhere to deadlines and chunk their time accordingly. Nevertheless, we are all guilty of leaving important tasks to the last minute and deciding to engage in more enjoyable activities instead. Setting goals can help, as can breaking larger goals down into smaller chunks.

Time is obviously limited but thinking about it more constructively is useful and habits can be formed quite readily by allotting a particular time for a specific task, as discussed in the previous chapter. Curiously, once we establish a routine, breaking that routine can leave us feeling out of sorts, even if the task we carry out is less than enticing. For example, if we wish to learn a new language and we allocate a specific time every day to learn and practise new words and sentences, eventually, not attempting this task at the allotted time will begin to cause some benign low-level distress.

Scheduling is therefore a vital component of time management. Knowing what you need to do and for when it needs to be done is the essence of great time management. However, sometimes it's hard to decide when a particular task needs to be completed, especially if there are competing deadlines involved. People tend to employ different strategies in these situations, which might include:

  • 1. Completing the worst first
  • 2. Leaving the worst until last
  • 3. Prioritising by deadline
  • 4. Leaving it all until the last minute

In fact, number 4 isn't really a strategy and is certainly a symptom of procrastination rather than any logical attempt to manage time (procrastination is discussed in Chapter 7).

As for strategies 1 through 3, there are certainly positive reasons to adopt all of these. If we are dreading a task then it's often advantageous to get it out of the way early, especially if the prospect of having to do it causes anxiety. If we leave it until the last moment then we have to face the prospect of spending all the time prior to completing it in a state of perpetual worry. However, getting it out of the way first can also mean having to rush through other tasks in order to meet a specific deadline.

For tasks that we don't wish to do, but need doing, it can be useful to break them down into smaller components and tackle each sub-task separately. If a student has a particularly problematic essay to complete, breaking it down into sections with a word count for each section can smooth the way somewhat. Each sub-task is then allotted a particular time and length. For example, Tuesday 5 o'clock for 45 minutes or 500 words.

Personally, the most efficient form of time management is prioritising by deadline, although I often sub-task the activities I really don't want to do. I also set my own deadlines, rather than relying on those that have been set for me. This is to avoid procrastination. Specifically, if a deadline crosses a temporal boundary, that is, a week or month or some other time-based construct, I will bring the deadline back into the current time frame. For example, if I have been given a task on Monday and the deadline is the Tuesday of the following week, I set my own deadline of, say Friday. This means that the task requires completing this week, rather than next week. As discussed in Chapter 7, deadlines that cross time boundaries have been found to increase procrastination because of the errors we make when assessing time itself. Something that needs doing next week becomes less important than one that needs to be done this week, even if the actual number of days remains the same.

Scheduling can help for two main reasons. The first is that it counters procrastinating tendencies. Second, it also helps with anxiety. Even scheduling tasks such as making a phone call (an activity many people find anxiety provoking) creates in our minds a need to carry out that task. It also allows us to prepare for unforeseen eventualities (such as being placed on hold). I'll discuss anxiety in more depth in Chapter 8.

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