I attended a very small school where most coursework was done at your own pace. To make sure you could graduate on time, the yearly work was broken down into 4 quarters of 9 weeks each. The quarters were broken down into weeks and what you needed to accomplish each week was divided into each day. Each student had a “goal card” in front of their work area showing their planned progress for the next day. There was also another chart that showed their quarterly and yearly progress.
As I sat at my desk, directly in front of me was all the information about my goals. I could see a chart of my progress for the year, for the week, and for the day. There was no escaping the focus on setting and achieving goals.
In college, I discovered that my experience had been quite different from that of many of my peers. There was a noticeable divide between the way other students and I approached large problems. It wasn’t that they weren’t successful, the other students just tended to rely more on the teacher to plan out the semester than what I was used to.
Here are the lessons I learned in that educational environment that I’ve found useful in setting goals later on in life:
- Keep your goals visible. When I was in grade school, it was a chart that I filled in with stars. When I was working a summer high school job, it was a bar graph on the back of my savings account that measured my progress toward buying a laptop. When I attended the university, it was checking each class off my degree plan each semester. When I managed a software development project, it was the green and red lava lamps that told everyone if the code was working or broken. Keeping your goal visible helps it rise above the cognitive noise and keeps it at the forefront of your attention. Simply giving yourself a way to see your progress can decrease the amount of perceived effort you have to expend.
- Start with the end in mind. Don’t start out thinking about what you are going to do today. Think about what you want to accomplish this year and then decide how to invest today. When you are focused on the big goals, it helps you see the importance of today’s task. A worker at a piano factory had the job of sanding wooden keys. It was a menial job, but when asked what he did, the worker replied, “I make pianos”. By focusing on the end result, you will give the proper attention to the small but important tasks along the way.
- Focus on success–not putting in time. In my school, any of the goals not met during the school day were homework and had to be done by the next morning. It didn’t matter if you put in your time, it mattered if you achieved the results. If you finished a two week unit of work, but couldn’t perform adequately on the test, you repeated the two week unit again. It didn’t matter how much time you spent, it mattered if you mastered the material.
- You are always competing with yourself. One of the hardest things for me, personally, in this type of education was the fact that I wasn’t competing directly with other students. The advantage was that I learned to work toward my personal best and gauge my progress based on what I knew I was capable of–not how well the other students were doing. When I got to college, this was useful, because in a few areas, I was well beyond my fellow classmates. I was able to push myself beyond just being at the top of the class by focusing on achieving my personal best instead of just having the highest grade in the class.
While my childhood education wasn’t perfect, I do feel that these four things have been a great benefit to me in setting and achieving goals. What about your school experience? Were there any methodologies or teachers that shaped the way you approach goal-setting as an adult? If so please share in the comments below.
Originally published November 16, 2006.