Are you setting good goals for yourself?

I like New Year’s resolutions. I know some people say, “Why bother?” but I think there’s value in taking stock of where you’ve been and looking forward to where you want to be in another year from now. Resolutions can help create a vision and set a direction for getting there. They give a focus, push us to grow, and help us achieve our dreams.

For all these reasons, I’ve been working with my students to help them set goals for the year. But I think there are good goals and not-so-good ones. The difference is not in the substance of the goal, but rather in how the goal is defined.

Sure, goals are by definition a little broad, but I’m a believer in SMART goals – specific, measurable, aspirational, realistic, and time-bound. Yes, “aspirational” is different from “achievable” or “attainable” and that’s on purpose. I think good goals aren’t things that we are already equipped to achieve, but things that push us to grow, learn new competencies, and reach new limits. (Besides, doesn’t “realistic” imply that they are achievable?)

In that vein, I ask my students two questions:

  1. What is something that you’ve been struggling with this year that you’d like to overcome?
  2. What is something new that you’d like to learn?

I also ask them to think about two kinds of goals: finite achievements and systems or habits. Finite achievements are end results, clear measures of success, or defined indicators of competency. Systems or habits are the repeated actions or practices that we engage in on a regular basis. For instance, a finite achievement is being able to do two spins and remain balanced, whereas a system would be to spend 15 minutes each day practicing turns. Usually the systems are what help us succeed at the finite achievements, and they are just as important (if not more important) as finite achievements. (And how often and how well you practice is everything when learning to dance!)

When defining your goals, be careful about misguided ambitions. For instance, I’ve had several students tell me that one of their goals is to make a certain level of competition (e.g. “I want to be Intermediate by the end of the year”). What does this really mean? It means you got enough points to compete in a higher level. So what does it take to get there? It means attending more events, competing more often, spending more money on travel. But does it say anything about your dancing? If you say, “Well, I need to be better to be Intermediate,” then I would push you to define what it means to be “better.” If you start telling me that you want to be smoother or more musical, then I would say you’re on the right track to setting a good goal for yourself. Competition in and of itself does not say anything specific about our dancing; at best, it is merely an indicator of overall progress towards some other goal. Your goal should be more specific than a level of competition if you actually want to achieve something this year.

I encourage students to come up with 2-3 goals for the year. Some come up with 4 or 5 – a mixture of finite achievements and system goals – but I discourage setting more than that. It’s not about failure: I think it’s good to have an aspirational goal that will be so difficult to achieve (but still realistic) that you run the risk of not achieving it. These goals push us the most, and usually if we do not succeed, we still gain a lot in its pursuit. No, the reason I discourage too many goals is that it splits your focus. Goals are good because they can keep you focused, but if you have too many goals, it disperses your efforts so that you don’t make much progress on any one thing.

So pull out a piece of paper (or better yet, your dance notebook!) and jot down your goals for this year. Review them with your instructor, and think about how you can achieve your goals this year. And then, get practicing!

And happy New Year! May 2016 bring new levels of success and achievement in your dancing!

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