Set Learning Goals to Achieve Your 2019 Resolution

I remember buying myself an Apple Watch in December one year, telling myself that it will help me achieve my new year’s resolution of exercising 30 minutes a day. True enough, in January and February, I was knocking it out of the park, closing those activity rings and seeing the screen light up day after day. Then March came, work started getting busy and the rings took longer to close, then it closed once every 3 days, and then barely once or twice each week. Upon accepting that i had failed in achieving my New Years resolution, I repurposed my Apple Watch as a fashion accessory changing the straps to match my turban each day. And like a teenager trying to conceal a pimple scar, I simply switched watch faces, never to see the activity rings again.

Growing up, I had always been a sporty person – captaining sports teams to cycling across Alaska, and there I was barely a few years later, not able to sustain half an hour of exercise a day.

Contrast this with my life as a student. I was far from a good student. Struggled through secondary school, not focussing in class and not interested in studying. I barely qualified for Junior College and scraped through A levels with very average grades. Fortuitously, a new university opened at just the right time and I got accepted not for grades but because of my colourful resume of co-curricula activities. Yet, in both my undergrad and post graduate degrees, I out-performed myself and landed a traineeship at Singapore’s top law firm at that time. There I was, never academically strong, suddenly with the grades for a top job.

How puzzling.

Researching for my last article on Curiosity, I read an article that shared a potential reason for this: Learning goals are more effective. In the first objective, I set myself a performance goal – complete 30 minutes of exercise each day. In the second objective I set myself learning goals, “for this chapter, I want to understand what a constructive trust is so that I understand the different ways people can set up trusts.” So whether it was equity and trust or basic contract law, my mind-maps were themed around the different aspects I wanted to understand.

I appreciate that not many people have the luxury that I had. Many students go into school with an all or nothing approach about grades because they invested a lot of their own money in it or because they have a lot of important people placing high expectations on them. My dad had said, “it’s ok if you don’t become a lawyer. Take the degree for the training it brings to your mind.” My mother’s mantra throughout my A Levels was, “don’t worry about grades, focus on being true to yourself and doing your best.” It also helped that just before law school, I caught the movie 3 Idiots which was a great comedy with a powerful message about the true purpose of education.

Learning Goals Lead to Better Performance

In a study by Southern Methodist University, sales professionals who were focused on performance goals, such as meeting their targets and being seen by colleagues as good at their jobs, did worse during a promotion of a product (a piece of medical equipment priced at about $5,400) than reps who were naturally focused on learning goals, such as exploring how to be a better salesperson.

With a performance goal, like a sales target, you are doing everything in your power to sell more. Perhaps you might give bigger discounts, you might work longer, you might sell harder. All these things may increase sales, but they burn your fuel – you can’t keep giving discounts and working at that pace. Instead, when you focus on learning how to sell better, you learn tricks and techniques that you can use sustainably throughout your career.

A lot of research points towards improved and sustained performance resulting from framing our objectives around learning goals such as becoming better at a task, learning new skills and mastering new situations. Daniel Pink in his book Drive and the famous ted talk that followed explains that we perform better on work objectives when 3 elements fall into place: 1) autonomy – the sense that we have the freedom to design what we work on and how we do so; 2) mastery: the desire and ability to work towards getting better at the task at hand and the belief that it can be mastered in due time; 3) purpose: clear and attractive reasons for why we are doing the task (as opposed to ‘because the boss said so’). The chapter on mastery sits together with the research on learning goals.

The research points to the fact that when we set up learning goals with the purpose of ‘getting better at stuff’, we approach the challenges before us from diverse angles, acquire broader skills, do better at work, get higher grades in college, do better on problem solving task and receive higher performance ratings. Like with all goals, the clearer it is, the greater the motivation (Lathan and Locke, 2006). So it’s important to make sure that you are absolutely clear on what you want to learn, by when and how it will be measured.

And when you’ve learnt what we set out to learn, its then time to set a new goal to renew our energy and motivation.

So going back to my goal to exercise regularly, here is what I intend to learn:

1. How can I exercise to improve my productivity at work? Should I do a short session before going to the office or a session at lunch time? I will experiment with different approaches till I learn what’s optimal for me.

2. What types of exercises work better for me at getting my heart rate up?

3. What exercise regime(s) do I enjoy (Shawn T’s insanity or a long solo run, etc)?

4. What exercises leave my pain points (neck, shoulders, lower back) feeling better than before the exercise?

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