When Achievement Goals Seem Hopeless
“I can’t read that many books,” my student’s plaintive wail scraped my nerves like a beginning violin player.
“Sure, you can,” I encouraged her.
“But I’ve never read a whole book before in my life!”
“What a pity,” I said. “Don’t worry, you can start with picture books.”
“Babies read picture books,” she said with a huff.
“Nope,” I assured her, “pretty much everyone at this school starts out reading picture books. The pictures make it easier to read.
“Look around you.”
She sighed loudly and glared around the room.
“What do you see?” I asked.
“Kids reading picture books,” she said with a hint of sheepishness.
“Even the high-school students?”
She looked again. “Yeah.”
“We try to set you up for success,” I explained to her. “You’ll read books in your Zone of Proximal Development, which means they won’t be too easy or too hard. The more you read, the better you’ll become at reading. Pretty soon, you’ll start reading more and more difficult books. And you’ll meet your reading goal for the quarter with ease.”
She glared at me with incredulity, but I offered to help her set up her weekly and daily reading goals in her planner. Afterward, I helped her find a book in her ZPD (Zone of Proximal Development) and watched as she slammed the cover of the book open and unleased a death glare on the first page.
This one would require more encouragement and positive affirmations to catch up to grade level. But I knew if she stuck with it, one day she would meet her goal (or my goal for her). Hopefully.
Hacks for Setting Achievement Goals
1. Stay in Your Zone
Everyone has a Zone of Proximal Development—that sweet spot between ease and frustration. When you set achievement goals, use the SMART or SMARTER framework to analyze your goal. Does the goal seem too easy? How could you make it more challenging?
Don’t get me wrong, I’ve set goals that I’ve almost already accomplished just for the boost of saying I accomplished something. But doing so too often won’t help you achieve big goals.
You could shorten your deadline, or add a bonus incentive for achieving your goal ahead of the deadline. For example, I want to double my mailing list in the next year. This will involve many steps, trials, and errors. And it seems like an audacious goal (considering that I’ve worked half-heartedly on this goal for four years already).
I can add a bonus incentive of a 90-minute massage or some other equally non-fattening treat if I beat my deadline.
Does your goal seem too difficult and overwhelming? Maybe you need to break it down a bit. Think about what the first two or three steps, and rewrite them as two goals instead of one huge goal. Losing 20 pounds sounds like an admirable goal, but unless you break it down into specific, small changes that you want to make, you set yourself up for failure.
2. Build New Neurons
You might think that you come ready-made with all the neurons you’ll need in your lifetime. Not true. Neuroplasticity, our ability to create new neurons (and thus new connections), allows us to change, learn new skills, and think creatively.
The path to neuroplasticity might surprise you: vigorous aerobic exercise. According to Karen Postal, president of the American Academy of Clinical Neuropsychology, “That’s it,” she said. “That’s the only trigger that we know about.”
If you want to find success in your achievement goals, you’ll also want to set a habit goal of exercising your aerobic system vigorously throughout the week. Doing so will trigger neuron growth, which in turn increases creativity. You’ll set yourself up for success instead of struggling with failure.
3. Adopt a Growth Mindset
Do you know which muscle holds the most power? Your brain. Yeah, I know. Brains don’t consist of muscle mass. But you do need to exercise them. Your mind controls your attitudes, and your attitudes control your achievement.
Watty Piper’s classic The Little Engine That Could shows us how. The Little Engine has a growth mindset—she believes that she can accomplish what others deem impossible. She knows her why (to save Christmas for all the girls and boys), and she doesn’t let the naysayers prevent her from trying.
What you believe, you will achieve. You don’t have to achieve it all at once. In fact, you might need to break your goal down into baby steps and tackle one portion at a time. Using the SMART or SMARTER framework and a planner will help you do this (affiliate link).
4. Accountability Helps
Some people may benefit from having an accountability partner. If you decide you want one, make sure you give your accountability partner specific tasks. For example, don’t just ask them to keep you accountable for meeting your goal.
Ask them to check in with you once a week and ask you about your goal for that week. Tell them if you need affirmations, encouragement, or a push in order to keep going. Maybe you just need a listening ear or someone to act as a sounding board. Offer to take them out for coffee or lunch when you meet specific goal benchmarks.Accountability partners can help you believe in yourself when you can't believe you can achieve. #goals Click To Tweet
5. Bonus Tips for Christians
If you call yourself a Christian, you have an added layer of guidance you can tap into. God makes it clear in Micah 6:8 what he wants us to do and how it wants us to do it. His words become a clear filter for us as we think and pray about our life plan, eulogy, and goals we would like to achieve.
Taking time to evaluate our achievement goals through prayer and study will help us obtain clarity and focus.
Set Better Achievement Goals
Setting better achievement goals involves keeping your Zone of Proximal Development in mind, building new neurons, adopting a growth mindset, finding an accountability partner, and, if you’re a Christian, filtering your achievement goals through study and prayer. How do I know?
Four years after my first encounter with my whiney non-reading student, things have changed dramatically. Our reading program involves the four hacks for achievement goal-setting (PE classes take care of the vigorous exercise part of the equation) and lots of prayers.
My student went from begrudgingly reading picture books at the second-grade level (her ZPD) to devouring every book Melanie Dickerson has ever written. This year her test scores show that she reads on grade-level for the first time.
My goal for her has become her goal for herself. When we conferenced at the beginning of the quarter, she asked me to increase her reading goal—and this from a kid who didn’t want to read anything four years ago!
Believe in yourself, or find someone to believe in you until such time as you can believe in yourself, and you WILL achieve.