Set Smart Goals — or Else!

“For my part, I travel not to go anywhere, but to go. I travel for travel’s sake. The great affair is to move.” ~Robert Louis Stevenson

Written by Yuri Karabatov. Follow me on Twitter.

You must have a goal when you are starting on a new language. Without it you won’t see the complete picture and be able to plan what to do next. If you don’t know where you’re going, you might as well not start at all. A proper goal motivates you to learn faster and have more fun. A bad one may be worse than having no goal at all: it will throttle your progress – to a halt.

Stupid Goals vs. Smart Goals

Everyone can imagine knowing the new language: reading a book, talking to foreign friends, attending a rock concert, traveling or just watching a movie. Nobody dreams about the joy of completing yet another textbook.

Somehow upon looking at a textbook in front of us we forget about the book, the movie and the rock concert. We dread the textbook and make its completion our goal.

Stupid Goals

A stupid goal is not worth achieving. What good is completing the textbook? You can do some exercises and have no real-life skills, like striking a random conversation or knowing extra words for reading books.

Remember, language is not a few words and grammar rules thrown together, language is meant for speaking, and sharing knowledge. Knowing a textbook by heart won’t help you share knowledge and talk to people.

A stupid goal is unrelated to real world: taking a proficiency test, completing a textbook or knowing a phrase book by heart are all stupid goals.

An artificial proficiency test assesses your knowledge of advanced grammar and vocabulary on a topic which you will never need in real life.

Phrase books are useless, because you won’t understand the reply: a real person will never say anything of what is written there.

Smart Goals

1. Measurable

Smart goals are measurable. You will want to gauge your progress as you go along, and plan your studies accordingly. You will know exactly where you are at any moment and what to do next.

2. Related to Real World

Relate the goal to real-world things, events and people. The goal is fine if you would do the same in your native language.

“Talk to the girl at work” is fine, because you will “talk to the girl at work in Chinese, discussing a Chinese poem”.

“Go to a rock concert” is great: you will “go to rock concert in Chile and sing along in Spanish”.

I think you’re getting my drift.

3. Deadline

Smart goals have deadlines. Parkinson’s law states: “Work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion”, so the less extra time you dedicate to the goal, the better. Set deadlines to daily steps of the goal as well.

You’ll be amazed at how much can be done with a tight deadline. If your time is limited, you will do only the essential and ignore all distractions, increasing focus and concentration on the task.

Say, you want to read a Chinese poem. Yes, the one you’ll be discussing with the girl from work :) How does the reading usually go? You open the poem on your computer, look at the incomprehensible symbols and decide to check Facebook.

Next thing you know, it’s past midnight and time to go to bed. In the morning you go to work and don’t talk to the girl, because you haven’t read the poem. This repeats every day.

Not anymore if you set a deadline. I know, it’s hard to keep it. I’ve found a trick which works for me: imagine you have a plane and leave in X minutes, where X equals the time you need to complete the task. You have to stop after X minutes no matter what and hop in the car to arrive at the airport in time.

With that in mind, you will spend 2 minutes to skim through the poem, 3 to write out unknown hieroglyphs, 5 to look them up and 5 to read the poem aloud, twice. That’s it, 15 minutes and you’re done.

4. Motivation

Motivation is “the reason or reasons one has for acting or behaving in a particular way”. Smart goals make you actually want to reach them; they are backed up by a good reason.

What’s the reason of speaking to a girl you work with? You like her and want to impress her. What’s the reason for completing yet another textbook? The teacher said so.

See the difference? Reason for a smart goal comes from the inside, while reasons for stupid goals are imposed by other people.

You’ll read through the Chinese poem in a blaze, but the textbook will always be a chore. When you’re motivated, everything you do will be easy. That’s the power of good reason.

5. Fun

Fun is heavily related to motivation. Leo Babauta in the post “The Only Two Secrets to Motivating Yourself You’ll Ever Need” says that making things enjoyable and using positive public pressure is enough to make you achieve goals.

Classes and courses are often boring, because you have no reason for attending. Reading a book in a foreign language is enjoyable and fun, because it’s a pleasure to understand the author’s wordplay as well as the book itself.

It’s simple to check that yourself: recall some recent activity, which you were looking forward to and did it in a blaze, because you liked it. These are motivation and fun at work.


Goals, however fun and fulfilling they are, are not only for setting, but for achieving. Many people make the mistake of setting a goal but making no steps toward achieving it. It may be because of several reasons:

1. The goal is a stupid goal

Solution: make the goal smart.

Make it measurable and related to real worl, and give it a deadline. Make sure you have a personal reason to achieve it, and it wasn’t imposed on you by someone else.

2. The goal is too large

Solution: break the goal into chunks.

Take as small steps as possible when achieving the goal. Imagine you want to read a thick book. That’s too huge a goal, split it into chunks; use chapters as goals. After that, take baby steps to reading each chapter.

Make reading just one page your baby step towards the goal. Reading just one page is simple. Reading the whole thick book is as simple as reading a page many times. If you can read just one page, you can read the whole book.

3. You are planning your day wrong

You can have a proper goal and split it into small chunks, but still you may not do anything about it. Why? Because your day doesn’t let you.

We may plan as much as we like, but real life is not written on paper. There are always distractions, which make the day shorter.

I will tell you about the plan for the day which I use. It’s very simple.

The Simplest To-Do List

My to-do list for the day is just one item. It’s such an item, that doing only it and nothing else, I could still call the day well-spent.

I do this item first thing in the morning, before anything happens that can distract me. After completing the item I may pretty much do nothing the whole day, but it’s OK because I’ve done the most important thing and the day is well-spent.

I wouldn’t say I don’t have a to-do list at all; I do. On the previous day I browse through it and ask myself about each item: “If I do only this tomorrow, can I call the day a success?” I write down the first item which fits and post it in front of me to see.

Just Start

The hardest thing of doing is starting. You can’t start because you are afraid of what’s in front of you. You are afraid because there’s a lot to do and you don’t like it. If you don’t like it, there’s no motivation.

There’s a way to overcome this. Check out this article on Write To Done: recent research says that you have to start no matter what, and in a minute you will be enjoying the process.

It will be hard, but push yourself to start. After pushing a couple of times, you won’t be afraid anymore. You will enjoy what you do.

Set your goals smart, and good luck in achieving them!

Now it’s your turn! Share your ways of setting goals and achieving them in the comments!

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