Back in college, I started making New Year’s Resolutions. I would turn these resolutions into goals. Typically, I would start something entirely new and often I would finish my goal halfway through the year. Unfortunately, I didn’t always develop the habits needed for long-term change. This is why I started focusing on adding process-oriented goals. It’s an idea I explore later in this article.
However, I tended to focus solely on starting something new. In some cases, I would form new habits but, over time, I ran into a new challenge. Habits can drop away over time during disruptive moments in life. While I had developed a habit of exercising five days a week, things changed when I was a new teacher and felt swamped by the workplace demands.
Other times, I would attempt a new habit, or I would start a new project but it failed. In these moments, I felt like I had failed at my New Year’s Resolutions. For example, I tried mindfulness and meditation but it actually made me more anxious and it wasn’t all that helpful. Another year, I forced my way through writing a first draft of a book called Keeper of the Creatures that never actually worked as a concept. I knew it was a flawed story in January but I pushed through until June.
What I now realize is that the new year is a chance to consider a broad range of goals. Yes, it might mean starting something new but it might also mean treating something new as an experiment and defining success as the willingness to take a creative risk. It might also mean choosing to maintain a current practice or habit. But it might also involve letting go of perfectionism and taking something off my plate.
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The SLIME Method
I created the acronym SLIME as a way to think through my goals for the year. I could have easily gone with MILES and had something like, “How many MILES will I log?” but, let’s be real, slime is fun and sticky and I want my goals to be fun and sticky as well. Here’s what how it work:
- Start: What practice, habit, or project do I want to begin this year?
- Let Go: What current practice, habit, or project do I need to abandon this year?
- Improve: What current practice, habit, or project do I want to take to the next level?
- Maintain: What current practice, habit, or project do I want to continue to do this year?
- Experiment: What current practice, habit, or project do I want to try out?
With the SLIME Method, I focus on one goal for each of those areas.
This is a goal geared toward a project, a habit, or a practice that you want to start during this upcoming year. You might want to get started on running or get into a writing habit. You might have a house project you want to do or you might plan to learn a new language. Whatever it is, this starting resolution should be something you either have never done or something you’ve years ago and you plan to get started again. As a teacher, this might be a new strategy you want to start using with students. Or it might be something like an action research project you want to do with colleagues. But you might make it personal by carving out a personal Genius Hour project for yourself. You might set a goal of reading a certain number of books in a year. Whatever it is, the point is to start something new.
One of the best strategies I learned was to start small and build up. This actually connects to gamification (an idea I explore later in this post) where you have a low barrier of entry and easy mini-goals at first that lead up progressively toward more challenging goals. Three years ago, when I wanted to start working out, a physical trainer friend told me, “Start with five minutes a day.” I laughed and said, “Come on, be realistic.” He then said, “Okay, three minutes.” The point is that early on, success should simply mean showing up. I would later move it to ten minutes, fifteen, then twenty-five, then forty-five. So, every two weeks, I made my goal more challenging. When I did a NaNoWriMo project with students, I had them plan their books in October and during that time, we started with 200 words per day of writing (on smaller mini-projects) which then moved to 300, 500, 750, 1,000, and eventually 1,300. We then started November at a habit of 1,300 words per day and progressively moved up to 2,300 in order to meet our word count goals.
If the Start Goal is all about starting something new, the Let Go goal is about pulling back and abandoning things that weigh you down or stress you out. It’s often about taking something off of your plate. You might choose to “break up with busy” and tell yourself that you will grade less or you will set a curfew for when you finish work each day. I’ve always had a rule of no email after 5:00 pm and I try my best not to do any grading on weekends. It doesn’t always work but these have been previous Let Go Goals that I pursued. Sometimes it’s letting go involves hard habits that you want to break. I am an emotional eater and I have worked toward choosing healthier outlets when I am feeling stressed so that I don’t plow through an entire box of Cheez-Its.
However, a Let Go Goal isn’t always related to a bad habit. Sometimes letting go has involved making a change within my career (like the move from self-contained to teaching photojournalism and STEM). For some teachers, it might mean moving to a new school and away from a toxic school culture or changing teams due to unhealthy dynamics.
Still, other times it might involve a hidden goal or desire that gets in the way of the real work you want to do. Often, these hidden goals come from social expectations or from a sense of perfectionism. One year, I made my Letting Go Goal, “I will let go of the goal of having the highest test scores in my grade level.” I didn’t care about test scores. I didn’t believe in the validity of the tests themselves. However, I had bought into the lie that test scores were the bottom line. It wasn’t my dominant goal but it was still there creating a desire to focus on student achievement data. When I reflected on it, I found that a major component was also my desire to prove that PBL could boost student achievement; that they didn’t have to be opposing forces. I was afraid that if my scores dipped, I would have to abandon project-based learning. So, letting go of this goal meant a conscious decision to remind myself daily that scores were a byproduct and not a goal or even a sign of success.
One of the reasons I love Improve Goals is that they build on previous successes. Unlike a Start Goal (where you fight against inertia) or a Let Go Goal (where you often have to unlearn habits) these goals begin from a place of momentum. As a teacher, you might ask yourself, “What am I already doing well and how can I take it to the next level?” This is a core idea of a Vintage Innovation mindset, where you find that overlap between best practices and next practices:
In the past, I have looked at course evaluations and said, “This is going well but I want to make two or three tweaks to improve course organization using UX Design Theory.” Another time, I said, “Our design thinking projects are going well but I want to improve on the idea of an authentic audience. We need to create a better launch.” On a personal level, I had a goal once to move from black and white to color sketchnote videos. This next year, I want to improve in my illustrations and I want to take my merchandise (stickers and t-shirts) to the next level. I’m still thinking through what this goal will look like specifically, but it’s a general idea.
Last year, I wrote about a different type of New Year’s Resolution:
Maintenance is proactive. It helps us prevent problems before they surface. By focusing on maintaining, we also stay more grateful. It reminds us that the epic life is often found in the mundane and the ordinary. We begin to internalize the idea that we are already okay in our present state without doing more or being more.
However, we tend to view maintenance as boring. We have ribbon cutting ceremonies for new bridges but traffic cones to maintain existing ones. We watch home improvement shows with bold renovations but no one is watching a show about cleaning out gutters. Universities name new buildings after patrons but nobody asks for the naming rights to the custodial crew.
This is why it helps to create a maintenance goal.
Choose a current habit, system, or relationship that you might neglect in the next year. Then, create a goal to maintain it. Set aside time in your calendar to make it happen. It could be having coffee with a friend you no longer work with or it could be the habit of reading each day or spending time with loved ones. Track your progress along the way. It could be a streak that you keep or a running tally. Create benchmarks and celebrate when you reach key milestones.
Maintenance isn’t as fun as starting something new. But it is absolutely vital to living a better life.
The Experiment Goal is similar to the Start Goal but with a caveat: you have no idea if it will work. Think of it as a Start Goal that you can abandon if it doesn’t work. So, you might decide to take up meditation as an experiment. If it doesn’t work for you, you can stop doing it and you can treat it as a failed hypothesis but a successful experiment. In other words, success is not about whether or not the experiment worked. Instead, success is about whether or not you took a risk and tried something new. This last year, I tried an Experiment Goal. I would illustrate the Great Gatsby with dogs. I sketched out some dogs, read the book and then said, “Ooh, I forgot how it ends. There’s no way I’m doing this with a dog.” The project was a bust but I still succeeded at the goal of attempting that project.
When a project fails, I can reflect on it with the following continuum:
In this case, it was a failed experiment. However, I also experimented with a novel I wrote that I will likely turn into an Improve Goal at some point.
Using Process Goals and Product Goals with the SLIME Method
As mentioned earlier, it can help to design goals that are both process-oriented and product-oriented. The following video explores the distinction between the two:
Here’s a brief overview of the two types of goals:
- Product goals focus on the destination while process goals focus on the journey.
- Product goals tend to be short-term but process goals tend to be long-term.
- Product goals are project-oriented while process goals are designed to build habits.
- Product goals stick to firm deadlines while process goals stick to consistent routines.
- Product goals define success by the completion of great work. By contrast, process goals define success as growth in one’s skills and abilities.
So, what does this look like? If your goal involves running, a product goal might be finishing a marathon while a process goal might be committing to run for 45 minutes every day. If you’re a writer, a product goal might be publishing a novel while a process goal might be a daily habit of 500 words per day. Neither approach is wrong. Both product goals and process goals are important for success. We need to get finish projects and build lasting habits.
The sweet spot is the overlap between process goals and product goals. For example, you might have a goal of writing an entire novel (product goal) but you set a goal for yourself of writing 500 words per day or spending 40 minutes per day on writing. Going back to the SLIME concept, it can help to create a goal that incorporates both product and process together. For example, I have a maintain goal of, “Continue to create one blog post per week by continuing to devote an hour of writing per day (which I’ll also use for writing fiction, working on a book, etc.) Notice that the first half is a product goal but the second is a process goal.
What Does This Mean for the Classroom?
Okay, so what does this have to do with teaching? Here are a few thoughts I have based on my own experiences and what I’ve observed when I look at teachers who have embraced both types of goal-setting:
- Encourage students to set both process and product goals. Often, schools focus on setting academic goals (increasing reading fluency scores) but there’s value in helping students set goals around habits. For example, you might have students set some goals for how many minutes they want to read each day.
- Take on a few major projects that require some product goals you want to focus on. But keep these limited to just a few projects. This will give you more room to focus on process-oriented goals.
- Choose a few process-oriented goals that you can monitor on a regular basis.
- Start out smaller with process goals and then gradually increase it. In working out, it’s common to start out with a small goal of running five minutes a day and then, two months later, moving to fifteen minutes and then increasing it again later.
- As you start new initiatives, consider the role of things like Maintenance Goals and Letting Go Goals. Also think of small ways to build on successes with Improve goals. This helps students embrace iterative thinking.
It also helps to gamify the goal-setting process.
Gamify the Process
Video games are addicting. Whether you’re playing a simple game on your phone or a complex game with rich world-building on a gaming console, there is something inherent in video games that draw us in. This is by design. Game designers have crafted the user experience to make gameplay habitual. And it’s not just game designers. Social media apps use notifications, badges, and metrics to get us to spend more time on their platforms. Health apps use these game elements to get people to get active and eat right. What if we used principles of game design to gamify creative habits in real-life?
Here are a few ideas. Make it easy to start. Games work because the barrier of entry is low. Similarly, in developing creative habits, you might want to start with an easier goal. So you might be ten minutes a day learning to play a new instrument or you might start out writing just 100 words per day. You can also start off with smaller projects that allow you to hit the finish line faster. There’s actually a strong rationale for this approach. By making our goals easier to attain and experiencing some “big wins” early, we gain confidence and are then able to stick with a habit over time. As you improve, you can increase the challenge incrementally. Here you create “levels” for yourself where you can hit benchmarks and increase the challenge level. This allows you to keep the challenge level just above your skill level.
According to the Flow Channel model, if the skill level is too low, you’ll often experience worry and anxiety. But when the challenge is just above the skill level, you are more likely to hit a state of flow.
As you go, you can track progress. You might have a progress bar or a series of tally marks. You might create badges for yourself. Another option is to use three jars with marbles and move the marbles from a “haven’t started” to “started” to “finished.” You can also create a streak that builds with each day you have participated in the habit. If you’ve ever played Pokemon Go, you’ve seen how they keep track of consecutive days. Runners will often do a “run streak.” The same can be true of writing, painting, or reading.
When you keep track of a streak, you build momentum. As you succeed, you might even create small rewards or celebrations for yourself as you hit key benchmarks. You might also need to create visual cues. On phones, we have alerts and notifications for games. But you can also create notifications by creating visual cues in your physical environment. For example, if you want to read 50 books in a year, leave books throughout your home; on the coffee table by your nightstand, by your computer and maybe a few other places, just make sure things are sanitary. You might also put a book in your car or in your backpack. The point is to put these cues everywhere. You might also use sticky notes with reminders of your commitment to a creative habit.
Finally, you might want to join a community. Gaming often includes social interaction. As a maker, you might create a mastermind group with fellow makers who nerd out on their craft. This can give you a sense of belonging and help you take creative risks. In the end, there is no single formula for developing creative habits. By using elements of gamification, you help make these habits stick.
So, what are your process and product goals for this year? What goals would you like to pursue with your students? Feel free to share yours in the comment section below.
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