Making Mindful Progress

Inspired by this chapter review at Girls Being Girls, I have been thinking about the importance of mindfulness –that is, being consciously and actively aware of every aspect of something– in regards to making progress.

Making progress is hard. You set yourself a goal and start out on a path that you believe will lead to success, only to find your plans thwarted by time constraints, unplanned events or a lack of structure. This can cause you to become disheartened and abandon your goals. Of course, you can’t plan for the unexpected. But you can plan assuming something may happen to throw you off.

This is how to set yourself up to reaching your goal through the use of mindfulness.

1: Set a goal.


This sounds easy and many of us do this stage blindly, thinking it makes no difference at all how much we consider our goal. We say “I will…” and assume that’s enough. In reality, far more clarity is required.

In fact, it’s a serious problem I have with many of my adult-learning students. They walk in through the door, or send me an email stating they want a or b many lessons in x, y or z, from whenever. Then, when I ask the question, namely: “What do you want to get out of this? Where do you want to be?”, I get a blank stare or some silence. They want to learn Spanish and have a two hour lesson every Thursday. Surely that is enough? But, depending on their goal, this lesson plan could be intensive or relaxed, casual or academic, grammar- or vocab- or conversation-focused. If they want to speak enough Spanish to get around Marbella as a tourist in two months, then the easy-going GCSE grammar-boosting lessons won’t do them much good. If they have an exam coming up, their work must be focused. Surprisingly, the students who know exactly what they want are usually the younger ones. This is because a GCSE student’s teacher will have told them where they need to be next week and they are happy to work towards that.

In much the same way, we need to seriously consider our goals before embarking on a quest for self-improvement. Where do we want to be? When do we want to get there? These are the two questions we must ask ourselves when first establishing a goal.

An example of the process in action:

I will study French and German.” becomes “I will become fluent in French and achieve at least GCSE-level German by the end of this year.”

I will workout regularly.” becomes “I will maintain my figure and health, as well as improve my strength so I can deadlift, squat and shrug my bodyweight.”

Try it out with some of your goals. Or, if you can’t think of how, imagine you’re giving advice to a friend. Make the following goals more concrete:

I will be more feminine.”

I will lose weight.”

I will study meditation.”

I will read classics.”

I will learn to cook.”

2: Look at the path towards reaching that goal.


Often we fall into the trap of saying “I have x many hours per week.” or “I will do this once per week.” Then, the time rolls around and it becomes filled-in, or we look at our progress one month in and see that we’re exactly where we started.

One thing we can forget is that it takes so many hours to develop a new skill, alter your body, change your habits or read a book. If you say you’ll dedicate an hour per week to reading your classics and you’re perpetually interrupted or distracted, you’ll have hardly made it through a single Canterbury Tale by the end of a month. If you dedicate one hour per week to a language, you can hardly expect progress. In the dieting world, there’s a saying that goes something like this: “One salad won’t make you thin. One burger won’t make you fat.” It takes perseverance and accumulation to change yourself. Just as one burger won’t make you fat, one hour of casually repeating French words won’t make you fluent.

If one of these in a month of "dieting" won't make you thin, then how can one hour in a month of "studying" make you knowledgeable?

If one of these in a month of “dieting” won’t make you thin, then how can one hour in a month of “studying” make you knowledgeable?

So the next step is to look at your goal and see how much work you need to put in. If it takes 360 hours of solid study to become proficient in a language, or 10 000 hours (or not?) of dedicated work to become an expert at something, or 100 000-150 000 words to write a novel, then you need to factor this in. Want to become proficient in German in a year? That’s at least an hour per day. You may do two or three hours every other day, but splitting straws won’t get you anywhere: either you put in the 360 hours, or you don’t reach your goal.

Once you’ve worked out how many hours you need to put in, how many pages you need to read or how many calories you need to burn, it’s time to reassess that original goal.

100lbs in three months? Not happening.

Fluent in three languages in a year? The risk of confusion aside, you’d better have 4.5 hours every day for studying languages.

Yet, if you adjust your goals realistically, the result is still satisfactory.

100lbs in one year. Very possible and, if you have the time to workout and motivate yourself, even probable.

Fluent in one new language in a year? 1.5 hours per day should be manageable.

3: Other variables.


A lot of people appear to hit this hurdle before even setting a goal. How many times have we heard, or even said “I would love to, but…” and followed it up with things that could interfere with our plans. These things are often the first and final hurdle we must overcome to even set ourselves a goal.

Before I carry on, first consider how many things you have quit, or never even started, because of the hurdles you may eventually reach. Here’s my list. These are all things I put off, quit or never started because of the hurdles that I would, or might have encountered. I may have started working towards them now, or they may still be on the back-burner, but here they are, laid bare.

-didn’t finish multiple sewing projects

-long list of book ideas that I haven’t even started work on

-starting tutoring

-learning German

-learning Latin

-learning Japanese

-reading both Homer’s great works, the Iliad and the Odyssey

-having children

-around 5 small businesses I planned and never even started

-losing weight and getting fit

There are probably more that don’t come to mind immediately.

Now, some of these were left due to legitimate reasons. Of course, I am only now in a suitable situation to have children. Some I have accomplished by now, such as losing weight and learning Japanese (albeit just to GCSE). Some I have recently started or picked up. But the fact remains that they are things that I, for whatever reason, didn’t consider beyond the “this can’t happen” stage.

Yet it’s only now, once we’ve thought of a goal and planned it out, that we can actually know what we can or can’t do! We may find ourselves surprised that it would only take a few hours every other day to learn German, or that through thorough planning we can fit in a workout or two a week. If we hadn’t got this far to begin with, we wouldn’t have noticed. You know how some people go on about how you have to “make it happen”? Well, to an extent, they’re right.

Of course, now is also the time to face the obstacles. We may have thought we had time to jog every morning, but have noticed that, if we did that, nobody would feed the pet. Or we may have decided to paint twice a week, but forgotten what a mess the children would make with the paints. And then we have bigger hurdles. We may need our spare time for emergencies, or for daily activities.


And it’s important to factor this all in. You need to look at your plans as plainly and realistically as possible. When we’re aware of what hurdles stand in our way, we can adjust the plan to make it fit. So maybe you have to stay in to feed the pets, or get back on time to give them breakfast before you go to work. Or maybe you could jog to work. Or maybe you could ask someone to feed the pets a couple of times a week. Or maybe you could leave food out a little early. Eventually, you’ll land on something that works for you.

If not, now is the time to put that plan to one side and pick another up. A plan you have to do half-a**** is a plan not worth doing at all. Perhaps you could do some reading, or clay-work instead of the painting? All self-improvement is good, and you’ll be able to pick up the other plan in the future.

4: Measuring your progress.


It’s vital to keep on top of whatever progress you make.

When our progress is invisible to us, when we’re uncertain of how far we’ve come or how far we need to go to reach our goal, continuing to progress can be hard or impossible. If we monitor our progress through a journal or clear periodical targets it’s a lot easier to see where we are. If we create a projection, we can also observe where we need to be.

For example, if I want to have produced a hundred paintings by the end of the year and I’ve only produced thirty-two by June, then I know I need to step my game up.

These journals can also help motivate and inspire us when planning a new goal to work towards.

As well, the setting of smaller targets makes the experience far more rewarding, as your progress is documented and each target you reach is a reward.

Imagine the concept of just dieting and exercising for a year, without using any measures, then blindly stepping onto the scales and whipping out the measuring tape. Now compare it to the more familiar experience of regular, unstressed measurings and weigh-ins. The first would be a far more difficult process, as you have to overcome self-doubt and a lack of motivational factors. On the other hand, the second is a lot easier, as you are motivated by your (hopefully) steady progress and continual target-hitting.

Finally, the psychological benefits of seeing how far you’ve come are immense. Every part of you, as a human being, loves success. And these targets, this progress is viewed by your mind as success upon success.

Think of every target met as a small goal. You may not speak fluent Italian, but you can already pass GCSE past-papers. You may not be running for an hour straight, but you can get further than the next lamp-post.

If you want to stick to your plan, achieve your goal and succeed, it’s important to be mindful of the progress you have already made.

5: Changing the goal-posts.


And you will, sometimes, find that your targets aren’t being met half as regularly as they should be.

Often this can be corrected with a slight adjustment to the plan. We’re leaving your work to the last minute, so we make ourselves do it early. We’ve been trying to do our work every other day and continually putting it off, so we decide to do a little bit every day instead.

However, sometimes our progress isn’t going to plan due to legitimate interference. You may have had something turn up, or maybe you just hadn’t factored-in everything. At this point we must go back to steps 2 and 3 and ask ourselves what we can do to make this plan work.

If you’re uncertain, go through every aspect of your life that interfered with your work. Maybe even keep a journal. Every time you wanted to do something and couldn’t, write down when it was and why. You may also surprise yourself, as often what we thought were legitimate reasons look a lot more like excuses when they’re put to paper!

A secondary exercise to consider is to keep the journal for a second week and, this time, plan and write down a solution to the interference.

For example, you may think the children are getting in the way of the gardening, but when it comes to finding a solution, you quickly notice that they could help you harvest tomatoes or make holes to plant beans in. Or you may think it’s always too noisy to read, when, in reality, you turn the TV on as soon as the house is quiet.

This also helps us to reconsider our priorities. Do we really need to spend that time watching TV, or can we use it more productively? Does it really take an hour to hoover the house, or are we dragging it out somehow?

And, of course, there’s no shame in having to move your goal-posts for a legitimate reason. Or even to quit or postpone a plan due to a legitimate reason. If we look at our plans, the interferences and our time and we decide we’re asking too much of ourselves, it’s better to adjust our plans to suit what we can actually do. By leaving something until later we ensure we do a good job of it. By replanning our hours we allow ourselves to focus properly on progression and this extra focus and order could help you better meet your targets!

6: Maintenance and moving on.

This is the final stage of mindful progress. The same as when you lose weight, or when you learn a language, the final test isn’t hitting that number or passing that exam: the final test is maintenance.

Mindful maintenance is the hardest part of mindful progression. In terms of difficulty, rated from 1 (easy), to 10 (very, very hard), this sequence would go somewhat like this:

Thinking of a goal: 1.

Setting a proper goal: 3-5.

Researching your goal: 6-8.

Planning it into your everyday life: 4-6.

Doing the work: 2-5.

Adjusting targets and goal-posts: 6-7.

Maintaining: 8-10.

It’s easy to come up with something. It’s relatively easy to make a more specific goal. It’s hard to work out the amount you’ll have to invest. It’s slightly easier to plan once your research is done. It’s easy to do the work once you have the plan. It’s moderately hard to adjust your targets and goals. It’s incredibly hard to maintain the acquired skill or trait.

This is because, once we have something, we often take it for granted. In physical terms, it wouldn’t have been hard for me to keep myself doing pull-ups. In reality, because I let it slide, even though my upper body is stronger than ever before, I have lost the mechanical ability and specific muscle strength to do them. And that’s what makes it hard. We take it for granted, tick it off our lists and move on.

Like with my pull-ups, in reality, if you had to work to get it, you’ll have to work to maintain and use it. Every skill can get rusty, your body is continually degrading and your muscles DO have a sort of memory that makes oft-repeated tasks easier than rarely-performed ones.

Mindful maintenance is firstly about being grateful for what we have developed. Love the improvements you’ve made to yourself and your life.

Mindful maintenance is secondly about not taking them for granted. Routinely practise or monitor your improvements.

Mindful maintenance is thirdly about making use of our progress. Maybe you got fit to look hot or maybe you did it to become a PE teacher. However it is, make sure your investment isn’t wasted.

Mindful maintenance is fourthly about not losing anything. Obviously, to maintain something you mustn’t let it degrade. If your monitoring reveals that you’re slipping, it’s time to get back to using your progress!

Mindful maintenance is fifthly about being willing to reset a goal. If you do degrade, it’s important to value your progress enough to want to rebuild it.

And mindful maintenance is finally about moving on.

You can’t keep going at something forever. It’s a bit like school, or reading, or gaming: once you’ve passed a certain level, you need to move on to the next one. Of course, moving on takes many forms.

If you love lifting weights, moving on may be setting yourself a new goal. You’ve surpassed your original goal and you’re starting over, with goal1 being the starting point and goal2 being the next finish line.

If you’ve finished a book, moving on may be starting a new one instantly and enjoying it as fully as you did the first.

If you’ve learned a language, moving on may be starting to read in that language, or learning to play a musical instrument.

Basically, moving on is looking at where we are, asking ourselves “What next?” and starting working towards our new goal.

The important thing to remember is that moving on isn’t about quitting now that we’ve reached that goal. Self-improvement is a life-long process.