Goal Setting 101 for the Jazz Musician

Everyone sets goals, but only a handful of people actually achieve them. And out of these highly-motivated people that achieve their goals, only a fraction of them are truly satisfied with their accomplishments. So what is it that this group of awesome highly-motivated and satisfied achievers is doing differently than everybody else?

When it comes to goal setting, I’m no stranger. Flashback to 5th grade, I can remember the guest speaker telling us the importance of goal setting and how it could get us anywhere in life. She was right!

Oh, and the guest speaker? My mom.

I’ve been goal oriented since day one, spending lots of time thinking about what it is I truly want and how to best get there, all the while, doing my best to not ignore the beauty, joy, and happiness that’s right there in front of me…

Am I the best at it? Certainly not. I know tons of people that are way better at putting into practice what I know in theory, but today, I’ll share with you what I’ve found works for me and what I see working for others.

We have one life (as far as we know) and we have the opportunity to architect it how ever we see fit.

And as a musician, we’re luckier than the rest. We have music.

We get to connect with the mysterious creative world of music on a daily basis if we so choose to. But it’s difficult. Our time only allows for so much. Life pulls us in ten different directions all at once.

How can we accomplish what we desire? How can we get to where we want to go?

It all has to do with your goals—

  • How we think about them and frame them in our mind
  • How we go about setting them
  • How we go about achieving them

Welcome to goal setting 101 for the jazz musician…

The purpose of goal setting: it’s not exactly what you think

The purpose of goals

Goal setting is easy, and it’s obvious why you should do it, right?

Not exactly…

Goal setting the right way, which we’ll get to later, is not so easy, and besides the basic planning aspects, it’s not so obvious why we should even do it in the first place.

But we should do it, and here’s why..

Goals give you direction and help you formulate a plan

By setting a goal, any goal, you automatically go from having no direction to having one.

Actually, you always have a direction in your life, whether you choose it or not. You can either be a bottle in an ocean, letting the current and the waves decide where you go, or you can be the captain of your own ship.

Not setting goals and not having direction is still choosing something. It’s choosing whatever situation you find yourself in and accepting that situation as your life.

And that may work for some. But if you can paint a clear picture of where you want to go, then you’ll have a much better chance of getting there and moving in the right direction.

Goals force you to decide what’s important and what’s not

Everything you say yes to, you inadvertently say no to many others.

This point is much less obvious than the last.

Goals force you to prioritize your time.

The only thing we really have in life is time. And even more so, we don’t “have” the past or the future. We only have the present. We have one—what seems to be—continuous moment. And that’s what we have to work with. That’s where we can accomplish our goals.

Goals inspire you and get you excited about the future!

The most overlooked purpose of goals is that they’re meant to inspire you.

A goal that you truly want to achieve should make you feel amazing every time you think about it.

Goals are there to pick you up when you’re down. They give you something to look forward to, something to aspire to.

But it all goes back to how you determine your goals…

Determining your goals: setting yourself up for success

Setting your goals the right way

This is where most people fail. They get so overwhelmed with all the possibilities, that they decide to stay in the confines of whatever their life, their skill set, or the happiness is now.

And I think it’s because people forget this one very important point…

The number one thing to remember as you begin to determine your goals is that you can always change them.

That’s right. You are free to change your goals anytime you like. Tomorrow, in a year, 10 minutes from now.

Nothing says we have to be bound to our goals.

Remember, a goal must inspire you because it determines not only what you will accomplish, but how you will spend your time to get there.

If a goal doesn’t inspire you, rethink why you chose it in the first place, change it, or get rid of it.

What inspires you today could be totally different than what inspires you tomorrow. That’s why you need to remain cognizant about your goals as you’re working toward them.

Adjusting and generating options as you move forward

Here’s a strategy I use a lot to not get caught up in the “I don’t know what to do, so I’ll do nothing” phase.

I’ll choose some goal, even if I know it’s not 100% correct, and then, I’ll either generate other options while I begin to work on that goal, or I’ll refine that goal more in the direction that it should be.

This works in life or in music.

For instance, perhaps I have a goal to be in a certain profession and I receive a job opportunity that I’m kind of interested in. I take it, while I continue to look for more options, and at the same time I see if I can mold that job into something that works for me.

Or, in music…

I decide I want to learn 10 tunes. Great. I start to learn them but then I go to a local jam session and it turns out they play the same 10 tunes all the time (this happens a lot by the way). I decide, well maybe my goal is to play at that jam session. So, I refine the goal to include the tunes that they play at the jam session.

We are not static. We are dynamic and changing, and therefore are goals must be as well.

Don’t be afraid to adjust, change, or scrap goals if they no longer inspire you.

Visualize the end product and work backward

If your goal is to perform a great live set, then why would you just go about learning dozens of random tunes in a very casual way?

Why not really study two ballads, a medium tempo swing tune, and a few more standards that you love, to create your ultimate set?

So few people do this. They try to learn every tune or prepare for every harmonic situation. Then they go to perform, and they perform their set at the same level they’d perform any tune.

This should not be the case. You should own the material you perform.

By visualizing the end product and working backward you can set yourself up for a much better end result.

It’s easy, we just don’t think like that all the time.

Get in the habit of always understanding what it is you’re trying to achieve and then work backward.

Structuring your goals: Becoming the master of your universe

Structuring your goals

A large part of achieving your goals is how you think about, structure, and classify them. Our minds love order and reject chaos. A clear understanding of all of our goals and how they fit together helps fend off the feeling of being overwhelmed and keeps us on track.

Many experts will tell you that writing your goals down is the most important thing you can do.

And writing goals down certainly is important. But a lot of people write their goals down and still don’t achieve them. The other day I found a goal list I made when I was 16 and several of the goals on that list are still on my list today!

So if writing things down isn’t enough, what is? Where does the problem lie?

A simple system to organize your goals – The Pick 3 Method

Assuming you’ve determined your goals correctly—they inspire you and they move you in the direction you wish to go—then what you need is an easy way to think about them.

The problem with simply writing down goals and calling it a day is that we’re not likely to review that sheet of paper every day and think, “Okay. Where am I today in achieving my goals.”

No, we’re just not that orderly.

We need a way to think about our goals that we can take anywhere we want. A way that sticks in our mind. A system that makes it easy to remember what it is we’re going for.

After years, hence my 16 year old partially successful goal list, I’ve found a very simple method that I use that may work for you, too.

It’s a few simple steps:

  1. Write down all your goals – write down everything that comes to mind, a brainstorm
  2. Label your 3 primary goals – your 3 most important goals
  3. Find goals on your list that fit within these 3 primary goals – can any be sub goals of your primary goals? For example, if one of your primary goals is be more athletic and another goal is to get flexible, then flexibly could fit under be more athletic
  4. Label secondary goals – these are goals that are not primary or sub goals
  5. Use thoughtful reduction to remove anything you can- trim the fat, most likely they’ll be secondary goals

What you gain with this system: An aerial view of what’s most important to you, what direction you want your life to head in, and how you want to spend your time.

Why does it work?

Because you can take the information with you in your mind all the time. Once you go through the process you’ll see how easy it is for you to remember all your goals like this and make sense of them.

However, make this system work for you. If there’s no possible way for you to get to only 3 primary goals, then add more. Make it your system!

Defining your goals

How defined or undefined you make your goals is up to you. There are no rules about this. Many people will tell you to define your goals as much as possible and to time-date and measure everything.

You can. Or you don’t have to.

The trap we often get caught up in is sacrificing quality for quantity.

A very common example: I will learn 10 tunes this month. I write down my goal and the 10 tunes I’m going to learn. I then go print out the sheet music, memorize the chord changes and learn the melodies from the page.

What’s wrong with this picture?

I sacrificed learning tunes the right way to instead learn 10 tunes. I focused on quantity, not quality.

When you define your goals, focus on less and aim for mastery.

Instead of saying you want to learn 10 tunes this month, say, “I’ll learn 1 tune, completely from a recording.”

Now that’s a goal. And you’ll see…

The amount you grow after achieving a goal is the real measure of he goal.

Breaking larger goals into several maller ones

Imagine you’re on an island and your goal is another island nearby. Think of this process as the bridge that leads you from one island to the other.

Too often people try to jump straight to the end goal they so desire. When you break up anything that seems complex into a series of small achievable steps, the impossible becomes possible.

And if the small steps are still difficult then you make them smaller. You break up the steps into achievable tasks. With each task accomplished, you move forward.

A great example of this is transcribing your first jazz solo. Instead of approaching the whole solo, break into small achievable chunks.

One chorus is still too difficult, how bout 4 bars? 4 bars got you stumped, how bout 1?

Make it a goal to do 1 measure every day and soon you’ll find that you’ve transcribed the entire solo to memory.

What seemed impossible at first became possible through a series of small achievable steps.

Achieving your goals: keeping your eyes on the prize

Achieving your goals

Now that you’ve determined your goals correctly—they inspire you and they move you in the direction you wish to go—and you have an easy systematic way to think about them, all you need is the persistence to carry them out.

Easier said than done. But, very doable with a few tips..

Staying consistent

As is commonly said in many industries, success is sustainability.

If you can’t sustain the path to meet your goals, then you won’t achieve them. Think of over-training in athletics or cramming for a test. In both of these cases, you’ll burn  out Lon gbefore you actually achieve the goal you set out for.

Slow and steady really does win the race. Make a moderate plan that you can see yourself sticking to for a long time, not just a few days or weeks.

In fact, a little trick I like to use that helps you do this I call The Ridiculously-Small-Daily-Minimum…

For example, if I want to learn a new tune this week, I might say to myself, “Work on the tune for 5 minutes a day”…which sounds completely ridiculous. I mean, 5 minutes a day? How can you get anywhere in 5 minutes?

But this little trick fools your brain into getting your horn out and starting your work. Once you complete your 5 minutes, your ridulously-small-daily-minimum, you’ll be making so much progress and having so much fun, you’ll often want to continue.

This little trick is a great way to get the ball rolling and stick to daily action plans to achieve your goals.

Optimize your action plans for your worst days, not your best.

Remember, to stay motivated you have to be inspired every time you think about the goal, and to be inspired, you can’t be burnt out.

That initial spark you had when you first set the goal must remain with you at some level throughout the entire time of driving toward it, otherwise you’ll lose focus and wonder why you’re even trying to reach it in the first place.

Using Time Boxing

The concept of time-boxing helps immensely with structuring your time to not only stay focused and on task, but to make sure you don’t spend too much time on something.

All time-boxing means is selecting a specific amount of time, and saying that for that selected amount of time, you’ll focus on something. So, for instance, I might say, for 15 minutes a day this week, I’ll focus on learning a certain piece of language.

The time-box I set makes sure I don’t get distracted with other things to practice while I focus on that language and it creates a daily space for me to work on this one thing.

Having a daily and weekly plan of action

Having a daily plan of action is vital to achieving goals. A daily plan of action comes from having a weekly, monthly, or yearly plan of action, and all those stem from your goals that you structured earlier.

I tend to only think in as much as weekly blocks because that works for me. Thinking in terms of months and years just seems too far out. Do what works for you.

So, first, at the beginning of each week, set up a brief high-level weekly plan that focuses on the steps you need to take toward your goals.

Then, each night, write down the specific daily plan of action you will do tomorrow.

Start with the weakest link every day. We have the tendency to work on what we’re good at and avoid what we’re not good at.

The precise reason we suck at something is because we don’t work on it. Start with the hardest, weakest, most un-fun thing, then go from there.

Which leads us to garbage duty..

Dealing with the garbage

No matter what it is you’re trying to achieve, there’s always work we don’t want to do, or work that isn’t creative or fun.

Nothing is entirely made up of fun work. When people say they love their job, or they love playing piano, or they love to run..

They’re thinking of the good parts. The great coworkers, the beautiful song they just learned, the mountain they just explored.

They’re not telling you about the countless hours of frustration they endured because the larger goal is worth it to them. And that’s the key: you have to have enough desire to pursue the larger goal for the not-so-fun work to matter to you.

If the larger goal matters on a deeply personal level, then you can get through the garbage to get there and you can reframe how you think about the garbage, even learn to like it.

To talk or to walk?

Should we share our goals with others?

There are two sides to this debate.

The common thinking is that sharing your goals with your family and friends, or even posting them publicly as people frequently do on Facebook, will help hold you accountable, that you’ll strive to act in accordance with what you’ve told others you will do.

And, I definitely can see the logic here and why it would work. But in my experience, I have to go with what Derek Sivers claims in this Ted Talk about keeping your goals to yourself:

He shares research that illustrates what happens in the brain when we talk about our goals, pointing out that it tricks our brain into thinking that we’ve already achieved the goal, causing us to then relax and let the goal fall by the wayside.

I can’t say whether this is correct or not, or whether you should or shouldn’t talk about your goals with others. I can tell you that keeping your goals to yourself, something I tend to do, allows you complete freedom.

When you share your goals, people will give you their feedback whether you want it or not. They may tell you they think it’s great, or they may tell you a million reasons why you won’t achieve it.

Why deal with any of this? Why even waste the effort talking about your goals?If you’re not asking for advice and you’ve already determined you want to set out and do this goal, then that’s time that could have been spent focused on how you’re going to achieve them instead.

So, try keep your goals to yourself and see how it works for you.

Coming full circle with your goals

Onward and upward

What have you learned? Are you ready to tackle the new year head-on?

Let’s recap some of the most important takeaways:

  • Goals give you direction and help you formulate a plan. Having no direction is still a direction, just not one of your choosing.
  • Setting goals forces you to determine what’s most important to you and how you will prioritize your time.
  • Just because you achieve a goal does not create happiness. Your goals must be aligned with how you want to spend your time, the experiences you wish to have and what you truly wish to achieve. Goals are meant to inspire you!
  • You can change your goals at any moment. It’s your life.
  • Always be on the lookout for more options and seek to refine your goals. We and life are dynamic, not static.
  • Use a simple system to organize your goals so that you can think about them easily anywhere you go. Use the concepts of primary goals, sub goals, secondary goals, and thoughtful reduction.
  • Persistence is paramount. Success is sustainability.
  • Make ridiculously-small-daily-minimums to get you to start your work.
  • Set time-boxes to stay on task.
  • Have a weekly high-level plan and daily action plans.
  • Everything has garbage you have to deal with. Make the larger goal worth it and find a way to enjoy even the worst parts.
  • Try not sharing your goals with others and see if you have better luck at accomplishing them.

As we move into the new year, use all the the techniques we’ve shared with you to figure out your goals, structure your goals, and achieve your goals.

As a musician, you have more goals than most people because you have this whole other world to explore that most people don’t even know exists.

That’s why it’s so important for you to learn how to set all of your goals and to conceptualize how your musical goals fit into the larger picture.

Onward and upward.

Wishing you all the best in the new year from Jazzadvice!