I recently finished the book Atomic Habits by James Clear. It’s a brilliant book, filled with the lessons from individual success stories and really clear structured advice about how to lose a bad habit, or create a good one. I found many sections in the book pertinent to schools and the habits we want to create in our students, but there was one key point in the book that really struck a nerve about school leadership.
In the first section of the book, Clear outlines some of the reasons why our good intentions with habits often fail. We are told as individuals or organisations to have a goal and focus on that goal. Clear instead instructs us to “forget about goals, focus on systems instead.” This advice seems so contrary to how we are usually taught to get what we want in life, be it getting fit, getting a promotion, or generally becoming happier. Yet Clear sets out 4 main reasons why goals don’t often get us very far, and actually it’s systems that are more beneficial.
- Winners and losers have the same goals – We assume that when we see successful people and their goals, that that explains their success, but: “Every Olympian wants to win a gold medal. Every candidate wants to get the job. And if successful and unsuccessful people share the same goals, then the goal cannot be what differentiates the winners from the losers.”
- Achieving a goal is only a momentary change – “Achieving a goal only changes your life for the moment….When you solve problems at the results level, you only solve them temporarily.”
- Goals restrict your happiness – This is something which resonated personally. When I was losing weight I focused so much on my end goal and how I’d be happy once I’d lost the weight. In reality even when I hit an 8 stone weight loss, I still wanted more, dind’t know how to stop and felt I couldn’t enjoy the achievement I’d made. In fact, stopping dieting and moving to maintenance over the last couple of years has been far far harder mentally than losing weight ever was. Clear says: “The problem with a goals-first mentality is that you’re continually putting off happiness until the next milestone.” Furthermore, goals set us up for failure – “Goals create an either-or conflict; either you achieve your goal and are successful or you fail and are a disappointment.”
- Goals are at odds with long-term progress – “Goals can create a yo-yo effect. Many runners work hard for months, but as soon as they cross the finish line, they stop training.”
Clear therefore emphasises a focus on the system, rather than just having a goal: “You do not rise to the level of your goals. You fall to the level of your system.”
So what lessons are here for us working and leading in schools? Well how many of us still focus on a goal of achieving a grading of X from Ofsted, or a P8 of Y, a certain % pass rate for our class or even a particular target grade for a student, rather than just focusing on building the very best systems and cultures in our schools or classes? What would happen if we had a goal-less culture in our schools, and instead built systems of continual refinement and improvement? Why don’t we focus on building school cultures where we create the systems that will bring success naturally, without the short-term goals we sometimes build in? I think this means being brave and stepping away with some of our measures of success. For example, I had a recent conversation with governors about why we have moved away in the last few years from a % measurement of good and better teaching when reporting to them. There are many reasons why this is meaningless and unhelpful, but it takes courage to move past the comfort of statistics like this. It’s also a reason why I rarely if ever use target grades with students, something Ben Newmark wrote a fantastic blog about here and Mary Myatt recently reinforced:
As Ben says in the blog: “…it’s better to have high expectations and to focus on meaningful step-by-step improvements from the subject specific point they have reached. Generic target grades are a distraction.” John Thomsett has also written an excellent blog on this theme, explaining the reasons why they do not publish target grades to parents or students at Huntington: “The idea that a school policy should put a cap on students’ outcomes seems so ridiculous; there are enough things which inhibit their progress, for goodness’ sake! Our decision does not mean we will not track their progress using assessment data; rather we will use assessment data to enhance our teaching.”
In addition, there is a danger with goals in focusing too much on the actual measurement, a temptation in our data-driven world. Clear outlines this danger in his chapter on habit-trackers (something that can be really useful when used correctly): “The pitfall is evident in many areas of life. We focus on working long hours instead of getting meaningful work done. We care more about getting ten thousand steps than we do about being healthy…In short, we optimize for what we measure.” Instead of focusing on this measured target, it’s much more useful to be concerned about the larger context and see this measurement as only one piece of feedback. Clear adds a comment I think we should hold close in our work in schools: “Just because you can’t measure something doesn’t mean it’s not important at all.”
Clear’s final part of the book returns to this theme of goals and I think he presents a real challenge for us in schools: “Success is not a goal to reach or a finish line to cross. It is a system to improve, an endless process to refine….The secret to getting results that last is to never stop making improvements. It’s remarkable what you can build if you just don’t stop.” Let’s instead work on building school systems with the highest expectations, a relentless drive and commitment to improvement and a focus on the highest quality curriculum. Accountability is of course important, but let’s move away from short term goals and targets and instead be brave enough to focus on goal-less improvement.