Ditch the life goals: why no-pressure learning is more fun (and effective)

Setting yourself ambitious goals may get you motivated but it can also take the fun out of being creative. Learning for the sake of learning can be much more exciting

by Rosie Mullender

Like many people, I sought out a new hobby last year to fill the gaping void created by the absence of a social life. So I ordered a small watercolour set and some artists’ pens and began by daubing a few flowers. Next up, I attempted to paint a friend’s puppy. Amazingly, my effort wasn’t terrible, so I started depicting more lockdown puppies, sharing my achievements on social media. Maar dan, eendag, a question stopped me cold in my tracks: “Can I see your price list?”

It hadn’t occurred to me to think about monetising my new hobby, and my answer was swift: “This is just for fun.” While painting as a hobby, I didn’t have to worry if the end results featured eyes that were too far apart, or badly proportioned paws. But the pressure of being paid for my efforts would suck all the joy out of the endeavour. I’d have to actually be good at it, and where’s the fun in that?

“Psychology studies have found, at least in experimental settings, that when individuals have something they’re passionate about and then attach a monetary reward to it, they often become less motivated to do it,” says Shannon Odell, neuroscience doctor of philosophy, who shares her expertise with her 35.6k followers on her TikTok page, @shannon.phd. “You’d think the potential payout would be more motivating, but something about attaching money to practices we normally do out of passion or interest changes our mindset. It’s OK to do something just because you love it.”

It’s not just the aim of earning money that could quash your passions when you’re trying out a new pastime or skill. Aspiring to a high standard and setting lofty goals can also dampen the experience. Depending on your mindset and approach, setting goals for yourself could put you at risk of failure and crush your creativity – especially if you’re looking for fast results and set yourself unrealistic targets.

“Depending on what you’re trying to learn, having a goal can be motivational – but it can also increase the pressure and, paradoxically, make it harder to succeed,” says Dr Melissa Shepard, psychiatrist and therapist, whose lessons on everything from procrastination to perfectionism have earned her almost a million followers on TikTok.

“Sometimes, the most helpful thing you can do is let go of the end goal and just embrace the process of learning and growing. Enjoying what you’re learning might not always increase your ability to understand and remember new material, but it does make it easier to spend the time required to master it.”

If you’re the kind of learner who finds it hard to feel motivated without an endgame in mind, it helps to adjust your expectations rather than ignore your goals altogether. For example, if you’d love to learn a new language, removing the time pressure (“I want to be fluent by spring!”), might lead you to enjoy the journey more.

“My philosophy on being productive when learning something new is to trust in the timing rather than to set deadlines,” says Katie Volant, productivity and mindset coach. “After working with a time-goal-orientated coach myself, I ended up being burnt out, and I felt like I’d failed because I didn’t achieve my ‘goal’ within the timeframe that was set.

“When we’re learning something new, how can we know how long it’s going to take? Instead of focusing on time, trusting that with patience and practice we’ll get to where we want to be makes the journey much more peaceful. If we’re constantly striving for the next goal or milestone, we forget to enjoy the process.”

Follow the #LearnOnTikTok hashtag and you’ll find a wealth of expertise – from scientists and horticulturalists to jugglers and chefs, keen to educate users. When it comes to painting, I’ve found that TikTok is the perfect place to go if I’m struggling to get a puppy’s eyes just right, for example – the app’s 60-second lessons can often offer exactly the right motivation you need to learn something new.

“Learning through TikTok can be a great way to encourage people to learn for learning’s sake, simply because it presents the information in fun, no-pressure, bite-size pieces,” says Shepard. “We can learn better when we enjoy learning, because enjoyment motivates us to dive deeper and improves our concentration.”

She notes that one of the core human needs, as postulated by psychologist Abraham Maslow, is self-actualisation: “Growth and development are huge parts of self-actualisation, and in order to grow and develop, we need to learn. So, essentially, learning for learning’s sake is a huge part of life satisfaction and happiness.”

So if you’re daunted by the mountain of the goal you’ve set yourself, it might be time to turn your back on it altogether – and start enjoying seeing what uncharted territory you find yourself exploring instead.

Why not try something new? Discover the benefits of just having a go #LearnOnTikTok

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