Early in my training, I noticed that certain students accomplished in 10 months what others took 10 years to accomplish. I’ve always been fascinated by efficiency, and I hate wasting time, so I wanted to find out how they did it. I wanted to be like them.
It wasn’t raw talent. These students were no more talented than me or the others. It also wasn’t a matter of them knowing secret techniques. My Sifu taught them the exact same techniques as everyone else. But there was something else going on. These students were obviously doing something that others were not. I asked them how much they were practicing. If anything, they were practicing less than average, not more.
Finally, I asked my Sifu. His answer was simple: “They progress faster because they set clear goals.”
At the time, I didn’t fully understand his answer. How could setting goals make such a difference? How could it possibly save someone 10 years of practice?
I followed his advice even though I had no idea how to set clear goals. Honestly, it took me years of trial and error to learn how to set goals properly. In this article, I have distilled everything that I learned over the years.
If you take my advice, if you follow these 11 steps, then you’ll easily save years of time in your practice, whether it is in Qigong, Tai Chi, Meditation, or Kung Fu. (The steps will also work for Yoga.) Many students have told me that following these 11 steps changed their life. Follow them, and they will change yours too.
Step 1 – Get Ready
Schedule a time to go through these steps. You can read through them now, but unless you’ve set aside an hour or so, you won’t be able to do all the work. If an hour seems like a lot of time, then think about all the time you’ll waste by not following these steps. An hour is nothing.
Write down your answers!! The process of following writing down the answers forces you to clarify your goals. It’s also important to have them written down for future reference.
Step 2 – Dream Big
Most people don’t allow themselves to dream. As Shakespeare says, our doubts are traitors. Often, traitorous doubts will kill your dreams before they are even born.
In Step 2, I want you to dream big, and to have fun doing it. Don’t write anything down for this step. Instead, I want you to close your eyes, relax, and feel each visualization. Feel it in every cell of your body. If you can’t feel anything, you’re not doing it correctly.
Toggle each visualization by clicking on it.
Imagine yourself in perfect health. Imagine yourself with zero pain, no disorders, no illnesses, and no conditions. Imagine yourself with such a strong immune system that you never get sick. Imagine yourself looking so vibrantly healthy that people regularly give you compliments. How does it feel?
Imagine yourself with limitless energy. From morning until night, you never run out of energy. Imagine having more than enough energy for all your projects, ideas, dreams, chores, and responsibilities. Imagine having extra energy for both work and play. How does it feel?
Imagine yourself with zero financial stress. Imagine having a trust fund that pays you $250,000 every year, no matter what. Imagine having the freedom and the time to do (or not do!) whatever you want. How does it feel?
Imagine yourself as happy as you’ve ever been. Imagine being happy from the minute you wake up until the moment you fall asleep. Imagine having a zest for just being alive. Imagine being happy for no particular reason at all. How does it feel?
Imagine your perfect day. You’ve got limitless health, energy, and money. What is your perfect day like? What would you do? Who would you do it with? Where would you be? How does it feel?
Once you’ve completed all of the visualizations, you can move on to the next step.
Step 3 – I Don’t Want…
Identifying what you don’t want can be a powerful way to clarify what you do want. It can also be a powerful motivation. Although we are certainly not focusing on the negatives, we are trying to find out what motivates YOU.
For example, I went through major depression in my 20s. Even though I healed myself, I don’t EVER want to go through that again. Keeping depression away – for the rest of my life – is a powerful motivation for me.
Here are some examples of things that you probably don’t want:
- I don’t want to rely on medication.
- I don’t want to catch colds.
- I don’t want to be in a wheelchair.
- I don’t want to look old.
- I don’t want to be frail when I’m older.
- I don’t want to get cancer.
- I don’t want to have a stroke.
- I don’t want to get Alzheimer’s.
- I don’t want to get pulmonary disease.
- I don’t want to be overweight.
- I don’t want to get arthritis.
- I don’t want to get diabetes.
- I don’t want to have a heart attack.
- I don’t want to be in pain.
- I don’t want big medical bills.
- I don’t want to be depressed.
- I don’t want to die in a hospital.
- I don’t want to have surgery.
- I don’t want to be afraid.
- I don’t want to fall or injure myself
- I don’t want to be a burden.
If nothing on this list resonates with you, and if you can’t think of any other negative motivations, then congratulations! You are one of the few people not motivated by negatives. You can move on to the next step.
For the rest of you, write down the top 10 things that you don’t want. Choose things that motivate you to take action. Choose things that are meaningful to you.
For example, I don’t want to get Alzheimer’s (who does?), but I’m also not particularly worried about it. For whatever reason, Alzheimer’s doesn’t motivate me. But Depression and Heart Disease are powerful motivations for me because they both run in my family.
So what are your motivations? Copy things from the list above that resonate with you. You don’t need to come up with 10, but it’s a good exercise to try.
Step 4 – I Want
A huge problem is that most people don’t know what they want! If you don’t know what you want, then how can you set any goals? You can’t.
“You got to be careful if you don’t know where you’re going, because you might not get there.” – Yogi Berra
Now that you’ve identified some things that you don’t want, it’s time to figure out what you do want. This will be similar to, but not exactly the same as Step 2, where we allowed ourselves to dream.
It’s important that you don’t worry about how you will get what you want. If you think about the “how”, then you will block yourself from figuring out the “what”. This is the single biggest mistake that students make. Don’t fall into this trap.
For example, a student might want to be free of from arthritis. But because she cannot imagine how arthritis might be cured, she never allows herself to set it as a goal. The plane doesn’t even get off the ground.
Even if arthritis couldn’t be reversed with Flowing Zen (of course it can — lots of my students have done it), it doesn’t matter. The point is to identify what you want. If you want to be free from arthritis, then you need to identify that desire. Here’s a good quote from Henry Ford:
“Obstacles are those frightful things you see when you take your eyes off your goal.”
Do you think that Henry Ford knew how he was going to build the Model T? No. He didn’t know any of the details. What he knew, without a doubt, was that he wanted to do it, and that he wasn’t going to let anything get in his way.
When identifying your wants, you need to think like Henry Ford. It doesn’t matter if people say that it’s impossible, or if you have no idea how it will be done. What matters is what you want.
Take a few minutes now to identify some things that you want out of your practice, and then write them down. Again, it’s not critical that you come up with 10 things, but it’s a good exercise to try.
Step 5 – Understanding Aims & Objectives
The word “goal” is okay, but it’s not great. It’s too unspecific. Instead, we’ll break our goals down into aims and objectives. But before we set our aims and objectives, we need to understand the difference between the two. The difference is actually quite simple:
AIMS are long-term goals that are general and difficult to measure.
OBJECTIVES are short-term goals that are both highly specific and measurable.
If you want to be healthy, then that’s an aim. But if you want to fix your low back pain, then that’s an objective. Getting healthy is an aim because it is a general, ongoing goal that is difficult to measure. Getting rid of low back pain is a specific, measurable objective that can be accomplished within a few months.
You can think of objectives as short-term courses of study, like college classes. In fact, keeping your objectives roughly the same length as a college class (i.e. 3-4 months) is a great idea. Sometimes, an objective will take longer than 3-4 months, but you should always check your progress every “semester” to make sure that you are headed in the right direction.
Your objectives should match your aims. If you set a 3-month objective to be able to touch your toes, then you are working towards your general aim of being more fit. And vice versa, if your aim is to be more fit, then you need to pick objectives that will help you to reach that aim.
If you have questions about whether something is an aim or an objective, then feel free to ask it in the comments section below.
Step 6 – Setting Aims
With Qigong and Meditation (as well as Yoga), aims can be classified into 5 basic categories:
- Mind Training
- Character Development
- Spiritual Cultivation
With Tai Chi and Kung Fu, there is a 6th category that we must add:
- Self Defense
Aims should be general, and they should fall into these categories. Here are some examples of aims, separated into the 6 categories:
Health – I want a strong immune system that keeps me physically, emotionally, and mentally healthy, full of energy, and pain free to age 100.
Fitness – I want to be strong, lean, and flexible. I want to look younger than my physical age, and to keep my cardiovascular system robust.
Character Development – I want to be more disciplined in my personal and professional life, to be more caring and compassionate towards loved ones, and to be more ethically and morally upright.
Mind Training – I want to have a clear mind and sharp memory. I want to be able to tap into my creativity whenever necessary.
Spiritual Cultivation – I want to strengthen my relationship with my spirit, and to strive towards the ultimate goal of Enlightenment.
Self Defense – I want to be physically, mentally, and energetically powerful, and to be able to defend myself and my loved ones against all kinds of physical and emotional aggression.
If you’ve followed Steps 1-4, then you should have a much clearer picture of what you want and don’t want. Using that information, it should be easy to set some aims. Do that now. Why do you practice Qigong, Tai Chi, Kung Fu, Meditation, or Yoga? Write down your aims, and remember to keep them general. Ideally, you should cover all 5 categories, or all 6 if you are a martial artist.
Step 7 – Setting Objectives
This is where the rubber meets the road. Learning to set objectives can be a life-altering experience. If you haven’t yet discovered the satisfaction of meeting an objective that you’ve set, then trust me when I say that it feels amazing. You absolutely want to experience this for yourself.
Remember, objectives are much more specific than aims. They can also be very personal. I’ll list some examples to get you started:
- To be completely free of my hypertension medication.
- To get compliments about how much younger I look.
- To be better at remembering names.
- To feel my “Spirit”.
- To meditate for 5 minutes without my mind wandering.
- To be able to defend myself against boxers.
- To touch my toes without bending my knees.
- To get rid of my shoulder pain.
- To have the energy to play with my kids when I get home from work.
- To wake up feeling rested.
- To be able to stand on one leg for 30 seconds without wobbling.
- To not get sick this winter.
- To be able to climb a flight of stairs without getting winded.
- To have the courage to stand up for myself when my boss yells at me.
- To be more confident when dealing with clients.
- To fight less with my husband.
- To worry less about my finances.
- To catch a glimpse of Cosmic Reality.
- To be able to break a brick with my palm.
If your aims are already set correctly, then it should be easy to come up with some objectives. Remember that objectives work towards fulfilling your aims. If you have an objective that doesn’t match an aim, then you need to redo your aims.
Now write down some objectives, being as specific as possible.
Step #8 – Measuring Progress
A big secret to setting objectives is to make them measurable. Otherwise, how will you know when the objective has been met?
Some objectives have a measure built in, like touching your toes. But some are less specific, like worrying less about your finances. With the unspecific goals, you need to figure out how you will measure improvement.
For example, let’s pretend that you typically get stressed out every time you open up a bill. You’ll know that you have achieved your objective of worrying less about your finances when you can open up a bill without getting stressed. That’s the measure.
Now, go through your objectives, and make each one measurable. Look at your list of objectives. In the left margin beside each objective, write a measure. If the measure is self explanatory (like being able to touch your toes), then write in “SE” for that objective.
Don’t get complicated, and don’t be a perfectionist. Just make an effort to identify a measure for each objective. Do this before moving on to the next step.
Step #9 – Time Frame
Setting a time frame for each objective is important. Keeping with the theme of a college course, set a date for a final exam for each objective. The final exam is when you will review your progress.
Ideally, you will achieve each objective before the final exam. For example, if you set a 3-month objective of touching your toes, and you achieve the objective in 2 months, then you’ve already passed the final exam.
But in other cases, you will “fail” the exam. Fail is not quite the right word. Let’s pretend that, after 3 months, you still can’t touch your toes. During the final exam, you’ll see whether or not you’re making progress towards the goal. If you are, then all you need to do is continue another 3 months with the same objective.
The default for all objectives should be 3 months. Some objectives will take a little longer, and some a little shorter, but 3 months is a good starting point.
Now look at your objectives. In the right-hand margin, set a time frame for each one. But don’t just write “3 months”. Write down the date of your final exam. In the beginning, all of your final exams may be on the same date, which is fine. But as you accomplish objectives, the dates will start to stagger.
Make sure that you have a final exam date set for each objective before moving on to the next step.
Step #10 – Methods
Methods are the specific techniques that we will use to achieve our objectives. For example, if your objective is to be able to touch your toes without bending your legs, then you need to pick appropriate flexibility techniques for your methods. If you pick push-ups as the method, then you won’t ever reach your objective.
This is a mistake that literally millions of people practicing Qigong, Tai Chi, and Kung Fu make. They never achieve their objectives because they are using the wrong methods! Don’t be one of them.
How do you pick the appropriate methods? This is where having a good teacher is critical. Although you can learn a lot from books and the Internet, there is absolutely no substitute for an experienced instructor. I cannot stress this point enough: Having a good teacher is critical.
Methods should be specific techniques. For example, if your objective is to be able to touch your toes, then your method should be some sort of flexibility technique, like Luohan Taking Off His Shoes. Do not simply write “flexibility” or “Tai Chi” as the method.
Many students get stuck on choosing methods. If you have clear objectives and a good teacher, this should not happen. Consult with your teacher. He or she should be able to help you to pick the appropriate methods to achieve your objectives.
If you don’t have a teacher, then you have to do your own research. You have to find out which techniques achieve which results. For example, if your objective is to fix your back pain, then you not only need to find and learn the appropriate techniques, like Carrying the Moon.
Whether you have a teacher or not, my teacher’s books are an excellent resource. I spent years and hundreds of dollars reading countless books. My teacher’s books are among the best in any language. He has books on Qigong, Tai Chi, Kung Fu, and Zen.
Look at your objectives. Now write down methods that contribute towards your objectives. Remember that some methods will contribute towards multiple objectives. Come up with methods for each objective before moving on to the next step.
Step #11 – Practice Routines
We’re almost done! Now that you’ve set your aims and objectives, and picked the appropriate methods to accomplish them, it’s time to create some practice routines. If you’ve followed all the steps, then this should be a piece of cake.
I recommend that you write each routine on a big Post-It or index card. This way, you can hang them easily in your practice room, or on your fridge. Here’s an example:
Notice the addition of the “tracking” category. Every time you do something toward your objective, add a hash mark. The idea is to see how much effort you have put towards a particular objective. If you fail a final exam, but there are only a few hash marks on your sheet, then it’s obvious what the problem was. On the other hand, if you fail a final exam but there are lots of hash marks, then you either need more time, or you need to choose different methods (or both).
In the beginning, you should create 1 routine for each objective. Later, once you’ve got the hang of this, you can start consolidating routines. Many methods will overlap objectives. For example, Luohan Touching Toes will help to achieve the objective of touching your toes, as well as your objective of improving your Kung Fu kicking.
How many methods should there be for each routine? Well, that depends on your objective. If your objective is to practice the Simplified Tai Chi Form every day for 90 days, then there’s really only 1 method (i.e. the Tai Chi Form). On the other hand, if your objective is to eliminate chronic shoulder pain, then you might have several methods (like Lifting the Sky and Big Windmill Hand).
When you are finished with an objective, don’t throw out the paper! Create a file called “My Goals” and put everything in there, even if you abort or change a routine. Years from now, you’ll be glad that you have a detailed record of your aims, objectives, and methods!
Qigong, Tai Chi, Kung Fu, and Meditation are amazing arts that can enrich our lives beyond our wildest dreams. I’ve seen this with my own eyes. My own life, and the lives of countless students have been dramatically changed for the better with these arts.
I want you to be successful with these arts. I sincerely hope that this article helps to make you more successful. If you have any questions as you work on your goals, please feel free to leave a comment below.From the heart, Sifu Anthony