We all have personal goals, be it earning a college degree or doing a better job at something in ours lives. We try to achieve these goals with the best of intentions. However, many of us fall short. It’s not that we don’t want to achieve something. We have the initial drive that propels us towards improvement in life. What we often lack is the primary element allowing us to achieve our goals, discipline.

The ideas discussed here can be applied to our lives on and off of the chessboard. How many of you readers have used the term “procrastinate” to describe something you either haven’t done or put off until the last minute? Procrastination is the one of the primary road blocks to achieving goals. Also creating a road block to success is follow through.

Of course, life can be extremely difficult at times and our focus must shift from achieving our goals to simply surviving. While you cannot avoid these forks in the road of life, you can learn to use the time in between life catastrophes wisely.

For most of us, life will move along smoothly and just when we get comfortable, a crisis hits. We have to make changes in our lives and start again. In my own life, I seem to have a major crisis every ten to fifteen years of so. Knowing that I have a major life changing event on a semi schedule means I have to use the time in between these events prudently. The lesson here is that when things are going good in your life, take that time and try to achieve something. However, even thinking this way, you might not achieve your goals because of the previously mentioned road blocks. Lesson one: Be aware of goal road blocks.

When I was younger, I had a bad habit of starting things and not finishing them. With the exception of music, I didn’t stick with the goals I had set, most of them educational. I would get off to a great start and somewhere down the line I would start slacking off and eventually lose interest. I lost interest due to one big reason. I’d overdo things. What I mean is this: My first college major was Astronomy. At the time, I was a somewhat successful local musician. I started dating a girl who went to college. Being a high school drop out (thrown out actually), I determined that I needed to be in college to impress this young lady. That is not a sound reason for seeking an education! I went to the local community college, got their course catalog and started thumbing through it. I was lazy back then and got as far as astronomy in the course descriptions. I read a line from one of the class summaries that said “astrophysicists can trace the origin of the universe to 1/10,000 of a second after the big bang.” I was hooked. I took the class and the other seven astronomy classes they offered (including introductory astrophysics which required knowledge of Calculus – I failed high school Algebra). I worked around the clock, often doing homework at my band’s sound checks at clubs. The famous American concert promoter, Bill Graham, once walked into our dressing room at a big show we were playing and saw me with a calculator and astrophysics text book. He was surprised that I was doing such “heavy reading” and told me that Brian May from Queen was an astrophysicist. Did that propel me towards my degree goal? No, I gave up a few months later. I was studying literally around the clock and became burnt out. Lesson number two: Pace yourself when it comes to achieving goals. Sometimes we have a short finite amount of time in which to achieve our goals, in which case we must burn the midnight oil. However, it is best to take the slow and steady approach, taking your time and methodically building up your knowledge base or foundation. For most of my life, I’ve jumped headlong into things, only knowing only two modes for studying: on and off. If your on, you have to be gong a hundred miles and hour. If your off your off. Find a good, steady cruising speed in which to approach your goals and you won’t burn out.

It was only later in life that I learned how to find that slow an steady pace that would allow me to achieve my goals. However, I still go over the edge when it comes to learning. When earning my Mandarin language degree and certificates, I started slow and steady but ended up jumping head first into the fires of obsessive learning. I immersed myself into my studies and nearly burned out which would have meant not meeting my goal. While immersion is a excellent way to learn a language, it can lead to burn out. Again, pace yourself. What saved me was having the right set of circumstances in place when I started my studies, otherwise things might have ended differently. Of course, I never would completed my studies had I not dealt with procrastination and discipline. Lesson two: Set a reasonable pace!

Procrastination is an issue everyone has to deal with. Show me someone who claims to never have procrastinated and I’ll show you a lair. It’s alright. We have all procrastinated at one point in our lives. Let’s say you have to go to the dentist and you’re not fond of dentists in general. You put your visit off until one side of your face looks like a Chipmunk’s cheek due to an abscess. So much for procrastinating. Humans tend to put off what they don’t like dealing with. They also put off certain aspects of what they want to deal with, such as studying. I know more than a few chess players who purchase a new chess book that’s going to help them improve their playing skills. The book then sits on a shelve collecting dust or gets partially read. We all want to improve our game play but it becomes less appealing when we suddenly realize we’re going to have to put a lot of effort into it! We make up excuses as to why we can’t crack that book open. We procrastinate.

The sure fire way to avoid procrastination is by tackling the biggest road block to achieving goals, discipline. Discipline is something my adopted father lives by. He is a master of this idea. He has had extremely serious health issues during the last few years that include severe pain that would leave most people in tears. Yet every single day, he gets up and practices his martial arts. Of course he is a certified martial arts master, but the point here is that he has discipline.

Discipline is not something you’re born with but something you slowly develop over time. The younger you are when you start to develop discipline, the easier things are going to be throughout life. If you’re a old middle aged goat such as myself, fear not, because you too can develop discipline and that discipline will be a life changer for you.

You develop discipline slowly, one step at a time. You’ll have set backs, but if you keep at it (developing discipline) you’ll find its rewards sooner than you think. The first way to develop this crucial life skill is to choose your initial goals carefully. You can’t think to yourself “even though I’ve never painted before, I’m going to be able to perfectly reproduce the works of Rembrandt within six months.” That’s not going to happen.

When I decided to learn Mandarin, I wanted to learn a few phrases I could use with the Chinese parents and grandparents of many of my students. Nothing more, nothing less. This is an achievable goal. I picked up a book, had some trouble with it and found an online course that allowed me to work at my own pace. I set aside time each day and studied. I stuck with it. Giving up too soon is an occupational hazard of learning any seemingly complex subject. I passed that course and took another one and ended up with an accelerated language degree. The point is this: I set a simple goal with no hard deadline or expectations. Lesson three: Set realistic goals.

Even if your goal is completely realistic, you have to have to achieve it which means following it through. This is really where discipline comes into play. Discipline is a slippery fish in that once you start to develop it, it becomes stronger and stronger. However, the slippery part is actually starting to develop discipline and maintaining it.

This is why you set a realistic goal. Discipline and realistic goals work hand in hand. Developing discipline starts the minute you’ve chosen your goal. To develop and maintain discipline you have to commit to a schedule. If you’re studying anything, you have to commit an allotment of time each day to achieve your goals. If you’re new to a subject, don’t commit a massive amount of time each day to your studies. Otherwise you’ll become burnt out. Concentration is key to studying and the novice doesn’t have the mental stamina to concentrate for long periods of time. When I first started studying Mandarin, I put about an hour a day into my studies, broken down into two thirty minute sessions. Only after I had built a solid language foundation did I extend the time I studied each day.

Disciple is like a garden in that you have to tend it daily or the vegetation will die. You cannot make excuses for not studying. Of course, you’ll have emergencies now and again, but stick to it. Otherwise you’ll skip a day here and there and before you know it, weeks will have passed in between study sessions. Discipline only occurs when you stop making excuses and step up to the task at hand. Discipline is like the muscles in your body. If you don’t maintain them, you’ll lose your strength. Lesson four: Discipline is only developed through daily exercise (sitting down and doing the work that achieves your goal). Here’s a game, by a couple of well disciplined players to enjoy until next week. This one’s for you, David Bowie!

Hugh Patterson

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About Hugh Patterson

Prior to teaching chess, Hugh Patterson was a professional guitarist for nearly three decades, playing in a number of well known San Francisco bands including KGB, The Offs, No Alternative, The Swinging Possums and The Watchmen. After recording a number of albums and CDs he retired from music to teach chess. He currently teaches ten chess classes a week through Academic Chess. He also created and runs a chess program for at-risk teenagers incarcerated in juvenile correctional facilities. In addition to writing a weekly column for The Chess Improver, Hugh also writes a weekly blog for the United States Chess League team, The Seattle Sluggers. He teaches chess privately as well, giving instruction to many well known musicians who are only now discovering the joys of chess. Hugh is an Correspondence Chess player with the ICCF (International Correspondence Chess Federation). He studied chemistry in college but has worked in fields ranging from Investment Banking and commodities trading to Plastics design and fabrication. However, Hugh prefers chess to all else (except Mrs. Patterson and his beloved dog and cat).