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Feeling stuck on the ukulele? Use S.M.A.R.T. goals to get back on track

Updated: Nov 3, 2023

It's the cusp of the new year ... or, it's just Thursday, and I don't dare look behind me. I know I'll see a tangled heap of optimistic goals laying just inside the threshold of the day.

How many years have I vowed, "THIS year will be different!"? All of them. So, I'm switching up my game plan.

Using a S.M.A.R.T goal tool can help make ukulele goals more attainable

Usually, when I wing a big, ambitious-but-vague goal into the starry eve of a new year, there's not much more than champaign bubbles to keep it aloft. This time, I'm taking a little more thought and time to craft a goal that I can actually achieve -- and make sure not to over-build it. I don't want it to collapse under its own weight, leaving me feeling progressively bad about myself as the year moves inexorably forward without me.

I'm using a nerdy tool to keep me on track. Key ingredients include focus and introspection, and it just might keep me from spending all year kicking myself for not achieving the impossible.

Crafting the goal

This year, I am creating a goal that is Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, and Time-bound -- a S.M.A.R.T. goal: Yep, totally nerdy ... and exactly the power tool I need in my goal-setting arsenal.

The benefit is that it forces me to break it down to achievable steps, whittling out anything that doesn't feed the goal. It doesn't mean I have to do only goal-related stuff. It just means that I have a plan and a timeframe. Let's do it:


When I complete the sentence, "I want to learn how to...," I'm swamped with ideas. It's like picking out a puppy, though: I let 'em come tumbling out in a wiggling heap and play with them all until I keep coming back to the one that will follow me home. My puppies include smoothing out those chord changes, memorize that tricky song, smoothing out my strum, becoming a better fingerpicker, tip-toeing farther into music theory, playing solos up the neck, learning some fun tricks immortalized by Cliff Edwards, George Formby, and Roy Smeck....

This is all pretty fabulous and ambitious, but that's a LOT to tackle along with the rest of the activities that make up my life.

Ask focusing questions: What will make me a more versatile and nimble player? What is it that has stymied me this past year? What one goal will serve the other goals as well? Looking ahead to the end of the year, what do I want see myself doing with ease and joy?

Here's what I'm choosing: Become a better fingerpicker. It is related to some or all of the elements of the other goals, but the focus is on the one overall goal. So ALL the puppies are coming home with me after all! How am I going to keep it all from collapsing in on itself?

Getting even more specific: There are lots of fingerpicking styles. I'm choosing one related to the kind of music I love to play: Bluegrass.

That's all fine and dandy, but I still need to create a sustainable way of realizing that goal.


I need some kind of yardstick to measure my progress by throughout the year. Something along the lines of:

Be able to play the bluegrass banjo roll for "Rocky Top" at a specific speed (measured in beats per minute on my metronome). Metronomes are great ways to measure progress.


It's easy to dream impossible dreams. The challenge is setting it up so I can actually incorporate what I've learned, on the fly, in different scenarios - not just the song I've focused on.

I'll flesh out what resources I'll tap into, whether it's a book, a lesson, or something of my own making. To keep from being overwhelmed by the goal-setting process, as long as I have the overall goal in mind, I can chart the course just a few weeks at a time to allow my progress to evolve as I learn how to learn. I'll be sure to make a date with myself in a timeframe that makes sense to me to create fresh steps in time to keep the ball rolling.


When I'm playing for my own enjoyment or jamming and performing with other musicians, I'm always insanely jealous of those who can fingerpick at lightning speed and in a way that elevates the song. As a performer, I can contribute more by developing the ability to add fingerpicking texture.

Choose a song you love to play. It'll pull you towards it, towards practicing, towards training yourself to play it the way you hear it on the jukebox inside your head.

That's what gives me intrinsic incentive to keep working towards the goal. Plus, I just want my fingers to be on fire!


Funny thing about time: Let it trickle through your fingers and you'll never have enough for working on those goals. Yet, there's always time to catch up on a favorite TV show.

Knowing me as I do, I need some structure. I need to set deadlines for myself to do the work, with a plan that leaves room for life's glorious vagaries and filligrees to happen without derailing my efforts.

I'll gather what resources I need to make this happen. As rabbit holes open up, I need to be able to stay focused on my plan for the allotted time. I can invite all hell to break loose afterwards.

In the end, I'll have gotten over a hump that has held me back for several years, be better able to hold my own when jamming and performing with other musicians, and, most importantly, increase my own joy and spontaneity of play.

Still don't feel like you have time? Studies show that several short bursts are better than one long slog (though, when you get gloriously lost in playing, a long slog can turn into some deep learning). Give yourself a deadline (I will learn to play this song well enough for next week's jam session), and that can light a fire under your practice!


I'm adding one more step: Stating the goal. Once you've done all the S.M.A.R.T steps, spell it out for yourself: My goal is to be able to play "Rocky Top" at speed by Tuesday, July 8, of this year.

Keep your eyes on the prize. Put a note up where you can see it regularly. Keep your ukulele out where you can grab it and work on it regularly as well as spontaneously. Keep your specific steps clearly delineated so you don't get mired down in vagueness.

What's your goal?

How do you plan to achieve it? What will you do to triumph over your usual pitfalls? What are you rewarding yourself with? Be gentle and kind with yourself. Don't overload. Keep it simple. Keep it doable. Keep on it! I'd love to hear how you're taking steps towards becoming the player you dream of being.

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