You must know where you want to go, and you'd do well to be pretty specific about it.
Knowing where to go - what your goals are - is important for quite a few reasons, above all the fact that your best chance to achieve your goals is to make a plan that enables them. This article is about how you set goals for yourself, and the principles you should employ when you make a plan to reach those goals.
First, let me reiterate something I mentioned in the first article: This series is not aimed at casual players. If your goals are simply "I want to win $1,000" or "I want to play 100 SnG's" then you don't need to dive into the kind of planning I talk about here. This is directed at people who want to be serious students of the game of poker, who want to go as far as they can with the time that they have to spend on it, whether this is 5 or 50 hours a week.
Step one in this process is defining and understanding what you want out of poker. Psychology of Poker by Dr. Alan Schoonmaker may be a good book for you to read to come to terms with what your own motivations are, but right now I will presume that they are a mixture of wanting to challenge yourself and wanting to make money. Hopefully the thrill of gambling isn't one of them; whether or not you also want to play to some extent to pass time is also largely irrelevant.
I want to make it clear that making money and challenging yourself may be goals that are contradicting each other, which may not be obvious. Won't higher limits bring both more challenge and more money? Only to a point. Unless you're one of the best players in the world, you are bound to sooner or later reach a limit where you're no longer making money, or just about breaking even. In this case, it's better if you step down to where you maximize your earning if your goal is to make as much money as possible. However, if your goal is to constantly challenge yourself, you should be willing to spend more time fighting at a higher level before learning how to beat it.
An extreme example of money vs. challenge is a player who will play 10 games of $2/$4 limit hold 'em simultaneously online. This was, presumably, challenging and difficult in the beginning. But after a few months of successfully doing this for 40 hours a week, it will become less and less challenging, even mechanical.
So ask yourself, what do you want to achieve? Do you want to be able to eventually take shots at $100/$200? Or are you in it for the money? Accepting that the goals can be contradicting each other is important.
Before we move on to how to construct your plan, I want to suggest a couple of other advantages to making one at all:
... breeds discipline
By now, I've hopefully done a pretty good job of giving you the idea that successfully mastering poker is hard work, and if I have, then pointing out that hard work requires discipline is hopefully easy to accept. If you're devoted to the task, then the goal you set for yourself may require a lot of effort to reach, and us humans are infamous for our dislike of effort - we're lazy by nature, this is why we invent all this convenient stuff like armchairs, internet shopping and the wheel. We need to be reminded of why we're putting in all this effort to keep us motivated, even when things aren't going our way and the world appears to be conspiring against us.
Staying disciplined is difficult, but with proper planning it becomes a little bit easier. A lot of people find enjoyment in being able to cross things off their to-do list even if the things actually on the list aren't enjoyable; then that becomes a mini-motivator all by itself.
... and gives a purpose
With a plan and a clearly defined goal, you will be able to see a purpose in what you're doing even when the amount of work you have ahead of you may feel overwhelming. For the sake of motivation, this is more important than just being able to cross things off a to-do list, even if they're actually one and the same. Being able to see progress, over the course of time, is the biggest motivator I can think of. A simple example is a bankroll tracking graph: Even with a couple of days' worth of brutal bad beats, you should still be able to look back on your bankroll progress at a whole and see that the graph is pointing up and take some comfort in that. If you know what your next milestone is, you should also be able to deduce how close you are to reaching it.
A milestone, a term simply borrowed from long distance running, is a point in progress where you can say to yourself "now I've come THIS far." If your goal is to build a bankroll of $10,000, for instance, you could have milestones every $500. It wouldn't make much sense to make each dollar a milestone, because reaching a milestone should be a time for a small celebration of some kind. Instead of focusing on the goal - which may be months or even years away - carefully spaced milestones present you with something that is attainable within the not-so-distant future. It's easier to work towards a goal that will be reached soon. This is a psychological fact for most people; "instant gratification," getting our rewards quickly, is a powerful motivator. If we were computers, setting milestones would be useless. But people need a pat on the shoulder every now and then, even if it's our own hand that's patting us.
And this brings us to a hugely important factor in setting goals: They should be measurable! If any of you work in larger corporations or have taken courses on the topic, you should be familiar with the idea. Setting goals that cannot be measured in numbers is unwise. I was originally going to say "useless," but on second thought I disagreed with myself. All goals serve some purpose, but it's the measurable ones that we can use to our advantage. Non-measurable goals I'd like to call "ambitions," which can be useful as well, but not act as milestones. Let me give a few examples:
These are good examples of a milestone and an ambition. There are, however, measurable goals in poker that are counterproductive, specifically goals which specify a certain amount of profit in a too-small of a sample. For instance:
The basic problem with that is that poker is a gambling game - you're betting on an uncertain outcome in every hand that you enter - and so you're at the mercy of the deck. Superior skill will in its own time dictate the outcome, but hardly in a single week. In just one week, it's unlikely that you'll play enough hands to actually be able to reach this goal with certainty. You should get in the habit of setting goals that are up to YOU to achieve, not the short term falling of the cards. If you're a winning player, you should be able to set a goal for winning a certain amount of money over the course of a year or a couple of months, but a week is never enough. I'd be wary of setting a monetary goal with a timeframe as short as one month as well, but that depends largely on how much you actually play.
There's yet one more principle of planning that I want to touch on: Planning for events you haven't planned for. This is not a contradiction in terms; a plan can certainly include the possibility of changing itself - a prominent example of this is the US constitution. It goes without saying that your plan will not have to be anywhere near as complete or as detailed as a country's constitution, but you should have some idea of how you will act if you decide that the current plan is not working. Just starting over again is one option - make a new plan entirely - but there can be other variants.
For instance, if you plan on playing 100,000 hands this year, and you've set out milestones of every 10,000 hands where you will review your progress, make cashouts, etc. but you find yourself in a situation where you simply won't have the time to play this much, how will you adjust? Just keeping the goal as it is and accepting that you won't reach it can be very detrimental; this goes back to the factor of discipline. I will discuss this in more detail in Lesson #5.
By now, it should be clear why this is something that a casual player is unlikely to want to go through. This is a lot of work for a hobby, and setting strict goals and being disciplined about them is not something that a casual player, whose relationship with poker is limited to logging on when there's some time left to kill now and then, is going to be up for.
Finally, your plan should be realistic. In fact, it should be more than realistic; you should give yourself padding, or more time than you think necessary, for the things you plan to do. Unexpected things always occur - including things like being bored with the game for a period of time - and disregarding those factors completely is foolhardy. If you're currently really into poker, and you play 6 hours a day, don't make a goal that requires you to keep up this pace unless you're absolutely sure that you can. Set an easier goal for yourself, because it's important that you set a goal that you can reach. Conversely, however, setting a pointless target that you don't have to work on at all to reach is also counter-productive, of course.
So how serious and detailed does a plan need to be? That's entirely dependent on the goals. I wish there was a template I could give you to fill out, but the best I can do is to give you an example, with some basic stipulations.
Anna has been playing poker for about a year, and is a somewhat stable winner at $10 no-limit hold 'em cash poker games. She plays about 10 hours a week, and is ambitious about playing more seriously. Her goal is to be a winning player at $400 no-limit, within a year. She's a well paid professional, who's not in it for the money.
She owns one poker book, Super System 2 by Doyle Brunson. She's a member of an internet forum, and has gotten the recommendation to pick up Dan Harrington's books, Sklansky's Theory of Poker and Miller/Sklansky's No Limit Hold 'em: Theory and Practise.
Her bankroll is currently $350. She breaks down her goal like this:
I want to be a winning player at $400 NL within a year. In order to even play $400 NL, I want a bankroll of $10,000 (25 buy-ins), but on top of that I need to be a winning player. The natural progression of limits to reach $400 is $10 -> $25 -> $50 -> $100 -> $200 -> $400. My way of gauging whether or not I'm winning is if I show a profit after 10,000 hands of a certain limit. How much profit I can show is not important.
Milestones, ambitions and rewards:
In case this won't work:
What Anna does with her plan is up to her. She can print it and place it on the wall next to the computer, she could post it on the internet, or she could simply just keep it on a note somewhere. It is good, however, to write it down as that adds extra incentive for fulfilling it and will help her stay disciplined about what she has set out to do.
As you see, the plan doesn't take up a lot of space (and is certainly nowhere near the complexity of the US constitution!) but it contains the core elements nonetheless: A goal and milestones for reaching it, both of which are measurable, it is somewhat realistic and to-the-point, and it includes a clause about how to proceed if the goals within cannot be reached. All that is left is to wish Anna good luck.