How to Set Goals

Originally published March 2013, online student newsletter.

As we go through life, we are constantly surrounded by situations that require us to set goals. We may need to make it to a meeting on time or finish our schoolwork so we can go to that party. Sometimes our goals are small, while other times they are much bigger, like getting a job or completing our degree. Whether you are still working on setting regular study goals, looking to plan your life beyond graduation, or just want to be more productive on an everyday basis, setting goals will help you get there.

Here are three steps to setting — and achieving! — your goals.

1. Start small

The key to succeeding in your goals is developing habits that allow you to get there, one step at a time.  They say it takes 21 days to build a habit, and habits work best when developed one at a time. By doing one thing consistently for a few weeks, you will develop lasting habits that stick with you far longer than trying to revolutionize 13 areas of your life all at once.

So start by taking one goal–or one part of a goal if it’s a big one–and start practicing it now.  I have been working on this method of developing habits for awhile and have been amazed at how much easier it is to reach my goals when I’m only doing one new thing at a time. I started with a goal of making a healthy breakfast every morning. No matter what else happened that day (or the night before!), I knew I had to wake up early enough to get that done. After a few weeks, it wasn’t a big deal.  My next goal was consistent Bible reading. So I made a goal to read four pages in my Bible every morning and now that gets done (almost!) every day.

The key to this kind of goal setting is that it suddenly becomes attainable.  I could have started by saying “I need to establish a morning routine where I wake up early, read my Bible, write an article, make a healthy breakfast, and be ready to start work on time.”  However, I have tried that before–and it never worked!  By choosing one small goal and working at it consistently, I am developing a real morning routine that works and that actually happens!

2. Think SMART

As you are setting goals and trying to decide what habits to develop, SMART goals can help you to break down those goals or habits to the smallest actionable step and give you a way to measure your progress. So what does a SMART goal look like?  Jump over to the Study Tips section to read all about it.

Okay, did you take a look?  🙂  Any goal you set can and should follow this pattern.  It’s amazing how effective it is to make a goal ‘SMART.’ Instead of setting a goal that says “I want to read more good books,” a SMART goal could say “My goal is to read one classic a month (starting with Jane Eyre and Tale of Two Cities) by reading for 30 minutes every morning and during lunch when possible.”

Let’s analyze this goal. Is it specific? “One classic a month,” “Jane Eyre and Tale of Two Cities,” “reading 30 minutes every morning.”  Seems pretty specific to me!  Is it measurable? Well, if the goal-setter has finished Jane Eyre the first month and Tale of Two Cities the next month, they will know that the goal has been reached!  If they are wanting to keep reading good books, they will probably want to choose specific works to read for the following months as well.

Is it attainable?  Since the goal-setter is the one who will be doing the reading, it should be something they have control over. They might also want to consider whether they have control over their morning and lunch schedules to ensure it is something they can attain.  Is it realistic? This will depend on the individual goal-setter, but by outlining it so specifically, this goal has become much more realistic than the original one of ‘reading good books.’  Finally, is it time-sensitive?  Since the goal is to read a book within one month, we know when the deadline is and can work towards that!

It seems to be a workable SMART goal!  If you compared this one with the original goal, which do you think is more likely to happen?

3. Don’t be afraid to fail

As you set goals and work to accomplish them, you will have times when you don’t succeed the way you would like. But if you allow fear of that failure to hold you back from even trying, you only hurt yourself.

And believe it or not, failure can actually be a good thing!  One of my favorite [animated] movie quotes is from Meet the Robinson’s: “From failing, you learn!  From success, not so much.”  When you fail (which will inevitably happen), don’t get discouraged. Instead, see it as an opportunity to evaluate what worked, what didn’t, and revise your goals to become even more successful the next time around.

Okay, are you ready to put this into practice?  Get some paper right now and write out three things you want to accomplish.  Make sure you word it in SMART goal formatting. Now, pick one of those goals and identify the one to three habits you will need to develop to get there. Start practicing one habit today… and before you know it, you will be on your way to achieving your goals!

Image: kasia-lis, CC