Goal-Setting is an Often Forgotten but Powerful Work/Life Skill

Goal-Setting is an Often Forgotten but Powerful Work/Life Skill

If I told you that goal setting is an important success strategy for your work as a student, I doubt you would be surprised by that statement. And yet, many students simply do not have their formal goal statements written down. Sure, some will tell me they know what they ultimately want to accomplish once they complete their degree; however, it often sounds like it is part of a dream that is far off in the distance.

What if I told you that you can get where you want to go (regardless of what you want to accomplish) much quicker, if you devote some time each week to writing, managing, and updating your goals? People rarely put their goals to paper and by some estimates, no more than 3% of the population writes them down. But creating the actual goals is only a start; you also need to develop a mindset that supports your progress and a strategy that encourages you to take action.

Why You Need to Establish Goals

Every student needs to establish goals because it helps to clarify the purpose for your school work and helps you chart a clearly defined path. When you put those goals in writing you are putting to paper the dreams and hopes that matter most to you. But that’s usually where students stop. They read about a goal setting technique, complete it once, and often do not think about it again until a time when one (or all) of the goals have not been met. Students that learn to create meaningful and realistic goals have also learned that the result is improved effectiveness in all areas of their life as everything they do is an action taken towards reaching the end result. They become more productive in their school work and focused on their studies, and these are skills that are immediately transferrable to their careers.

You’ve probably read an analogy that relates goal setting to having a roadmap, one that helps you chart your progress towards personal or professional self-development. But what does that really mean? If you have an end game or destination in mind, isn’t that enough to ensure those goals are met? Not always. I’m not a fan of this analogy because goals should never be thought of as rigid, with only one concrete means of accomplishing them. We know that “life happens” and throughout your journey as a student you are likely to deal with unexpected circumstances, events, change, and other elements that may change the progress and/or very nature of your goals. What this also implies is that goals should not be written down and set aside. If there is something you want to accomplish, you can use goals as stepping stones or building blocks to make it happen.

Why Goal Setting Fails

Besides failing to put goals in writing, there are other important reasons why students fail to achieve them. Timothy A. Pychyl, Ph.D., an associate professor of psychology at Carleton University in Ottawa, Canada, believes that the mindset used determines the outcome. He refers to goals as either an approach or avoidance goal. An approach goal is something you develop because it is a result of something you want to do that makes you happy. In contrast, avoidance goals are put into place as a means of “avoiding or eliminating undesired outcomes.” In other words, a goal is either positive in nature (approach goal – I want to complete my degree) or developed from a negative mindset (avoidance goal – I have to study to avoid bad grades). If you develop an avoidance goal, it creates a negative mindset that will reduce your overall satisfaction and progress.  

Ray Williams, author of Breaking Bad Habits, shared additional reasons in Why Goal Setting Doesn't Work. The first explanation has to do with the nervous system. Williams states that “when we desire things that we don't have, we set our brain's nervous system to produce negative emotions.” The second reason why we fail to reach our goals is that we establish outcomes that are far beyond our current competencies and capabilities. If we don’t acquire the skills necessary we experience feelings of failure and lose our motivation to continue trying. That’s not the only reason why failure defeats our goal setting attempts. Williams also talks about measurement of our success rate and that most people expect to reach a 100% attainment level and anything less than that is a failed attempt. Finally, if change occurs and we are not adaptable, that can have a negative impact on the final outcome.

Make Goal Setting Work for You

There are steps you can take to improve the goal setting process so that you successfully accomplish everything you’ve planned. The first is to create goals that are manageable and meaningful. If you tie the goals to your values (making it personal) you’ll increase your interest in the goal and the likelihood of staying motivated while avoiding procrastination. In addition, you can create approach goals (based upon a positive frame of mind) and a proactive (rather than reactive) approach to managing them.

As noted in my previous post, an effective goal setting method is the use of SMART goals, which stands for goals that are Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant, and Timely. For example, instead of stating that you want to finish your degree, transform it by stating I’ll complete all required coursework in two years, devoting 10 hours per week to my studies, earning a 3.5 overall GPA. There are three additional points to consider when using SMART goals, which overcome the inherent weaknesses of this technique.
1. Create a plan. Don’t just write down the goals, establish specific dates. Consider the skills and resources you have and those you’ll need to acquire. These are referred to as action steps that allow you to monitor and celebrate your progress along the way.
2. Establish milestones. You need frequent checkpoints to assess your progress and maintain your motivation. Don’t let the unexpected interrupt your continued progress.  
3. Remember your purpose. Your goals represent your vision and future dreams. If you keep this in mind, you’ll stay focused on your school work.
Whether you choose the SMART goal setting method or simply choose to write down what results you would like to accomplish, you need well-defined goals that prompt continued action on your part. I recommend establishing three levels of goals:
Now Goals: These are the short term goals that are related to acquiring skills and resources. For example, if your writing skills need development, check with your school to find out what resources are available.
Soon Goals: These are the mid-range goals that serve as interim steps. If the final outcome is to obtain your degree, a “soon goal” may consist of each class you take along the way. Then with every class completed you can check it off your list and celebrate an accomplishment.
Future Goals: These goals are long term in nature and lead you to your final desired result or accomplishment. These goals also cause you to develop new capabilities, acquire new knowledge and skills, and allow your dreams to come true.

Setting goals is more than a process of determining what you want. It involves assessing your strengths, areas of opportunity, and capabilities. When you write your goals down you can determine if they are reasonable and create a plan of action. You will become more effective as a student as you tie a specific purpose to everything you do, from a paper you write to a class you complete. Goal setting helps bring a vision of an improved result or future to life by putting you in a proactive and productive frame of mind.

You can follow Dr. Bruce A. Johnson on Twitter @DrBruceJ and Google+.

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