4.1 Setting and Reaching Goals

Learning Objectives

  1. Make short-, mid-, and long-term goals that are realistic and specific and commit to them.
  2. Set priorities for reaching your goals as a basis for time management.
  3. Develop an attitude for success.
  4. Learn to use strategies for staying focused and motivated.
  5. Network with other students to help ensure academic success.

A goal is a result we intend to reach mostly through our own actions. Things we do may move us closer to or farther away from that result. Studying moves us closer to success in a difficult course, while sleeping through the final examination may completely prevent reaching that goal. That may be an extreme case, yet still a lot of university students don’t reach their goal of graduating. The problem may be a lack of commitment to the goal, but often students have conflicting goals. One way to prevent problems is to think about all your goals and priorities and to learn ways to manage your time, your studies, and your social life to best reach your goals.

As you think about your own goals, think about more than just being a student. You’re also a person with individual needs and desires, hopes and dreams, plans and schemes. Your long-term goals likely include graduation and a career but may also involve social relationships with others, a romantic relationship, family, hobbies or other activities, where and how you live, and so on. While you are a student you may not be actively pursuing all your goals with the same fervor, but they remain goals and are still important in your life.

Goals also vary in terms of time. Short-term goals focus on today, the next few days and perhaps the next few weeks. Mid-term goals involve plans for this school year and the time you plan to remain in university. Long-term goals may begin with graduating university and everything you want to happen thereafter. Often your long-term goals (e.g., the kind of career you want) guide your midterm goals (getting the right education for that career), and your short-term goals (such as doing well on an exam) become steps for reaching those larger goals. Thinking about your goals in this way helps you realize how even the little things you do every day can keep you moving toward your most important long-term goals.

Write out your goals in Activity 1. The act of finding the best words to describe your goals helps you think more clearly about them. Follow these guidelines:

  • Goals should be realistic. It’s good to dream and to challenge yourself, but your goals should relate to your personal strengths and abilities.
  • Goals should be specific. Don’t write, “I will become a great musician”; instead, write, “I will finish my music degree and be employed in a symphony orchestra.”
  • Goals should have a time frame. You won’t feel very motivated if your goal is vaguely “to finish university someday.” If you’re realistic and specific in your goals, you should also be able to project a time frame for reaching the goal.
  • You should really want to reach the goal. We’re willing to work hard to reach goals we really care about, but we’re likely to give up when we encounter obstacles if we don’t feel strongly about a goal. If you’re doing something only because your parents or someone else wants you to, then it’s not your own personal goal—and you may have some more thinking to do about your life.

Activity 1: Personal Goals

Write your goals in the following blanks. Be sure to consider all areas of your life—consider everything important that you want to do between this moment and old age. (While you might aim for three to eight goals in each section, remember that everyone is unique, and you may be just as passionate about just one or two goals or more than eight.)

Short-term goals (today, this week, and this month):

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Midterm goals (this year and while in university):

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Long-term goals (from university on):

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Priorities

Thinking about your goals gets you started, but it’s also important to think about priorities. We often use the word “priorities” to refer to how important something is to us. We might think, This is a really important goal, and that is less important. Try this experiment: go back to the goals you wrote in Activity 1 and see if you can rank each goal as a 1 (top priority), 2 (middle priority), or 3 (lowest priority).

It sounds easy, but do you actually feel comfortable doing that? Maybe you gave a priority 1 to passing your courses and a priority 3 to playing your guitar. So what does that mean—that you never play guitar again, or at least not while in university? Whenever you have an hour free between class and work, you have to study because that’s the higher priority? What about all your other goals—do you have to ignore everything that’s not a priority 1? And what happens when you have to choose among different goals that are both number 1 priorities?

In reality, priorities don’t work quite that way. It doesn’t make a lot of sense to try to rank goals as always more or less important. The question of priority is really a question of what is more important at a specific time. It is important to do well in your classes, but it’s also important to have a social life and enjoy your time off from studying. You shouldn’t have to choose between the two—except at any given time. Priorities always involve time: what is most important to do right now. As we’ll see later, time management is mostly a way to juggle priorities so you can meet all your goals.

When you manage your time well, you don’t have to ignore some goals completely in order to meet other goals. In other words, you don’t have to give up your life when you register for university—but you may need to work on managing your life more effectively.

But time management works only when you’re committed to your goals. Attitude and motivation are very important. If you haven’t yet developed an attitude for success, all the time management skills in the world won’t keep you focused and motivated to succeed.

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Figure 4-2: Everything starts with attitude Loozrboy Source: https://www.flickr.com/photos/loozrboy/7755365008 Permission: CC BY-SA 2.0

Stay Focused and Motivated

Okay, you’ve got a positive, yet realistic, attitude. But you’ve got a lot of reading for classes to do tonight, a test tomorrow, and a paper due the next day. Maybe you’re a little bored with one of your reading assignments. Maybe you’d rather play a computer game. Uh oh—now what? Attitude can change at almost any moment. One minute you’re enthusiastically starting a class project, and then maybe a friend drops by and suddenly all you want to do is close the books and relax a while, hang out with friends.

One of the characteristics of successful people is accepting that life is full of interruptions and change—and planning for it. Staying focused does not mean you become a boring person who does nothing but go to class and study all the time. You just need to make a plan.

Planning ahead is the single best way to stay focused and motivated to reach your goals. Don’t wait until the night before an exam. If you know you have a major exam in five days, start by reviewing the material and deciding how many hours of study you need. Then schedule those hours spread out over the next few days—at times when you are most alert and least likely to be distracted. Allow time for other activities, too, to reward yourself for successful studying. Then when the exam comes, you’re relaxed, you know the material, you’re in a good mood and confident, and you do well.

Planning is mostly a matter of managing your time well, as we’ll see later. Here are some other tips for staying focused and motivated:

  • If you just can’t focus in on what you should be doing because the task seems too big and daunting, break the task into smaller, manageable pieces. Don’t start out thinking, “I need to study the next four hours,” but think, “I’ll spend the next thirty minutes going through my class notes from the last three weeks and figure out what topics I need to spend more time on.” It’s a lot easier to stay focused when you’re sitting down for thirty minutes at a time.
  • Remember your successes, even small successes. As you begin a project or approach studying for a test, think about your past success on a different project or test. Remember how good it feels to succeed. Know you can succeed again.
  • Try not to multitask while studying. You may think that you can monitor your e-mails and send text messages while studying, but in reality, these other activities lower the quality of your studying.
  • Imitate successful people. Does a friend always seem better able to stick with studying or work until they get it done? What are they doing that you’re not? We all learn from observing others, and we can speed up that process by deliberately using the same strategies we see working with others. Visualize yourself studying in the same way and getting that same high grade on the test or paper. Also, ask them about how they do so well.
  • Get the important things done first. We’ll talk about managing your academic planner and to-do lists later in the chapter, but for now, to stay focused and motivated, concentrate on the things that matter most. You’re about to sit down to read a chapter in a book you’re not much enjoying, and you suddenly notice some clothing piled up on a chair. “I really should clean up this place,” you think. “And I’d better get my laundry done before I run out of things to wear.” Don’t try to fool yourself into feeling you’re accomplishing something by doing laundry rather than studying. Stay focused!
  • Negative thinking is powerful, in both good and bad ways. While it’s important to avoid spiraling into negativity that creates deep anxiety and paralyzes you from achieving your goals, remembering that to picture future obstacles can be helpful in achieving your goals, according to Kappes and Oettingen (2011). The researchers found that the students who had positive fantasies about the future had less energy to achieve their goals, though they were more relaxed and contented in the moment. The trick is to think clearly about your end goal, but to think also about the steps to get there and the likely and potential obstacles along the way.

Don’t Go It Alone

Figure 4-3: Studying alone is very effective, but think about leveraging the benefits of studying in a group from time to time. Source: Francisco Osorio https://www.flickr.com/photos/francisco_osorio/albums/72157632633067987 Permission: CC BY 2.0

Did you study alone or with friends in high school? Because university classes are typically much more challenging, many university students discover they do better, and find it much more enjoyable, if they study with other students taking same course. This might mean organizing a study group or just getting together with a friend to review material before a test. It’s good to start thinking right away about networking with other students in your classes.

If you consider yourself an independent person and prefer studying and doing projects on your own rather than with others, think for a minute about how most people function in their careers and professions, what the business world is like. Most work today is done by teams or individuals working together in a collaborative way. Very few jobs involve a person always being and working alone. The more you learn to study and work with other students now, the more skills you are mastering for a successful career.

Studying with other students has immediate benefits. You can quiz each other to help ensure that everyone understands the course material; if you’re not clear about something, someone else can help teach it to you. You can read and respond to each other’s writing and other work. You can divide up the work in group projects. And through it all, you can often have more fun than if you were doing it on your own.

Studying together is also a great way to start networking—a topic we’ll discuss more in coming chapters. Networking has many potential benefits for your future. University students who feel they are part of a network on campus are more motivated and more successful in university.

Problem Solving: When Setbacks Happen

Even when you have clear goals and are motivated and focused to achieve them, problems sometimes happen. Accept that they will happen, since inevitably they do for everyone. The difference between those who succeed by solving the problem and moving on and those who get frustrated and give up is partly attitude and partly experience—and knowing how to cope when a problem occurs.

Lots of different kinds of setbacks may happen while you’re in university—just as to everyone in life. Here are a few examples:

  • Financial struggles
  • An illness or injury
  • A crisis involving family members or loved ones
  • Stress related to frequently feeling you don’t have enough time
  • Stress related to relationship problems

Some things happen that we cannot prevent. But many other kinds of problems can be prevented or made less likely to occur. You can take steps to stay healthy. You can take control of your finances. You can learn how to build successful social relationships and get along better with your instructors, with other students, and in personal relationships. You can learn time management techniques to ensure you use your time effectively for studying.

What to do when setbacks do happen?

First, work to resolve the immediate problem:

  1. The most important thing to do is to connect. Connect with your feelings and reconnect with your goals, and don’t forget to connect with other people. Seek help when you need to. None of us gets through life alone, and it’s not a sign of weakness to see your academic advisor or a university counselor if you have a problem.
  2. Analyze the problem to consider all possible solutions. An unexpected financial setback doesn’t automatically mean you have to drop out of school—not when alternatives such as student loans, less expensive living arrangements, or other possible solutions may be available. Failing a midterm exam doesn’t automatically mean you’re going to fail the course—not when you make the effort to determine what went wrong, work with your instructor and others on an improved study plan, and use better strategies to prepare for the next test. Many students go through this, especially in their first year, and then go on to do better next time.
  3. When you’ve developed a plan for resolving the problem, work to follow through. If it will take a while before the problem is completely solved, track your progress in smaller steps so that you can see you really are succeeding. Every day will move you one step closer to putting it behind you.

 

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Strategies for Academic Success by University of Saskatchewan is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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