How to Set Goals (and achieve them)
Do you struggle with completing big projects at school? Are you thinking about picking up a new hobby? Or have you ever wanted to tackle a seemingly impossible task, like writing a book or running a marathon?
If so, keep reading!
We’re still in the (relatively) early months of 2023, and in the spirit of New Year’s resolutions, I thought it would be helpful to write a blog post on goal-setting. Even if you don’t participate in the typical mass goal-setting spurred by the arrival of January 1st, you might still find the strategies I’ve listed useful, because they’re very flexible. They’ll work for both short-term (a school project) and long-term (learning a language) goals.
Grab a pen and a piece of paper.
If you don’t know what goals you’d like to achieve, try to imagine where you’d like to be in the future (in a month, a year, or a decade). What kind of goals would Future You have achieved? If looking that far into the future is too difficult, then consider the people you currently admire. Which skills or abilities would you like to learn from them?
To give a more concrete example, if a friend of yours is an amazing artist, ask yourself if learning how to draw may be a goal that interests you. At this point, it’s okay to be vague.
If, on the other hand, you have too many ideas, jot them all down until you run out!
Establish Your Priorities
Now that you have some potential goals in mind, it’s time to determine which ones are the most important to you. This step largely depends on how much free time you have and how much you believe you can handle. Instead of taking on too many goals and risking burnout, it's best to start with a few manageable ones and gradually add more over time.
I suggest starting with 1–3 goals, and avoiding exceeding 5–7. Attempting to juggle more than that becomes very challenging (believe me, I’ve tried).
There are a few ways to organize your priorities after selecting them:
- Rank: Simply order them from most to least important, and refer to this ranking whenever you have scheduling conflicts or time constraints, to decide what to focus on first.
- Group: Divide your goals into several groups based on importance (e.g., top priority, important, nice to do, optional). You can either rank them within each group, or treat everything within a group equally. For example, if you only have time to either read or draw, and both are in the “important” category, you’re free to do either one; if you ranked them, you would pick the one with the higher rank.
- Cluster: Instead of grouping by importance, group by theme; create clusters of goals that fall into the same area (e.g., health, relationships, school). This gives you more options: you can rank the clusters; rank each goal within a cluster and treat clusters equally; or set aside time periods where a certain cluster is the focus (perhaps completing your schoolwork is the most important priority on weekdays, and spending time with friends is the focus on the weekends).
Of course, this list isn’t exhaustive—feel free to devise your own system. The most important aspect of this step is creating a tool that you can refer to when you have to choose between two things on a particular day due to unforeseen circumstances. You don’t want to waste time wondering, What do I do now? You want a simple reference sheet that you can use to quickly resolve any scheduling conflicts.
Now that you have your priorities in order, it’s time to make them specific. How do you do that? By assigning them numbers.
Here’s what I mean.
Let’s say you have three goals:
- Read more
- Go outside more
- Code a video game
These are all great goals, but how will you measure your progress? How will you know when you’ve achieved them?
Here’s where numbers come in. When specifying them, consider how much time you want to dedicate to a goal, and your timeline for achieving it. Here’s an example:
- Read 20 books
- Walk 10 miles
- Create a game that takes my friend 3 hours to complete
Now you should have a clearer idea of what you’re aiming for. But how do you actually achieve your goals?
That’s where habits come in.
Whether big or small, a goal requires consistency to accomplish—but simply committing to “read a little every day” isn’t going to cut it, because you won’t know when you’ve done enough for the day.
That’s why we need numbers (again).
When starting out, try to keep the numbers small; this makes it easier to stick to your habits in the long run. Also, consider your past experience when planning. For instance, if you haven’t read a book in years, deciding to read 50 pages a day may lead to burnout. However, if you’re already reading 100, setting a goal of 125 pages a day isn’t that unreasonable.
Here’s an example of what habits might look like:
- Read 10 pages a day, 5 days a week
- Walk for 30 mins twice a week
- Work on the game for 1 hour a day, 3 days a week
There are two types of numbers above: a time goal (30 mins/day) and an objective goal (10 pages pgs/day). It really doesn’t matter what kind you pick; just decide which one works best for you (and motivates you the most!). Objective goals are nice because you might be able to finish them earlier than expected (just don’t rush them) And time goals are great because they’re all about whether you did your best during the allotted time window—and that can take some stress off your mind.
You may notice that the video game goal still seems a little vague. What does “work” really mean? We can use milestones to reduce that ambiguity.
Set Up Milestones
Some goals are more complex than others, and that’s okay! It might help to break them down into smaller, simpler tasks.
Using the game development example:
Create a game:
- Research what makes games good
- Develop a good premise
- List the features the game must have (which creates a sub-list of milestones)
- Code each feature
- Add graphics
What does this give us? An opportunity for rewards!
Before beginning to work towards the goal, set rewards for yourself that you’ll receive after accomplishing each milestone. A reward can be anything—just make it proportional to the difficulty of the task.
Additionally, it’s important not to plan rewards that go against your goals. For example, if you want to spend less time gaming, spending an afternoon playing video games isn’t a good reward. Now, that doesn’t mean you should stop playing video games altogether—you just shouldn't frame playing as a reward for not playing.
If your goal doesn’t have clear milestones, you can create them yourself! For instance, if your goal is to start walking daily, then after two weeks of taking daily walks, you could reward yourself with a movie night with your friends.
Now you have a plan for what to do—but what if it doesn’t work out?
This is where reflection days come in. Determine how often to have them (weekly, monthly, etc.), and when they arrive, look back on the past week/month/etc. and assess how it went. Was the goal too easy? Too difficult? Did anything unexpected pop up, resulting in less available time you could have devoted to your goals?
Take all that into consideration and adjust the plan for your next week/month/etc. accordingly.
For larger goals, having both short- and long-term reflections can be helpful (e.g., weekly + monthly + quarterly + yearly). The number of reflections you need depends on the scale of your goal.
It’s useful to have a visual representation of your progress, so here are just a few ideas for that:
- Habit tracker apps
- To-do lists (either in apps or on paper—or both!)
- Bullet journals
- A calendar on your wall (you can cross off successful days)
- A progress bar on a whiteboard/piece of paper
There isn't a right or wrong way to represent your progress; get creative and have fun with it!
Now, to put everything in one place, I’ll give you an example of a goal with its corresponding reflection and planning process.
- Goal (vague): Learn to draw
- Goal (specific): Create 20 drawings of objects in my room (size A4)
- Habit: Draw for 30 minutes every other day
- Plan: Draw at 5 PM every day as a fun break from homework
- Tracker: Print a calendar and put it on my desk. Cross out successful days. Set reminders in Google Calendar.
- After 5 drawings, I get to read all afternoon
- After 10 drawings, I get to visit the art museum
- After 15 drawings, I can buy that video game I’ve been wanting to play
- After 20 drawings, I get a day just for having fun and playing video games
Reflect every week.
- Reflection: 30 minutes is too long, and 5 PM doesn’t seem to be the best time
- New habit: Draw for 15 minutes every other day
- New plan: Draw at 9 PM, before bedtime
So, what do you need to get started?
- A specific goal
- A specific habit
- Milestones and proportional rewards
- A specific time for reflection and planning
- A way to track your progress
Here are some resources that I’ve found useful (and that are fully/mostly free).
- Pomodoro Timer (but any app works here; there are plenty available!)
- TickTick (a to-do app with a pomodoro timer!)
- Structured (only for iOS devices for the time being, but very useful for planning your days; syncs with Calendar)
- blocos (similar to Structured, but available on both Android and iOS)
- Habits (a minimalist habit tracker!)
- Notion (there are tons of free project management dashboard templates online—or you can make your own!)
I hope this was helpful, and I wish you the best of luck with your goals; I’m sure you’ll achieve great things!
Does one of your goals involve learning something new? Check out the Explore Page of Schoolhouse.world and join a session today!
Thank you Sharon V for editing this article!
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