4.3 Goal Setting: Plans for Progress

Too many times, students start college without any end goal in mind. Taking the time to think about what you want and how you plan to get there is a useful exercise as you begin something as important as starting college. Now, that is not to say that goals and plans do not change along the way; goal setting should be viewed as a process that includes evaluating the results of a plan to determine if you need to modify your plans or goal. It has been established that “goals motivate,” so taking the time to spell out those goals will help keep you moving forward in life rather than stagnating or just settling for what comes your way.

Goals Motivate By…

  1. Directing attention—What do I need to do?
  2. Directing effort—How hard do I need to work?
  3. Specifying a duration—How long is it going to take?
  4. Providing a strategic plan—What steps do I need to take?
  5. Providing a reference point—How far have I come?

Adapted from Dembo & Seli (2008)

Long-term goals, like graduating from college, can be very overwhelming, and sometimes it is hard to see the end in sight or the pay-off. That is why it is important to break goals down into smaller goals, so that you feel like you are accomplishing something along the way.

Figure 4-3. The Breakdown of Long-term Goal


Chart of The Breakdown of Long-term Goals into sub-goals.
Source: York University Counseling and Development Centre (2007)

Most often, people indicate that they have a goal much like a New Year’s Resolution in which we verbalize what we are striving for and then typically it stops there with no real thought into how to get there. Whether the goal is a personal, professional, or academic goal, goal setting should be seen as an ongoing process that requires planning and evaluation. Dembo and Seli (2008) outline a five-step process to goal setting:

  1. The most important step is to identify and define your goal carefully. A well-written goal serves as the basis for the remaining four steps. Write a S.M.A.R.T. goal. (Refer to the informational box entitled “Be S.M.A.R.T. about Your Goals.”)
  2. Next, determine how you are going to attain your goal by generating and evaluating alternative plans. Many times there is more than one way to go about meeting a goal. For instance, if you were attempting to lose weight, you could plan to make changes in your diet and exercise on your own, join a program like Weight Watchers® or Jenny Craig®, or investigate gastric bypass surgery. Take the time to think about all of the different methods that you could utilize to lose weight and then determine which plan suits your needs. Once you have selected a method, you could incorporate that plan into your S.M.A.R.T. goal.
  3. Once you have selected a plan then you need to develop an implementation plan. At this point, you carefully lay out what actions or tasks you are going to take toward meeting your goal. For instance, if you decided to make changes in your diet and exercise to lose weight, you then need to lay out the specific steps, such as you are going to go to the gym three days a week for one hour to work out and reduce the amount of sugar and fat that you intake in your foods.
  4. Next, you implement the plan. Here is where you actually put into place the plan that you carefully thought out and developed. It helps at this stage if you actually record what you are doing on a daily basis. For instance, you would start going to the gym according to your schedule and selecting foods that are lower in sugar and fat when eating and then recording them on a daily basis.
  5. Finally, a goal will not help you make progress if you are not personally evaluating the progress you are making. Take measurements of what you accomplished so far. Ask yourself some questions: “How well did the plan go this week?” “How many of my tasks did I complete?” “Did I have troubles completing some of the tasks?” “If so, which ones and why?” “What did I forget to plan for?” At this point or some point down the road, you may need to reevaluate certain aspects of your goal statement, your alternatives, or fine-tune your plan.

Be S.M.A.R.T. about Your Goals

A S.M.A.R.T. goal is an acronym for a written goal that includes these derived aspects:

Specific – Describes what you want to accomplish in as much detail as possible.

Measurable – Describes your goal in a way that can be evaluated or measured.

Action-oriented – Identifies the general actions that may be taken rather than personal qualities.

Realistic – Identifies a goal that you are capable of attaining.

Timely – Clearly specifies a completion date or may even break the long-term goal down into short-term goals.

Example of a goal related to weight loss:

I am going to try harder to lose some weight.

Example of a S.M.A.R.T. goal related to weight loss:

I am going to lose 26 pounds over the next 5 months by maintaining a healthy diet and exercise regime.

Activity 4-1:

Write a personal goal and an academic goal using the S.M.A.R.T. formula discussed in “Be S.M.A.R.T. about Your Goals” above. Then write down your process for meeting those goals using the five-step process in the “Goal Setting” section of this chapter.


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