The start of a new academic year is a great time to set goals. And a lot of students set ambitious ones, like:
- Get a 4.0.
- Score higher than 1800 on my SATs.
- Become a starter on the varsity soccer team.
- Be the editor-in-chief of the school paper by the end of the year.
Those are admirable. But the problem is that while they define what you want to achieve, they don’t help you with your steps to getting there. And that turns your ambitions into entirely pass or fail opportunities. You could work like crazy, but if you don’t achieve your outcome, you’ll feel like you failed.
Here are a few tips that will not only improve your chances of succeeding but will also make the process of getting there more valuable.
1. Identify the most important steps you need to take—and be specific.
What are the most important actions you need to take to actually achieve your goals? Figure those out first, and be specific. “Study more” isn’t specific. “Shut off my cell and my email until I’m done with my homework/studying each day” is specific. It’s easier to do the old “One day at a time” technique when you’re focusing on small, specific actions. And you can hold yourself accountable along the way. You’ll know exactly what you need to do, and whether or not you’re actually doing it.
2. Focus on what’s worked before.
When you’ve achieved goals similar to these, how did that happen? What did you do differently? For example, when you were named a starter for the first time on the soccer team, were you doing anything differently? Were you treating your practices like games? Were you setting up teammates for goals? Did you really kill it in the conditioning workouts? Eliminating things that didn’t work is good. But doubling those things that did work is even better.
3. Learn from little victories.
Let’s say you decide that for you to become editor-in-chief of the newspaper, you need to be recognized as one of the best writers. And in order to do that, you need to write at least two drafts of all your articles so you can have your journalism teacher critique them before you submit them to the current editor (good, specific action). When you actually do that for your first article, you should take the time to learn from it. How did you make the time to get those articles done early? How will you do it again? And don’t reserve your celebration for the day that you actually become the editor. Start now. Learning from and celebrating little victories keeps you focused on the positive. And it will prevent you from getting discouraged about a goal that might occasionally seem unrealistic.
4. Tell people about your goals.
Sometimes peer pressure is a good thing. Tell your closest friends about your goals. Maybe invite them to make their own? Then resolve to help each other achieve them. Telling people what you’re trying to do can help them be supportive, too. If you resolve not to be online until your homework is done every night, tell your friends so they won’t get bent out of shape when you take longer than usual to respond to their emails and texts.
5. Recognize that the process is even more important than the outcome.
You should set high goals for yourself—that’s what successful people do. But you should also remember that the efforts you make are just as important—if not more so—than whether or not you actually achieve the goals. If you resolve to do all the homework in your SAT class and to actually use every technique you learn, your score will almost certainly improve. But if you don’t get the score you wanted, you won’t have to blame yourself. You won’t have to wonder if it could have been better if you’d just put in the effort. And you’ll have the reward of knowing that you did all you could so you can confidently move on to something else now.