Powerful Goal-Setting Strategies for the New School Year

The below article was originally published on Applerouth’s blog. Applerouth is a wonderful resource for test prep and academic tutoring. I highly encourage you to check out their website at https://www.applerouth.com.  They are hosting a FREE “Everything College Admissions” seminar on Saturday, January 17th from 2-4pm in the Atlanta area. Go here for more information.  You can also check out their classroom tutoring and Mock SAT/ACT test schedule here.

Setting goals for what you want to achieve in the upcoming semester is a fabulous way to start the school year!

In order to have a “successful” semester, you need to know what success means to you, and identify exactly WHAT you want to accomplish – and that’s what goal-setting is all about.

Why is setting goals so important? There are numerous reasons, but here are 3 of the big ones:

Set And Reach Goal Concept

  1. Setting goals encourages you to become proactive, rather than reactive.“Proactive” literally means “forward action” — it means that you are looking towards what you want, and taking action to create it without waiting for someone else to tell you to do it. Proactive people take responsibility for their lives, and recognize that they are in control of the results they achieve. In contrast, “reactive” comes from the root word “re”, or “back”. Being reactive means that you are responding to other people or events, and letting external circumstances dictate your results. Setting goals is a great way to become more proactive! 
  2. Goals motivate you to adopt good habits. Scientists estimate that 40% or more of our behavior is governed by habit, and happens automatically without us even thinking about it. This can be very helpful when it comes to habits like brushing your teeth, because it reduces the number of decisions you have to make every day. However, putting your behavior on autopilot can create problems when you develop habits that aren’t so helpful – like waiting until 9 pm every night to start your homework – that take you in a direction you didn’t really want to go. Pausing to reflect on the results you achieved last year, and setting goals for the upcoming semester, can give you the perspective you need to change your behavior. Clear, motivating goals act as a valuable reminder of your desired destination and encourage you to consciously adopt new habits that will support you on your journey. 
  3. Having goals simplifies everyday decisions, and makes choices easier.We’re often faced with situations where we have to choose between an activity that is going to give us an immediate reward and one that is going to lead to benefits down the road. Having clear, motivating goals for the semester that you’re excited to achieve can make it easier to put these daily choices in perspective and make it easier to decide what to do. Making decisions with your goal in mind also means that you’re more likely to feel good about those choices when you look back on them 3 months from now.

The bottom line is that goals put YOU in control of your life by making you more proactive, encouraging you to adopt supportive habits, and making decisions easier for you, and making it easier to stay focused and motivated.

For all of these reasons, goals can be a wonderful tool…if they are used properly. Unfortunately, the way that most people set goals is wildly ineffective.

Here are 7 common mistakes many people make when setting their goals:

  1. It involves an outcome that is out of your control
  2. It’s about what think you “should” do, rather than what you actually want.
  3. It’s about what you want to avoid, rather than what you want to achieve
  4. It’s so ambitious you don’t really believe you can accomplish it
  5. It’s too vague
  6. It’s not written down
  7. It’s not something you remind yourself about regularly

If you’ve tried setting goals before and haven’t gotten the results you were hoping for, you may have been making one of these mistakes. New Year’s Resolutions are a great example of this: they are usually very general, they’re focused on things people think they should do – or should avoid doing, like losing weight or eating less chocolate – they have no deadline, and even if they are written down, they are often put in a drawer and forgotten until the end of the year. No wonder only 8% of people who set New Year’s resolutions actually achieve them!

Happily, there are some very easy steps you can take to ensure that your goals are far more effective.

5-step formula for setting goals that WORK:

  1. Choose a meaningful goal, and know why it matters to you. Choose a goal that is meaningful to YOU (not just your parents or your teachers), and know WHY it matters. If you can’t write down at least 3 reasons why achieving this goal is really important to you, it’s probably not a good choice.
  2. Make sure the goal is something you are excited about achieving. The most effective goals are the ones that you pursue for their own sake – because they are enjoyable, fun, interesting, and challenging…and because accomplishing them makes you feel good about yourself. If you imagine yourself achieving your goal and don’t feel happy & excited, that’s probably not a good goal for you. If you can’t think of any goals that sound exciting, do you have a “wish” or “dream” you want to achieve? As long as it’s something you genuinely want, and it’s possible for you to achieve, a “wish” or “dream” can work just as well as a goal (or even better, if it’s more motivating for you!)
  3. Choose a goal that is big enough to be exciting, but small enough to be achievable. If you’re 80% confident that this goal is something you can achieve if you really apply yourself, that’s about the right level of difficulty. If it’s too much easier than that, it’s probably a relatively unimportant goal that you won’t feel very excited or motivated about achieving. If it’s too much harder, it can seem impossible to achieve, which will lead you to avoid or procrastinate on it. If you have a big goal and want to shrink it, try breaking it down into steps and setting the first step as your initial goal. Or extend your deadline to give yourself more time to accomplish it.
  4. State your goal in the POSITIVE! Set goals for what you want to ACHIEVE, not for what you want to avoid. For example, if you were setting a goal for the grade you want to get in English this semester, it would be better to say “I want to get a B or higher”, rather than “I really don’t want to get a C.”The trouble with setting a goal about what you DON’T want is that your brain is highly visual, and you can’t visualize “NOT getting a C” except by imagining yourself getting a C…and then telling yourself that you don’t want that. But your subconscious brain can’t tell the difference between vividly imagined images and reality, so by repeatedly imagining yourself getting a C you’re actually creating a subconscious expectation of yourself getting a C, which makes that outcome more likely to happen.

    This has been verified by scientific studies, which show that setting “avoidance goals” leads to more anxiety — and lower grades — than setting no goals at all. So, make sure your goals are phrased in the positive!

  5. Set goals that are within your control. When the outcome is not in your control, setting goals can create a lot of stress. Students often run into this problem when they set goals around the grades they want to earn, which are NOT completely within their control. For instance, imagine that your goal is to get an A in English this semester.  The problem is that whether or not you are able to reach this goal is not totally in your control. What if you end up with an English teacher who is extremely demanding, and has only given out three A’s in the past 20 years?  There’s a good chance that, no matter how hard you try, you might not get an A in that class.  In a situation like this, where the outcome you’re aiming for is very demanding or difficult, it is often more effective to set process goals that ARE under your control, and that are likely to lead you to the outcome you want.  For example, if your outcome goal was to get an A, your process goals might be: “I will start working on each English assignment the day it is assigned, spend at least 20 minutes a day studying for English, and start preparing for each test at least 4 days ahead of time.”  Focusing on these process goals can be much less stressful, and more empowering, than focusing on outcome goals, because they are completely in your control. So, no matter what your teacher does, you get to determine whether or not you achieve your goal. It’s also more motivating, because it keeps you focused on the actions you can take to achieve your goal.  

If you follow these steps, you will have a well-formed goal with the power to help you create great results! However, if you put it in a drawer and never look at again, you’re unlikely to achieve it.

If you want to maximize your chances of success, here are 4 critical steps to take AFTER setting your goal to ensure that you ACHIEVE it:

1.  Once you have your goal, make sure that you WRITE it down.

The wording you use when you write it is also very important.  Make sure that your written goal is:

  • My GoalsSpecific (so you know exactly what you’re aiming for)
  • Measurable (so you’ll know when you’ve accomplished it)
  • Deadline-driven (so it feels more urgent & motivating) 
  • Stated in the PERSONAL, present tense (“I am”)
  • Includes the emotion you will feel when you achieve it (“so happy and grateful”).

Wording your goals this way may SOUND a little strange, but it is the most powerful way to communicate this goal to your subconscious brain. And since your subconscious brain controls about 95% of your behavior, it’s very important to get it on board!

2.  Create a PLAN for how to accomplish it. For instance, if your goal is: “I will complete all of the assigned work in my English class and turn in every assignment on time.” then your action steps could be:

  • By August 28, I will get a copy of the syllabus from the teacher and write down all of the major due dates for tests and projects on my calendar.
  • I will complete every assignment by 10 pm on the night before it is due
  • I will start working on long-term projects the day they are assigned
  • I will spend at least 30 minutes of focused study time a day reviewing the course material in the week before the exam.

Notice that this plan has a mixture of tasks with deadlines and ongoing tasks. This is OK – most goals will have a combination of date-specific action steps and regular, ongoing daily or weekly actions or habits.

3.  Create reminder systems that will keep your goal – and your action steps — fresh in your mind. Some great ways to do this are:

  • Write your goal on an index card, and keep it with you all the time. Review it multiple times every day. Post your goal-setting worksheet (described below) on your bedroom wall or paperclip onto the inside front cover of your school planner and review it at least once a day. 
  • Record one-time or date-specific action steps on a to-do list or calendar.
  • Record any regular, ongoing habits on a daily behavior checklist for at least 30 days until the behavior becomes a habit. You can see examples of behavior checklists at http://www.42goals.com

4.  CELEBRATE! Acknowledge yourself for each step you take towards your goals! Just by reading this article you’re already on your way to an incredible semester!

Next Steps!

Now that you know all about goal setting, it’s YOUR turn to let’s put these strategies to work for you!

We’ve covered a lot of information here, so if you would like some more help putting it into practice, I’d love for you to join me for a special, FREE goal-setting workshop I’ll be hosting to kick off the new semester!  

If you’d like to reserve a spot in the workshop, please email me at maggie@creatingpositivefutures.com, and I’ll send you more information about how you can join in on the fun 🙂


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By |January 8th, 2015|Categories: Motivation|0 Comments

About the Author:

Dr. Maggie Wray is an Atlanta-based academic coach who helps high school & college students achieve their academic potential by improving their organization, time management, study skills, and mindset about school. To set up a time to speak with Maggie about how to help YOUR teen develop the skills he or she needs to thrive academically, visit http://creatingpositivefutures.com/contact or email support@creatingpositivefutures.com

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