As we go through life, we often find ourselves imagining our future selves. Where will we be? How do we get there? The road ahead often seems lined with pitfalls and difficult decisions. Setting goals is one way of helping you get what you want out of life.
Goals keep you focused and motivated, and increase your chances of getting what you want, whether it’s a good exam result, a new job or passing your driving test. Think about some of the things you’d like to achieve in the next year. If you can’t think of anything, imagine how you’d like things to be in one, two or three years’ time. What do you hope will be different?
How to set a goal
1. Define your goal
Defining your goal in specific rather than vague language helps you monitor your progress. For instance, ‘wanting to be happy’ is a vague goal and difficult to measure. It’s also hard to know when you’ve achieved it because there are no clear endpoints.
To make your goal specific, ask yourself what the things you need to be happy are. You may wish to develop some new interests, start exercising on a daily basis, meet new people or find a job you enjoy.
With specific goals like these, you can clearly see whether or not you’ve achieved them. This helps you stay on track. It also means you can celebrate when you’ve reached each milestone.
2. Set subgoals
Subgoals are the specific steps you take along the way in order to achieve your main goal. When you write down your subgoals, it gives you a path to follow. Once you start working on these, you get the sense you’re making progress. This boost is important, particularly for the larger goals that take a long time to achieve.
Breaking things down into manageable subgoals can stop you feeling like the task ahead is too overwhelming. For example, if your goal is to do well in a history exam, break down the course into manageable chunks. Revising each chunk should be a subgoal of your overall plan to study the course thoroughly.
3. Make a plan of action
Think about exactly what you’d like to achieve and write it down. Giving yourself a deadline will keep you on right track and help you stay motivated. Without a deadline it’s easy to put things off and end up forgetting about your goal altogether. Try to make sure it’s a reasonable span of time.
Writing down your goal and keeping it in a place where you can see it may also help you remain focused. Maybe you could write it in your diary or stick it on your bedroom wall.
Don’t set your sights too low when you’re setting goals. Most people have the capacity to achieve more than they actually do. Sometimes it’s good to push yourself beyond your comfort zone.
On the other hand, don’t set goals that are unachievable. Having unrealistically high expectations increases your chances of failure. This can lower your enthusiasm and cause you anxiety.
For example, if you like sport, aiming to play on the Irish national team is very ambitious. But working to join your local team is more of an achievable goal. While this goal will keep you motivated, it’s also do-able. Once you’ve achieved that goal, it might be time to set your sights higher.
Talking to someone you trust about your goal will help to keep it achievable. They might have a different perspective on the challenges you’ll encounter as you try to make your goal a reality.
Sometimes, in spite of good intentions, obstacles get in the way. These can be practical problems like lack of time, or psychological blocks like fear of failure.
Practical problems include a lack of time, money or specific knowledge or skills. If you’re feeling stressed or tired it’s hard to be disciplined about working towards your goals. When parents or friends don’t approve of your goal, it’s hard to stay motivated.
Psychological blocks include a fear of failure, disapproval or rejection or a lack of confidence in your ability to succeed. If your goals are not well-defined you can lose focus. Frustration with the length of time it’s taking to achieve your goal can also end up holding you back in the long-run.
Obstacles don’t necessarily stop you from achieving your goals, but they present a roadblock; they challenge you to devise strategies to overcome them.
Try to anticipate any obstacles likely to arise while you’re working towards your goals, and plan out how you’ll deal with them.
List all the possible obstacles that might get in the way of achieving your goal, and strategies you can use to overcome them. Check problem solving for more.
Focus on the rewards
We feel more motivated when we think about the rewards of our hard work rather than the effort involved. Write down all the benefits you hope to gain by achieving your goal to motivate yourself.
Try to think outside the box when you write your list. Besides the direct benefits of getting what you want, there’s often the added satisfaction of feeling in control and increasing your confidence in your abilities. Some tips for positive thinking:
- Visualise success – a technique that many successful athletes use. Focusing on the image of swimming, or running, or winning in front of a cheering crowd helps many athletes stay motivated while they train.
- Be flexible – look at different ways of achieving your goals, because there’s never just one. Investigate other ways to get where you want to go, whether it’s into a college course, a new job, or a holiday.
- Get support – reach out to others who can help you achieve your goals. Teachers and sports coaches can give you practical advice, while friends and family are usually good for moral support.
Taking Charge! A Guide for Teenagers: Practical Ways to Overcome Stress, Hassles and Upsetting Emotions.
By: Dr Sarah Edelman and Louise Rémond
Foundation for Life Sciences (2005)