Goal Setting: Why It’s Important and How to Succeed

A goal without a plan is just a wish.

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Why do goals matter?

We have all made goals at some point in our lives. Whether it was to lose weight, earn money, or pass a test, setting goals is a common occurrence for most people. What you may not realize is how important these goals truly are. By setting goals, you give yourself something to focus on and work toward. When made correctly, they are a great source of motivation and allow you to see your progress along the way toward achievement. So how exactly do you set effective goals? First, you need to understand some things about the types of goals you can make.

What are the types of goals?

It is important to realize that goals will take your time and dedication. They are not simple, everyday tasks like getting certain items at the grocery store or finishing a list of chores. Rather, your goal may be to cook more (which will build your grocery list) or to keep your room clean and organized (which is often seen as a chore). Goals should be set because you want to accomplish something, and you need to be willing to continually work for them.

It’s also important to note the difference between goals and dreams. Goals are things that you can realistically achieve, while dreams are those things that are unlikely, or even impossible, to attain. For example, a goal could be to save enough money for retirement, while a dream would be to win the lottery and retire early.

Back to goals—there are two basic types: short term and long term. As their name suggests, short-term goals should be attainable within a short period of time, while long-term goals will take much longer to achieve. So what is a reasonable time frame for each?

In general, short-term goals can range anywhere from a few days or weeks up to six months (and no more than a year). Often, short-term goals are set in a way that ultimately leads to accomplishing a long-term goal. For example, if you have a long-term goal of earning a college degree, your short-term goals may be to get an A on a test and pass all of your classes this semester.

Short-term goals are important because they allow you to see your progress and maintain momentum. There is something satisfying about seeing results quickly, which can give you the encouragement and motivation you need to continue. Need some examples of short-term goals? You have to remember that these goals are not the same as checking items off of your to-do list (as satisfying as that is!). Rather, think about things like losing a few pounds, earning a certain GPA, saving a small amount of money, or completing a project (e.g., refinishing a dresser or finishing your scrapbook) as short-term goals.

On the other hand, long-term goals range from more than six months or a year to even several years. They are the goals that include your plans for the future, give you a purpose, and serve to motivate you. Long-term goals can include saving a large sum of money, earning a college degree, paying off your debt, becoming an engineer, owning a home, or running a marathon. All of these are realistic, but will take significant time and effort to achieve.

How do I write an effective goal?

How to Write an Effective Goal

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Having a well thought out and specific goal increases your chance of successfully fulfilling it. To write the best type of goal, you just need to remember the acronym SMART. A SMART goal is one that embodies all of the following characteristics:

S: Specific
M: Measurable
A: Attainable
R: Realistic/Relevant
T: Timely

Let’s break that down a little more and discuss what each of the criteria actually mean.

Specific: Start with something simple and precise. Rather than saying you want to lose some weight (vague), set a specific amount, like 10 pounds. Instead of trying to save some money, decide on the exact amount you want to save—whether it be $50 or $5,000. By having a specific goal, you will be better able to determine your progress toward reaching it.

Measurable: The goal needs to have some way for you to measure your progress. If you want to decrease the time it takes you to run a mile, you should measure a base time at the beginning, and periodically re-time yourself until you reach your goal pace. If you want to succeed in class, keep track of returned assignments so you can calculate your average grade at any given time. Regardless of the type of goal you set, you need to have a plan in place to measure your improvement.

Attainable: The key to any goal is that is should be within your abilities to accomplish it. This is tricky. If your goal is too difficult or unrealistic, it can be detrimental to your motivation and have an adverse effect. In contrast, if your goal is too easy, you will not push yourself to grow or change for the better, which is the ultimate purpose of goal setting. Find a goal that is within reach, but that is also a stretch for you. With that, you will improve AND maintain your motivation.

Realistic and Relevant: These two ideas go hand in hand. Not only should your goal be practical, it should also be important to you. If you are not willing (relevant) and able (realistic) to work toward your goal, then it will not be achieved. If you do not have the time in your schedule to train for a half marathon, then do not set a goal to run one in a month. No matter how motivated you are, some goals cannot be realistically accomplished in short amounts of time. Ensure success by making relevant and realistic goals.

Timely: All goals need some sort of time frame. For a goal to be truly motivating, you need to have a sense of urgency and set an exact date for accomplishment. You cannot say you want to lose weight eventually, or that you want to save $100 soon. Instead, you should say you want to lose five pounds by November 1, or that you will save that $100 within four weeks. Another way to view this is in terms of steps toward accomplishing your goal. If you want to earn a 3.8 GPA this semester, the “end time” is already set. Your job is to set smaller goals to ensure your success. For example, read the chapter by Wednesday and finish the paper by Sunday. Having a deadline set subconsciously turns the brain on and forces you into action.

The next step is creating an action plan for your SMART goal—what will you do each day that helps you accomplish your goal? These baby steps can take something that may seem out of reach and make it more manageable.

What does a SMART goal with an action plan look like?

Instead of, “I want to lose some weight,” try, “I will lose five pounds in one month.” Your action steps might include deciding to work out for one hour, three times a week; eating a fruit or vegetable with every meal; or limiting eating out.

Instead of, “I want to be a good student,” try, “I will earn a 3.5 GPA this semester.” Your action plan can include small steps like going to every class, setting aside time to complete the reading and homework, or finding a study partner.

The final step of goal setting is an ongoing one—you should continue to monitor your progress. The goal setting process should be dynamic, meaning you should constantly be checking in and making adjustments to the goal if and when they’re needed. This may all seem overwhelming and excessive, but I promise you, it works! Plus, the more SMART goals your write, the easier they become. Get yourself in the habit of setting measurable goals with a specific time frame. No matter what your goal is, if you set a SMART goal that you continually monitor, you will be able to achieve it!

About Shannon Whitney

Shannon loves traveling, watching Friends, and all things Florida Gators. While she grew up in Northern Virginia, she left the state to attend the University of Florida in 2001. After earning a master’s degree in education, she returned home and has worked as an elementary school teacher for the past 11 years. Shannon recently decided it was time to put teaching on hold and venture down a new professional path. During her free time, Shannon is either traveling, cheering for Florida, binge-watching a Netflix series, or preparing to be an aunt!

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