Having clearly stated goals is somewhat like having a good map when you go on a trip. You may choose some off-the -beaten-path travel, but a good map will help you stay on track to your destination. Setting goals is a great way to stay focused, as well as to glean the side benefit of reduced stress that comes from having a clearly-defined direction and purpose. Everyday short-term goals can be little steps to accomplishing longer-term goals.
In education and business circles, the acronym SMART is often used as a reminder of what a well-constructed goal looks like:
- Specific: A specific goal answers the question of what is expected. It defines the end game. For example, "Study for biology" becomes "Complete 20 pages of Ch 2 biology reading before dinner today."
- Measurable: By being specific, you can tell when you've reached the goal. "Exercise regularly" becomes "Walk 30 minutes a day three times each week."
- Attainable: "Do I have the skills, time, or outside resources to accomplish this goal?" An attainable goal is one that, while it may stretch you, is not so out of reach that it becomes demotivating or discouraging to even try for it. Sometimes adjusting the amount of work or the time frame in which to accomplish it will make the difference between the attainable and the overwhelmingly impossible goal. As you get to know yourself and your habits and abilities better, as well as what certain tasks demand of you, you will become more skillful at setting realistic goals.
- Relevant: Is your goal related to the things that matter most to you? A small goal of accomplishing a certain task may not seem worthwhile when taken by itself (e.g. "Attend every class during spring semester unless I am sick or an emergency hinders me") but if it moves you toward a larger goal that is rooted to your desires, values, and beliefs, you will be more motivated to succeed. This is why it is good to have some long-term, "big picture" goals as well as those that are more short-term.
- Time-related: Including a time frame in your goal provides a target for completion and creates a sense of urgency that keeps you moving forward. In the case of longer-term goals, you may need to break your project or task into smaller parts, each with its own time target or deadline. Having intermediate deadlines when aiming for larger goals will give you a feeling of accomplishment and help you maintain motivation to reach the big goal.