Much like New Year resolutions in January, September is the month for students to set their academic resolutions. “I am going to keep up with my readings”, “I am going to attend every class”, or “I am going to get straight ‘A’s”. However, at the end of the semester, I almost always get students asking in some variation, “Why do I achieve some goals, but not others?”.
Take out a pen and a piece of paper. Draw three columns on your piece of paper. At the top of each column, I want you to write one academic goal you are setting this year.
Here are the 4 steps we are going to follow:
- Identify the values behind your goals
- Stop fantasizing about the goal
- Identify the approach or strategy you need
- Commit to this approach
Values are desired qualities that you want to develop about how you want to behave and the type of person you want to be. For example, wanting to lose 10 pounds is a goal, and eating healthily is a value. An academic example would be getting an ‘A’ is a goal, whereas, studying effectively is a value. Your values guide you, no matter what goal you are trying to achieve.
One major difference between values and goals is that values are based in the present moment, and goals are in the future. We can act on our values at any time, meaning instant success. If we haven’t achieved a goal yet, we can feel frustrated and overwhelmed, and decide to quit or put in minimal effort. This makes identifying our values crucial in achieving our goals.
Looking at the three goals you wrote down, how would you answer the following (if you need some help identifying some values, open this link in another tab and use it for inspiration):
- What personal qualities or strengths does this goal demonstrate?
- What would achieving it show that you stand for?
Example: I want to keep up with readings. When I think of why I might put in the effort to keep up with my readings, I think of competency, curiosity, and challenge. I want to feel competent in my classes, I feel curious and excited about what I might learn and how it is relevant to me, and I enjoy challenging myself to read and learn a lot of material in a short period of time.Stop Focusing on the Goal
When it comes to our goals, fantasizing allows us to feel satisfied in the here-and-now. Our brain tricks us into feeling that we have already succeeded (thanks a lot, brain). Researchers consider positive fantasizing as a detriment to goal achievement. However, positive expectations, our beliefs about a successful outcome and our ability to achieve that outcome, are found to lead to more motivation and effort.
The bottom line: we need a dose of reality when we set our goals to stop us from fantasizing about the result. This dose of reality is a specific course of action. Write down 1-5 concrete actions that you can take today, this week, and this month that are in line with your values and the goals you wrote down.
Example: my academic goal was to keep up with readings. I can 1) set aside dedicated reading time each day, 2) mark up each text when I read it, 3) take effective notes on each reading using the SQ3R method, 4) test myself on the material, and 5) preview notes before the corresponding lecture.Focus on the Process
First, set aside a time and place to do each particular task you have identified. I would suggest early in the day, a quiet isolated place, and for 60 minutes at a time. This maximizes energy, minimizes distraction, and maximizes attention.
Focus, for our purposes, means full engagement in the process. Our best performances come from giving something our undivided attention. In sports, this is called being in the zone, artists or writers might call it flow. We can call it committed action. This means you take action that is aligned with your values and goals, no matter how you feel. It is flexible, easily adaptable to challenges, and persists with change as needed.
The bottom line: we should do what it takes to live by our values, no matter how we feel. Identify a common obstacle that comes up for you when you think about taking action towards the goals you wrote down. This might be thinking that you can’t do it, it’s too hard, it’s too easy, I can do it later, I feel too tired and I have no motivation.
Complete this sentence for each obstacle you identify: If (insert obstacle), then I will recall my values, and take action anyway.
Example: one day I feel overwhelmed with the amount of reading I have to do. So, I avoid it and watch an episode of Stranger Things on Netflix (for the 4th time). If I am avoiding my readings, I will recall my curiosity for new information, my desire to be competent in this subject and my love for the challenge this task brings.Commit to This Approach
If you want to shift from setting goals to achieving them, you need to commit to this approach. New students that adopt this approach now will set themselves up to achieve more goals throughout their academic journey. Students at any point, even in their last year, can use this approach to find their success in their last classes.