The best way to make good progress is to set bite-sized goals. The best goals are have a due date, are specific enough to know when you've reached them, and are a bit challenging but doable. People who set these kinds of goals tend to feel an immediate increase to self-esteem. People can track daily goals in a to-do list, and maybe weekly goals in a list as well. There has to be accountability, which just means an honest check for progress. Sometimes I'm too harsh or too lenient on myself, so that can be easier in a small group.
To start with, goals should be dated, specific, and achievable. Let's look at each part. Dated means that there is a due date attached, a time to check completion or measure progress. I keep doing a lot of new things, and I'm really only guessing how long it will take to do them. Life happens, too, and I try to see that as challenges to overcome instead of difficulties. Sometimes goals take a lot longer than I originally guessed. Sometimes that's frustrating because everything is taking too long. I need to remind myself (often) that I haven't failed if it takes longer than I thought. As long as it's not just making excuses, it's OK. The due date has to be there, though, to keep me focused and help me check.
The next guideline for goal setting is to make goals specific. “Get in better shape” is way too vague. What does it look like? Feel like? How will I know if I've done it? A much more specific goal is something like “I will exercise 3 times this week for 15 minutes each time.” Now there is a specific goal that we can measure. Or, “I will jog around the block in under 10 minutes on Tuesday.” To get specific, think of an action to take and how you will measure the results. When you can act and it's easy to measure, it's specific. Susan Ward does a great job explaining more in depth in “How to Set Specific Goals to Improve Business Success.” Also, it's empowering and self-esteem building to set the goal as a specific, measurable thing. Dr. Fox explains more in her article in Psychology Today.
Another guideline for a good goal is that it's achievable. Good goals challenge us a little, getting us to reach a little farther or work a bit harder than we otherwise would. Lots of people don't really know what they can do, especially when trying to challenge themselves a little. People lacking confidence about a task might set a really easily obtainable goal. That's OK. They'll make progress. Then that day or week when they measure progress, they'll realize it was too easy. That should build confidence to set a slightly more ambitious goal for the next time. People feeling highly confident might set too difficult a goal. That's OK. They'll make progress too. When they check progress, they'll realize that they need to tackle a smaller, easier part. How do I know? I've see-sawed through both extremes. Sometimes friends will help me by suggesting larger or smaller goals to tackle. Sometimes I blunder around on my own, which is more...chaotic. I did something right early on, though, which was give myself permission to fail. To mess up. To make mistakes. I've written more about it in my book Celebrate Your Wins. Briefly though, treat yourself like you would a real friend. You wouldn't expect your friend to get everything right all the time, would you? You wouldn't call them horrible names or question their basic worth if they made a harmless mistake, would you?
A wonderful bonus to setting goals and committing to checking progress is a boost to self-esteem. Setting a goal is a promise to yourself, and trying your best to keep it makes you feel good about yourself. Taking action that you need to is a relief. You're someone who goes after what's important to you, you're committed enough to check your progress, and honest enough to admit when you've fallen short of the goal. That's empowering right there. And that's for something that didn't get done yet. When you set dated, specific, and achievable goals and then accomplish them, the boost is even bigger. It feels good. We all need purpose, and deciding what's important to you and getting it done creates a sense of progress towards fulfilling that purpose.
What does this look like in action for you? I set a to-do list (daily goals) and a weekly set of goals. I don't accomplish all my goals. I fall short of at least one weekly goal fairly often. I was reaching for enough progress to be a little challenging. It isn't always 100% success. But I get so much more done than when I don't set goals. Since I've focused on the most important things to do when I set goals and hold myself accountable, the tasks I finish are the ones that matter the most.
That one part, accountability, can be a little tricky on my own. Sometimes I'm too hard on myself, feeling down over a temporary, minor thing. (Did I mention some perfectionist tendencies?) Other times, I let myself slide with excuses. It can help to form a group where everyone sets goals and reports progress on a regular basis. I really like the Mastermind format, and meet weekly with my group. We use Discord voice chat and a shared Google document. Want to know more about how that works? Check out my mentoring program (start by joining the mailing list to learn more).
Another good checklist for goals is the SMART acronym. I've seen the letters explained a bit differently in different places. One place that uses SMART is the University of Virginia, which explains SMART goals for their own employees. That is, the University uses these to help their own faculty set professional goals. Each goal should be specific and measurable (to me that's really similar). Each goal should be actionable (or achievable), relevant (to the bigger picture for yourself), and time-bound (there's a due date). What other ways to develop goals do you know of?
In conclusion, set goals for success. Goals should have a due date or a time to measure. They should be specific actions you can take. Goals should be achievable and a bit challenging. Two ways to think of them are dated—specific—achievable or SMART. Give yourself permission to fail. Even beginning to think of a single small step to take to make progress can boost self-esteem and self-confidence. If you get into the habit of taking action to achieve what you decide is important, then your self-esteem can really soar. And oh yeah, you might complete coursework, pass classes, earn a degree, continue your career, and other stuff like that. Cheers!
Fox, Marci. “Go for Your Goals and Gain Confidence.” Psychology Today. 29 June 2011.
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“Managing Performance for Success.” Employee Resources. University of Virginia Human
performance/employee-resources. 3 Dec. 2018.
Ward, Susan. “How to Set Specific Goals to Improve Business Success.” The Balance Small
success-2947282. 3 Dec. 2018.
Gregory Hanks has taught community college for upwards of 17 years. He's helped thousands of students achieve more of their potential, write better, and earn their degrees. In 2017, he left a traditional teaching role to help more people like you get better results, faster.
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