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2.1: Setting and Reaching Goals

  • Page ID
    14416
  • Learning Objectives

    1. Make short-, mid-, and long-term goals that are realistic and specific and commit to them.
    2. Set priorities for reaching your goals as a basis for time management.
    3. Develop an attitude for success.
    4. Learn to use strategies for staying focused and motivated.
    5. Network with other students to help ensure academic success.
    6. Solve problems and overcome setbacks that threaten your goals.

    Some people are goal oriented and seem to easily make decisions that lead to achieving their goals, while others seem just to “go with the flow” and accept what life gives them. While the latter may sound pleasantly relaxed, moving through life without goals may not lead anywhere at all. The fact that you’re in college now shows you already have the major goal to complete your college program.

    A goal is a result we intend to reach mostly through our own actions. Things we do may move us closer to or farther away from that result. Studying moves us closer to success in a difficult course, while sleeping through the final examination may completely prevent reaching that goal. That’s fairly obvious in an extreme case, yet still a lot of college students don’t reach their goal of graduating. The problem may be a lack of commitment to the goal, but often students have conflicting goals. One way to prevent problems is to think about all your goals and priorities and to learn ways to manage your time, your studies, and your social life to best reach your goals. Consider these four students:


    To help his widowed mother, Juan went to work full time after high school but now, a few years later, he’s dissatisfied with the kinds of jobs he has been able to get and has begun taking computer programming courses in the evening. He’s often tired after work, however, and his mother would like him to spend more time at home. Sometimes he cuts class to stay home and spend time with her.


    In her senior year of college, Becky has just been elected president of her sorority and is excited about planning a major community service project. She knows she should be spending more time on her senior thesis, but she feels her community project may gain her contacts that can help her find a better job after graduation. Besides, the sorority project is a lot more fun, and she’s enjoying the esteem of her position. Even if she doesn’t do well on her thesis, she’s sure she’ll pass.


    After an easy time in high school, James is surprised his college classes are so hard. He’s got enough time to study for his first-year courses, but he also has a lot of friends and fun things to do. Sometimes he’s surprised to look up from his computer to see it’s midnight already, and he hasn’t started reading that chapter yet. Where does the time go? When he’s stressed, however, he can’t study well, so he tells himself he’ll get up early and read the chapter before class, and then he turns back to his computer to see who’s online.


    Sachito was successful in cutting back her hours at work to give her more time for her engineering classes, but it’s difficult for her to get much studying done at home. Her husband has been wonderful about taking care of their young daughter, but he can’t do everything, and lately he’s been hinting more about asking her sister to babysit so that the two of them can go out in the evening the way they used to. Lately, when she’s had to study on a weekend, he leaves with his friends, and Sachito ends up spending the day with her daughter—and not getting much studying done.

    What do these very different students have in common? Each has goals that conflict in one or more ways. Each needs to develop strategies to meet their other goals without threatening their academic success. And all of them have time management issues to work through: three because they feel they don’t have enough time to do everything they want or need to do and one because even though he has enough time, he needs to learn how to manage it more effectively. For all four of them, motivation and attitude will be important as they develop strategies to achieve their goals.

    It all begins with setting goals and thinking about priorities.

    As you think about your own goals, think about more than just being a student. You’re also a person with individual needs and desires, hopes and dreams, plans and schemes. Your long-term goals likely include graduation and a career but may also involve social relationships with others, a romantic relationship, family, hobbies or other activities, where and how you live, and so on. While you are a student you may not be actively pursuing all your goals with the same fervor, but they remain goals and are still important in your life.

    Goals also vary in terms of time. Short-term goals focus on today and the next few days and perhaps weeks. Midterm goals involve plans for this school year and the time you plan to remain in college. Long-term goals may begin with graduating college and everything you want to happen thereafter. Often your long-term goals (e.g., the kind of career you want) guide your midterm goals (getting the right education for that career), and your short-term goals (such as doing well on an exam) become steps for reaching those larger goals. Thinking about your goals in this way helps you realize how even the little things you do every day can keep you moving toward your most important long-term goals.

    Write out your goals in Activity 1. You should literally write them down, because the act of finding the best words to describe your goals helps you think more clearly about them. Follow these guidelines:

    • Goals should be realistic. It’s good to dream and to challenge yourself, but your goals should relate to your personal strengths and abilities.
    • Goals should be specific. Don’t write, “I will become a great musician”; instead, write, “I will finish my music degree and be employed in a symphony orchestra.”
    • Goals should have a time frame. You won’t feel very motivated if your goal is vaguely “to finish college someday.” If you’re realistic and specific in your goals, you should also be able to project a time frame for reaching the goal.
    • You should really want to reach the goal. We’re willing to work hard to reach goals we really care about, but we’re likely to give up when we encounter obstacles if we don’t feel strongly about a goal. If you’re doing something only because your parents or someone else wants you to, then it’s not your own personal goal—and you may have some more thinking to do about your life.

    Activity 1: Personal Goals

    Write your goals in the following blanks. Be sure to consider all areas of your life—consider everything important that you want to do between this moment and old age. (While you might aim for three to eight goals in each section, remember that everyone is unique, and you may be just as passionate about just one or two goals or more than eight.)

    Short-term goals (today, this week, and this month):

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    Midterm goals (this year and while in college):

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    Long-term goals (from college on):

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    Priorities

    Thinking about your goals gets you started, but it’s also important to think about priorities. We often use the word “priorities” to refer to how important something is to us. We might think, This is a really important goal, and that is less important. Try this experiment: go back to the goals you wrote in Activity 1 and see if you can rank each goal as a 1 (top priority), 2 (middle priority), or 3 (lowest priority).

    It sounds easy, but do you actually feel comfortable doing that? Maybe you gave a priority 1 to passing your courses and a priority 3 to playing your guitar. So what does that mean—that you never play guitar again, or at least not while in college? Whenever you have an hour free between class and work, you have to study because that’s the higher priority? What about all your other goals—do you have to ignore everything that’s not a priority 1? And what happens when you have to choose among different goals that are both number 1 priorities?

    In reality, priorities don’t work quite that way. It doesn’t make a lot of sense to try to rank goals as always more or less important. The question of priority is really a question of what is more important at a specific time. It is important to do well in your classes, but it’s also important to have a social life and enjoy your time off from studying. You shouldn’t have to choose between the two—except at any given time. Priorities always involve time: what is most important to do right now. As we’ll see later, time management is mostly a way to juggle priorities so you can meet all your goals.

    When you manage your time well, you don’t have to ignore some goals completely in order to meet other goals. In other words, you don’t have to give up your life when you register for college—but you may need to work on managing your life more effectively.

    But time management works only when you’re committed to your goals. Attitude and motivation are very important. If you haven’t yet developed an attitude for success, all the time management skills in the world won’t keep you focused and motivated to succeed.

    An Attitude for Success

    What’s your attitude right now—what started running through your mind as you saw the “An Attitude for Success” heading? Were you groaning to yourself, thinking, “No, not the attitude thing again!” Or, at the other extreme, maybe you were thinking, “This is great! Now I’m about to learn everything I need to get through college without a problem!” Those are two attitude extremes, one negative and skeptical, the other positive and hopeful. Most students are somewhere in between—but everyone has an attitude of one sort or another.

    Everything people do and how they do it starts with attitude. One student gets up with the alarm clock and cheerfully prepares for the day, planning to study for a couple hours between classes, go jogging later, and see a friend at dinner. Another student oversleeps after partying too late last night, decides to skip his first class, somehow gets through later classes fueled by fast food and energy drinks while dreading tomorrow’s exam, and immediately accepts a friend’s suggestion to go out tonight instead of studying. Both students could have identical situations, classes, finances, and academic preparation. There could be just one significant difference—but it’s the one that matters.

    Here are some characteristics associated with a positive attitude:

    • Enthusiasm for and enjoyment of daily activities
    • Acceptance of responsibility for one’s actions and feeling good about success
    • Generally upbeat mood and positive emotions, cheerfulness with others, and satisfaction with oneself
    • Motivation to get the job done
    • Flexibility to make changes when needed
    • Ability to make productive, effective use of time

    And here are some characteristics associated with a negative attitude:

    • Frequent complaining
    • Blaming others for anything that goes wrong
    • Often experiencing negative emotions: anger, depression, resentment
    • Lack of motivation for work or studies
    • Hesitant to change or seek improvement
    • Unproductive use of time, procrastination

    We started this chapter talking about goals, because people’s goals and priorities have a huge effect on their attitude. Someone who really wants to succeed in college is better motivated and can develop a more positive attitude to succeed. But what if you are committed to succeeding in college but still feel kind of doubtful or worried or even down on yourself—what can you do then? Can people really change their attitude? Aren’t people just “naturally” positive or negative or whatever?

    While attitude is influenced by one’s personality, upbringing, and past experiences, there is no “attitude gene” that makes you one way or another. It’s not as simple as taking a pill, but attitude can be changed. If you’re committed to your goals, you can learn to adjust your attitude. The following are some things you can start doing.

    Be More Upbeat with Yourself

    We all have conversations with ourselves. I might do badly on a test, and I start thinking things like, “I’m just not smart enough” or “That teacher is so hard no one could pass that test.” The problem when we talk to ourselves this way is that we listen—and we start believing what we’re hearing. Think about what you’ve been saying to yourself since your first day at college. Have you been negative or making excuses, maybe because you’re afraid of not succeeding? You are smart enough or you wouldn’t be here. Even if you did poorly on a test, you can turn that around into a more positive attitude by taking responsibility. “OK, I goofed off too much when I should have been studying. I learned my lesson—now it’s time to buckle down and study for the next test. I’m going to ace this one!” Hear yourself saying that enough and guess what—you soon find out you can succeed even in your hardest classes.

    Choose Whom You Spend Time With

    We all know negative and positive people. Sometimes it’s fun to hang out with someone with a negative attitude, especially if their sarcasm is funny. And if we’ve just failed a test, we might enjoy being with someone else who also blames the instructor or “the system” for whatever goes wrong. As they say, misery loves company. But often being with negative people is one of the surest ways to stay negative yourself. You not only hear your own self-talk making excuses and blaming others and putting yourself down, but you hear other people saying it, too. After a while you’re convinced it’s true. You’ve developed a negative attitude that sets you up for failure.

    College offers a great opportunity to make new friends. Friendships and other social relationships are important to all humans—and maybe to college students most of all, because of the stresses of college and the changes you’re likely experiencing. Later chapters in this book have some tips for making new friends and getting actively involved in campus life, if you’re not already there. Most important, try to choose friends with a positive attitude. It’s simply more fun to be with people who are upbeat and enjoying life, people whom you respect—and who, like you, are committed to their studies and are motivated. A positive attitude can really be contagious.

    Overcome Resistance to Change

    While it’s true that most people are more comfortable when their situation is not always changing, many kinds of change are good and should be welcomed. College is a big change from high school or working. Accepting that reality helps you be more positive about the differences. Sure, you have to study more, and the classes are harder. You may be working more and have less time for your personal life. But dwelling on those differences only reinforces a negative attitude. Look instead at the positive changes: the exciting and interesting people you’re meeting, the education you’re getting that will lead to a bright future, and the mental challenges and stimulation you’re feeling every day.

    The first step may be simply to see yourself succeeding in your new life. Visualize yourself as a student taking control, enjoying classes, studying effectively, getting good grades. This book will help you do that in many ways. It all begins with the right attitude.

    Overcome Fears

    One of the most common fears of college students is a fear of failure—of not being able to make the grade. We all know that life is not all roses and that we’re not going to succeed at everything we try. Everyone experiences some sort of failure at some time—and everyone has fears. The question is what you do about it.

    Again, think about your goals. You’ve enrolled in college for good reasons, and you’ve already shown your commitment by coming this far. If you still have any fear of failure, turn it around and use it in a positive way. If you’re afraid you may not do well on an upcoming exam, don’t mope around—sit down and schedule times to start studying well ahead of time. It’s mostly a matter of attitude adjustment.