It's time to set goals for the new school year

As the new school year looms closer, it's time to think about your goals for the upcoming year. One mistake many students make is waiting until later in the year, often when something is going wrong, to think about their goals and aspirations. Of course you think about your goals and aspirations, but I mean thinking in a deliberate and analytical way. To do this, you're going to need to write your goals down. Let's take three typical goals for smart, ambitious high school students: make good grades, get a leadership position, and have less stress.

I love verbs, especially for things like this. If there are things you want to do or achieve over the next school year, then you should be able to list them as verbs. For setting goals, try these three: I want, I will, I need.

First, list a small number of things that you want (keep it to just a few—no more than four). For our examples, it's a matter of writing down the goals as "I want" statements and seeing if they're really your goals. "I want to get straight A's this year". "I want to be elected an officer of my club". "I want to feel less stress". If these are truly things you want, then great! Move on to the next step. 

Too often we initially list things as goals that aren't really our goals--they're someone else's goals, or just things we think we should do. There are reasons you may decide to get straight A's even if you don't care if you get straight A's. Maybe it's to keep your parents from nagging you, or maybe it's because you want to live up to the standards set by an older sibling. Getting accepted to college probably has something to do with it, too. If you don't really care about getting good grades, don't write down that you do. If what you really want is to get more approval from your parents, write that down instead: "I want to have more approval from my family." You may decide that getting good grades is something you will do to achieve that goal, or you may decide there are other ways. But be clear with yourself about what you really want and why you're doing what you're doing. Similarly, make sure you want a leadership position because you genuinely want it, not just because you think you need it for college applications. If you're not interested in leading the group--or even being in the group--but you do it because you believe colleges want you to, then change your goal to "I want to get accepted to my top-choice college." Again, you may end up staying in the club and even running to be an officer, but you may decide there's a more productive path to getting that acceptance than just being a resume.

Once you've listed a few things that you want, then it's time to commit and write down what you're going to do in order to achieve the goal. If I want to get straight A's, then I will commit to homework and studying for a set amount of time each day. If I want to feel less stress, then I will commit to some stress-relieving strategy each day, like meditating or exercising. If I want a leadership position, then I will commit to being at every club meeting and being an active member who people will trust as a leader. 

Again, it's really important to connect what you want with what you will do. If you have an "I will" statement that doesn't align with your "I want" statements, then you've either got unacknowledged wants or extra things to do. Figure out what's going on. Likewise, if there's something you need to do in order to get what you want, but you're not willing or able to actually do it, then you may need to re-set your wants. This is the moment to be honest with yourself. If you write down that you will you do something that you know you're not actually going to do, then you're setting yourself up for failure. However, connecting the "I will" to the "I want" is often a great motivator to do things you wouldn't have done before.

Few people, if any, achieve their goals on their own. Beyond what you will do in order to get what you want, there are also external things you will need. It could be that you need to let go of something else you've been doing in order to spend more time doing what you say you will do to get what you want. It could be that you need extra help in the form of tutoring. It could be that you need some special equipment or training. It could be that you just need someone to check up on you and give you some encouragement. Whatever you need in order to do what it takes to get what you want, write that down. Once again, make sure that your needs align with your wills and your wants.

So, following our examples, let's show what a strong statement of goals might look like.

I want to get straight A's. I want to be elected a leader in my school club. I want to feel less stress.

I will spend one hour every day from 6-7pm studying and completing homework without distraction. I will participate in every club meeting and volunteer to organize an event. I will spend ten minutes of every lunch period practicing quiet meditation.

I need regular tutoring from my math teacher. I need advice from the current club president. I need my friends to understand why I'm leaving lunch ten minutes early every day.

It's entirely possible you want, will, and need to set goals for the year, but don't like my suggestions. No problem. Here are some other places to begin:

How to Make (and Keep) a New Year's Resolution, from the New York Times's Smarter Living section.

A Complete Guide to Getting What You Want, from Raptitude.

Instead of Goals or Resolutions, Try Creating Rules, from Zen Habits.

The Ultimate Guide to Goal Setting, from Life Hack. 

Whatever system you use to set goals and prepare yourself to achieve them, you also need to prepare yourself for failure. You’ve surely already experienced not achieving a goal in your past. You know what it’s like to not do the thing you told yourself you would do. No matter what the inspirational posters say, failure is always an option. So plan for it, just in case. Sometimes we all have to go to Plan B. Don’t wait until Plan A is a total wreck before figuring out what Plan B is.

What will you do if you don’t get all A’s? What will you do if you don’t get the leadership role? What will you do if you’re still feeling stress? If you look up and it’s October and you haven’t done half the things you said you would do, then where will you start? For an introduction to “implementation intentions” and how to strengthen your willpower by thinking about failure, read this article called “How Planning to Fail Can Help you Succeed.”

The other thing that you must do with your failures is learn from them. This is what my friend (and super-educator) Edward Burger calls “Effective Failure.” If you ask yourself “what went wrong?” and learn to not make the same misstep again, then you’re failing effectively and actually doing yourself a huge favor. If you refuse or forget to figure out where you made a mistake, then you’re failing ineffectively and doing yourself a huge disservice. Enough unfair and costly things will happen to you in your lifetime—don’t do them to yourself.

Thanks for reading! Please send this to someone who would like to read it, or share it on your social networks. I’m on my summer schedule, which means I’ll only have posts on Thursday for a while. I’ll be back next week.

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