Goal-setting: how to set good goals
A guide to setting effective goals
Being able to set and achieve goals is helpful for all sorts of things: from your personal life, to your studies, to your career. In this guide we give you some pro tips on how to set great goals.
Going with the flow versus setting goals
In life you can ‘go with the flow’, and move through school, then into the next stages of education, training and work, without thinking too much about what you really want.
However, you might want to achieve particular things that are outside of the ‘flow’ - that require you to set your mind on achieving them, to come up with a plan, and then to work on the steps in your plan.
Goal setting is a powerful tool in deciding if there’s something you want to do that is outside of just going with the flow. It can feel very empowering, because you are the person deciding on the direction for your life. If you do goal setting well, you force yourself to really think about what you want to achieve, it makes it easier to start thinking about how to get there, and it gives you a greater sense of satisfaction once you achieve whatever your goal is.
People often talk about goals when it comes to exam grades, getting into a particular course of study, or getting a particular job at a particular company. But actually setting goals is useful for achieving anything you want to do, in any aspect of life, from work, to health, to relationships.
There is some technique to setting goals, and if you do it badly, goals can actually be counterproductive - they can put you off from working towards the thing you’re trying to achieve.
For example, if someone sets a goal to become a professional piano player because it’s their parents’ dream, but they don’t actually like playing the piano, it’s quite likely that they will lose their motivation. Or, if someone sets a goal to run an ultra-marathon next month, but today they can only run for a minute at a time, it’s likely they will miss their goal and get discouraged.
Two well known theories for setting good goals
Here are two of the most well known theories for setting good goals. They use different words, but you can see that actually they cover pretty much the same ground.
- Technique 1: SMART
SMART is an acronym that stands for specific, measurable, achievable, relevant and time-bound goals.
S for Specific
Goals need to be clear and specific. You can ask yourself these questions:
- What exactly is my objective?
- How? With whom? Where?
M for Measurable
Goals need to be measurable, meaning you can track your progress, and you will know exactly what success or completion will look like. You can ask yourself:
- What signs can I look for that I’m making progress?
- How exactly will I know when I have achieved success?
- Can I put any numbers on what I’m aiming to achieve? For example if the aim is to get a high paying job, what amount does ‘high paying’ mean for me?
A for Achievable
Goals need to be realistically achievable, given your starting point. Choosing goals that are too hard to achieve could put you under too much pressure, or could leave you finding it too hard to make significant progress. Some questions for you:
- What does my current situation look like?
- Will I be able to sustain the changes I need to put in place?
R for Relevant
The most effective goals are the ones that are really relevant to you - i.e. you actually care about achieving them. Imagine having the goal of achieving a particular grade in a particular exam. Why does this goal actually matter to you? Perhaps you need specific A-Level or IB grades to get onto a course at university, which will then impact what career you can do. Consider some of these questions:
- Why does this goal really matter to me?
- How will I feel once I have achieved this goal?
T for Time-bound
The last letter in the SMART acronym stands for ‘time-bound’, which means that goals should have deadlines. Working to a particular timeframe helps you to manage your time efficiently. Some questions to answer:
- Do I have any external deadlines to take into consideration?
- How long will it realistically take me to achieve this goal?
- Technique 2: Locke’s goal-setting theory
Locke’s goal-setting theory is based on five principles to setting effective goals: clarity, challenge, commitment, feedback, complexity.
Goals need to be clear. This one encapsulates ‘Specific’ and ‘Measurable’ from SMART. Having a clear goal means you know exactly what success looks like, for example ‘This year I want at least a B in French’ rather than ‘I want to do better in French’.
Goals need to be sufficiently challenging. This one is similar to ‘Achievable’ within SMART, but in Locke’s theory the idea is that a goal should stretch you - because more challenging goals are more motivating.
Goals should be things you really commit to, i.e. that you care about and really want to achieve. This one is very similar to ‘Relevant’ in SMART.
Closing your eyes and visualising yourself after you’ve achieved a specific goal is a handy trick to both assess whether a goal is something you really care about, and - if it really is - to keep yourself motivated by it while you’re working towards it.
Feedback means being able to track your progress towards your goals. This could be getting feedback from other people about your progress, or it could be making sure you regularly take stock of your progress. This one isn’t covered very precisely in SMART, but it’s quite similar to ‘Measurable’ - it’s much easier to get useful feedback if the goal you are trying to achieve is measurable.
Goals should be easy to understand, and shouldn’t be made up of a huge number of steps. This one relates fairly closely to the ‘Achievable’ part of SMART.
A handy test for any goal that you come up with: can you explain your goal, and how you’re going to achieve it, to someone else in a few sentences? And is it simple enough for them to repeat it back to you? If not, it’s probably too complex.
The Unifrog technique for goal setting: RAM
We love simplicity, so we’ve boiled down SMART and Locke’s theory to create our own shorter acronym: RAM. This stands for:
- R for Relevant
The most important one: you need to really care about achieving the goal.
- A for Achievable
The goal needs to be realistically achievable within a specific timeframe. It should also be enough of a challenge to be motivating.
- M is for Measurable
The goal needs to be easy to measure, meaning it will be clear when you have attained it.
How to make a goal RAM
Look at this non-RAM goal:
Zora, who eats chocolate every day and walks a lot but has never been to the gym, decides: “Next year, I’m going to become healthier and fitter. I’m going to go to the gym lots.”
To RAMify this goal, the most important thing to get clear on is the ‘Relevant’ part: is this goal really important to Zora? We don’t know Zora, but for this example, let’s imagine the answer is yes - they really care about becoming healthy and fit.
Next, Zora needs to make their goal achievable and measurable. What exactly does ‘healthier and fitter’ mean, and what does it mean to go to the gym ‘lots’? What changes can Zora actually see themself making to their life? If Zora really loves chocolate, it’s maybe not realistic for them to cut it out from her diet completely. And if they've never been to the gym, it’s unlikely that they'll be able to sustain going every day.
So, a RAM version of the goal for Zora could look like:
“Over the next 12 months I’m going to become healthier and fitter. I’m going to eat chocolate only every two days, and I’m going to go to 2 gym classes a week.”
Goal-setting and Planning
Once you’ve got a goal which is RAM, the next stage is to come up with a good plan to reach it. This involves:
- Breaking down your overall RAM goal into manageable steps
- Making sure the steps are in the right order, and each have deadlines
- Thinking about who and what can help you achieve your steps, and putting these things in place
- Thinking about what blockers you could face in achieving your goal, plus how you can overcome each of them
- Writing down your immediate next steps
- Most important: actually starting to do the steps you've written down. Goal setting and planning are very useful things to do, but the only thing that really matters is whether or not you actually do the things you've planned.
Check out our guide on planning here.
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