SMART goals

Setting Goals

Mary Shier

Set Realistic and Specific 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 taking courses now shows you already have the major goal to complete your education.

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 us from reaching that goal. That may be an extreme case, yet still a lot of 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:

  1. To help his widowed mother, Yuxi went to work full time after high school. 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.
  2. Becky has just been elected president of her student union and is excited about planning a major community service project. She knows she should be spending more time on her reading assignments, but she feels her community project may gain her contacts that can help her find a better job after graduation. Besides, the project is a lot more fun, and she’s enjoying the esteem of her position. Even if she doesn’t do well on her courses, she’s sure she’ll pass.
  3. 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 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.
  4. Sachito was successful in cutting back her hours at work to give her more time for her business 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 fervour, but they remain goals and are still important in your life.

Goals also vary in terms of time. Short-term goals focus on today, the next few days and perhaps the next few weeks. Mid-term goals involve plans for this school year and the time you plan to remain in post-secondary. Long-term goals may begin with graduating from your program 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.

Author’s Story

A young woman came to me for education advising to discuss her career and educational goals. In her appointment, she was very excited to be talking to me about her goals. She beamed at the thought of establishing goals and taking steps to move towards them. She explained that she recently started dating a man who asked her about her goals. She realized that she didn’t have any. She realized that no-one had ever asked her that before. She said that in her family and among her friends, no one ever discussed goals with her. No one expected anything of her. No one ever talked about long-term planning. She realized that the lack of goal-setting in her life had meant she felt no control of her future. The prospect of taking charge and moving in a direction that she had some influence over was really exciting to her!

— Mary Shier, College of the Rockies

Write out your goals in the next exercise. 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 university 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.

Exercise: Personal Goals

Take out a piece of paper and write down your short-term, mid-term, and long-term goals. 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)
  • Mid-term goals (this year and while in college or university)
  • Long-term goals (from post-secondary graduation on)


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. 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 or university—but you may need to work on managing your life more effectively. Time management only works when you are committed to your goals. Keeping your eyes on the prize will help you succeed.

“Obstacles are things a person sees when he takes his eyes off his goal.”

— E. Joseph Crossman

Managing time well comes down to two things. One is identifying (and then prioritizing) goals and the other is having the discipline to be able to work towards accomplishing them. We all have the same amount of time in a day, week, month and year, yet some people are able to accomplish more than others. Why is this? Often, it is because they are able to set goals, prioritize them and then work on them relentlessly and effectively until they are complete.

Key Takeaways

  • Goals should be realistic, specific, and time oriented, and you must be committed to them.
  • Goals can be organized into short-term, mid-term, and long-term goals, each related to each other.
  • Setting priorities helps keep you focused on your goals but doesn’t determine how you use your time at all times.
  • Planning, the essence of time management, is necessary to stay focused and continue moving toward your goals.

Exercise: Goal Setting

  1. Look back at the four students described at the beginning of the section. Each of them is experiencing some sort of problem that could interrupt their progress toward their goals. Think about each student and write down a solution for each problem that you would try to work out, if you were that person.
    1. For Yuxi:
    2.  For Becky:
    3.  For James:
    4. For Sachito:
  2. How did it feel to articulate your short-term, mid-term, and long-term goals?

Text Attributions

This chapter is a remix of the following chapters:

About the Author


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Setting Goals Copyright © 2021 by Mary Shier is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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