Understanding what a goal is and why it's important

Almost all young people have dreams about what they want to be and what they want to achieve. They stay dreams unless they have some direction. Like most techniques in building resilience, this too has to be learned.

A useful exercise is to get a young person to make a list of about twenty-five dreams, then take a day or two to think about them. If they cannot then explain why they want to achieve a particular dream on the list, that one should be removed. The list may include academics, sports, relationships, health, personal fulfillment, extracurricular activities, family goals and finances. If it is important enough that the young person can develop the dream and explains why he wants or needs it, then it is an acceptable goal.

Another good exercise is to ask the “miracle question”. If a young person has a problem or a task to handle, ask them this ”What would it feel like to go to sleep tonight and wake up tomorrow and find the task is done or the problem is solved?—a miracle has happened”. This enables the person to projects themselves in to a point where the goal has been achieved and to feel the sense of buzz that goes with it.

Setting achievable goals—SMART(ER) goals

For goals to be effective they should be SMARTER: This is a seven-letter acronym which describes the key steps in effective goal setting. It is
often found in the abbreviated original format SMART which describes the first five steps. Either is effective.

Specific You must be able to define them clearly and concisely.

The clearer the goal the more effective it is. “I want to do well at school” is better replaced with “I want to get four grade A passes in my A level exams”.

Measurable You must know when you have achieved success and what success will look like. Measures are usually unambiguous and tangible—they remain in sight and progress can often be monitored.

Achievable Sufficiently challenging but not impossible. Generally the evidence shows that most young people make progress by “gently” stretching themselves.

Relevant It should be relevant to their needs and have a real impact.

Time bound There must be a deadline to work towards. To say “I'll write that essay soon” is very different to “I will write that essay by the last day of the month”.

Exciting They should inspire enthusiasm and commitment. The benefits and impact should be assessed as worthwhile or valuable.

Reviewable There must always be provision for reviewing and re-establishing targets to take account of changing circumstances.

Eating the elephant—Dealing with big goals and setting milestones

Many goals are big goals and some may appear to be big but they may not be. If we are not careful the goal can appear overwhelming to a young person. The trick is to take these significant goals and turn them into something which is realistic and achievable.

question: How do you eat an elephant?

answer: A slice at a time.

The key to achieving big goals is to break the task down into smaller relevant tasks which when completed are clear steps towards the
achievement of the big goal. These intermediate tasks should each have SMART goals attached whereupon they are called “milestones”.

A useful technique which works well is the 2-4-8 rule.

This simply takes a big goal that has to be achieved at some time in the future (say two weeks) and work out what you would need to have achieved by the mid-point (one week) if you are to be on track for the big goal. These milestones should begin to appear to be more achievable.

Then you repeat the exercise. What has to be done by the new midpoint (four days away) of this shorter period to be on track for the midpoint and the end goal? These will often now appear to be eminently achievable. An example might be:

• I have to write a 1,500 word essay in two weeks

• By the end of one week—I should have a plan to write that essay in two evenings in the final week

• By the end of four days—I should have researched the subject and done some reading to get ideas. I can then create a mind map in the second half of the week to enable a plan to form.

These actions will typically be “smaller” actions which are more easily handled. They don't look so daunting and the whole project now feels doable.

If it's a bigger project, review progress regularly at each milestone point. Its useful to do that with someone else to ensure some form of discipline.

At any point the individual should ask themselves:-

• Does the next milestone appear achievable? Are you more confident that you can achieve this target? Do you fell more in control?

• What might stop you achieving each target—have you planned to deal with it? Are there lead times you need to take into account? Are you procrastinating?

• How confident do you feel that you will now hit the big target?

A psychological perspective on goal setting

Most of the research into goal setting has been focused on how to maximise the technique. Much less attention has been paid to the underpinning psychology. What we can say is:

• Goal setting works better for some people. Certain personalities are drawn to it; others find it limiting and stifling. Everyone can benefit—not everyone wants to.

• It reduces anxiety. By allowing an individual to deal more effectively with demands.

• Nearly everybody puts things off. Goals help to alleviate this. The reasons for procrastination are many—including self-handicapping (giving yourself an excuse), fear of failure, low self-esteem and attribution distortions.

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