How to Set (Useful) Goals

Gold starLet’s talk about goals. I’m actually not the biggest fan of “setting goals” because I know from experience it’s easy to go overboard (ask me some time about the obsessively detailed spreadsheet I kept while preparing for a really-no-big-deal sprint triathlon).

But, properly used, goals have a nice ability to focus the mind and help ensure you’re spending your time the way you want to be spending it.

How Do You Recognize a Good Goal?

Before we get to what a good goal looks like, let’s talk about bad goals. “I want to be in the top 10% of my class” is a bad goal. What, you say? How is this possible?

Easy — it’s not a goal, it’s an aspiration.

A goal is something under your control. An aspiration is something you’d like to have, that’s not under your control.

“I want to do my best” counts as a goal (although not a very good one, for reasons we’ll discuss later) because you control your effort. “I want to get all As” isn’t really a goal, because you don’t control your grades.

So, the first component of setting a good goal is that it focuses on something you control. (Interestingly enough, having high expectations about things you control — what these researchers call “hope” — seems to correlate with higher first semester law school grades.)

What else?

  • A good goal is measurable. If you can’t measure your progress, how do you know if you’re progressing? Setting a measurable goal can be difficult, however. I learned this at a planning meeting for the San Francisco Bike Coalition. Everyone agreed that we wanted biking to be safer and less intimidating, but how do you measure that? Similarly, in law school, how do you tell if you’re “studying harder” (a common goal)? Make it something you can measure: I want to spend at least five hours a week working on exam preparation, every week of the semester. At the end of each week, you know if you achieved this goal.
  • A good goal is realistic. There are only 24 hours in a day, and you have to occasionally eat and sleep. Saying you’re going to study 15 hours a day, outside of class, every day of the week simply isn’t feasible. You’ve got to be realistic. Far better to make a goal to go to the gym one day a week, and actually do it, than to say you’re going to go every day, and never go because it seems so overwhelming. Start small, and you’ll have a feeling of accomplishment, rather than frustration.
  • A good goal is one you tell people about. Social pressure can be a great motivator. (I once got my nose pierced, just because I’d told so many people I was going to that eventually I had to.) Having people to keep you accountable is great, but there’s value in just telling someone else what your goal is. Even saying it out loud makes it feel like more of an obligation. If you’re not comfortable telling anyone, or if you really want to spread the word (your choice!), check out online options that let you enter your goals and track your progress.
  • A good goal is short. It’s better to make a goal to do something once a week for an hour, rather than saying you’ll do the same thing fifteen hours by the end of the semester. Why? Because it’s easier to see when you’re getting off track, and quickly correct course. If you’re 15 minutes down at the end of the week, no big deal. You can make that up in no time. If you’re three hours down by week four, what are the odds you’re ever going to catch up?

So, there you have it! Keep in mind that you can make “fun” goals, too. A goal to have dinner with friends at least once a week (and not talk about law school for more then five minutes) is totally valid! They don’t all have to be dour and serious.

Good luck!

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