How to Define a Goal (book excerpt)

A poorly defined goal will be pretty useless. Look at this one:

“My goal is to improve my marks in English.”

This is a nice idea, but it’s not a well-defined goal, because it leaves many important questions unanswered. For example, how much improvement is desired? How will the improvement be measured? Over what period of time is the goal to be achieved? What action is required to achieve the goal? How will progress toward the goal be recorded and judged?

A well-defined goal answers these questions right from the beginning. Here’s an example:

To read for 15 minutes every day.
Action required
Establish a fixed time and place to read. Eliminate all possible interruptions, and set a timer for 15 minutes.
How often?
Every day.
Start date
[to be filled in]
Keep a daily record in your homework diary, and also on your wall calendar if you wish.
Time limit
One week.
Measure of success
If you read every day for 15 full minutes, give yourself a treat.
If you fell short, repeat for another week. When you read for seven straight days, give yourself that treat. Then continue, with a treat at the end of each successful week, until the reading itself is a treat. At that point-not before-increase the time to 20 minutes.

Defining goals like this takes practice. To help you out, I’ve included sample goals with many of the Good Habits described in Part Two of this book. For each of them, the time limit is one week, and I recommend that you begin all your goals with a one-week time limit. Why? It keeps you focused. If you start to slip, the worst that can happen is that you lose a week.

Some goals are hard to define in a way that can be measured or counted. My students, for example, sometimes want to improve their handwriting skills. They set a goal: to write more neatly. But how can someone know whether the handwriting is neater, or how much neater it is? Instead, I tell them to set a goal to practice the skill they want to improve. Goal: to practice neat handwriting for ten minutes every night. With a goal like that, you can keep a record and tell whether the ten minutes has been spent on handwriting. And if you do practice writing neatly for ten minutes every night, you can be sure that your handwriting will improve.

Monitoring your progress: Keeping a daily written record of your goal-setting activity is crucial. For example, you decide to read for 15 minutes every evening, but you don’t keep a daily record. A week later, will you be able to tell exactly how many minutes you have read, on which days? Maybe you will, but maybe you won’t. In addition, keeping a daily record means that you remind yourself daily, and these reminders really help keep you on track. And finally, if you can’t keep a daily record of your achievement, you probably haven’t defined your goal in a way that can be measured. If that’s the case, re-read the paragraph just before this one.

Many of you will be tempted to skip the monitoring-don’t!

Reminders: Try using a digital calendar or organizer that can send you reminders-a beep, a message on-screen, or an email. This can be a great way to ensure that you don’t forget, and an easy way to keep a written record of your goal-setting.

Support: Find a friend who wants to improve his or her habits, and work together to keep each other motivated and on track.

To build a new habit, all you have to do is set a goal, monitor your progress daily, and keep at it-perhaps for weeks, perhaps for months-until the behaviour you are practicing becomes automatic.

Author: Eric MacKnight

I have been teaching English since 1980 in the United States, Morocco, Switzerland, Austria, Canada, The Netherlands, and China. Good Habits, Good Students is my first book.

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