Setting Goals: The Path to Improvement (book excerpt)

Don’t try to solve all your problems at once. Pick just one area that needs improvement, and work on it until you’ve reached your goal. To turn your achievement into a new habit, repeat the behaviour you are practicing until it becomes automatic.

Set a realistic goal. Decide in advance what you need to do to meet the goal, how you will measure success, and what your deadline will be. If you fail to reach the initial goal, revise it and try again.

Improvement is like hiking up a mountain: you do it one step at a time. If looking at the peak discourages you, forget about it and concentrate on the next step, and then the next. On the other hand, if looking at the peak inspires you, just keep imagining the fabulous view from the top!

Defining a Goal

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:

Goal: 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]
Monitoring: Keep a daily record in your homework diary, and also on your wall calendar if you wish.
Time limit: One week. End date: [to be filled in]
Measure of success: If you read every day for 15 full minutes, give yourself a treat.
Revision: 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.

In Appendix A, you will find some goal-setting aids:

•Set a Goal, a form for recording your goal, assessing your success, and deciding on the next step.
•Form a Habit, a different version of Set a Goal, designed to help you work on a single goal over several weeks or months and form a new habit.
•The Learning Log, a sheet to help you keep track of your behaviour during class time.
•The Homework Tracker, a sheet to help you monitor your good habits regarding homework.
•The Daily Check Sheet, to get daily feedback from teachers on how you are doing.
•The Post-Report Evaluation, to help you figure out what your report card really means.

If you’re not sure where to start, ask a parent or teacher for help in choosing and defining a goal that will work for you. If you’ve never set a goal before, go ahead and try one that’s simple, such as the reading example above. Or choose one of the other sample goals provided in Part Two (also listed in Appendix B). Or start with what I think are the two most fundamental Good Habits: “Read every day” and “Use a homework diary in every class, every day.”

Once you have some practice setting goals, monitoring them, and revising them, you’ll be able to set goals in every area of your life. You’ll be amazed at how easy it is to improve your habits if you work at it systematically

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.

2 thoughts on “Setting Goals: The Path to Improvement (book excerpt)”

  1. Hello Eric,

    I came across your website a few minutes ago, and I’m considering purchasing your book; however, I am a college professor, and I’m not sure if your book is designed for college students–many of whom are nontraditional and largely unprepared for the college experience. If not, are you planning such a book in the future?



  2. Hi Deborah,

    Nice to hear from you!

    You can download the entire book for free (albeit in an unwieldy, A4/8.5×11 format) and have a look. In general, the book is addressed to middle- and high-school students and their parents. Much of the content, however, would apply equally well to university students.

    Alternatively, you could point your students toward this blog as a resource.

    You might also suggest topics or situations relevant to your students that you would like me to write about, and perhaps I could do so in a blog post that might later be included in the second edition of the book, which is now in the planning stages.

    What are your students’ biggest challenges when it comes to bad habits at school?


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *