Developing Goals

(Setting goals you can live with)

So you’ve gotten yourself into college. One goal reached! Now what will you do?

Many adults returning to college already have an idea of what they will study due to the type of career toward which they are working. But many do not. If you are one of those who may feel overwhelmed about the future—and even if not—read on!

Below you’ll find several different philosophies on "setting and reaching goals" because what may work for one person may not work for another. Similarly, each style may be better suited to one situation over another. Feel free to borrow ideas from several methods, combine the tips, and develop ways of your own!

A basic way to begin setting goals is:

Develop a plan or vision as your goal and find or create a "picture": Based on your likes and aptitudes, determine what you want to work toward. You can write it down, take a picture of something that resembles your goal, find an article in a newspaper or magazine that describes what you’d like to become or do, or anything else that represents your vision. (More on this below.)

Break it into workable, measurable steps, and then break it down again: If you feel like you’ve bitten off more than you can chew, that’s OK. It happens to everyone with a big plan. Try breaking down the goal you’ve created into smaller parts. For example, a goal of "succeeding in college" might have as one objective "getting an A in history." While that is a good start, it can still be too big to get a handle on exactly HOW to get an A in history. Break it down into even more steps, and continue to do so until you have a list of things that are "do-able" for you. For example:

  • attend all classes
  • read a chapter every two days
  • read all extra materials
  • study 4 hours at the library before each test
  • complete homework assignments on time

Get started: Actually, by this point, you are already started! Planning and analysis are very important first steps. Now it’s time to implement some of your actions. Create a To-Do list.

Uh-oh…. Get back on track: Sometimes it’s easy to get a little discouraged if your plan goes astray. Maybe you receive a C on the first history test, weighing 30% of the grade. You feel there’s no way you can recover enough to get an A now. This is the time for your best creative thinking. Is there extra credit available? Will the instructor work individually with you? I had that exact situation once and the instructor let me create a crossword puzzle for the class on terms we needed to know. It worked. I ended up with an A. There’s almost always something you can do if you catch the slide quickly. The longer you wait, the harder it is to recover.

Measure results: In the classroom, results are easily measured by the grades you receive from your instructor. Other goals may have less obvious measurable benchmarks. Say you want to learn photography. Some broad benchmarks might include: learning to operate a camera, taking a class or buying a book on technique or lighting, buying and using extra accessories, learning to develop and print negatives the old way. "Learning" here is a subjective phrase, but you can ask yourself what level of proficiency you wish to have at the skill you want to learn.

Reward yourself: When you reach a benchmark or complete a goal, reward yourself! Appreciate the hard work you put in to accomplishing your goal, even if it is a little one, like getting all the errands run (Phew!). For smaller goals, many find "to-do" lists rewarding. Seeing the items get crossed off brings a sense of accomplishment.* For those bigger goals, you should take time to pause and reflect. First, remember your past self prior to your achievement. What were your ambitions, visions, energies, and excitements about the future? How have they turned out? What did you DO to make that happen? What have you learned that will help you moving forward (not just academically — but for you as a person)? Embrace your development, appreciate the effort you put forth, remember that at one time, this was exactly what you wanted… and treat yourself to something special!

What now? Develop a new Goal: The final part of the process is to figure out what you are going to challenge yourself with next. Many people find that once they have accomplished their goal, they are not as satisfied as they thought they would be. Most of the time this is due to a simple belief that once they have accomplished one thing all else will be well. But, kind of like inflation, you need to judge your past goal on the circumstances of its time. What is not realized is that life goes on, changes come, and different outcomes from the original goal may be needed. It’s also helpful to have more than one goal at any given time, have ones under development, in the beginning stages and full on. This way, you’ll always have something to do!

Strategic Planning Process

In most organizations, strategic planning and goal setting are part of the on-going development process. The same is true in life. Here are some steps based on a data-gathering model of goal setting. Write it down or type it in:

  • Decide where you are / what your current status is: Use your feelings and intuition, assess your situation, obtain and analyze any available data, and ask for input from others. Ask where am I? Why here? Why now? Why am I doing this? Avoid asking "how" in this step. It dwells too much on the past for this exercise.

  • Locate where you want to go or be: Based on where you are, decide where you want to go. Ask where do I want to be? What do I want to do?

  • Develop a course based on the conditions you want to satisfy: Using the data collected above, and input from the rest of the article, create a listing or chart of what steps need to be accomplished to get to where you want to be. (This is the tough one… use the rest of this article to help break it down.) Use deadlines if helpful.

  • Chart your progress: Check off the items accomplished. Make notes about things that need updating or changing.

  • Alter plans based on new information and opportunities: Time changes things no matter what. What you dreamed of 5 years ago may be quite different from what you visualize now. New obstacles, responsibilities, and opportunities are sure to pop up after the first draft of your goals. Don’t be afraid to revisit the plan to add new tasks or delete items that are no longer relevant.

A Top Down Approach

The Top-Down approach starts with general statements and goals, and like a reporter, asks questions to extract specific steps you can take and aptitudes you can develop to fulfill your goal.

Start with a general goal, desire, or aspiration such as "I want to be happy" or "I want to be successful." Begin by asking yourself "what" makes me happy or "what" makes a successful person, or whatever question (how, what, when, why, where, who, what does it take) best fits the situation.

Continue asking as many questions at each level as you can. (Answer: "I am happy when I am outside and when I am helping people." Follow up questions: Where outside? Why outside? Doing what outside? Helping people how?)

You may want to chart your answers in a pyramid type structure, starting at the top with your goal, and filling in each level below it with progressively more specific answers.

With continued sifting of the answers through thorough questioning, you can help identify the traits, actions and requirements necessary for you to have in order to accomplish your goal.

Conversely, by starting with a specific activity you enjoy, you can use this questioning method (and research in your college career center) as a tool to help you figure out how to take a trait you already posses and "grow" it into a career path. Be advised, it is as important to know your weaknesses and dislikes in order to find a career path that is best suited to you. One bad aspect of a job can far outweigh several good aspects. Here are a few questions to get you started:

  • What do I like to do?
  • What do I like about it?
  • Is there anything I don’t like about it?
  • What do I do well?
  • What do I get praise for?
  • What do I struggle with?
  • What do I wish for?

To-Do List

A simple and rewarding activity essential to goal setting is the simple creation of a "to-do" list. Either the night before or morning of a day, write down the items and activities you wish to accomplish. You can have one list for several days if you’d like.

Being able to prioritize is a necessity. It can be helpful to group items in one of several ways: urgency, topically, level of difficulty, geographically, time of day constraints, etc. Keep the list near and as you go through the day, mark off the items your complete. Some people like to start with a few easy items to warm up. Others like to get the hard stuff out of the way. I’ll do a mix of these, depending on the urgency, and my mood or energy level.

Sometimes (many times??—at least for me) you will not get everything done. Don’t sweat it. You can transfer the incomplete items to a new list. While doing so, think about why you may not have completed that item. Was it just a time issue, or was there some obstacle to getting it done? If you identify an issue, add that as a subentry on your new list.

* Note: for some people, To-Do lists represent what is not yet done and can add a level of stress. If you can relate to this, I would suggest breaking down the activities on the to-do list into smaller parts, and if possible, allow yourself more time to complete each item.

You can also apply a To-Do list for a long-term goal. Don’t think of it as a daily list, but more of a regular check-in list to chart your progress over the long term. Here, a more generalized list is OK.

5 elements of a useful goal

Adapted from: Carolyn Hopper, Middle Tennessee State University, (author of Practicing College Study Skills, Houghton Mifflin, © 1998, ISBN: 0395852749)

  1. Specific: describe with as much detail as possible
  2. Measurable: describe in a way that can be clearly evaluated
  3. Challenging / Inspiring: one that takes energy to accomplish, that makes you get up in the morning
  4. Realistic: you know you are capable of attaining in a reasonable amount of time
  5. Has Completion Date: create a measurable deadline for your work

Online References

Many, many references can be found about goal setting and development. Here are just a few:

  • Personal Professional Development Program (National Science Teacher’s Association):

    Meant for teachers, but contains useful information for anyone setting goals. (PDF format).


    A course developed by two community college teachers as an online self-directed resource. Free for now, use it soon! Also available, for sale, are individualized career development packages.

  • Program Development and Evaluation Resources

    A Project of the Southern Region Program and Staff Development Committee, Kentucky Cooperative Extension Service. Some are applicable, some are not. but an interesting list none the less.

Recommended Reading:

What Color is Your Parachute, by Dick Bolles, is a time-honored book with several activities to help you prioritize your likes, dislikes, and competencies. A new version is released every year, however, if you find a copy at a used bookshop, it is just as helpful as the latest edition.

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by Kristin Pintarich, Editor-in-Chief, The Adult Student’s Guide to Survival & Success