Setting and Reaching Goals


By the end of this section, you will be able to:

  • Make realistic and specific short-, mid-, and long-term goals and commit to them.
  • Set priorities for reaching your goals as a basis for time management.
  • Develop an attitude for success.
  • Learn to use strategies for staying focused and motivated.


A goal is a result we intend to achieve through our individual or collective actions. Setting and reaching goals are two important yet challenging skills, both of which require us to invest a lot of thought, time, and energy. That investment is rewarding and well worth the effort because it is the achievement of our goals that helps us create the lives we want to live.Progress sign on building

Learning how to set effective goals can motivate us to take actions each day that move us closer to reaching them. Determining exactly what we want can go a long way in helping us meet our aims, and when we reflect on our goals, we find ways to work with conflicting goals or to reaffirm our commitment to accomplishing them. To do this we think about values, aspirations, and priorities and learn ways to manage our time, studies, and social life to best reach those goals.

Consider these four students and their goals:

To help his widowed mother, Juan went to work full time after high school, but now, a few years later, he’s dissatisfied with the kinds of jobs he has been able to get and has begun taking computer programming courses in the evening. He’s often tired after work, however, and his mother would like him to spend more time at home. Sometimes he cuts class to stay home and spend time with her.
In her senior year of college, Becky has just been elected president of her sorority and is excited about planning a major community service project. She knows she should be spending more time on her senior thesis, but she feels her community project may gain her contacts that can help her find a better job after graduation. Besides, the sorority project is a lot more fun, and she’s enjoying the esteem of her position. Even if she doesn’t do well on her thesis, she’s sure she’ll pass.
After an easy time in high school, James is surprised his college classes are so hard. He’s got enough time to study for his first-year courses, but he also has a lot of friends and fun things to do. Sometimes he’s surprised to look up from his computer to see it’s midnight already, and he hasn’t started reading that chapter yet. Where does the time go? When he’s stressed, however, he can’t study well, so he tells himself he’ll get up early and read the chapter before class, and then he turns back to his computer to see who’s online.
Sara was successful in cutting back her hours at work to give her more time for her engineering classes, but it’s difficult for her to get much studying done at home. Her husband has been wonderful about taking care of their young daughter, but he can’t do everything, and lately he’s been hinting more about asking her sister to babysit so that the two of them can go out in the evening the way they used to. Lately, when she’s had to study on a weekend, he leaves with his friends, and Sara ends up spending the day with her daughter and not getting much studying done.

What do these very different students have in common?



How do the students’ goals in each of these stories conflict?



How could they meet their goals without sacrificing academics?



What role does motivation and attitude play in their stories?



Short, Midterm, and Long-term Goals

As you think about your own goals, think about more than just being a student. You’re also a person with individual needs, hopes, and plans. Your long-term goals likely include graduation and a career but may also involve social relationships, a romantic relationship, family, hobbies or other activities, where and how you live, and so on.

Goals also vary in terms of time. Short-term goals focus on today and the next few days and perhaps weeks. Smaller and more manageable tasks, such as studying for a test, reading a textbook chapter, or working out are examples of short-term goals. Achieving your short-term goals leads to achieving your midterm goals, which involve plans for this semester or school year. Midterm goals include such things as earning passing grades in all classes, making the dean’s list, or making new friends. Long-term goals may include graduating college and transferring to another institution or seeking employment in your field of study. Often your long-term goals (the kind of career you want) guide your mid-term goals (getting the right education for that career), and your short-term goals (doing well on an exam) become steps for reaching those larger goals. Thinking about your goals in this way helps you realize how even the little things you do every day can keep you moving toward your most important long-term goals.

8334714234_161961fd1a_oWrite out your goals in Activity 1 below. The act of finding the best words to describe your goals helps you think more clearly about them. Follow these guidelines:

Goals should be specific.  The more concrete a goal is, the more likely we are to achieve it.  Begin by answering the who, what, when, where, how and why to help avoid goals that are too general. Some of these questions may be answered in the next steps. For example, “I will become a great musician” could be replaced with a more specific statement, such as, “I will finish my music degree in five years and be employed in a symphony orchestra.”

Goals should be measurable.  Establish concrete criteria for your goal by choosing specific dates, numbers, or milestones to help you stay on track. Goals such as, “I will read twenty pages a day” or “I will work out three days a week” are examples of measurable goals.

Goals should be attainable. It’s good to dream and to challenge ourselves, but goals should also relate to our personal strengths and abilities. Setting realistic goals increases the likelihood of achieving them.

Goals should be relevant. It’s important to consider our own passions and desires when setting goals so they’re applicable to our own lives rather than what others may want for us.

Goals should have a time frame. Vague goals, such as “finish college someday,” are not as motivating as goals with a deadline. Project a time frame for reaching your goal such as, “I will have a final draft of my paper completed by Friday” or “I will graduate from MCC in six semesters.”

You should really want to reach the goal. We’re willing to work hard to reach goals we care about, but we’re likely to give up when we encounter obstacles if we don’t feel strongly about a goal. Be sure you are committing to a goal for the right reasons and it is something you really want to pursue. Then take all the small and steady steps that eventually lead to long-term success.

Activity 1: Personal Goals

Write your goals in the following blanks.

Long-term goals (finishing college or transferring):





Midterm goals (this semester):





Short-term goals (today, this week, and this month):





While thinking about goals gets us started, it’s also important to think about priorities. We often use the word priorities to refer to how important something is to us. Go back to the goals you wrote in Activity 1 above and rank each goal as a 1 (top priority), 2 (middle priority), or 3 (lowest priority).

Priority label on packageIt sounds easy, but do you actually feel comfortable doing that? Whenever you have an hour free between class and work, do you have to study because that’s the higher priority? What about all your other goals? Do you have to ignore everything that’s not a priority 1? And what happens when you have to choose among different goals that are both number 1 priorities?

In reality, priorities don’t work quite that way.

It doesn’t make a lot of sense to try to rank goals as always more or less important. Setting priorities always involves time: what is most important to do right now? As we’ll see later, time management is mostly a way to juggle priorities so we can meet our goals.

In addition to time management and commitment, a positive attitude and motivation are also very important qualities that contribute to our success.

An Attitude for Success

Here are some characteristics associated with a positive attitude:

  • Enthusiasm for and enjoyment of daily activities
  • Acceptance of responsibility for one’s actions and feeling good about success
  • Generally upbeat mood and positive emotions
  • Cheerfulness with others and satisfaction with oneself
  • Motivation to get the job done
  • Flexibility to make changes when needed
  • Ability to make productive decisions
  • Effective use of time

And here are some characteristics associated with a negative attitude:

  • Frequent complaining
  • Blaming others for things that goes wrong
  • Often experiencing negative emotions: anger, depression, resentment
  • Lack of motivation for work or studies
  • Hesitant to change or seek improvement
  • Unproductive use of time, procrastination

Two men high-fiving outsidePeople’s goals and priorities have a huge effect on their attitude. Someone who really wants to succeed in college is more likely to become motivated and develop a more positive attitude to succeed. But what if you are committed to succeeding in college but still feel kind of doubtful or worried or even down on yourself? What can you do then? Can people really change their attitude?

While attitude is influenced by personality, upbringing, and past experiences, there is no attitude gene that makes us one way or another. People who are committed to their goals are more likely to learn how to adjust their attitudes. The following are some ways to begin the important task of nurturing a positive attitude.

Overcome Fears

One of the most common fears of college students is a fear of failure. Everyone experiences some sort of failure at some time and everyone has fears. The question is what to do about them. The starting point, again, is to think about your goals. You’ve already shown your commitment by coming this far, and if you still have any fear of failure, turn it around and use it in a positive way. If you’re afraid you may not do well on an upcoming exam, sit down and schedule times to start studying well ahead of time, and when you pass that test, celebrate the accomplishment of reaching one of your short-term goals.

Stay Focused and Motivated

Planning ahead is the single best way to stay focused and motivated to reach your goals. Time management strategies will be discussed at length in the next chapter, but for now, write down your goals and post them in a place where you’ll be reminded of them daily.

Tips for Success: Staying Motivated

  • Keep your eyes on your long-term goals while working on short-term goals.
  • Keep your priorities straight, but also save some time for fun.
  • Stay positive.
  • Keep the company of positive people.
  • Imitate successful people.
  • Plan ahead to avoid last-minute pressures.
  • Focus on your successes.
  • Break large projects down into smaller tasks or stages.
  • Reward yourself for completing significant tasks.
  • Tell your goals to others.

Key Takeaways

  • Goals should be SMART (specific, measurable, attainable, relevant, and time oriented).
  • It’s important to be fully committed to our goals.
  • Setting priorities helps keep us focused on our goals.
  • Everyone can work on developing a more positive, motivating attitude.
  • Planning is necessary to stay focused and motivated to continue moving toward our goals.


1. Check the goal statement that is written in a way that shows the person has carefully considered what he or she wants to achieve.
_____ I will do better in my math course.
_____ I will earn at least a B on my next English paper.
_____ I will study more this term.

2. List ways in which a negative attitude can prevent students from being successful in college.




3. Look back at the four students described at the beginning of the chapter. All of them are experiencing some sort of problem that could interrupt their progress toward achieving their goals. Think about each student and write down how you would solve each problem if you were that person.
For Juan:


For Becky:


For James:


For Sara:


4. List a few things you can do if you’re having trouble getting motivated to sit down to study.