Achieving Academic Goals Through Habit Change


Setting goals is easy, right? Sit down, take a minute to think about the things you’d like to accomplish, write them down, and voila!

Setting meaningful, realistic goals, however, is hard. In fact, the goals that are “easy” to set usually aren’t goals at all; rather, they’re mere bullet points on a wish list. And wishes aren’t the same as goals.

By definition, our goals reflect our aspirations: we envision the things we want, and then formalize those visions by declaring them to our family, friends, teachers, work colleagues, or just ourselves. But if the point of goal setting is to achieve things, a simple desire-and-declaration system won’t cut it. Just think: how many goals have you set that never came to fruition?

The reason we fail to reach many of our goals is that we fail to plan to reach them. Planning requires mental effort, self-criticism, and maybe even sacrifice in the form of time or things we enjoy. This is the tough part that we so often avoid. But in the absence of a plan, a goal is just a dream. Though planning requires some hard work, anyone can make it happen. For students who are looking to improve their academics, we’ve got a basic goal-setting approach to follow.

Step 1: The goal. Think about what you want to do. Do you want to score at least an 85 on your next math test? Increase your ACT Reading score by 3 points? Make honor roll next marking period? Whatever it is, write it down. Let’s choose scoring at least an 85 on the next math test as your goal.

Step 2: The plan. Consider what will be required to achieve your goal. Because you’re not perfect, you may not know what you’ll need to do for sure, but that doesn’t matter: the fact is that the plan is not set in stone, and can be altered as necessary later on. For example, to achieve a score of 85 or better on your next math test, you might plan to do two things:

a) work through practice problems for 30 minutes each day starting one week before the test

b) go to an extra help session once per week between now and the test.

Step 3: The habit change. Here’s the make-or-break part, and the one you may never have considered before. Even the plan is empty without thinking about the ways we can address its elements. For example, maybe you’ve never worked through 30 minutes of practice problems per day. This won’t just happen magically. You need to make it happen. This is the time to evaluate what you're currently doing. (They say that you can't change what you don't measure.) Let’s say your normal habit looks like this.

a) 3:30 PM: get home from school and make a snack.

b) 3:45 PM - 4:45 PM: watch YouTube videos or Instagram stories while eating your snack.

You can designate some of this time for practice instead. Take out your phone, and set a repeating event on your calendar (with reminders set!) for the days you’ll need to practice (remember, you’re planning for practice a week out from the test). Each day when that reminder alarm goes off, put your phone on silent and set it across the room, close your computer, and hit the books. Establishing a regular, structured habit at the same (or a similar) time every day is one of the best ways to satisfy a goal-oriented plan. Your new habit might look like this.

a) 3:30 PM: get home from school and make a snack.

b) 3:45 PM – 4:15 PM: re-work 10 problems from the first unit that will appear on the exam; mark what you can’t do for later review; eat your snack.

By establishing a scheduled, repeated task, you’ve taken your first step to changing your math studying habits, and thus toward achieving your goal score of an 85 or higher on the next exam.

Step 4: Adapt and be accountable. Along the way, you may realize that you need more or less time to practice problems and highlight your weaknesses. That’s fine! You can always adjust your calendar event. Need to stay late after school one day? Adapt! Push your practice back an hour. You should also consider telling others—ideally people whom you care about, and who care about you, like parents or good friends—about your plan so that you’re accountable to them. It’s easy to remain unaccountable to yourself—we tend to overlook our flaws and failures when it’s convenient—but it’s harder to look someone else in the eye and tell that person you haven’t followed through.

Our example was simple, but life is complicated. Changing one habit for one plan for one goal is a small, but it's significant. Recall the adage of Taoist philosopher Lao Tzu: a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step. In fact, taking on too many goals at once—that is, trying to change too many habits at the same time—is very unrealistic. It's better to set modest goals through altering simple habits, and to build from there. Remember, too, to be kind to yourself. We often say that “failure is not an option,” but that’s a bit pig-headed; it should be more like “failure is a learning experience, and one that I will respond to.” Look at it this way: though you may not achieve your goal the first time around, you will probably learn valuable lessons along the way. The idea is to use these lessons to tweak your plan and habits; in turn, you will be more likely to achieve your goal next time. Goal setting and achievement is a continuous, cyclical process, punctuated by setbacks, reevaluations, and eventually, triumphs. It all starts with a plan to change your habits.

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