How to help students break overwhelming goals into doable chunks

 Photo by Aidan Meyer

As a Creative Director, Monday morning is always the same.

Fill mug with coffee.
Sit down at desk.
Be overwhelmed with everything our organization is trying to accomplish.

There are so many book projects and film projects and marketing projects spinning, just prioritizing next steps becomes a full-time job. And no matter how many to-do apps or productivity apps I download, Monday is always a hurricane.

Our students start their Mondays the same way. There is coursework, and group projects, and game day, and SAT prep, and Honors Society, and forgotten biology quizzes. So much to do each week, and the load keeps growing year after year.

How can we manage a world that leaves us so anxious, busy, and stressed that by 8:12am on Monday we’re already craving Friday?

How can we help our students manage that same world?

How the science of goal-setting can help

In a recent study on academic achievement [1], researchers made a surprising discovery. Across the board, students who struggle at school share one interesting trait: they don’t know anything about the science of goal-setting. So the researchers formulated an intervention experiment.

They pinpointed high school students who were struggling with grades and divided these students into two groups.

Group #1 was led through a five-step process to conceive and frame specific personal goals related to their future. This was followed by a three-step tutorial to help them create detailed strategies for how they would achieve these goals.

Group #2 received self-assessments to measure their personality traits and career aptitudes. This group of students was given a report on the assessment results, but no training on how to set and act on goals.

At the time, both groups shared a 2.2 grade point average. But by the end of the semester, the grade point average of Group #1 had risen to 2.9, whereas the average for Group #2 had barely ticked up to 2.3. Additionally, the students in Group #1 carried heavier course loads and felt better about themselves and their performance overall.

For these students, the science of goal-setting significantly increased both their academic productivity AND their mental health.

Putting goal-setting to work

So what did these young people learn?

The students’ training involved a simple web-based experience that included eight steps. Here is what those steps look like in practice:

1. Envision

Invite students to write about the following prompts: a) their ideal future, b) qualities they admire in others, c) things they could do better, d) their school and career futures, e) things they would like to learn more about, and f) habits they would like to improve.

2. Label

Have students look back and label the main ideas and concepts that emerged from the visioning process. Take a few of these (they used 7 to 8 in the study) and write about what a successful outcome would actually look like if realized. Ensure that each labelled goal is clear and specific.

3. Prioritize

Prioritize the goals from step 2. Students should detail specific reasons for the pursuit of each goal and consider the attainability of each goal within a self-specified timeframe. When attainability becomes an expectation rather than simply a possibility, motivation dramatically increases.

4. Determine impact

Ask students to write about the impact that attaining each of the goals would have on their life.

5. Chunk it out

“Many things which cannot be overcome when they stand together yield themselves up when taken little by little.”-Quintus Sertorius.

This step is about getting students to break their goals up into bite-sized pieces/subgoals and constructing concrete strategies for achieving each of them. Tiny steps. This chunking step becomes the key to the effectiveness of the whole process.

6. Name obstacles

Encourage students to identify likely obstacles to each subgoal and think of strategies to overcome these barriers.

7. Cap

Students cap each subgoal, which means to define what it will look like for each subgoal to be achieved. This is about benchmarking goal attainment to help keep students focused through aiding them in monitoring their own progress.

8. Set a commitment level

Students evaluate the degree to which they are committed to achieving each goal. This is about the student forming a personal contract with themselves to strive for the goals that they have defined. At the end of the exercise, all documents are given back to students electronically for their reference.

Taking tiny steps together

The secret to the science of goal-setting is simple.

Take tiny steps.

Tiny.

While you may not want to revise your life goals every Monday, the key takeaway from this experiment is the importance of chunking out the tiny steps. Practicing tangible goal-setting in our own lives can prime us to lead students through a process like this for their goals.

By understanding this process, you will become a master at breaking your workload down into manageable pieces, and Monday will go from hurricane to hospitable. And the more you do it, the more automatic it will become.

May we reclaim our days and weeks from anxiety and stress. May we understand our own goals. May we see Mondays as possible.


[1] Dominique Morisano, Jacob B. Hirsch, and Jordan B. Peterson, “Setting, Elaborating, and Reflecting on Personal Goals Improves Academic Performance,” Journal of Applied Psychology 95 no. 2 (2010): 255-64.