How to set goals (and achieve them)

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It’s officially 2019! I’m sure you have big things planned this year both academically and personally. Are you planning on boosting your GPA? How about landing your dream job/internship? Or perhaps just aiming to get into better shape? Whatever it is, this time of year is perfect for setting goals.

Re-energized from the holidays, January is customarily a time for new beginnings, bringing with it a chance to reinvent or improve oneself. Unfortunately, in a few weeks, the veneer of optimism tends to wear off as the months pass and December comes back around. The goals set at the start of the year either haven’t been reached or are forgotten entirely. After years of this vicious cycle it may feel easier to give up on setting goals entirely.

Over the past year, I’ve learned several tips, tricks and mindset shifts that have radically transformed how I set my goals. Better yet they have boosted my commitment to achieving them. In this post, I am going to summarize some of the best practices I’ve learned about positive goal setting– and following through.

Setting better goals

While it might seem almost too obvious, an essential step in achieving a goal is setting a goal. It really is just as simple as writing out your goal(s) on a piece of paper or digitally on your phone’s notepad. The sheer act of documenting a goal takes it from being an intangible thought and brings it that much closer to reality.

It is so easy that you could do it right now. In fact, try it! Jot down somethings you would like to accomplish in 2019.

Some examples might be:
• Learning a new language
• Completing a marathon
• Travelling to a different country
• Learning to dance
• Securing a new job/internship
• Graduating from university

I’m probably safe in assuming that every UTM student will likely at least have the goal to graduate. So I’ll use that as an example. For simplicity sake, I’ll assume the role of a fourth-year Management or Commerce student. A sample goal might be:

In 2019, I will graduate.

While this is a good place to start, there is a lot of room for improvement. From that simple first step, your initial goal statement can be further refined using the following framework.

S.M.A.R.T. goals


I’m almost certain at some point or another you’ve learned about S.M.A.R.T. goal setting. While there are several different variations, the S.M.A.R.T. framework, in essence, offers a practical guide for setting goals. In case you need a refresher, the acronym stands for:

Specific – What do you want to achieve?
Measurable – What metric will you use to judge your success?
Achievable – Is it possible to accomplish your goal?
Realistic – Can you truthfully achieve your goal in the time prescribed?
Timely – When would you like to have this goal achieved?

Put into practice the previous goal– in 2019 I will graduate —might become:

Specific – What do you want to achieve?
I want to graduate with distinction.
Measurable – What metric will you use to judge your success?
I will achieve a minimum CGPA of 3.2.
Achievable – Is it possible to accomplish your goal?
Yes, I can create an action plan to accomplish this.
Realistic – Can you truthfully achieve your goal in the time prescribed?
Yes, I have or can obtain the resource(s) necessary to accomplish this.
Timely – When would you like to have this goal achieved?
I will achieve this by April 24, 2019. The end of the Winter exam season.

The S.M.A.R.T. framework simplifies goal setting and breaks down what would typically seem daunting, into manageable tasks. If you’re interested in learning more, I would recommend the course, How to use SMART goals.


Here are a few additional words of advice:

Don’t shy away from big goals! Achievability and practicality are tightly woven into timeliness. If a goal is achievable, it is mostly a matter of finding the correct way of working towards it.
Avoid negative goals! Instead of saying, “I won’t fail any classes this semester,” flip that around and say, “I will pass all my classes.” It might seem like semantics, but it is far more motivating to use positive language.
Be precise! For example, “I will pass all my classes,” technically means that getting 51% in every single course is an acceptable outcome.
Don’t set impossible goals! It is impossible to get a 5.0 CGPA (out of a 4.0-grade scale). Similarly, using your current overall average and simple math you can calculate your maximum possible CGPA assuming you get perfect in every course. Anything beyond that would be equally as self-defeating.

With the above tips, I could end this blog post here, which is why S.M.A.R.T. goals are so deceptively simple. Besides the suggestions I’ve listed above another shortcoming is that people (myself included) tend to get lulled into a false sense of empowerment after writing out their goals.

Don’t get me wrong, setting S.M.A.R.T. goals are much better than having no goals at all, but they don’t offer a consistent strategy that can be used to follow through. Luckily several other tools and methodologies exist that can do just that. Here are some tricks I’ve found especially useful.

Following through


Every goal needs a strategy. Often times, if a goal seems difficult, it could be because there are gaps somewhere in the planning. Completing a marathon, learning a new language or graduating are, in their own right, massive undertakings. At times it can feel akin to pushing a boulder uphill. Efficiently tackling your goal makes sure you put your energy into the right actions and activities. Below are some of the techniques I’ve found to be beneficial.

The Pareto Principle

Also known as the 80/20 rule, a very condensed summary explains that approximately 80% of outputs is the result of 20% of inputs. For example, if you spend one hour writing an essay, the grade you receive could be attributed to your peak productive work, which was done for about 12 minutes. The other 48 minutes (while still necessary) was far less beneficial. In practice, it means that the time spent finding the perfect study room, picking a Spotify study playlist or looking for the best font to use is much less important than developing an outline or gathering sources.

Sounds good, but what does that have to do with goals?

The Pareto Principle is a useful reminder that being strategic with one’s actions can produce greater results than non-value-added activities. Good intentions and hoping for the best just won’t cut it. The exact percentage distribution between inputs and their associated outputs isn’t entirely relevant. The main takeaway from the Pareto Principle is that you should primarily focus on things that give you the highest return on investment for your time.


A simple but effective way to stay on top of your goals is to keep them visible. Regularly seeing or being reminded of a goal on a consistent basis helps keep you committed. Some low-energy methods might be a sticky note on a fridge, setting reminders on your phone or having a photo of your goal as your laptop background. Just because you write out your S.M.A.R.T. goals, if it is stuffed in a drawer or a folder on your computer, your commitment is likely to fade.

Maintaining commitment

Social accountability
A great way to stick to your goal is to ask for help from those close to you such as peers, friends and family. But only if you’re comfortable doing so, as this might not be appropriate for every goal. However, having the support from those closest to you is a great way to stay motivated and accountable. So, if your goal is to graduate with distinction and you’re spending a lot of your time on Netflix, your parents or siblings might give you a supportive nudge to stay focused.

Meaningful goals often take months, if not years to complete and the path to success isn’t always linear or straightforward. It’s a good idea to have a plan on how you’ll stay motivated in both the short and long term before facing difficulties. If you have the means, consider saving towards rewards or prizes as a way to treat yourself in celebration of reaching a milestone. These rewards don’t necessarily have to be  extraordinarily lavish or expensive. If you do well on a test or assignment find a way to celebrate. Maybe see a movie or grab a bite to eat with friends. Enjoy those small wins!

Loss aversion
Loss aversion is an economic theory that states that people would rather not lose something that they already have than to benefit from some type of reward. While a little controversial when used in the context of goals you can use this behavioural tendency to your advantage and encourage yourself to stay committed.

Say, for example, you and a close friend make a friendly wager that when either of you misses a lecture, you owe the other a coffee. Whereas before you may have been less than motivated to attend 9:00 AM lectures the cost of a cup of coffee (let’s say $5) will help encourage you to attend. It’s worth noting that for this to work the “loss” (in this case the price of the coffee) has to be greater than the perceived benefit of getting extra sleep.

And there you have it! A range of strategies to help you make your smart goals even smarter. While the examples I presented were geared primarily for students and academic objectives, they can be adapted for personal goals as well.

As for myself, after years of putting it off one of my primary goals of 2019 is to learn French. I’ve bought a bunch of grammar books, enrolled in classes and made a pledge only to watch French TV or listen to French music.

If you’re comfortable sharing your goal, post it in the comments section below along with your plan of how you’re going to follow through on it. Encourage others to reach their goals and, most importantly, stick to it. Motivation is contagious!

Good luck!

Matthew Smith
B.B.A., Class of 2018

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