Goal Management

Every project you undertake in school — a class, a paper, an extracurricular activity, a social event, even downtime — should have a goal (or more than one). Take a moment to figure out what the goal of each task you’ve accumulated is. Be honest with yourself; I’ve heard dozens of students say they took a class (often my class) just because “it meets a requirement”. That may be true, but there’s always several classes that meet any given requirement; what made you choose this one? You don’t have to have a lofty purpose for everything, either — maybe you like watching “The Daily Show” every night to relax and have a laugh, or maybe you signed up for intramural sports just to have fun. That’s fine — the important thing is simply to know what your goals are.

A common piece of writing advice is to “write to your thesis” — that is, to keep in mind the point you’re trying to make, and to evaluate each line and paragraph to make sure it brings you closer to making that point. Setting goals works the same way — live towards your goals. If by some unfortunate turn of events “The Daily Show” is no longer funny, or your weekly rugby game is no longer fun, then have a choice:

  1. Determine why the project is no longer meeting your goals, and fix it; or
  2. Accept that this project isn’t the best way to meet your goals, and stop doing it.
  3. Or, in some instances, you might change your goals.

Consider your classes, for example. Let’s say you are taking Introduction to Anthropology (a class I teach, by the way). You could have taken Sociology or Economics or Political Science to meet your social science requirement, but you chose anthropology. Perhaps you’re interested in foreign cultures and hope to learn more about them. Day after day passes, and the professor spends the whole time talking about theories and the lives of anthropology’s great figures, and never mentions the specifics of any particular culture. The class isn’t meeting your goals!

Now, if you were truly just taking the class because it meets a requirement, you’d happily come to class each day, absorbing whatever the professor has to offer, taking your tests and handing in your assignments, and never complaining. What’s more likely, though, is that you will start to feel frustrated, angry at the professor for wasting your time, and bored. If you haven’t taken the time to determine what your goals are in taking the class, you probably won’t be able to express what’s eating at you; instead, you might develop a distaste for anthropology, or a dislike for a perfectly fine professor, or simply start dragging your feet on your assignments until you finish the class with a low grade. Not a great outcome, right?

If, on the other hand, you’ve taken the time to figure out just what it is you hope to gain from this class, it will be easy to articulate. You might pay a visit to the professor and explain why you took the class and what you feel is missing (believe me, unless the professor is the worst sort of scoundrel, they’ll appreciate your input — professors who care about teaching thrive on student input, even when it’s critical). Perhaps the professor can let you know if upcoming material might better meet your goal, or maybe s/he’ll allow you to substitute outside research for an assigned paper that would allow you to apply the ideas in the class to some foreign culture. Or maybe she’ll add material to the class that will be more engaging for you.

Or, maybe not. Maybe you’ve misunderstood the class description or had the wrong idea about what anthropology is, and the teacher doesn’t plan to cover material that might be better suited to your personal reasons for taking the class. If it’s early enough in the semester, you might be able to transfer into a class that better meets your goals. Or, if they’re a good enough professor, they should be able to offer you enough incentive to stay in the class while helping you to adopt more suitable goals.

But unless you can easily explain what your goals are — to yourself as well as to your professor — you’re going to have a hard time creating a satisfactory outcome. It’s a good idea to keep track of your tasks and projects (writers often post their thesis on the wall above their desk so it’s always right in front of them) and a short line or two about what you hope to accomplish — I keep a small pocket notebook with all my projects listed and space for writing down my goals for each. Sure, a lot of things won’t seem to merit that kind of formality — deciding to go bar-hopping with your friends (Goals: have fun, socialize, meet an obliging member of your preferred sex, blow off steam) might not merit an entry in your book, but just about anything you do on a regular basis or that has an “official” air to it certainly does.

Takea few minutes to write down your projects and their goals right now. Then take a few minutes each week or so to review your list and decide whether that project is still moving you towards your goals. Don’t forget about the big stuff, either: going to college is a project, dating someone is a project, becoming a lawyer (or doctor, or professor, or politician, or nurse, or air conditioner tech, or programmer, or artist, or whatever) is a project. Especially in college, our goals often change, and you might find that your goals and your big life decisions no longer seem to line up after a while. Keeping on top of those shifts while they happen is, at the very least, a good way to avoid the kinds of crises graduates often face when they realize the degree they’re holding in their hand has absolutely nothing to do with who they have become or what they want from life.

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