Effective (& Reasonable) Goal Setting


Goal setting… it sounds so easy; you jot down a few wishes, and off you go. If it is so easy, why do so many of us not achieve our goals? This blog post will look at the goal itself and deeply dive into how you can formulate your goals to set yourself up for success.

You may have heard some proclaim that one should not have New Year's resolutions. New Year's resolutions sound like this "I want to be happy", "I want to be successful", or the famous "I want to lose weight" or "I want to complete my dissertation". They are vague and often come without a plan and, therefore, nothing more than a wish. And, as they say, a wish is a goal without a plan. But when we set effective and reasonable goals, we enable ourselves to achieve them; we set ourselves up for success. When we have vague goals, such as a wish or resolution, we fail; we become avoidant, which means we procrastinate on what's important and become demoralised and depressed.

So, what is the problem?

The first problem is that many of us just don't set goals. A few years ago, one of my postgraduate students said she does not set goals or timelines; she just sees what she feels like doing on any given day and then does that. It worked for the first few months of her postgraduate journey, but because of the complexity of a research project, she needed to adapt her ways to handle the higher number of smaller projects within the bigger one. Her self-discipline and daily habits to work on her research were enough to pull her through the initial stages, but later, she needed to learn another skill: effective (and reasonable) goal setting.

Why are so many of us not setting goals? We don't know how to set goals, and then we just don't do it, or we were disappointed in the past when we set our goals but didn't achieve them, and we don't want to live through the disappointment again. After all, it is not a good feeling to set goals just to find yourself not conquering them, for whatever reason. How often have we heard postgraduate students saying, "starting Monday, I'm going to work on my research project every day", and then it just does not happen?

The second problem is that many of us set unreasonable goals. Does this type of goal sound familiar? "Finish literature review by 13 May" but today is the 11th of May and you have not even started. There is no way that you'll finish an entire literature review for a masters or doctoral research project in such a short period of time. Sometimes it takes hours to  compile one single paragraph! In other words, the goal is unreasonable. The fact that you did not achieve the goal has nothing to do with your abilities, resources, or motivation. The problem lies with the goal itself. And you can imagine how one can get despondent if we keep setting such goals and don't achieve them. You become" a serial-goal-non-achiever".

The third problem is that we set goals that are too broad. The example of "Finish literature review" is a very appropriate one. But we can also use the examples of "complete data analysis" or "write discussion". These are broad goals, and what do we do when we see a goal such as these on our to-do list? We procrastinate and go on and spend our time on smaller, better-defined goals, and these goals do not necessarily contribute to the bigger picture but often keep us "busy". That is why they talk about busyness as a form of procrastination, where we keep ourselves busy with all kinds of smaller tasks to feel productive and, in this way, procrastinate on what is really important; i.e. the actual thing that will move the needle the most such as completing your discussion. Broad goals such as "write discussion" can be broken down into smaller, more manageable tasks such as "review results and jot down potential discussion points" or "write discussion section on the age range of participants with lower back pain" or whatever your research is about.

Why is it important to set goals?

Before changing your ways, know why it is important to set goals. Why do you need them? What's in it for you? Goals help you to create a concrete vision of where you are going. And you also need to know why the specific goal you set is important to the bigger picture. How do these goals fit into your overall vision for the year or the next five years? You can even put together a vision board where you print pictures of what you want to achieve. A graduation ceremony, a completed dissertation, an academic job, or whatever you see yourself achieving in the next few years.

Once you have set the goal, you can formulate a plan to get there. It also allows you to look back and review your achievements – and thus enable you to celebrate! Ideally, your goals need to align with your passion and purpose; they say the definition of passion is "a barely controllable emotion", so surely we should not just follow our "barely controllable emotions", that is why purpose is important as well, which is defined as "the reason for which something is done or created or reason for which something exists".

How do you set goals?

I will show you a process that will help you set effective and reasonable goals with an example from the research context. It's called the CO-STAR process and was developed by the owners of the online information company, the Membership Geeks. Here's their original blog post. Brilliant system and all the credit goes to them.

C – Current Situation

Let's start with the C of CO-STAR, C stands for your current situation. Evaluate how things are at the moment and the challenges that need solutions. What do you have going for you? Do this by using the SWOT analysis.

For example, one of your strengths may be that you are a fast reader and find it easy to read scientific articles. Your weakness may be that you sometimes get lost in reading; you go down the rabbit hole and end up reading irrelevant work. Opportunities may be that you have a quieter time coming up at work which will allow you to spend some more time on your research, or if you are studying full-time, you have a writing retreat scheduled with fellow students to help you get ahead. Threats may include falling behind your planned timeline as things take longer than planned, and you may not be able to catch up if you don't take action now.

List all your strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats pertaining to your research endeavours. Seeing these in front of you will make you aware, and awareness is the first step to taking action.

O – Objectives

You have now described your current situation well and are ready to move on to the O in CO-STAR, standing for Objectives or Goals. Identify your objectives for the next three months. Make them SMART.

S in SMART stands for specific, as opposed to vague. Once the "MART" of SMART has been applied, your goal will be specific, so hang in there. M stands for Measurable. To make a goal Measurable, you need to state how you will know when you have achieved (or not achieved) this goal. As with many other research components, this is a difficult one because quality is such a subjective concept. Let's try this, change your goal of "Complete literature review" to "Complete the first draft of the literature review at a standard ready to send to my supervisor". Okay, next up is A for Achievable. Do you think this goal is achievable? Yes, indeed, you are a fast reader, as we've seen from your SWOT analysis, and you will have some extra time available. However, it won't be achievable overnight. 

R in SMART stands for Relevant. Is this goal Relevant to your overall aim? Yes, you need a literature review as part of your research project. Great! Let me tell you a story about relevant goals (I heard it somewhere but can't recall where it came from - thank you to the creator). A dog was waiting by the roadside for vehicles to come past. He would run after each vehicle that passed, barking furiously. One day someone asked the owner of the dog: "Do you think your dog will ever catch a car?" The owner responded, "I'm more worried about what he'll do with the car once he catches it". In the same way, many of us are pursuing irrelevant goals, goals that do not fit with our passion or purpose. Being aware that some of our goals may not be relevant is super important. Relevant goals will move the needle forward when it comes to your research, and you will know which ones are relevant as it fits into your situation.

Lastly, the T in SMART stands for Time-based. Make your goal time-based or timebound by changing "Complete the first draft of the literature review at a level ready to send to my supervisor" to "Complete the first draft of the literature review at a level ready to send to my supervisor by 30 June 2022". This is pretty reasonable and achievable if today is the 11th of May 2022.

This is a practical example of setting SMART goals. Now you can apply this same process to all your other goals.

S – Strategies

With that, we are moving to the S, which stands for Strategies. To figure out your Strategies, ask, "how am I going to achieve this goal?" Write down a few strategies that you'll use to achieve this goal. You are going to read approximately 50 relevant scientific articles; you are also going to set up a structure consisting of appropriate headings and subheadings.

T – Tactics

T stands for Tactics; these are the specific processes you will follow to ensure your strategy succeeds. For each Strategy, write down a few Tactics. Such as:

If your Strategy is to read approximately 50 relevant scientific articles, then your Tactics are: search and download 50 articles that seem relevant from the title and abstract; summarise each relevant article into a table.

Or your Strategy may be: set up a structure for your literature review consisting of headings and subheadings. Then your Tactics may be: go through 10 examples of literature reviews in completed dissertations and see how much detail these literature reviews contain and how the content relates to the aims and objectives of the dissertation. You are going to draw a spider diagram on a whiteboard to clarify all the sections needed, and you are going to set up a meeting with your supervisor to present your structure and get her input. Thereafter, you are going to set up the headings and subheadings in Microsoft Word using the heading styles function and appropriate numbering.

A – Action

A in CO-STAR stands for Action steps, in other words, operationalising your goal, strategies and tactics. This is where you schedule time in your calendar to take action and add relevant tasks to your to-do list. Remember to schedule enough time because we forever underestimate how long a task takes to complete. Also, break your Tactics down into smaller tasks and add those to your to-do list, e.g. you forgot your online library login details and need to get your password sent to you (don't worry, these things happen to the best of us); this is a to-do list item in itself. Another two tasks may be to "list relevant search terms" and "list databases to be searched".

R - Review

Finally, R in CO-STAR stands for Review. This is where you look back and reflect on where you are towards achieving your goals. Something that will give you a reason to celebrate. Going through your goals once every three months is good, but if you prefer to do a monthly planning session, that can also work. Tweak your goals, strategies, tactics and action plan as needed. Things do not always work according to plan, so keep trying until you get it right:

Thomas Edison failed many times in his quest to invent the light bulb, in fact, he tried 2000 different filament materials. His assistant commented: "All our work is in vain. We have learned nothing." Edison replied, "Oh, we have come a long way, and we have learned a lot. We know that there are 2000 elements which we cannot use to make a good light bulb."

As we go through this goal-setting journey, we may discover 2000 thousand ways of working that do not work for us, before we get to the one that works perfectly!

Happy goal setting!

A Live Workshop on Goal setting was presented to members of the Research Masterminds Success Academy. In addition to the above, we deeply delved into what works well for others that may work well for you too when setting goals for your research. To access this recording and many other gems, join the Research Masterminds Success Academy today. 

If you prefer to watch the video, here you go:


Photo by Engin Akyurt


There are no comments yet. Be the first one to leave a comment!