Ever wished for a way to “hack” your brain into accomplishing your goals? We all have different aspirations, whether it’s getting into your dream school or achieving a certain score on the SAT. But sometimes these big-picture objectives can feel impossible. When your dreams seem to be unattainable, they may only cause more stress and frustration instead of inspiring progress. Well, you’re in luck, because there’s psychology to help with that!
- Be SMART about it.
If your goal is to become an astronaut, it might be hard to find the first steps and get started. (Kudos on picking a cool goal though.) While it’s definitely inspiring to dream big, it’s much easier to track your progress with smaller benchmarks. That’s why it’s important to pick SMART goals. SMART stands for Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, and Timely. To break that down, you want goals that are:
• Specific. What exactly do you want to achieve? What are the logistical details? Be as detailed as possible.
• Measurable. The more concrete, the better. Instead of thinking in terms of general improvement or just doing “your best,” try to set clear benchmarks you can objectively assess later on.
• Achievable. With a little hard work and dedication, are you reasonably able to accomplish your goal? Picking a goal that you believe you can reach will increase your motivation, and kick that defeatist attitude. Once you’ve accomplished this one, you can dream bigger and bigger—for now, pick a goal that is both challenging and exciting.
• Timely. Tie your end goal to a specific timeline. This will keep you from getting bogged down in the day-to-day work that leads to change over time. Prevent procrastination by keeping an eye on your calendar.
Here are some examples of general goals that have been reworked into SMART goals:
General Goal: Be involved in more volunteer opportunities this year.
⇒ SMART Goal: Become involved in one new volunteer opportunity related to my
desired area of study by March of this school year.
General Goal: Write better essays.
⇒ SMART Goal: Complete two college essay drafts and submit it to my counselor for
review by January 20th.
Tick all these boxes, and your goals are already a little closer. Excited yet?
- Visualize your success, you must, young Padawan.
Your imagination is like a superpower: an incredibly powerful tool that can be harnessed for good or evil, depending on your choices. Think about it: all your thoughts are made up of neurons and synapses firing away in that gooey brain jello upstairs. If you spend time imagining all the bad things that can happen, dwelling on harsh feedback you received, or constantly thinking of yourself as “not good enough,” eventually those are the synapse patterns your brain gets comfortable with, and falls back on. If you spend time reinforcing your progress, visualizing your success, reading positive notes-to-self, or intentionally changing your internal dialogue, you will get good at that kind of thinking instead. It’s not magic, just science.
Your homework: When you choose to set your goal, take a few minutes to close your eyes and paint a picture in your mind of what it will feel like when you reach it. Sights, sounds, textures, emotions, results—make it lifelike to you. Then, if you find yourself feeling discouraged at any time during your process, bam: call up this image and remind yourself what you’re working towards. Believe that you can get there.
- Hold yourself accountable. Literally. Hold something.
The key here is to tangibly commit to your goals. Write it as a checklist in your planner, use our goal-setting sheets, or download a productivity app like Strides or Done. (While you’re at it, prioritize your goals in order, and keep it simple. Start with one or two goals, then when you’ve gotten a hang of that, you can add more.) If it helps you to tell a friend or parent about your plan, you can even recruit support to keep you on track!
Whatever method you choose to track your progress, give it some physical evidence this time. This will help you remember and acknowledge your end goal, instead of just letting your idea float around and fade away in a cloud of stress. Even something as small as a few colorful sticky notes on your bathroom mirror that you can look at regularly will remind you of what you want to achieve. Enlist physical cues to keep your brain focused.
- Create balance.
It’s important to find balance in your work by paying attention to all aspects of a healthy life, such as academics, extracurriculars, character, health, and friendships. When you have your eyes on graduation and college acceptances, you may become wrapped up in academics. Although your grades are important, it is just as crucial to stay involved in personal enrichment, take care of yourself mentally and physically, and reward yourself for the accomplishments you’ve already made. Don’t sacrifice every other aspect of your life in order to get ahead—in the long run, that will actually sabotage your progress and set you back even further than where you started.
Action suggestion: Really think about why you want to achieve each goal. That “big why” should be your ultimate priority, achieving your goals will just help you on your journey. Try this: for every one goal you set for external accomplishment, also set one goal for personal accomplishment. For example, maybe one of your SMART goals is to improve your SAT score by 100 points. You’ve also done some thinking and realized you also want to feel less tired all the time because you want to enjoy studying and learning again. So you set a goal to get a full eight hours of sleep at least six nights per week, for the next 3 months. These two goals will work together to establish a healthy routine and set you up for long-term success.
So now that you have four tricks to get you going, there’s no need to be overwhelmed by your big visions. Just stay focused on the smaller steps that are going to get you there. Take it day by day, and allow yourself to feel the joy of an accomplishment every time you check off a step, no matter how small! Before you know it, you will have formed lasting habits that will bring you to your original dream.
And now that you’re a goal-setting, goal-accomplishing expert... you can conquer whatever project you choose to set your mind to next.