Goal Setting

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SMART goal setting*Values-based goal setting*Juggling multiple goals and roles*A generic planning model*Manufacturing motivation

Making your goals S.M.A.R.T.

A well-conceived goal includes:

  • what you want to do
  • how you’re going to get there e.g. tasks, resources
  • how long it’s going to take to get there

Using the SMART acronym can help you set meaningful goals.

Specific (also significant, stretching)

  • Well defined
  • Clear to anyone that has a basic knowledge of the project

For example, a statement like “I will improve communication with my supervisor” is too vague. How will you know if and when you’ve reached your goal? Saying “I will send a weekly work report to my supervisor every Friday” is more specific.

Measurable (also meaningful, motivational)

  • Know if the goal is obtainable and how far away completion is
  • Know when it has been achieved

For example, many of us want to read more. But “read more research articles” is an ambiguous statement. A clearer objective is “I will read a research article each week.” It’s a simple, concrete goal. This makes it easy to see if you hit your target.

Agreed upon (also attainable, achievable, acceptable, action-oriented)

  • Agreement with all the stakeholders what the goals should be

Trying to write a thesis in 1 month doesn’t sound reasonable or achievable. It doesn’t give you enough time for mental processing or editing. Don’t set yourself up for failure by setting goals that are out of reach.

Realistic (also relevant, reasonable, rewarding, results-oriented)

  • Within the availability of resources, knowledge and time

While we can work a lot, we can’t have it all at the same time. It’s important to honestly evaluate yourself. Do you have the ability and commitment to make your dream come true? Or does it need a little adjustment? For example, you want to present your research findings at an upcoming conference but your results are still inconclusive. Can you get the research in time to prepare a good presentation? Be honest.

Time-Based (also tangible, trackable)

  • Enough time to achieve the goal
  • Not too much time; which can affect project performance

Having a set amount of time will give your goals structure. For example, you want to finish your proposal so you need to set a date, even if you are not sure of all the variables. Without an end date there is no sense of urgency, no reason to take any action today. Having a specific time frame gives you the impetus to get started. It also helps you monitor your progress.

Modified from Project Smart.

Values-based goal-setting

*indicates primary interest to graduate students

My value:

Goal I want to achieve:


Steps to achieving my goal Barriers Strategies Date achieved



My value: Being a first-class scholar

Goal I want to achieve: Submit my latest research findings for publication in Journal X by October 31


Steps to achieving my goal Barriers Strategies Date achieved
1. Set aside two hours each day for writing Very tired after working in lab all day Rest after lab shift. After two hours of writing, treat myself with ice cream. 15/10



2. Sent a draft to my supervisor Sometimes my supervisor doesn’t give me very concrete feedback Ask postdoc in my lab to read over my draft. In exchange, offer to do something for her. 19/10


Source: Forsyth, J.P. & Eifert, G.H. (2007). The Mindfulness & Acceptance Workbook for Anxiety. Oakland, CA: New Harbinger Publications, Inc.

Juggling multiple goals and roles

*indicates primary interest to graduate students

 Goal (e.g., immediate, mid-term, long-term) Role (e.g., as student) Role (e.g., as daughter/son) Role Role
  • Future/Life
  • Program
  • Year
  • Term
  • Ph.D. (future)
  • Program (distinction)
  • Year (finish proposal)
  • Term (80% in coursework)
  • Keep parents in the loop about my achievement, struggles, etc.
  • Visit parents bimonthly
  • Call home biweekly



  1. Across the top, fill in all the significant roles that you play as a graduate student. Include professional and personal roles.
  2. For each role, fill in your goals for this term or academic year, your overall program, and post degree.
  3. Once completed, you may wish to use this as a planning and prioritizing tool.

A generic planning model

*indicates primary interest to graduate students

Following a sound planning model will help you feel more in control and prepared for the unexpected.

  • Plan: define a mission statement (i.e., broad philosophy, values), set goals and priorities.
  • Organize: Put tasks and times onto your monthly, weekly, and daily calendars. Know what tools you need.
  • Implement: Follow your plans!
  • Evaluate: To what extent have I met my goals? Have my goals/ priorities changed?
  • Make Recommendations: What’s working/not working? If it’s not broken, don’t fix it!
  • Update and Restructure Plan: Implement recommendations.
  • Celebrate Achievements: Reward yourself for both small and large achievements.

Manufacturing motivation

*indicates primary interest to graduate students

What makes us want to do something? Motivation can be intrinsic, extrinsic, or amotivational.

Extrinsic motivation operates on a continuum from 100% externally driven to 100% internally driven. Ryan & Deci (2000) describe four different forms of extrinsic motivation:

  • “external regulation” – external; motivated by external rewards and punishments
  • “introjected regulation” – somewhat external; motivated by internal rewards and punishments, self-control
  • “identified regulation” – somewhat internal; conscious valuing of the external goal
  • “integrated regulation” – internal; external motivation is brought into congruence with one’s other values

Intrinsic motivation is thoughts or feelings within ourselves e.g. we may feel proud, relieved, amazed, intelligent, ambitious. Intrinsic rewards are very powerful motivators as they are under your own control, and they lead to increased self-esteem. “I said I’d do it… and I did!”

Three basic psychological needs must be in place for intrinsic motivation to occur: mastery, autonomy, and relatedness. In particular, autonomy is a key element as it assists in internalizing and integrating extrinsically-motivated activities (Ryan & Deci, 2000).

Ryan, R.M. and Deci, E.L. (2000). “Self-determination theory and the facilitation of intrinsic motivation, social development, and well-being.” American Psychologist. 55(1), 68-78.

Some strategies for building intrinsic motivation

  1. Create opportunities for “autonomy supportive” work. If your supervisor does not support autonomous thought and activity, try to off-set this by seeking outside activities which give you choice, volition and freedom!
  2. Reflect on whether your values and goals are congruent with the external needs and goals.
  3. Develop mastery in skills, knowledge, and behaviours requisite for your area of studying.
  4. Connect with people with whom you can share ideas. If you feel isolated, join a support group or use the online dissertation support website phinished.org.
  5. Reward your efforts and accomplishments. Pay attention to your own feelings of intrinsic reward (satisfaction, pride, relief from pressure, etc). Earn your pleasure.
  6. Observe when you are becoming uncomfortable thinking or doing particular tasks. Discomfort is a signal: “Am I unsure, bored, scared, out of my depth…?” What is appealing or fearful about this activity? Experience the discomfort and soon it will have less power over you.
  7. Act like the person you wish to become. Picture yourself as already having reached your goal, or being successful. What do you look like? What are you doing? Where are you? Bring this image to mind as you start undesirable activities.
  8. BELIEVE in yourself. Reflect on times when you’ve been motivated. What is similar between those times and now? Can you make small changes so this situation is more like those times?
  9. Set goals and stick to them.
  • Set specific, realistic goals.
  • Tell someone, and ask them to follow your progress. Be accountable.
  • Keep a log or journal of your goals and achievements.
  1. Develop a routine. Try linking a new activity with one that you do routinely. e.g. do your sit-ups (new activity) before drinking your morning coffee (old habit).
  2. Reduce the pressure by focusing on the NOW. Plan small steps and focus only on one step at a time.